Black Belt


Martial artists who are about to open their own dojo often want to give it a Japanese name. That’s reasonable, and it seems simple enough: Just choose one that sounds cool or that conveys the spirit of the place. Doing it right, however, is not quite so e


If you have ever thought about opening your own karate school and giving it a cool -apanese name, stop now. Read ´How (Not) to Name Your 'ojo” before you order your signboards and business cards.

J apan imported Chinese characters during the fifth century, mostly for official business, which was conducted in spoken Chinese. About two centuries later, Japan began using these characters to write in Japanese. They used Chinese characters but read — and spoke — them in Japanese. Example: The character for “wind” is the same whether it’s written in China or Japan, but in China, it’s pronounced fung, while in Japan, it’s pronounced kaze.

This would be simple, except that given early Japan’s regard for China, the Chinese pronunciat­ions of some words were the “elegant” or “educated” ones. We have something similar: We all know the German or Anglo-Saxon terms for words that would be considered crude in polite conversati­on, so instead, we use the more refined and “proper” Latin or Frenchderi­ved terms.

The upper classes in Japan often used these Chinese pronunciat­ions or at least Japanized variations of them. That’s why many Japanese words have two pronunciat­ions. One is the kunyomi, or native Japanese. The other, called the onyomi, is “borrowed” from Chinese.

Knowing the correct pronunciat­ion of a word in Japanese, whether it’s native or borrowed, makes a big difference in comprehens­ion. Example: Does shinpu mean anything to you? How about kamikaze? They can be written with exactly the same characters, which mean “divine wind,” but it’s only the second word that makes sense in spoken Japanese.

This often seems arbitrary. How can you know which pronunciat­ion to use? Dictionari­es can help, but it’s mostly a matter of learning.


what all this has to do with naming a dojo, hang on. Dojo and other places of learning usually bear a name that gives them dignity and a sense of deeper purpose. For that reason, it’s common for dojo to use the Chinese pronunciat­ion of the words in their names. Example: The dojo built by the famous 19th-century swordsman Yamaoka Tesshu was named Shunpukan. It means “Spring Wind Hall” and uses the Japanized Chinese pronunciat­ion. Had he used the native pronunciat­ion, it would have been Haru-Kaze, which doesn’t convey the sense of seriousnes­s of the place.

Western martial artists may end up in a situation in which they need to come up with an appropriat­e name for a dojo, so they look up a few words in a Japanese dictionary and — voila! — the school’s got a name. However, there’s a good chance they used the wrong pronunciat­ion and have a name that’s clunky and awkward. Example: Naming a school after an animal is popular in the West, so you decide to call yours Black Tiger Dojo. In a Japanese dictionary, you find the words and come up with Kuro Tora Dojo. But you’re using the native pronunciat­ion. It would be much more authentic to use the Japanized Chinese pronunciat­ion, which is Koku-Ko Dojo.

Well, it would be authentic — if not for the fact that dojo in Japan are almost never named after animals. In the Japanese martial arts, animal names are seldom used at all, even for names of kata. Practition­ers of the Japanese arts typically name their kata after natural phenomena. Examples: hangetsu ( half-moon) and

samidare (spring rain). Dojo names are treated similarly. Often a training hall name will get inspiratio­n from philosophi­cal concepts. Some of the most famous in old Japan were Meishinkan (Bright Spirit) and Kyoto’s famous Butokuden, the Hall of Martial Virtue.


or dishearten­ed enough to want to forget about even giving your new school a name at all, allow me to add one more element: In Japan, unless the space is owned by a particular individual, a dojo is rarely called a dojo. The only exception I can think of is the Noma Dojo, named after Seiji Noma, the founder of the Kodansha Publishing Co. in Tokyo.

Instead, the names of most martial arts training facilities use a different suffix. A -kan is a large hall, as in judo’s Kodokan or the Budokan. A -den is generally thought of as a building that’s smaller than a hall, like the Butokuden.

Sometimes, given the personalit­y of the dojo’s founder, a place will use another suffix, like -in or -an, which have the connotatio­n of temple or retreat. The late Daniel Furuya, a sixthdan aikido teacher and Buddhist priest who was based in Los Angeles, named his dojo Retreat of the Untalented Scholar. It was a reference to the hermitages of religious ascetics.

But hey — what about the bestknown dojo in America, the infamous Cobra Kai? Kai, here, means “club.” It refers to a group, not a place. Sometimes, when there’s a group of martial artists who get together to train without any formal instructio­n, it’s referred to as a kei

kokai (training group) or kenkyukai (study group).


there’s nothing wrong with simply giving your dojo an English name. You might call yours Karate of East Smallevill­e or Spring Wind Karate School. That will enable you to avoid the whole mess.

Lest you think the mistakes you could make while trying to use Japanese words work only in one direction, take a look at what gets printed on T-shirts in Japan. Two are stuck in my memory: Chocolate Fish Joy and Love Hand Caution. In the Japanese clothing industry, no one ever checks with a native English speaker before creating a product. Perhaps you should learn from their errors and check with a native Japanese speaker before you give your dojo a Japanese name.

In Japan, unless the space is owned by a particular individual, a dojo is rarely called a dojo.

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