It Takes a Village…To Run a Dojo
Japanese and American cultures vary in interpretations of ideas, concepts and practices. When it comes to importing Japanese ideas, traditions and practices into an American community, do we experience a culture clash, or an opportunity for growth? Long-time Aikido practitioner and instructor, Gaku Homma, author of Aikido “sketch” Diary, shares his insights and experiences as Sensei and Founder of Aikido Nippon Kan dojo in Denver, Colorado. His successful dojo is a blueprint of the potential for Japanese dojos in America.
Homma has spent decades working to blend “Japanese Thinking” with “American Thinking” and gleaned wisdom from applying this study in his own dojo. While our consumeristic minds may tend to draw our focus onto what experiences we will have, what we will learn, what fun we can gain ON the mat, Homma directs us to understand that some of the most important lessons for students of aikido take place “beyond” the mat and behind the scenes.
One of the goals of the art of aikido is building a community of people with integrity. The honorable qualities that are encouraged by practicing aikido should naturally result in people who seek opportunities to assist others. This is played out within the local community as well as within the dojo itself. A key principle of dojo operations is that of communal responsibility. In the traditional aikido dojo, the members of the dojo…the students…are responsible for the daily operations and maintenance of the dojo. There is a place for everyone…an opportunity for each individual to serve in varying capacities as a holistic team. The work is done purely on a voluntary basis. This reality may be challenging to a typical American consumer. In America, people understand businesses to have owners who provide services to paying customers. The American dojo may, therefore, be seen as a “gym,” whose owners exchange services for fees.
A traditional dojo, however, is more of a community and less of a business. (Often, dojo dues are insufficient to sustain expenses…some dojos are run as non-profit organizations, others are provided for by “angel” sponsors or donors.) The students are expected to participate in the regular maintenance of the building and the administration aspects of the dojo, whether cleaning the space, managing the front office or assisting newcomers, etc. Aikido, as practiced according to its traditional foundation, is not a mercenary “for profit” endeavour. It is a sharing and a practice that imbues its students with life skills and personal growth opportunities. One of the manifestations of the harmony practiced in Aikido is ministering to one another’s needs. As students care for the dojo premises and for one another, they are able to put into practice many aspects of the art…such as consideration, sensitivity, responsibility, diligence, awareness.
The dojo Cho Sensei (“chief” and “teacher”) is both leader and instructor. The Sensei shares with the students the knowledge, experience and skill he has learned and earned through many years of practice, training, sacrifice and dedication. He bears the responsibility of passing on the art and practice with integrity, in maintaining his students’ safety on the mat, and caring for their welfare off the mat. It is not the role of Sensei to clean toilets and collect dues, just as we would not expect elders in our community to do the heavy lifting when younger, able-bodied people are available. Traditional Japanese dojos maintain a hierarchy not often valued in many of today’s modern societies…but the conscious practice of such values encourages sensitivity towards others in all spheres of life, and provides opportunities for us to bless our fellow humans. In the dojo, Sensei is given deference, care and respect due to his earned rank and the investment he makes in all his students; and those students benefit from the endeavours of working together to maintain their dojo and minister to one another’s needs.
When an aikido community “team” functions seamlessly in this way, seeking to meet needs selflessly within the dojo naturally translates into community-wide service efforts outside the dojo. Homma’s Denver dojo members often participate in local service projects such as meals and fund-raising drives for the needy in the local community. Working in harmony to provide help to the local community is a beautiful expression of the spirit of aikido. The ability to see needs and serve in such capacities comes from regular practice of awareness and service…in one’s personal life and, in the case of the aikido student, in the dojo.