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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