The word dojo means “place of the way.” Originally the dojo was a place where monks and other religious persons were trained in the disciplines of their faith. Eventually the dojo became a place where non-religious practices were studied including swordsmanship, calligraphy, music, dance and other pursuits requiring rigorous training.
A major influence on the dojo is the ethic of the warrior society. An unbroken sense of respect and cooperation is at the heart of any successful warrior society. Each member must willingly share a common sense of the goal for which they fight. Strict rules of etiquette are required in both a warrior society and in a dojo. Life in a dojo would become intolerable without courtesy and consideration for fellow members. A strong sense of formal etiquette keeps one’s behavior in check when facing frustrations or frayed tempers.
Adapting to the conditions of dojo life came more naturally to the Japanese for Japan is by nature an enclosed society. Life on an island forces people into close association with each other with few avenues for escape. Obedience to authority is necessary to maintain order and is seen as a form of cooperation rather than coercion. The emphasis on strict etiquette in Japanese life is not a mere fashion, but is necessary to prevent the society from breaking down into chaos.
By contrast, the Unites States with its vast and varied terrain fostered a culture that valued individualism and independence. It is the nature of most Americans to be distrustful of authority. Immigrants to the United States were often escaping old living conditions for better ones. Pioneers coming west were often risking everything including their lives for greater wealth and freedom. As a culture we have had very little need for the strong sense of order so important to an island culture.
Our word “etiquette” originated in France. If you were fortunate enough to be invited to a royal event you would receive “a ticket” for the occasion which would inform you on how to properly dress, where to sit, what you should say, and so on. In this way you would be able to relax and enjoy yourself without the fear of embarrassing yourself or offending others.
Consider that with the constant growth of our human population the “island” of our planet is becoming smaller. The lessons of dojo life are becoming increasingly important to prevent life on earth from breaking down into a jungle.
To understand dojo etiquette first understand that there is always something you should be doing at every moment you are in the dojo. There is a way to enter and leave, a way to step on the mat, a time to speak and a time to remain silent, a time and way to sit, a way to dress and a way to handle weapons. It is also important that you take care in the way that your clean and groom yourself for practice. The dojo itself is an aspect of your training. You are responsible for tending and cleaning the dojo. If you arrive early sweep the mats and floor, check to see if the bathroom is clean, clean the mirrors, tidy the training area and be sure the shomen is presentable. Unlike a gym you do not merely pay your membership dues and expect someone else to clean and care for the dojo.
The dojo is not a gym, it is a place for the refinement of the human spirit. Your membership dues support the school so that everyone can continue to train. Don’t think that you are merely buying classes for yourself. The teaching is free to members. You support the school by paying your dues in spite of how often you are able to train.
As you gain experience your sense of etiquette will improve naturally. As you are gently guided in the right way see to it that you also guide new students in the right way.
~Philip Greenwood, Sensei