Tuesday, 5 February 2013

When is a dojo not a dojo?

……when it’s a club.

I used to think that a dojo was simply the place where you did your training, whether that is a dedicated traditional dojo, a school gym, purpose built training centre or your own basement or garage. However, it seems that a dojo is much more than just the place you train.

In Michael Clarke’s book, ‘Shin Gi Tai’ ,he makes a definite distinction between a karate dojo and a karate club. He describes a club as a commercially based entity in which students pay fees and in return receive instruction in karate to a single set syllabus from which they can be awarded ascending ranks in the shape of coloured belts as they rise up the system. They can also participate in sport karate, enter competitions and collect trophies. A club may be affiliated to a higher organisation which may be the only place where a student’s black belt is recognized.

On the other hand Michael Clarke describes a dojo as a place where you learn budo.  He states that the main way in which a dojo is distinctive from a club has...

”little to do with the architecture of the place or the way people dress for training; the distinction has everything to do with the nature of the struggle going on inside each individual.”

Budo karate involves training body, mind and spirit. It is more than just learning to do karate techniques (however well you learn to do them). It is much more about learning to understand yourself.  In Michael Clarke’s words…”Without a spirited assault on your ego, the true value of karate will remain forever beyond your reach”. A “spirited assault” involves a lot of hard, physical training, self examination and reflection as well as personal reading and research.

Budo karate is individual karate, even if done in a group. Students, who will most likely have been handpicked by the Sensei based on their suitability for budo training, will not necessarily all follow the same training programme. Training will be tailored to their individual requirements and suitability (as determined by the Sensei, not the student). This is not possible with large classes of students so karate dojo typically have only a few students. 

Another main difference is that in a dojo the student is expected to take full responsibility for their own training. By that I mean they have the responsibility to turn up on time, observe the etiquette required of them, train hard, do their own research etc. The onus is on them to make progress. Any student not doing this will be asked to leave.  It would be rare for a ‘club’ student to be asked to leave for not trying hard enough or because they fail to make progress or show any understanding of what they are doing – providing they keep paying their fees.

By the criteria described above it is clear that I belong to a karate club not a dojo. Is that a problem? Is it still possible to practice budo karate in a club environment?

It would be wrong to automatically assume that all dojos are somehow superior to all clubs. There will be good and bad dojos and good and bad clubs and it will be better to be in a good club than a bad dojo. According to Michael Clarke even Okinawa has ‘bad’ dojos set up to exploit Westerners searching for the authentic karate experience.  Getting good advice about where to go is essential to avoid this pitfall if you’re planning a trip there.

A good instructor in a karate club will take an individual interest in your training and progress if you show yourself to be keen and hard working.  This will be subtle rather than overt: a willingness to chat with you after class, lending you a book or DVD, encouraging you to attend special seminars or classes, asking you for help with teaching or a grading session (this shows he/she trusts you). A positive and close relationship can develop between student and sensei in just the same way that it does in a traditional karate dojo – if you are a committed student.

I also think that it is possible to practice budo karate even if you are in a large commercial club – as long as you know what the practice of budo really entails and are prepared to tread this path alone. After all the practice of budo is an individual and lonely path by definition so it shouldn’t matter too much what environment you train in. Most good clubs will provide hard physical training and good instructors will drive you to do your best but it’s up to you whether you do so.

Every dojo will have good students (they would be asked to leave if they weren’t good) but clubs have to cope with good and not so good students (this is actually an advantage of clubs – they are inclusive and often see ‘poor’ students evolve and mature into ‘good’ students given enough time and encouragement).  I see no reason why a dedicated student in a club environment can’t achieve the same level of skill, understanding and knowledge about karate (and themselves) as a student fortunate enough to belong to one of the rare dojos dotted around the world.  The path may be less clear and contain more obstacles to circumnavigate and the student may have to look further and wider than their own club for guidance but for a dedicated student this is not an impossibility.

Club or dojo? How much does it really matter for the committed student of budo karate?

Sue is the Blog-Editor-In-Chief for Martial News. You can contact her at sue.wharton@martialnews.co.uk Sue also writes a personal blog called My Journey to Black Belt