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Why Use Japanese at the Dojo?

Semi-abstract image of young and old aikidokai bowing

I recently learned that a prospective student asked the question, “Do I need to use Japanese?” when referring to Aikido techniques and dojo practices. Indeed, there are certainly English translations. Yet, in order to answer this person’s question, I thought it worthwhile to break down the situations in which Japanese arises at the dojo. Apart from myself, we only have one other practitioner fluent in Japanese, so it is clearly not the dojo’s spoken language. 

The first and most obvious instance in which we use Japanese is for technique names. This practice is not limited to our dojo: for most dojos in the 140 countries that practice Aikido, Japanese technique names are still used. Language uniformity is a source of strength when people of differing linguistic backgrounds come together. There’s little confusion about what techniques are being practiced. Sure, there are technical variations, but, by and large, the vast majority of Aikido practitioners recognize each other’s techniques and correctly label them. Yet the question of “Why Japanese? may still remain. Sometimes it is justified with this response: Because Aikido originates from Japan.

Yet while language uniformity is a practical reason to use Japanese, other martial arts choose to communicate in the local, rather than the original, language. E.g., in the U.S., I’ve only ever heard of Chinese martial arts’ animal styles referred to in English, never in Cantonese or Mandarin. That is not to say that Cantonese and Mandarin are not used by some U.S. practitioners—I am merely stating that it is clearly possible for martial arts to depart from their original language and adopt another. Thus, I feel compelled to concede that to answer “uniformity” alone as a justification for speaking Japanese is lacking. 

Interestingly, Aikido can have both descriptive or numerical technique names. The vast majority of the techniques are somewhat descriptive. For example, 小手返し (kotegaeshi), forearm/gauntlet turn, involves twisting the section of the arm joint covered by a gauntlet. In addition, when describing 基本技 (kihonwaza, basic techniques), we give the stance, attack, whether one is standing or sitting, and the directionality of the thrower’s movement. Yet not all Aikido techniques are descriptive. For example, our most basic technique —教 (ikkyō)—translates to first teaching. It is the first of a set of five teachings (or six, depending on where you train). Quite literally, techniques could just be said as numbers, and they would still function. Numerical techniques can also be observed in weapons, where a set of paired forms, 組太刀 (kumitachi) and 組丈 (kumijō), are also numbered one through five. In essence, while Aikido’s current system has descriptive names, it also points to a possibility where Japanese is unnecessary. Aikido could have all of its techniques named kokyū nage, and a number assigned  to each technique, and the practice would still function. As hinted above, however, I do feel that there are deeper reasons than uniformity that validate using Japanese.

Japanese is inherent to our spiritual practice. At our dojo, we practice Misogi, which, like Aikido, originates in Japan. Within Misogi, there is a concept called 言霊 (kotodama), which loosely translates to word spirit—the Japanese belief in the mystical power of words. It is thought that kotadama, when used in rituals, can influence our environment, body, mind, and soul. Kotodama is an ingrained concept in 神道 (Shinto), the central Japanese religion. It is said that the founder of Aikido used kotodama as a spiritual basis for his teachings, and therefore, his techniques. For those of us who practice Misogi along with Aikido, we chant in Japanese. Based on the concept of kotodama, it makes absolute sense that 祝詞 (norito, the ritual incantations used in Shinto) is chanted in its original language. 

While kotodama provides a basis for using Japanese in chants, one can still ask if there is inherent strength in speaking Japanese. Asserting there is an inherent strength brings forth serious questions to the practice: Are people who are not fluent in Japanese unable to attain anything meaningful in Aikido practice? And, by extension, is the mastery of the art only attainable by a Japanese person? I think the answer to both of these questions is no. I do not believe in the slightest that the mastery of the art is limited to Japanese people. From my perspective, an answer otherwise would seriously bring into question the purpose of having Aikido outside of Japan.

Aikido is a martial art that originates from Japan, but my belief is that it is not inherently a “Japanese” martial art. What I mean is that Aikido originates from Japan by circumstance but does not contain the entirety of Japan within it. If I were told that the art did not, in fact, originate from Japan, I would still practice it. So what, then, is the vital component in our practice at the dojo that I feel requires Japanese language? For me, what matters the most is key language regarding etiquette. Japanese society is extremely structured; if you have read one of the previous article published by the dojo, (“The Senpai (先輩) Kohai (後輩) Relationship”), it demonstrates one such pillar embedded in Japanese society. The most fundamental etiquette we perform, and some of the most common Japanese phrases we say, during our practice is to our teacher and fellow students. We say お願いします (onegaishimasu) and どうもありがとうございました (doumo arigatou gozaimashita), while bowing. 

Onegaishimasu translates to “do me this favor” or “if it pleases you,” which is not an English phrase, nor does the English language inherently have such a saying. This ultimately means that English does not have the ability to show respect to one’s fellow practitioners in the same way that is possible in Japanese. In essence, the sentiment of onegaishimasu is to give yourself up to your teacher and to your fellow students. One can argue that onegaishimasu is the first act of 受身 (ukemi), receiving body (more superficially understood as the person getting thrown). Onegaishimasu must be accompanied by a proper bow. Excessive and repetitive bowing is not necessary, but a shallow bow that does not expose the crown of one’s head is insufficient. Onegaishimasu is not limited to martial practice but is integral to Japanese society. In fact, my wife was surprised to hear me say the phrase to the cashier at a convenience store while visiting my home, Japan. Proper etiquette and attention to details in simple interactions such as this shows a difference in a person’s character. I believe that these small details truly translate the Aikido we practice from inside to outside the dojo.

Doumo arigatou gozaimashita is one of the more polite past tense forms of “thank you” in 敬語 (keigo), Japanese honorific language. Keigo is quite complex—a lengthy topic beyond the scope of this article—but it is important to understand that there are degrees of politeness in how one says “thank you” in Japanese, depending on the occasion. Like onegaishimasu, doumo arigatou gozaimashita needs to be followed with a proper bow. 

Of the two phrases most commonly used at the dojo, doumo arigatou gozaimashita is the one that I personally do not always say in Japanese. Allow me to explain. If Japanese is spoken in the dojo, it needs to be spoken thoughtfully. Because of keigo’s deeply influential cultural context, the significance the phrase holds becomes lost when the speaker does not understand Japanese. Intent is vital—much like our practice itself—the language we use should be as intentional as our practice. Unlike onegaishimasu, English already has different levels of expressing thanks. There is a clear difference between saying “thanks,” “thank you,” and “thank you very much.” I do not have to worry that my sincerity is lost in translation when I say this in English. 

While these two phrases are the most commonly spoken Japanese words at the dojo, I feel that they each have a different relevance. Phrases that are inherently not used in other languages need to be said in Japanese (onegaishimasu). In contrast, I feel very little need to use Japanese for phrases and sentiments that universally exist in other languages (doumo arigatou gozaimashita) and that cannot, in fact, convey proper sentiments to others who do not speak Japanese. This ultimately brings up a crucial point: just as we critique our physical Aikido, we must also critique our behaviors and speech in order to have truly meaningful practice.

In conclusion, when asked, “Why do we need to speak Japanese?”, my answer would be this: to convey what I cannot convey in other languages. There may be individuals who still disagree with using Japanese in the practice of Aikido, but I would not agree with them. I feel that it is critical to use Japanese in order to maintain the integrity of ritual practice in Misogi. In the same way, many phrases used in etiquette, including ones described above, cannot be replaced appropriately in other languages. One can argue that these situations do not directly affect the practice of Aikido. While that may be true, these conscious language details are the foundation of the dojo environment, and therefore the practice in of itself. Ultimately, I believe that in addition to the Japanese language providing deeper and more meaningful practice inside the dojo, proper usage of the Japanese language can also affect how the practitioners behave outside of the dojo. 

Note: This piece is an opinion piece and does not reflect any specific organization’s stance.

Shingo Sakio is a student of Cruciani Sensei. He is a biomedical science PhD candidate. He started practicing Aikido in 2010, once a week as a high school student and later committing to a serious practice in 2017. Outside of the dojo and lab, he is found at home with his wife and their two corgis.

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