Shamefully Naked Kamiza

Here’s a trivial note for friends with martial arts schools that feature a Japanese-style kamiza “spirit focal point” shelf on the main wall of their training space.

As described in the book Enlightened Self Protection, a kamiza can be compared to the family mantelpiece tradition familiar to American and European homes. As the mantel holds special pictures, artifacts, and memories of our family history, the kamiza serves as a reminder of the historic al and cultural legacy that stretches out behind the teachings embodied in our martial art today.

The items on the kamidana “spirit shelf” are Japanese in origin, but they are equally relevant to us in the West as reminders of our connection to the forces of nature, our gratitude to our teachers – even those teachers we have never met – for handing the knowledge down to us, and our personal responsibility for discovering the keys to actualizing our potential in ways that will carry our legacy on to new generations.

  • Tomyo candles symbolize the light we carry in our hearts
  • The kagami mirror symbolizes a stainless heart, pure in its reflection of “what is”
  • A dish of salt symbolizes willingness to sacrifice and gift others in order to grow
  • The shinden wooden house-like structure contains a small ofuda plank talisman as symbol of the ancient spirit that guides our training (concealed behind the doors behind the mirror, so not visible in photo below)
  • Sakaki greenery reminds us of our place in the richness of nature
  • Photos of living people usually do not go on the shrine shelf, but may be displayed beside the shelf in a martial arts dojo

(For a sense of size perspective, check the photo in my birthday party post)

When I was living in Japan in the 1970s to train at the house dojo of my ninja teacher, my job during each weekly dojo clean-up was to replace the water in the sakaki vases. I was “the tall guy” in those days, and my reach allowed me to get to those vases of greens without having to drag out a step ladder.

Today, most of us in the West use artificial greens since fresh branches from sakaki plants are very hard to come by or grow in most of the USA and Europe. Sakaki (cleyera japonica) is a low-spreading, medium-sized evergreen tree of the plant family which also includes tea and camellia.

Even if you cannot get sakaki, you can get bountiful boughs of greenery for your kamiza – holly or any other waxy green leafed shrubs – or at least tasteful artificial ones.

And here’s the point: be sure your kamiza has those boughs. I have seen a lot of photos of various dojo kamiza on internet sites of martial arts schools in America and Europe, and more often than not, there for all to see are a lot of pitiful naked kamiza shelves. Avoid that. Celebrate your tradition with lots of rich green.

Avoid scraggly wisps reminiscent of the Charlie Brown Christmas tree.
Avoid little potted plants with roots.
Avoid avoiding greenery altogether.

If you are going for a traditional look in your dojo, be sure that you fully understand the tradition. And avoid ignorant “tradition for tradition’s sake”, just as you would avoid pointlessly odd technique in your curriculum if you are teaching useful methods as opposed to mere museum-like cultural imitation.

11 comments to “Shamefully Naked Kamiza”

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  1. It’s funny. Sometimes, an errant ice cube is just an ice cube.

    Other times, it’s just the tip of the iceberg.

  2. Let us be mindful of both why as well as how we make our kamiza.
    As An-Shu states each part has meaning, just as does the whole.

    Appreciate you reminding us of this and still remember back in the 80’s when you first shared this with us during training An-Shu.

    Do something with purpose and understanding to give it true value along with meaning.

    Stationed Overseas

  3. Nang Thien Tham says: -#1

    AnShu Hayes,
    A point of fact that should probably be addressed before admonishing others for their lack of thoroughness.
    Kamiza (上座?) is a term used in Japan to refer to the ‘top seat’ within a room. The opposite term referring to the ‘bottom seat’ within a room is Shimoza. The Kamiza is the seat or position that is most comfortable, usually furthest from the door (because this is warmest). In a traditional Washitsu room it would often be a Zabuton placed so the person sitting there has their back to the Tokonoma. In a modern, Western-style room it would often be a comfortable armchair or sofa.

    When entering a room in Japan on a formal occasion it is of great importance to assume the correct seating position, and to leave the Kamiza free for the most important person present, be that a special guest or the person of highest rank. However, if one humbly sits in the Shimoza position and is then encouraged by the host to move to the Kamiza, it is quite acceptable to do so.

    The term Kamiza is frequently confused by martial arts practitioners with Kamidana, a Shinto shrine often found in Dōjō (martial arts training halls).

    Just a thought toward enlightenment.

    • Kami-za, when written with the kanji 上 and 座 meaning “upper” and “seat” is indeed the opposite of the shimo-za 下 座 “lower seat”, and refers to a seat of honor.

      However, kami-za can also be written with 神 and 座 meaning “spirit” and “seat” .
      This is the usage I employ in my blog piece.

      In this case, the kami-za 神 座 (“spirit seat”) is the place where the kami-dana 神 棚 (“spirit shelf”) and its shin-den 神 殿 (“spirit honored”) housing is located in the dojo.

  4. Nang Thien Tham says: -#1

    Anshu Hayes,
    Thank you for the enlightening clarification. I continue to be inspired by your grace, dignity, insights, experiences and wisdom.
    We are all very fortunate to have a guide such as yourself.

    Ninpo Ik-Kan!

  5. TYRONE GALVAN says: -#1

    i want to say first, stepen hayes you are doing a outstanding job, bring back lots of things from the past ,i remember the shadow of ia can,t remember name ,but i was also a member went mr hayes open is school ;i don;t practice since 20 years due to finanical problems,and personal family issues;; would love to start over,i live now in orlando,i was raised in newyork,the bronx;; hope to hear from you or staff,of course you are so busy now and always,mr hayes keep up the good work, always stay in the east , MY BROTHER; godbless you/family

  6. Anshu Hayes,
    I have the deepest respect for you and your acomplishments. With that, I have a question. I am currently attending a Ninjutsu school in Washington state that identifies itself as Koga-ryu; however, I have found that there is a debate over the legitamte use of that name and I am wondering what I should do?

  7. Christiaan Gijswijt says: -#1

    Dear Mr. Hayes,

    I studied Ninjutsu in Amsterdam, the Netherlands from 1993 until about 1996 in the dojo of shidoshi J.B. Bosma. At the moment, having left my country to come live and work in Bordeaux, France, I restarted training at the Bujinkan Dojo in that same city.

    Remembering well back in time that you were, and in my own humble opinion together with Svenerick Bogsater, our greatest inspiration in the sense that occidentals were granted acces to the nine Ryu Ha inherited by Dr. Hatsumi.

    Your books, and indeed your accomplishments in Japan have thought me a lot about the art and helped greatly to understand techniques aswell as the deeper sense of practising the martial arts.

    Fiftheen years have past, and I find that the Bujinkan has evolved, and that you have equally evolved. Since thruth has many forms and faces and all are equal as far as I am concerned, I consider that seeking the teachings of any person qualified by his heart and knowledge, is just another step to discovering another facet of that same thruth.

    I was wandering if you (or someone else qualified to answer of course!) could enlighten me a little about the School you have started in Ohio, and it’s devellopement upto the present moment.

    Hoping for a reply, I would like to finish with a word of best wishes and sincere friendship.


  8. Ramiz@martial art supply says: -#1

    Excellent article on martial arts and martial art supply.

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