Title: In the Dojo
Publisher's site: Shambhala Productions
Amazon link: In the Dojo
Price £16.50
ISBN #: 978-0834805729
Date: 2006
Author/s Dave Lowry

Book cover showing Japanese art of a tiger stalking through bamboo and beautiful kanji

In the Dojo - A Guide to the Rituals and Etiquette of the Japanese Martial Arts

Anyone who’s been doing martial arts for long will doubtless have asked at one time or another, “Why do we do that?” Why do we bow; why do we wear coloured belts; why do the high grades line up to the right; why is the dojo organised like it is? This is a book that attempts to answer these questions and many others.

By its own admission, this is not a book that clearly lays out all the answers for the reader in nice ABC columns and rows. Instead, it talks languorously, but with an air of authority (primarily inferred by the personal anecdotes) about the history, rituals, origins, motivations and functions of many of the traditions still practiced in the modern dojo.

The book covers a relatively narrow range of topics, and the fact that it covers a range of the Japanese arts including Kendo, Judo, Karate, Jujitsu and more, on one level diminishes the direct relevance to a karate ka. However, the source of much of our ritual comes from outside karate, so Mr Lowry’s broader palette approach is wholly appropriate.

Topics that I found of particular interest were the dojo, the uniform, mokuso, bowing, money, the sensei, and the student.

The book almost seems like a reflection of Mr Lowry’s state of ambivalence towards the martial arts, as it is a commentary on any absolute historical truths in the martial arts world. He is a serious student of several ancient arts, and has written books on the subject of swordsmanship, yet he freely accepts the role of commercialism within the martial arts.  But then he rails passionately against wearing non-traditional uniforms in “what passes for Budo in this country [USA]”. He is as conflicted as any impartial martial artist who on one hand, derives deeper meaning from the traditions, whilst acknowledging that many are not relevant outside of ancient Japanese society.

It is thoroughly fascinating however, to read Mr Lowry’s take on the origins of much of our ritual, and to discover that even in the most esteemed dojo in the world, some of these are incorrectly practiced.

 Perhaps the most important virtue of a book such as this, is its credibility. Its author - sometimes rightly -  derides the fantasies that are perpetuated in the martial arts world, whilst as often as not failing to provide even the least iota of substantiation, beyond his own, too-frequently stated opinions on everything from the colour of judo gis, to the merits of commercial karate instruction. This is a book that purports to represent historical truth, but the only truth is all-too-often. Mr Lowry’s sometimes one-sided opinion.  It’s clear that Mr Lowry has spent time in Japan, and has immersed himself in the culture, but whether his sources of reference, or his reasoning are any more sound than the next man’s is open to conjecture. For instance, at one point, he talks for several pages about the possible relationship between Taoism and the layout of the dojo, based upon nothing more than a drunken aside distractedly muttered to him by the master of a tea ceremony.

Mr Lowry’s familiarity with Japanese culture may better place him to join the dots and come up with meaningful pictures, or it may not, and that’s the problem. He expects you to take his words based upon faith, with no references, no bibliography, no named sources, nothing except his own word. His book is as opinionated as it is fascinating, but it should be viewed with little more faith than any other treatise on any of its subjects.

It does have an air of credibility to it, but that is probably as much a reflection of my own impressionability, as the evidence put forward by Mr Lowry to support his assertions. With that in mind, you should consider this book as the starting place for your own studies if the truth is very important to you; or as opinion from one better placed than most to voice it if you are simply interested. If you are a sensei, this book may help you to understand and correctly apply these rituals in your own dojo. At the least, it will give you some new stories to share with your students!


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