Dojo kun or con?

Many karate schools have a "dojo kun" or a set of rules or mottoes by which the schools are said to function.

These are usually traditional, inherited from the original dojos in Japan or Okinawa. More recently, Western-based karate schools have started to develop their own.

What is the function of the dojo kun? Rob Redmond of 24 Fighting Chickens argues that it is nothing more than a "con": it purports to preach a set of "moral" guidelines, and to elevate the status of karate instructors beyond that to which they are entitled. He makes a good point.

Arguably the most well-known dojo kun is that of Gichin Funakoshi, founder of shotokan karate. It is this dojo kun that Mr Redmond has particularly in mind in his blog article. The shotokan dojo kun is commonly translated as follows:

  • Seek perfection of character
  • Protect the way of the truth
  • Foster the spirit of effort
  • Respect the principles of etiquette and respect others
  • Guard against impetuous courage and refrain from violent behavior.

Variants of this dojo kun are used by many other styles of karate - even some schools of goju-ryu (see also this post on the Traditional Fighting Arts Forums).

For what it's worth, I think the shotokan karate dojo kun has many issues:

First, it is vague. I would not be happy with a dojo kun that states things like "Seek perfection of character" and "Protect the way of truth" (whatever either of those things mean). "Foster the spirit of effort" raises the question "in whom?" Yourself? Others? And what in the world does "Guard against impetuous courage" mean?

Second, the tenets are overly moralistic. Statements like "Protect the way of truth" make it sound like karateka function as some kind of "moral guardians" in society, which they do not.

Third, the tenets overlap substantially. You can't "Respect the principles of etiquette [whose?] and respect others" unless you "refrain from violent behaviour" (assuming the violent behaviour is unnecessary/inappropriate, which the dojo kun does not specify).

Accordingly I am not at all surprised by Mr Redmond's reaction to this dojo kun as a "con".

However I don't think the whole concept of a dojo kun should be dismissed out of hand. Despite it's flaws, even the shotokan version reflects a particular tradition. And it is in honour of that tradition that a dojo might persist in placing the kun on its wall.

In our school we trace our lineage back to the Jundokan. Accordingly we use the dojo kun of that school. Our translation happens to fit well with my own approach to training and life in general. Despite this, I don't see it as any kind of "law" and I wouldn't dream of chanting it at the start and end of class (as many do) or "preaching" it to adults (or even children). But I like having it on the wall.

Our translation of the Jundokan dojo kun is as follows:

  • Be courteous and honourable.
  • Train according to your physical condition.
  • Study earnestly and creatively.
  • Be calm in mind and swift in action.
  • Take care of your health.
  • Lead a simple life.
  • Never be arrogant.
  • Persevere in your training.

We also have a Chinese translation which we call the "Wu-Wei Dao Xun" (wu-wei dao being the Chinese name of our school). I'm told by my Chinese colleagues that the concept of a "kun/xun" is not out of place in Chinese martial arts.

So my view is, if you have a dojo kun, by all means keep it. It is part of the heritage of the art you are studying. If the translation that has been given to you is a bit clunky or too specific to the Japanese culture (or more accurately, the Japanese culture from early in the last century) then adopt a translation that keeps the essence but makes it more relevant to your present day culture.

After all, there might be little to gain in keeping a dojo kun, but there is always something to lose in abandoning it.

Copyright © 2010 Dejan Djurdjevic


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