Thursday, May 01, 2008

The dojo floor

I read a fascinating book years ago about the Japanese school system. Having grown up a Suzuki kid I knew a bit about Japanese cultural influences on education, and about some of the educational rituals. Another great source of cultural tidbits, presented especially for children, is Here and There Japan, a blog which covers many of these little school rituals and trappings. I've always been entranced by the way a sense of community responsibility is built through the expectation that students work together to clean and care for their learning space.

I'm watching this expectation being built at the kids' aikido dojo. It's a new dojo, and the sensei is fairly new to instructing children. And I think he's gradually working out how many of aikido's Japanese cultural influences can be introduced to these hippie valley kids.

There is the standard ritual of bowing to the shomen (scroll) upon entering the room, and before leaving. They all get it now, about respecting the space and the scroll and the tradition it represents. There are rules of respectful interaction that kick in inside the dojo. There's a sense that passing between the curtains means adopting a different set of social mores. For the most part the kids get that. Higher standards of behaviour apply inside the dojo.

In past weeks we've sometimes arrived early for the Thursday class and so we've helped Sensei wash down the mats. The other kids have been encouraged to join as they arrived. But this week the bucket of warm soapy water and wiping cloths was waiting for everyone and Sensei was not already hard at work washing the mats down.

"This is what you guys are responsible for from now on," explained Sensei. "This dojo is for all of you -- it's not just my dojo. If you're part of this club, you help keep it clean."

And then followed a brief but exacting lesson on proper floor washing. And the kids washed the entire immense floor in the space of about five minutes. Without a single complaint, and with an affirming sense of their own efficiency and accomplishment. And, I would wager, a stronger sense of the value of contributing simple work to one's community.

Is it really this easy? Even with our independent-minded far-from-Japanese kids? There is a lesson to be learned here for sure.


  1. I was thinking about this myself last night. My son and I just passed our black belt tests at Taekwondo. There, we bow in to the dojang, bow out, bow to the instructor, call the instructor sir or ma'am, are respectful, quiet and attentive. It's very different from our usual daily life! And we enjoy it a lot.

  2. Congrats to both of you on the black belts!

    It's funny, the bowing and quiet attentiveness in class doesn't seem unusual to me because I grew up in the Suzuki paradigm and that's always been a part of my daily life. I suppose it's unusual to kids and parents who haven't grown up with it -- and you've reminded me of that. To me the new impressive thing is the floor-washing. Funny the different things that strike us.

  3. I need to find a way to apply that here at home! Cyrus has aken Aikido in the past, and we're planning on starting him up again soon, and he always showed a lot of respect in the dojo.

  4. Mutual respect created in this way has such a natural rhythm to it, doesn't it? I was just discussing this topic with my 13 year old yesterday - and how nice it would be if the students and staff at his public school had more opportunity to build relationships like this, relationships built from respect.

    The blog you link to is fantastic.
    Thanks for sharing it!


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