83. Dojo Variations

Your teacher at the local dojo trained in Japan (or Okinawa, now a prefecture of Japan), so he’s got to be the real McCoy, right? And how he teaches and conducts the class is the “traditional” Japanese style, right? Yeah, so that karate dojo down the street whose teacher never set foot in Ye Olde Nippon is lacking authenticity, you think I would say, right?

Not necessarily. Just because you trained in Japan doesn’t mean squat, without inserting a whole lot of conditions, caveats and “on the other hands.” It may sound strange, especially since perhaps all six of my regular readers would think I’m a hardliner about the “You want to do koryu, go to Japan” mantra.

There are a whole load of issues that come with whether or not the experience in Japan was a plus or not, or whether or not you’re getting a good representation of “traditional” budo training from that guy who claimed he sat at the foot of Ueshiba Morihei, Oyama Masutatsu, and Mifune Kyuzo…(which, quite literally, one of my judo sensei did do, amazingly enough. He was there at a “golden age” of martial arts in Tokyo. He used to hang with Donn F. Draeger, sparred with Oyama, learned aikido under the aegis of the elder Ueshiba and was thrown around by the judo legend, Mifune Kyuzo. He could literally point to a spot no bigger than a dime and throw me on my backside there, even with me fighting it all the way. But that’s another story…).


What kind of dojo?

The first issue would be what kind of dojo the teacher trained at. There’s a variety of training regimes within just one system of budo. If a person were to train exclusively with a college budo club and think that was the ONLY way to train, he’d be sorely mistaken. College karate clubs used to be notorious for their hazing, brutal training, and militaristic discipline. They still seem to demand strict adherence to sempai-kohai social stratification in the dojo. They’ve toned down the more sadistic aspects of their training since a karate student died from physical abuse a couple of years ago, but don’t go looking for much inward-facing meditations on budo philosophy at a college club. College judo and karate clubs thrive on competition with other college clubs, and that sportive, competitive spirit filtered into other college budo clubs, like kyudo and iaido. It’s more about competition (hence, training extremely hard) and developing lifelong friendships.

Dojo run by police stations are even tougher, since the police have a practical purpose in learning kendo, judo or aikido; if not for direct application, then for overall health and physical conditioning for the course of their work. And they also train for national police competitive matches.

Training in martial arts is no walk in the park. But if your teacher was very young when he was in Japan and trained at a college club or police dojo, then that will explain why he demands that you do 10,000 reverse punches as warm ups before you even think of doing kata and kumite in your four-hour training session that is like basic training from hell night. But that’s not the only “authentic” way to train.

There are also hombu dojo; or the main training hall of an organization. The Kodokan for Kodokan Judo is a tall skyscraper replete with several matted floors and one very large, expansive matted room, offices, meeting rooms and museum. Training at a hombu dojo like the Kodokan may mean brisk, hard training with a multitude of training partners. As a central meeting ground for members from all over Japan and across the world, you may think that budo training should be like that: with training possible nearly any day of the week, with top instructors giving structured classes, tests and ranking given to scores of students at a time, and full time, fully paid teachers, in a brisk, no-nonsense atmosphere. In actuality, even in Japan a full time professional budo teacher is a rarity. You will encounter a few such extremely gifted and talented professional budo teachers at a central dojo, or perhaps in their own dojo if they are talented enough to cultivate a very large coterie of students. But it’s the exception, not the rule, even in Japan.

The most problematic dojo is the one often found in Okinawa, with its large American military bases. I call it a “base dojo,” set up on an American base, with a teacher trucked in from outside. For postwar Okinawan karate teachers, it was a way to make money in a place devastated by World War II, when Japanese and American forces destroyed the main island’s infrastructure. The quality of the instruction was, in my opinion, uneven during the first few decades after the War. You had some teachers, I suspect, whose main motivation was making money off the Americans and their technical expertise might have been limited. One of my Okinawan karate teacher friends put it less charitably. He said, in effect, “A lot of those guys who taught at bases were considered bums by the other Okinawan karate teachers. Sell-outs. Not so much because they taught foreigners, but because they ran after the money and were the middle to bottom tier teachers at the time. To my sensei, if you wanted to study real Okinawan karate, you went to the dojo, the dojo didn’t go to you.  You were good enough that the students came to you, not the other way around.” Unfortunately, many servicemen who trained in Okinawa and returned to set up the first karate studios in the States had that kind of limited exposure. To their credit, many of them returned and trained further at the hombu dojo of their sensei, expanding their technique. But many got stuck and didn’t advance further in their abilities or understanding.

My own opinion is that the major problem with learning traditional budo on an American military base is that it’s not really learning traditional budo in its proper context. Enter a fully equipped, large American military base anywhere in the world and you are not “in country.”  It is as if you tore a chunk of Americana from the ground and plopped that acreage, complete with manicured green lawns, large PX (like a military version of Wal-Mart), wide paved thoroughfares, movie theatres, gym, English radio stations and TV cable, ESPN and reality TV shows, etc. in situ, right there. In Japan. In South Korea. In Germany. In Okinawa. You would have no idea you’re in a foreign country. So the teacher may be Okinawan, but the whole environment, the dojo in a gym, the surroundings and even the way the classes are conducted may be colored by American stereotypes of what budo training is about, even though it’s in-country. And the teacher won’t correct you because, for Pete’s sake, it FEELS like it’s a foreign country to him one he passes through the gates of the base.

So there’s a lack of knowledge, especially if the student doesn’t speak the language or understand the culture, with that vacuum filled up with cobbled-together stereotypes or misunderstandings from other young, inexperienced enlisted men and women, about budo.

Far more common, but not frequented by many foreign students, are what can be called machi no dojo; the typical dojo on a neighborhood street in a typical city. They dot the urban landscape. The dojo may be only as big as an American two-car garage. It may be tucked away on private property, nestled between domiciles, with only a small kamban (placard) announcing their name and hours of training). The neighborhood children and adults gather there as much for an excuse to meet and gossip as to train. Such training is spotty. Some dojo are really too lax and laid back, more an excuse to get out of the house and gab with the gang than real hard training. Others combine a nice balance of relaxed atmosphere with focused, individualized one-on-one teaching.

One of my sempai (student senior to myself) used to spend several months in Japan every year, during his summer breaks. He would do iai at the large gathering at the Butokuden training hall in Kyoto, where many iai students from all over the city and college teams would gather to study together. The Butokuden training was wonderful for experiencing all the variety of teachers, and working out en masse. Then he would also train at two of his teacher’s own personal dojo. One of the dojo was above the sensei’s place of business. It was no bigger than an apartment room, which is what it really was before it was commandeered to be a dojo. He would do iai in close quarters with only the sensei and two or three other students. Sometimes the sensei would have to leave for an appointment or business meeting in the middle of class. Then he’d return and pick up where he left off. It was very informal but led to many hours of refinement, detailed instruction, and precious experiences.

Another friend of mine ended up in Japan for an extended period of cultural study and he decided to continue his kendo training. He found two neighborhood dojo near his apartment. One machi no dojo was more overtly competitive-bent. It displayed its tournament trophies in a window looking out on the street and focused mainly on winning competitions. He thought their basics and form, however, were weak. And it charged a lot of money. Instead, he found a machi no dojo that was on the grounds of a Buddhist temple. The building it was in was an old wooden structure and there were ample kids and youngsters, but the instructors stressed proper form over winning tournaments, and he liked the laid back but precise, old fashioned atmosphere. Plus, it was cheap, something he had to consider since he was a student on a stipend. It was only later when he was in the dojo’s locker room that he discovered a whole bevy of tournament trophies when someone slid open a cabinet. He asked, “Hey, what are those?” One of the sensei replied, nonchalantly, “Oh, those. We always win a lot of trophies at tournaments, but win or lose we tell the kids don’t get hung up on them, because the training is the main thing, not winning. So when we get those things, we just stick ‘em in here.” My friend loved training at that dojo.

In some ways, some of the returnees who have experienced only one kind of dojo setting are like the tale about the blind men and the elephant. If one only felt the trunk, you would say that an elephant was like a snake. Only if you experienced or observed all these varieties of dojo would you realize that there are a multitude of dojo situations, and they are all valid in terms of what they offer and the kind of training per the clientele base they service.

Want competition and tough training? Train like a college or police dojo. Want a pastime you can do for years on end, develop friendships and learn more about the lore and history and technical minutiae? Try a really good small little dojo. In the military, in Japan or Okinawa for a very short time, don’t speak the language, afraid of the natives, don’t know your way around downtown Naha, don’t feel comfortable outside of your cultural comfort zone? Try a base dojo. Nothing wrong with that. It’s just there are limits to a base dojo in terms of really understanding the underlying culture of the budo unless you make the individual effort to learn for yourself.

Note, however, there isn’t mention of a martial arts “studio” as we often find in America: a stand-alone training hall (usually karate or aikido) run for the benefit of a full-time professional teacher, in a business environment, like a strip mall studio that is all about location, location, location. It’s often got big glass windows that display tournament trophies, martial arts gear, and signs and slogans in slashy, pseudo-orientalish typeface. Although that kind of dojo is beginning to pop up even in Japan, I suspect that its origins lay as an American invention. I’m not panning it (much). I know some really good karate and aikido teachers who make a decent living and deserve their income because their instruction is first class, and they have to advertise, offer all kinds of incentives, and tailor their classes to their clientele in order to survive as a business. That’s just how it is in our own capitalistic society. You have to pay the rent, feed your family, make a living. It will be interesting to see as cultural interchanges expand, whether or not this kind of dojo succeeds if it attempts to make inroads in Japan or China.

But I keep going back to the best times I had in dojo in Japan, and they were usually events more of the intimate nature, not easily replicated in Western dojo unless a concerted effort is made: like when there would be only two or three of us students and our jujutsu teacher, who was in another room playing his shakuhachi (bamboo flute) and checking in on us only now and then, as we clacked our bo together and the bamboo outside knocked against each other, buffeted by the winter winds. Our sensei was practicing the song “Shika No Tone,” a plaintive, haunting melody representing deer lost in a barren winter forest, calling out for each other in the night. Or just before class in the main dojo at the Butokuden in Kyoto, at my first encounter with my iai sensei. I sat in the shadows of a wooden pillar waiting to be introduced while a student trained before the evening session in the mottled lighting of old incandescent bulbs hung from the dark rafters, and the only sound I heard was the sliding of his feet on the worn, polished wooden planks, and the cut of his sword in the autumn air. Sudden, deadly movement, followed by a slow, precise turn of the wrist to return the sword to its scabbard. It was a beauty that caught my chilled breath in my throat. Those are the kinds of experience that even my own dojo can only hint at but never, ever replicate being that we are in a community center’s well lit dance studio near a busy, noisy intersection in downtown tropical Honolulu.

And I think, too, of what my jujutsu sensei said once; that before dojo structures, martial artists used to train outdoors, out in nature, so they were in tune with the greater natural world, the “daishizen,” much more than we were. Handling a sword, maneuvering for a throw, handling a weapon, were part and parcel of their total world experience, as much a natural part of their lives as cutting firewood, knowing when it would rain or snow, intuitively sensing the lay of the land or knowing the changing of the seasons. In that sense, even the most “traditional” dojo is still a controlled environment at least one step removed from the roots of ancient martial arts, which came out of being embedded in nature’s own environment and rhythms.



18 thoughts on “83. Dojo Variations

  1. After reading yet another thought provoking entry that touches my martial arts experience and perspective, the word romanticism pops in my head. Agreeing completely with the blog, addressing the third paragraph, many flock to Japan to train because it is an unique opportunity. It is an opportunity to to be privy of the most intimate knowledge and details of the old world Budo and Samurai at its source. The attraction is strong being drenched in the Japanese and Budo cultures driven by the fantasy of being the unique foreign samurai. Training in a real dojo and bringing back secret authentic knowledge of how things are really done, to emulate authenticity is the fulfillment of a fantasy. A trend, I feel many model on Donn Drager.

    I am not saying this is bad. Western thought dictates the importance of truth. Christianity and Judaism popular in the west also demand proof, and authenticity. Both model and fuel the need to hold authentic training to the highest level, to have the real knowledge and understanding proves credibility; knowledge is power. Coupled with the influence of western romanticism. One that creates a fantasy which is a driver that seeks out the iconic “Karate Kid” dojo, or the “StarWars Jedi” philosophical dojo. What am saying is this also is a reason, and one I feel important as well, what drives people to Japan. In sense, also, people like these also don’t get a sense of real budo. Romanticism hinders an accurate perspective.

    I think there are a number of Japanese dojo who play into the Romanticism for various reasons, for the benefit of westerners.

  2. Jon,
    Indeed, Romanticizing the martial arts too much (I think we all do it to some degree) is another topic I’ve been thinking about. When we put too many of our own romanticized notions into it, like Orientalizing it (in the negative, cultural anthropological sense), we fail to see what’s really in front of us, in its own, unique experience.

  3. Wayne, I also think you make a great point which people often miss because of that pesky romanticism we all seem to have to some degree. You address that long held assumption/myth that if training in Japan your experience is going to be a guaranteed advantageous time. As you point out it is more complicated than what most naturally assume.

    Just a question and if you don’t mind expanding, are people who train in a structural dojo in Japan really getting the full authentic martial arts training experience and lessons? The connection to nature its self teaches aspects of martial arts that otherwise may not be taught or taught properly in a dojo that separates its self from nature. Nature of course is a huge integral part in Japanese life, an important one which doesn’t seem to transfer. Any thoughts?

    1. Jon,
      Yes…lots of thoughts, but perhaps it would be better if I wrote a totally different blog about that. But basically, the natural world should be a part of one’s training. But of course in this modern day and age, it’s not always possible all the time. That was a short answer, and merely my opinion only. I’ll try to write longer later…

      1. i would be very interested in reading your thoughts when you have a chance. Because it is my opinion when us Westerners talk or practice Budo it is done incomplete as there is an omission of how the natural world that plays a critical role in the complete understanding of Budo, the defination of Budo, and the complete teaching of Budo includes the role nature plays and the bearing it has on those who practice martial arts. Many may feel it is an insignificant issue. But, I don’t think so, as you pointed, ancient training out in the natural world results in being in tune with Nature. A very powerful influence on Budo training, as well a deep revealing source to Budo philosophy and its development. Many martial arts have all sorts of references to the natural world from philosophy to technique. I see the importance the natural world plays in Budo to be absent in the minds of Western practitioners. I can’t think of anyone else who could explicate upon this topic with more accuracy and depth to the Western reader and practitioner than yourself. I think by doing so, it would be a benefit to those serious about martial arts training.

  4. Wow. Really glad I dropped by to catch this post. Largely due to the romantacism of it all, in hopes of embarking on a “true quest”, I’ve come to Japan to learn about budo. Despite a large amount of physical energy and emotional young adult male angst, I’ve been cosmically barred from the uber competitive dojos and found only the small gems of dojos you seem to describe as being a good thing. Certainly they have their own limitations as well, and I’m not really sure what to say on the topic in just a few lines … but one thing is, I don’t know how I’ve found them. Without advertising and hordes of students, the fact they exist is a marvel … or plainly due to the dedication of sincere teachers. I think, once we embark on our martial quest, we truly do get what we’re looking for. Thanks for the great post.

    1. “Zacky,” I honestly don’t know how I ended up luckily with the teachers and dojo that I found too when I was in Japan, but I’m glad I did. Perhaps sometimes you find the teacher you are seeking when you are ready for it. Or not. Who knows? The world works in mysterious ways, my young Hobbit, as Gandalf would say.

  5. I was just talking something somewhat similar to my small karate club of a couple members in the gym we rent at a neighborhood church. I started class this evening yakking of the recent passing of Keiko Fukuda and how she dedicated her life to judo, forwent marriage and a nuclear family as was expected of a woman of her generation, to practice, perfect, and spread her chosen artform, herself often relating that she in fact did marry . . . to judo. A bit extreme for most, I posited, but nevertheless.

    My soapbox included how much we owe, even practicing an Okinawan form, to modern Japanese convention borrowed largely from judo and kendo. Keikogi, the dan/kyu system, our practicing in a dojo – church basketball gym that it is – mokuso, Nihongo terminology, counting basics, etc. That our method of practice is a mix of the “informal” Okinawan pedagogy of individual development mixed with the formality of my Sansei sensei’s early judo training in a 1950’s Nisei-run community judo club.

    He later trained, in separate periods, with both a Japanese university educated karate instructor and an Okinawan immigrant karateka. He often espouses the differences in training. Classes with the Japanese university trained sensei consisted of ten push-ups and two hours of kumite. In four years with him he learned not one kata. In fact, he said, despite his teacher’s free-form skill, my sensei actually didn’t think his sensei even knew a kata at the time, although later in life he did become interested in them. His Okinawan instructor, on the other hand, who he subsequently trained with on recommendation when his Tenri Daigaku-trained sensei moved to another city, had a more balanced curriculum and training atmosphere.

    My sensei himself struck a personal balance of all his training when he started his program. Some days might be burnout repetitions of kihon, or kumite-based. Others are focused on individual, informal practice; there is always a segment dedicated to kata, however. He often opens his floor to respected instructors and/or colleagues of various systems to inform his students of the commonalities of their respective budo, to further our knowledge of how others’ interpretations relate to our own ryu. Not handcuffed to student retention (he runs his program out of a church social hall out of passion, maintaining a dayjob to support his family), he is not afraid of others showing his students something he himself may not be familiar with. Despite having trained karatedo the past long ole’ time, my sensei is not shy about the fact he teaches to repay what his original judo sensei gave to him.

    In any event, my little diatribe on Keiko Fukuda had to do with how, particularly in a gendai budo sense, we might keep these respected elders – no matter the system – in our thoughts, and be mindful of what and how they did has influenced the methods in which our motley little crew trains today, which may be unlike how other dojo – even of our own system – train.

    Dunno if that exactly related, but your article reminded me of it. Thanks, once again, for sharing your thoughts.


    1. I found a video of Keiko Fukuda online for any who don’t know who she was:

      The filmmaker is trying to drum up funds to finish the rough edit into a full on documentary. Fukuda sensei was the last living direct student of Kano Jigoro, the founder of Kodokan Judo. And the first (and so far only) woman to attain 10th dan in judo. She taught most of her life in San Francisco, after being asked by Kano sensei to teach overseas.
      An amazing judoka, an amazing life.

  6. Memories – my memories how long can you stay to haunt my days.
    I think that is from a song from Queen but I am not sure.

    This blog made me think of when I started training in judo and jujutsu. The dojo was situated in the centre of a old city. Up front was a shop in Eastern curiosa/antiques which doubled as an office. Behind that were the dojo, dressingrooms and a garden. The actual dojo was a converted living-room with a mat in it and that was pretty much it.. A blind horse could not have done any damage overthere. This dojo had been in use (same teacher) since 1941 and I started in the mid-seventies.
    All in all the same teacher taught there for some sixty years. The dojo is gone now. Looking back it was, being shabby and all, the most wonderful dojo I ever trained in.

    But apart from the above I absolutely love the way you write about dojo and I have been thinking about dojo in Japan for some time. Do you know if photobooks exist which portray old dojo? Not the big and famous dojo of big organisations but the smaller lesser known dojo. Machi dojo for instance.

    I am asking because I have seen two youtube films of the Henmi dojo of Kogen Itto ryu. One is part of a documentary in which the dojo is beautifully portrayed with two people in it practising kendo kata I think. The other film is by a visitor and is in my opinion as beautiful as the first film. The dojo is shown with leaking roof, refridgerator with plastic cans almost next to the old bokken on the wall and portraits of former sensei.
    If such photobooks do not exist already someone should compile one and get it published.

    Not so much romanticism but maybe a bit of nostalgia and certainly an interesting part of history.

    1. Johan, I don’t know for sure, but isn’t it always the case that we forget to document that which is closest to us until it’s too late? I think even a lot of Japanese forget how wonderful it is to train in such homey, rundown dojo until they are gone. And those are the places with great atmosphere.

  7. It’s quite common in China for people to train outside, in the parks. We started going outside in the parks to train more starting a few years ago, and actually I’ve gotten to where I prefer it to indoor training (except for the rain sometimes!). It seems to encourage an environment where people are less formal – but somehow more interested in the training.

  8. Some of my best memories of training in Japan are using the parking lot out back of Sensei’s house. If the weather was ok, we’d just go out there and train. Not as natural as it could have been but it was great. Then there were the days fellow students would gather at a local jinja, offer a prayer of thanks to the local kami for letting us use his space, and get our shoes muddy training there. This brings back a lot memories of the various places I’ve trained in Japan. And really makes me want to go back and make some more.

  9. Wayne, I guess you are right but not all of us forget. I got a book published on this teacher and his dojo. Just as you say to document things and to remind us of our roots. Being a librarian/archivist I love history and in this case it was the best of two worlds.
    – Johan

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