Equality in the Dojo

Equality in the Dojo

(Disclosure: This article may not be about what you think it is)

Day after day in Shotokan dojo around the world, people train in “unequal” ways. I am not referring to gender or race here. I am referring to the practice of techniques on one side of the body more than on the other.

Have you ever stopped to think why we practice 3-step & 5-step sparring, but not any even number of steps? Sure, there is the excuse that 4 is sometimes considered unlucky in Japanese (4 in Japanese can be a homonym of the word for ‘death’). But how about 2-step and 6-step sparring? Or how about how we almost always start attacks with the left side forward? Even when performing basics individually, far less often do we take an even number of steps than odd.

What we are doing is working one side of the body more than the other, for some certain techniques and strategies. This may not be an entirely bad thing. But it may not be the right thing for everyone, all the time.

In Japan, there are very few left-handed people. Mothers there are known for making it difficult for children to grow up using their left hands to hold their chopsticks or pencils. “The nail that sticks up needs to be pounded down,” is a saying that comes to mind. There is a perfect mold in the Japanese mind. And that mold involves right-handedness.

So we practice specialization. That’s not entirely bad. Specialization in global economics terms refers to the idea that different nations can help each other through efficiently dividing labor resources for production specificity. The U.S. creates software and Japan produces consumer electronics. Why not learn to punch with one hand and block with another? Specialization can work. But why force everyone to specialize in the same way (such as left side block, right attack)?

In kata, we often have sequences of three repetitions, or attacks that use the same side for each occurrence in the kata. By training one side repeatedly, we can possibly make that technique become a natural reaction if performed on that particular side. But what if the chance arises in a self-defense situation to use it on the other side, and we are ill-prepared? For self-defense purposes, doesn’t it make sense to practice both sides of every technique and strategy?

I advocate training even-number steps more often in sparring and/or starting from the opposite side sometimes, as well as performing kata mirror-image (starting from the right instead of the left) on a fairly regular basis. Practicing in such a way can be a real eye-opener. Some people who have trained for many years and look like they have totally mastered a certain technique or combination may not be able to stumble through the same technique or combination if done on the opposite side…

Copyright © 2022, Jon Keeling (originally published April 1999)