Dojo is made up of two characters, 道場. The first character, Do, translates as "The Way" and holds a spiritual connotation. "The Way" specifically refers to the path to enlightenment. The second character, Jo, means "place." So a dojo is literally a "place to practice the Way." It is a hall to study the path to enlightenment, a place of spiritual cultivation and an institution of higher learning. The word dojo is not confined to martial arts training, and can be extended to any of the -do forms of Japanese arts, such as shodo (calligraphy). In fact, it is even used in Zen Buddhism to describe the meditation halls where they practice zazen.
In actuality, what most people consider to be a dojo is really a keikojo 稽古場. Keiko literally means "practice," and refers to physical training. Keikojo is the most appropriate term for a martial arts school that does not engage in any spiritual development, that is purely focused on physical training without the trappings or rituals of a traditional art (what some may call a "gym" or "club").
So now that we've defined what the terms dojo and keikojo are, let's go a little more in depth.
When determining whether or not you have a keikojo or dojo, there are certain things you must look at, not the least of which is why you're there in the first place. Are your training goals purely physical or are you seeking something more? Does your training involve meditation or other methods of spiritual development? Do you study the history of the art you train in, or just the physical techniques? Does the word Budo carry any significance in your training?
To be a keikojo or dojo has absolutely nothing to do with the type of place you train in. It can be a garage, a back yard, a local park, a storefront, a warehouse or its own building. Don't get caught up with the state-of-the-art facilities or the schools that look like an Asian temple. The aesthetics are inconsequential. What matters in determining what you are part of is the training and the people themselves. Are you practicing the art or studying it? Are you a member or are you a student?
What makes a dojo is the commitment to higher learning. First and foremost, a martial art should be martial at its core but that doesn't mean you train purely for "the street" while neglecting everything else it means to study Budo. The connection between spirit, mind and body is not just a marketing slogan. It is meant to represent the unity and cohesion of being we develop through the study of Budo. There should be some form of spiritual development (training the spirit). There should be a study of history, understanding where your art comes from, and an intellectual study of the art itself (training the mind). Remember, in a dojo you are a student of the art, not just a practitioner. If you are training only the body, you are in a keikojo.
But in addition to the content of the training, a dojo is defined by the people, especially the teacher. In a good dojo, the teacher can be either a competent technician or world class encyclopedia of the art. In a great dojo, however, the teacher is more of a senior student. They recognize that the study of Budo is lifelong and do not place themselves on a pedestal above their students. Understanding hierarchy, customs and respect is essential, however the teacher should never be above learning themselves. They find excitement in polishing and refining their own skills. They lead the school through the journey of Budo, rather than standing up front and barking orders.
Next comes the students. In a dojo, the students care for the school. They show up early or stay after to make sure it's clean and ready for training. They take care of each other, and take care of the teacher. When they go out, the teacher should never have to reach for their wallet. It is an honor to pay for one's teacher. The students and teachers of a dojo make up a family, and should function as such. It is not uncommon for students, especially higher ranking students, to stay after training and socialize providing that everyone still understands the separation between teacher and student. It should be noted that once that line is blurred, the dojo will suffer.
During the training itself, all students are appreciated for the value they bring to the school. They are treasured for the experiences and knowledge they share in their training. While there should be a strict hierarchy observed between teachers, senior students and junior students, respect is mutual and never forced. This respect comes from the trust and care that develops between the students, not just in physical technique but that you trust each other enough to pull each other aside and talk about potential problems or what's troubling you outside of the dojo, without fear of judgement or ridicule. A dojo is a support network. More than anything else, the people make the dojo.
So to reiterate, if you are in a dojo you are training the spirit and the mind as well as the body. You are taking an intellectual look at the art, studying its intricacies and exploring its depths. You are embodying everything the art has to offer, including the culture and traditions of its origins, even the language. You are studying Budo, which I personally translate as the "path to enlightenment through the study of combat." Essentially, by studying war and combat, you are hardening the spirit to withstand and transcend the worst of human interaction, ultimately leading you to seek a higher level of peace and compassion (to read more about Budo, please click here).
If all you're doing is training the body, you are in a keikojo and there's nothing wrong with that. We all have our own goals and at the end of the day, you're on your own journey.
P.S. For my Korean martial arts readers, a dojo would be dojang and keikojo would be jaeyoekkwan