The moment you walk into a really good, old-fashioned boxing gym, you’ll catch the ripe smell of honest sweat, a diluted version of the fragrance of the inside of a hockey equipment bag. Entering a good karate dōjō is very different. The Japanese place a high value on cleanliness, which means there should be no residue of the perspiration shed profusely there.
At the end of a karate class, everyone, whether white belt or black belt, young or old, student or instructor, lines up with her/his hands pressing a damp rag against the floor, then runs the length of the dōjō, back and forth, until entire floor has been wiped down. This is called sōji 掃除.
As Nakamura Tadashi 中村忠 writes,
A dōjō becomes a special place only by the respect that the students as a group, or community, have for it. If everyone believes that it is a place to study and perfect the self, then how could it be kept clean by others? It is our place. We are making a shared commitment to it and to our practice. With a shared commitment comes a shared responsibility, including that for keeping the place spotless.
Karatedō aims at making its practitioners less centered on the self and more conscious of the world. My dōjō is fortunate to have a big room in a high school with beautiful hardwood floors, where dance classes are held during the day. Before each of our karate sessions, whoever arrives early dust-mops the floor, cleans the mirrors, and gets down on her/his hands and knees to remove scuff marks to prepare the dōjō; after, we do sōji with the damp rags. Our obligation is to leave the space better than we found it, especially because we share the room. Our aspiration is to make the world a little better because we were there.
Like everything in karatedō, the key is repetition: doing sōji every time we train instills a habit, in exactly the same way practicing a technique over and over makes it feel like a natural part of who we are. For us, sōji is much akin to mokusō 黙想, the silent meditation that we do to open and close a class. Cleaning the dōjō is a way to cleanse the heart and soul, just as mokusō is a way to empty the self. Sōji is particularly important in this culture, where cleaning workers like janitors or chambermaids are too often denigrated as low-class labour. In the dōjō, it doesn’t matter if you’re a doctor, lawyer, or executive; it doesn’t matter how much money or education you have. Everyone gets down on the floor and cleans alongside everyone else.
C W Nicol said of his karate training in Japan:
After each class the students closest to the door would rush out to get buckets of water and cloths. As many as could grabbed a cloth, dampened it in the water and placed it on the floor. Both hands were placed on the cloth, and with his buttocks high and his body almost in a “push-up” position, the washer ran the width of the dojo, cleaning a foot-wide swath. We raced each other across the dojo in this way, thus strengthening hips, legs and arms, and sometimes crashing into each other, laughing and panting.
This task was never omitted, and nobody was ever ordered or asked to do it. A few, especially Westerners, dodged it, but the teachers and sempai always knew, and although they said nothing, the result of their observations would come out in the quality of individual instruction. Slackers, dodgers, and those with poor spirit were ignored on the dojo floor.
I am less subtle. I expect everyone to do sōji and say so directly. But some of the most fun I’ve had in karate has been running across the floor with my students, desperately trying to catch up to those young legs. There are few things better for cleansing me of my pride than having my 16 year-old son easily outrun me. Of course, that makes me proud, too, but I allow myself that. A strong son in a clean dōjō is a very good thing.