A Non-Profit Karate Dojo (But We Didn't Plan It That Way)During an interview with Masatoshi Nakayama, late headmaster of the Japan Karate Association, I tried my best, in the staid tradition of Western journalism, to get him to say something controversial. Something that would raise a few hackles and sell a few magazines. If only he would say something like those folks say in the National Enquirer, we would have our famous cover: "KARATE GRANDMASTER SAYS FULL-CONTACT JOKE." But Nakayama disappointed me. He didn't criticize anybody or anything. (For the record, he said that full-contact karate is fine for people who want to do it, and that it certainly has a place in the world of karate, just so long as everyone understands that it is a sport and not budo. And he also said, ending my dreams of fame and notoriety, "...and there's certainly nothing wrong with making contact.") So much for trying to trick the master. Over the course of several days of interviewing, only once did I see Nakayama shake his head in disgust and shoot a little bit of fire out of his eyes. We were talking about the history and development of karate in America, and during a lull in the conversation, he leaned over, close to my face, gritted his teeth, and said, very sternly, "You know what's really wrong with our karate?" he asked. Our karate? I thought. Isn't it the other guys who are screwed up? "What's really wrong with our karate," he continued, "is that people train a few years, make first or second dan, and then right away open a school and try to make money from karate. They're not qualified to teach by themselves and, besides, it's impossible to make money quickly from true karate-do." He didn't have to convince me on the money factor. Over the years, I have seen many, many instructors open commercial schools and then make the mistake of teaching their students true karate-do, in the traditional fashion. Invariably, these people quickly learn that the traditional ways are not, by and large, easily marketable. Oh, it's easy enough to attract a fair-sized student body‹with skillful advertising and promotion‹but boy-oh-boy, is it ever hard to keep them! The main problem, as I see it, is that we are offering our customers something they don't really want. Gichin Funakoshi warned us of the problem in one of his famous "Twenty Precepts." He said, "Karate no shugyo wa issho de aru," which means, "Karate practice is lifetime work; there is no limit." An equally accurate translation is, "it will take your entire life to learn karate." For those of us who try to follow Funakoshi's precepts, the road to mastery is long, arduous and fraught with disappointments. What we are saying to the prospective student, really, is, "Join our dojo, pay your money, and we will push you, humiliate you, discipline you, and make you work harder than you have ever worked in your life. If you continue training, we will demand that you pay more money for harder and harder work, stricter discipline, and continuing self-sacrifice." Clearly, we place ourselves in the middle of a harsh, inflexible paradox: We are marketing karate-do, but karate-do has little to commend it to the American market. A colleague of mine says that we are asking people to enroll in school for their own betterment and then shocking them with the news that there is no graduation day. He's right. There are a number of traditionalists around, of course, who are supremely successful, and they have hundreds, even thousands, of students. But not one of them was an overnight success. Each one of them, to the best of my knowledge, had to work long and hard, enduring many hardships and setbacks, to "make it" in the business world. Every one of them that I know had to endure terrible frustrations and poverty on the way to business success. Frankly, in the spirit of karate-do, this is the way it should be, because the benefits derived from serious pursuit of the ideals of karate-do are too valuable to be priced and sold. How much should be charged, for example, for good health, good appetite, good digestion, blissful sleep or boundless energy? How much is it worth to have confidence, self-assurance and mental clarity? Can a price really be placed on being happy with yourself and happy with others, no matter how they act? Probably not, but these things are clearly by-products of hard, daily training under a good instructor. And, yes, we traditionalists really believe that correct training will bring all these assets to the serious student. But the problem remains, as my friend so aptly put it, that we cannot tell the student when graduation day will be, because we know it will never come. As long as the student keeps training, he will improve‹continuously until the day he dies. Many years ago, Sensei Shojiro Koyama of Phoenix, Arizona, was showing us some of the physical benefits of daily training, and he inadvertently hinted at how long it might take to get to "graduation day." Facing the wall, about one foot away from it, Koyama spread his legs straight to the sides, heels and toes touching the floor, and performed a complete split, his crotch touching the floor. He then invited two husky black belts to grasp his ankles and lift him into the air. "Just lift straight up," he said, and he kept his hands on the wall for balance as they hoisted him high above their heads, his crotch now a bit lower than his legs. When they put him down, he sprang to his feet, turned to us and said, "I am 46 years old, but karate-do has made me able to do this kind of thing. You can do it, too. Don't say no; just practice a little bit every day, and after 10 years, you will be able to do it, too. Every step of karate-do takes at least 10 years, but when you get to be my age, you will realize that it's worth the effort." Worth the effort, but not easily marketable. Of course, the bright side to all of this is that traditional karate-do offers a solid philosophy based on physical education, sport, and self-defense, and more and more people in our society are being attracted to all three. The here-today-gone-tomorrow studios of the Bruce Lee era are not much in evidence now, and the public is discovering that the old, plain, run-down place on the corner, that was there before the modern studios moved in and out, is still there. It still has the same instructor, and he appears to be doing the same old things. His students in their white uniforms are still doing the same things they were 10 years ago, and even though they look stern and serious and sweaty, they genuinely seem to be enjoying what they are doing. I hope instructors and students alike will meditate on the words of the ancient sage, Mencius, who said: When Heaven is about to confer A great office upon a man, It first exercises his mind with suffering, His sinews and bones with toil. It exposes him to poverty, And confounds all his undertakings. Then it is seen if he is ready. Or, as Master Funakoshi warned, "It will take your entire life to learn karate."
This article is written by Randall G. Hassell, copyright 2006.
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Sensei Hassell is also the chief instructor of the American Shotokan Karate Alliance: www.ShotokanCentral.