The Dojo

The dojo

Dojo is the Japanese word that indicates the training hall or the gym. Originally in Japan, this place is part of a shrine or is a big annexe to the house of the guiding teacher. For this reason it is customary when entering the dojo to bow in the direction of the joseki, usually a small shrine or banner, and to the teacher as, in a sense, he or she is your host.

Who’s who in the dojo?


Sensei means teacher and is used as a respectful form of address for instructors and kendoka of very high rank. They generally sit on the joseki side. When entering a dojo, bow to the joseki first and then to the sensei and ask for permission to train in his or her dojo. Whatever he/she says overrules any other prescribed regulations. It is for this reason that when visiting another dojo it is courteous and part of customary etiquette to follow the directions of the sensei regardless of what you have been told somewhere else. This does not infringe upon your rights and beliefs; indeed you are considered as one of his/her guests.


Sempai generally indicates the senior member who sits first in the line opposite to the teacher. You should always be listening to what the sempai says as he/she usually shouts out most of the commands. In reality, sempai means “senior/elder” and indicates anybody with more experience than you. You will be kohai (junior) to some people and sempai to others. This apparently rigid hierarchy is often misunderstood, and some people take advantage of it to dominate others. These individuals show very little understanding of kendo and command very little respect from the kendo community. To be sempai does not mean you command automatic respect, but places great responsibilities upon you and requires patience, maturity, knowledge and discipline. Indeed the sempai is a leading example, is required to show the basics, and has a duty to take care of the kohai and their safety. Therefore, if you feel you can learn from somebody, sit further away from the joseki than him or her as a pure form of respect. They will not fail to notice, and soon they will pay particular attention to you. The sooner you start to respect others, the greater your achievements will be.


As already mentioned, kohai is anybody with less experience than you – it literally means “junior”. Please help anybody who seeks your attention, not with the manner of someone who knows more and arrogantly lectures, but as an example, with the simplicity and modesty of one who is passing on some knowledge he acquired through real work, hardship and strife. Remember, however high in grade you will be one day, there will always be someone higher than you. It shows good disposition and attitude to behave as a learner on any occasion.

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Where should I sit?

When visiting the dojo, if you are not practising, you should ask the permission of senior members to join the class. If given, remove your shoes, bow facing the joseki, then in the direction of the teacher. Sit quietly where shown. In this case, it is customary to join the rei at the beginning and at the end of the practice sitting last in the line. If you are practising, the rule of thumb is to sit on the left hand side of the person who has a higher grade than you. Where this does not apply, sit next to the last person who joined the club before you.

The next section explains step-by-step the meaning of the commands and what to do when these are given, but if still in doubt, just copy what your sempai does.

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What to do when the sempai shouts, “seiretsu”

The meaning and full sequence from the seiza command is explained later on in these notes. For now, be aware that when the sempai shouts “seiretsu” you should find your place in the line, firmly holding your shinai in your left hand and, if you are wearing armour, your men and kote in the crook of your right arm. Before you sit, wait until everyone standing in line before you is seated. Then take half a step back on your left foot and kneel on that knee. The left knee should be placed on the floor in line with the right foot. While kneeling, place your shinai on the floor with the tsuba in line with your knee, the tsuru on the outside, and the part representing the cutting edge towards you. Following with the other leg, put your right knee down in line with the left one, then your right foot underneath your buttock and sit gently on your feet.

When in full seiza, place your kote and men on your right side in line with all the others.

Kendoka often need reminding that the shinai represents the sword. One would not carelessly handle such an expensive item, on which one’s life depends. This applies also when kneeling. In placing it down, the kensen (sakigawa) must gently touch the ground first, the tsuba last. No noise should be produced and make sure it will not roll sideways. When placing the kote down, it is customary to place the left first, than the right, kotegashira (fist) facing right, adjusting them so that they are in line with those of the person on your right, finally carefully placing your men on top. In our dojo it is customary to fold the tenugui and place it inside the men ready to be worn. However in some other dojo customs might be different so please, always, conform to the dojo rules. Note that the degree of your achievement in kendo is shown by the quantity and quality of movement you take to perform these simple, menial tasks. Very much like in the Japanese tea ceremony, every step should be perfectly calculated so there is no waste of motions, and no energy dissipated in unproductive movements. Your fellow kendoka will judge you on these premises and learn from your example, so attention and care to details are of major importance at any stage of your progression.

In the following section you will find a full account of what the sempai shouts and its meaning.

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How the practice begins

At the beginning of the lesson the sensei or the sempai will say:

line up
sit in the proper seiza posture

Make sure you do not sit before your sempai is already seated. If you are standing in the second line, sit at the same time as the person in front of you.

shisei wo tadashite
make sure your posture is correct
start meditation

When the sensei claps his hands once, you will hear the sempai saying:

mokuso yame
meditation period is finished, return to the seiza position
stand up
shomen ni
turn your body to face the joseki/shomen (usually a banner or other indicator)
chaku za
sit down in the seiza position

This almost obsessive attention to detail might appear unnecessary or even absurd to a beginner. In reality, it conveys a sense of readiness and alertness as the kendoka is always in a position to draw his or her sword and counter an attack. These, again, are the small details that make the difference, so be aware of them.

sensei ni rei
face your sensei and rei

Some people show their appreciation to the teacher for the time and effort her or she will put in to the oncoming lesson by respectfully saying, “onegai shimasu”. At this point the command is issued:

men (wo) tsuke
put on your men and kote (if you do not have armour calmly wait in seiza until instructed on what to do)

When commencing the session, whether in armour or not, the sensei will say:

bring your shinai to your hip as if it was a sword in a scabbard
assume a chudan no karnae position
squat down facing the sempai

Now the lesson has formally started. Follow the directions of your sensei or sempai. At the end of the lesson the sensei will command everybody to:

squat down
osame to
return your sword to the sheathed position

Then the seiza command will be shouted again.

start meditation

When the sensei claps his hands once, you will hear the sempai saying:

mokuso yame
meditation period is finished, return to the seiza position
joseki ni rei
turn your body and shinai to face the joseki and rei
sensei ni rei
turn your body and shinai to face your sensei and rei (if you wish to thank him say arigato gozaimashita)
otagai ni rei
politely rei and thank each other

This is a formal thank you only.

When the class ends, if you would like to thank personally whoever was particularly helpful to you during the lesson, please do so after finishing the session. Starting with the senior grade, sit in seiza in front of him or her and rei.

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Reigi-saho (etiquette)

Etiquette in the dojo is not designed to give airs and graces to senior members. Nor it is designed to contribute to the mystique of the martial arts. Etiquette involves common sense, discipline and manners on the whole, and is an integral requirement for self-awareness and development. If the procedures outlined below are not conducted with the reverence they require and deserve, you cannot hope to gain respect by your actions.

Kendoka should conduct themselves in the following way:

  • Bow respectfully when entering or leaving the dojo, first to the joseki and then to the sensei or sempai. Bow from the waist, placing hands on the front of the thighs, eyes looking to the floor, facing the joseki.
  • Enter the dojo with bare feet, wearing your tare and do unless otherwise instructed. Place personal belongings in a neat pile where you are advised to, and check your equipment thoroughly.
  • If you are late, request permission to join the practice from the senior member in charge, rei in seiza and warm up before joining the session. You should also request permission to leave from the senior member in charge if you have to be excused before the end of the practice. However these should be rare occasions. A zarei (bow from sitting position) is performed if the sensei is in the seiza position, and a rirsurei (standing bow) is required if the sensei is standing.
  • Do not allow your attention to wander during instruction. Do not chat with other students. Make the most of every practice.
  • Stand at shimoza (opposite the joseki), holding the shinai in yasume (rest position) when in line waiting for your turn or when a senior grade is instructing.
  • It is customary etiquette to walk behind a kendoka wearing armour and standing in position. If for any reason the contrary is unavoidable, bow slightly while passing.
  • While in seiza you are instructed:

men (wo) tsuke – have your men and kote on before your sensei.

men (wo) tore – wait for the sensei to take off his men and kore before you do.

Remember if you are slow everyone will have to wait for you to finish.

  • If at any time you wish to take off your men and kote while practising, request permission from the sensei first.
  • While instruction is being given by the sempai or visiting teachers, do not contradict or be uncooperative.
  • After final rei, if you wish to give special thanks to your opponent, a senior member or the sensei, do not shout from your position, but rise to your feet, walk to the person, sit in seiza and rei.
  • Generally, shoshinsha (beginners) or kendoka of lower rank will sit or stand opposite the yudansha or to their left. The senior of the two will take the joseki side. A kendoka should rei to this opponent or teacher before and at the end of each practice.
  • Never sit or rest without permission. Do not lean against the wall or on a shinai, using it as a cane. The shinai represents your sword, be proud of it and handle it as a precious possession. Also, do not smoke in the dojo, or wear a hat, or speak loudly, or use abusive language.
  • Never step on or hit a shinai, the men or the kote with your feet when placed next to a seated kendoka – treat them with respect.
  • Never touch part of the bogu or equipment of another kendoka unless requested or invited to do so.
  • Help your fellow fencers before and after the practice. Assist in the cleaning of the dojo.
  • Always bow respectfully to your opponent and to the joseki before and after a keiko or a shiai contest. It is customary etiquette to say, “onegaishimasu” loudly and clearly while bowing before engaging for practice and, “arigaro gazaimashita” at the final bow.
  • If your armour becomes loose or untied, raise your right arm to signal that you need to stop. After you do osame-to, return to your position or to the closest available place to the entrance, re-tie your armour, then start again with a standing bow. It is important that during this operation you do not obstruct other people around you causing delay, or worse, be a hazard to them. Always put safety first.
  • Make the most of the opportunity by practising, whenever possible, with higher ranks than yourself, and never allow a yudansha to stand idle.
  • To the samurai, their katana was their most valuable possession. In a similar fashion you must treat your shinai or bokuto with respect. Whenever you leave your shinai, make sure it is out of the way, where others cannot stumble over or step on it. If it rests against the wall make sure it is turned upside down so that the tip of the shinai faces upward.
  • Shotachi is the first strike. When fighting with a senior kendoka it is good etiquette to strike first. This allows the senior person to appraise your level and cater for your needs. Never waste your shotachi – strike positively from issoku itto no maai with a loud kiai, positive kamae and a careful and accurate strike.
  • Last but not least, remember to use correct reigi (etiquette) and shisei (attitude) all through the practice wherever you are, and exhibit some kigurai (pride). All this shows what you are made of and the club where you have been training will gain in lustre.

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Japanese numbers are often used for counting purposes in the dojo, so it is worth learning them.

1 ichi 6 roku
2 ni 7 shichi (nana)
3 san 8 hachi
4 shi (yon) 9 kyu(ku)
5 go 10 ju

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General recommendations to the kendoka

Personal attention: Your own person and your equipment should be always be kept clean, mainly as a form of respect towards your teacher and your fellow kendoka.

  • Toenails should be clipped for neatness and safety’s sake.
  • Jewellery should be removed and long hair tied back before the practice starts.
  • Maximum care should be given to your own equipment. The keikagi should be washed after every session and a minimum of two are recommended for rotation. The hakama should be washed every other session depending on perspiration. They should be washed in cold water to avoid excessive fading, discolouring and fabric wear. These garments should be pressed and always worn with pride about their appearance.
  • Any trace of sweat should be promptly wiped out from the inside of your men and kote at the end of every session; while at home the entire Bogu should be opened up and placed in an airy place to dry. A smelly kendoka indicates slackness and lack of discipline and self-respect.
  • One aspect of cleanliness is also achieved in looking after one’s body. Hands and feet play a very important part in your everyday training. Look after them, use cream to soften them up and to avoid dry skin and calluses.
  • If your Achilles’ heels, elbows or other parts of your body ache, stop training until they are back to normal. Look into the cause(s) with other senior members and try to solve them. Remember that there is no shame in coming to kendo just to watch – this is called watch practice.

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Commands used in the dojo

line up
junbi taiso
warm-up exercises
shisei wo tadashite
make sure your posture is correct
mokuso yame
meditation is ended
joseki ni rei (or) Shomen ni rei
bow to the joseki/shomen
men (wo) tsuke
put on your armour
stand up
nuki to
draw your sword
start (exercise/competition)
relax (with shinai pointing to the floor and right)
sheathe your sword
men (wo) tore
remove your armour
sensei ni rei
bow to your teacher
otagai ni rei
bow to each other

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The importance of stretching and warming up cannot be overstated. Stretching should be seriously undertaken to warm up the body muscles before any practice. Even when you are late for practice it is important that you warm up. The minimum requirement is 10 minutes during summer and 20 minutes during winter or when it is cold. The following section presents an exhaustive routine for warming up as suggested by the British Kendo Association and should be learnt by heart.

At the end of every session you should also warm down in order to avoid cramps and muscular damage. The routine is exactly the same tackled over half the time used to warm up.

  • Start with jogging for about five minutes both forwards and backwards. No sprinting should be done yet.
  • Toes bent over or pointed and held for a count of ten.
  • Ankle and foot rotation. This should be under control and done for about ten seconds per foot.
  • Knee flexing and straightening. Six per leg, done with control.
  • Hip and leg rotation. Six each way per leg, done with control.
  • Calf muscle stretch. Most important as the calf and Achilles’ tendon take a great deal of strain in kendo. Feet should be parallel and one leg taken to the rear with the heel kept on the ground until the tension is felt in the calf muscle. Hold for a count of ten and then change legs and repeat. Do this twice.
  • Adductor muscles stretch. These are the muscles down the inside of the thigh. Place the feet wide apart and keep them parallel. Move your weight onto the left foot and keep the right foot on the floor until you feel the tension down the inside of the thigh, then hold for a count of ten. Do the other side, then repeat.
  • Hamstring stretch. These are the muscles down the back of your thigh and are very susceptible to begin pulled. In order to get into a stretch position whilst standing, follow this sequence: bend your right knee and place both hands on it for support. Stick your backside out until you feel the tension down the back of your thigh and hold as before. Then repeat with the other leg and the do both legs again.
  • Hip and front thigh stretch. Take your right foot in your left hand, pushing your hips forward and pulling your leg back until you feel the tension. Hold and repeat as before. If your dojo is cold then at this point, jog for a further two or three minutes.
  • Hip rotation. With both feet on the floor, rotate your hips twelve times in each direction relatively slowly.
  • Side muscle stretch. Take your right arm behind your head with the elbow fully bent, clasp that elbow with your other hand and, keeping your legs and hips straight, bend to the side and pull your right elbow until the tension is felt. Hold and repeat as before.
  • Back of neck and shoulder stretch. Let your chin come forward onto your chest and then let your hands slide down until they reach your knees. This allows your shoulder blades to move around your chest and stretch the muscles in your upper back. Let yourself relax in that position for a count of ten and then slowly unwind starting from the lowest point and finishing with your neck. Repeat three times.
  • Rotational stretch. Hold your arms out horizontally to the side and, keeping your legs and hips pointing to the front, rotate the body around the hips slowly until tension is felt. Hold and repeat as before.
  • Front of chest muscle stretch. Clasp your hands behind your back and push diagonally down until tension is felt in the front of the chest. Hold and repeat as before.
  • Shoulder rotation muscle stretch. Hold your arms above your head and clasp your hands. Bend your knees slightly and tense the stomach muscles. Keep the arms straight and carry them backwards with the feeling that you are trying to make your shoulder blades touch. Hold and repeat as before.
  • Head turning. Move your head back on your neck, as if you were tucking your chin in. Then look to your right and hold for a count of ten, then to your left and repeat.
  • Head tilting. With your head in the same position as above, lean your head over to the side without lifting your shoulder, hold for a count of ten, then to your left and repeat.
  • Neck massage. Give the muscles in the back of your neck a massage for about fifteen seconds.
  • Slow arm circling. Ten forwards and ten backwards.
  • Bend and straighten your arms ten times in a slow and controlled action.
  • Stretch your wrists both ways and hold for a count of ten.
  • Stretch your fingers both ways and hold for a count of ten.

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