When I was working in Tokyo at the Dutch embassy I had the occasional opportunity to let work and karate blend together, like when I was invited by the Tokyo chapter of the Rotary Club to give a lecture on ‘a foreigner’s view on Japanese culture’. Of the many topics I could have chosen, I decided to speak about the concept of the dojo-kun: that set of rules that after class is recited by students and teachers alike in traditional dojo’s.
To break the ice, I started talking about the difficulty for foreigners to understand the difference between dojō-kun and dōjō-kun, between Mr. Eel and the Dojo Rules. Japanese has many homophonic or nearly homophonic words that cause considerable confusion amongst foreigners. This explains why some think that Japanese have such regard for Mt. Fuji that they respectfully refer to it as Fuji-san, Mr. Fuji. Of course, the suffix ‘san’ in this case just means ‘mountain’. Anyway, clearly when you see the characters it is obvious that the first dojō-kun (泥鰌君) is a completely different word from the second dōjō-kun (道場訓).
The dojo-kun is an essential part of the various pieces of calligraphy in most traditional karate dojo’s. In fact, variants exist in many traditional martial arts and I was fascinated that upon visiting the famous sumo stable of Sadogatake (where at the time two Ozeki were active, Kotonawaka and Kotoōshu) I found that there too a dojo-kun was part of the ceremonial end of the morning training.
These sets of rules generally refer to proper behaviour. So why is this important? Although repeated after every class of every training day, little time, if at all, is spent explaining them. We are left to ponder them ourselves. I have always taken issue with the idea that karate training makes the practitioner a better person. It is possible the reader may take offense (no pun intended), but basically what we practise in the dojo is stylised violence, even if one of the paradigms on the wall is ‘karate ni sente nashi’ or ‘there is no first strike in karate’. Traditional training used to be (and in some ways still is) both hierarchical and rather violent and under such circumstance there is a risk of abuse of the position of strength and power by seniors over their juniors. In fact, if not guarded against, karate training might bring out not just the best in people, but also the worst.
Recital of the dojo-kun and contemplating its meaning is therefore not something that together with your training will make you become a better person, above all else it should save you from becoming a worse person. For a senior it is easy to consider that ‘reigi wo omonzuru koto’ (‘be mindful of etiquette’) means that juniors should at all times be deferential to their seniors. This is only part of the story. It is just as essential as easily forgotten that seniors should be mindful of proper behaviour towards their juniors as well. ‘Kekki no yu wo imashimuru koto’ is sometimes translated simply as ‘refrain from violent behaviour’, which in itself would be pretty weird as a rule for a fighting art. Properly translated as ‘guard against hot-blooded courage’ it is a warning against unabashed bravery. And the quintessential ‘jinkaku wo kansei ni tsutomuru koto’, or ‘strive for the perfection of character’, should help you consider whether you are actually moving in the opposite direction. Certainly your character will not improve simply because you practise karate anymore then when you practise pinball. Granted, there are many things to learn about yourself in the dojo, if you are willing to consider them. As such karate is just one of many roads that may lead you to Rome, but it may not be the most fail-proof. But at least the dojo-kun is there as a faithful friend to help you from being led astray somewhere along the route.
Anyway, such was my interpretation, sort of, as presented to the Rotary folk in Tokyo.