Dojo and Dojo Etiquette

The Dojo literally translated means “the place of training for the way of martial arts”. “Do”, meaning the path or way and “Jo”, meaning the place. This translation shows the importance of the Dojo and the reverence paid to it in Japan and serious schools of study. Unfortunately the use of sports halls and rented places in the west has devalued the sacredness of the meaning “Dojo” and with little understanding of its significance by practioners much has been lost.

Most traditional Dojo in Japan are made of wood with a sprung floor (Yuka) usually of oak. Usually you will find the name of the school on the outside along with the style and teacher’s name. The entrance (Genkan) is often adorned with Makiwara used by students to strengthen and toughen the knuckles and wrists. Before lessons junior students were expected to train on these 6-8 at a time with the rhythmic count of a senior (Senpai). The “Makiwara” literally meaning wrapped straw are wooden posts about 5/6 feet high, with at least 1 foot of this below the floor, tapered from about 1.5 feet above the floor to a width of half an inch and a span of about 4 inches. The top has either a leather cap for striking or a straw bound pad which are used as the impact point. Basic strikes are from Tateken (standing fist) Uraken (back fist) and Seiken (normal fist or flat fist).

The spiritual aspects of Dojo are as important as the physical elements and traditional Dojo will always have a “Kami Dana or Hon Dana usually situated in the central frontal position forming part of the place of reverence for “Shomen”. This place of reverence usually also has a photo of the headmaster too binding the roots of Shintoism to the students and the place itself.

Many Dojo have also the “Dojo Kyokun” which usually comprises of the rules, etiquette and disciplines. This is usually written by the headmaster and is read out by junior grades (children) at the start of every lesson.

Before the commencement and after the end of every lesson the juniors (Kohai) sweep the floor and wash it. This is in reverence to the dojo and plays a large part in the spiritual building of students. In Japan you wash you feet to enter and in the West you wash your feet when you leave!


This is the classical and traditionally sitting position on reed mat floors (Tatami) or on the floor common in Japanese culture and in Budo. From the standing position the correct way to sit is the right knee down first followed by the left which initially is left out to the left. This approach is derived from carrying the sword (katana) which was always carried on the left side. When bowing from Seiza the right hand should go forward first in the centre to the floor followed by the left hand. The hand positions on the floor should form naturally a triangle and in some schools this is thought to be a cushion in case of being pushed behind by the head. The hands should be withdrawn right and left and care should always be taken to bend from the base of the back when bowing. Students should bow low when addressing Shomen and to their Sensei. When rising to a standing position the left knee should be lifted first followed by the right. Some schools stand to the triangle position with both heels touching (Musubi Dachi) whilst others stand to a parallel standing position (Heisoku Dachi).

Mokuso and Zazen

Many styles incorporate a short session of meditation before and after a lesson and use the term “Mokuso”. This is literally translated as quiet (Moku) and thinking (So) but is translated as meditation and can be undertaken from a standing or seated position. In my time in Japan this was done with eyes open looking about 1.5 metres ahead of you. The emphasis was placed on sitting in Seiza, back straight and hands cupped at the pit of the stomach. It usually lasted for about 5 minutes at the start of a lesson and the same period at the end. The purpose is to prepare the mind initially and dissolve the shackles of the day prior to training in the dojo and to calm the mind at the end of a class to avoid the potential aggressive spirit after training remaining and being taken out of the dojo.

More formal sits were for periods of about an hour and were held at temples under the instruction and tuition of priests. These were very strict and formed part of the teaching of Zazen, seated meditation. “Za” is to sit and “Zen” is the religious word form Zenshu but is usually interpreted as meditation. Different schools instruct and teach differently with eyes open or closed and the use of scenery like Zen gardens or candles of an evening flickering on a wall to induce calmness.

The link for meditation is very strong in martial arts and the attainment of “Mushin” empty mind, can only be reached when the mind is free of thought. This detachment from thought whilst training is the real meaning of the term “moving Zen”.

Tachi Kata

This is translated as how to stand and stance positions numerous in the dojo etiquette and there on numerous in the movements that build the system and style. There are stance positions created and used unique to a school and others that are universally accepted.

A standard exercise for practise is as follows:

  • Heisoku Dachi: Feet together parallel
  • Musubi Dachi: Feet 90 degrees apart with heals touching (aka Kaisoku Dachi)
  • Heiko Dachi: Feet Parallel apart in shoulder width (aka Hachi Dachi)
  • Shizentai: Feet naturally standing with an angle of 45 degrees
  • Kiba Dachi: Feet parallel apart below knees bent forward into a horse riding stance. (aka Naihanchin Dachi)
  • Shiko Dachi: Feet 45 degree angles with knees in a box position. Knees must be over the centre of the feet.

The above is commonly taught in most Japanese dojo as the first step in familiarising students with basic positions. Many dojo in the West only use the term Dachi from the Kiba Dachi etc but this is incorrect in the understanding of how to stand as it only signifies the meaning stance.

There are many stances that are taught to follow and many are found and introduced through traditional kata. This emphasis must be taught to value the importance of kata in training. Some of these are:

  • Zenkutsu Dachi: Front knee bent stance
  • Nekko Ashi dachi: Cats stance
  • Kokutsu Dachi: Back stance
  • Fudo Dachi: Immovable stance taken from the god Fudo Myo.
  • Naihanchin Dachi: Taken from the style and “Kiba” meaning horse riding stance.
  • Yoko Dachi: Side stance usually interpreted as footwork angled the same on line with the front knee bent.
  • Sanchin Dachi: Taken from the kata Sanchin of the Naha School with the back foot straight and the front foot turned in to protect the shin.

Reigi Tadashi

This is translated as correct etiquette and manners and forms the backbone of a good dojo. The word Rei comes from the word Reigi and the word Tadashi means correct.

When entering a dojo you must always bow (Rei) and enter without shoes on. Students are usually expected to sit in the haunched (Seiza) position in readiness for the Sensei to enter or begin. Classically the students would be in lines from right to left in order of rank. The Senior (Sempai) students or instructors would sit to the right also ahead of the students facing at an angle to the Sensei who would sit in the middle of the dojo facing Shomen. There are 3 commands at the beginning and end of the class as follows:

  • Shomen Ni Rei
  • Sensei Ni Rei
  • Otagai Ni Rei

Shomen Ni Rei means bow to the front and all the class do this. The word Shomen meets the front and Ni is translated as to.

Sensei Ni Rei means the class and instructors bow to the Sensei who turns from Shomen to face the class and reciprocate the bow. Students are expected and should out of courtesy bow lower than the Sensei.

Otagai Ni Rei is where the senior instructors face the students and visa versa and they bow to each other. The Sensei does not bow at this point.

All the commands are given by the Senpai not the Sensei. If there are no Senpai then the Sensei will call Shomen Ni Rei and the student furthest to the right must call Sensei Ni Rei. It is not correct for the Sensei to say Sensei Ni Rei.

The Sensei is the first to rise with the command “Kiritsu” whereupon the seniors stand followed by the students. This signifies the commencement of the second phase of the class structure with the warm up “Junbi Taiso” or “Junbi Undo”. Usually a senior does this rather than the Sensei unless it is a new school with few seniors. There is a traditional format passed down through most old schools and the warm up is often kept the same. With the advent of modern body exercises much has been gained from new routines to get warm but much has been lost from exercises formed from the study of the art.