This coming April (2022) will mark 33 years that I’ve been studying and training in Okinawan karate. It’s been even longer than that that I’ve been studying martial arts in general, so it stands to reason that over the last three decades, I’ve seen and done a lot while wearing what my son once referred to as “daddy’s magic kicking pyjamas.” And there’s one thing that I have unfortunately seen and been a victim to, over those years that I feel has no place in martial arts: politics.
I know what you may be thinking…. Hasn’t there always been a political side to the martial arts? Especially in Japan? Yes, you would be correct. Most people associate the term “politics” with the government,a new rightfully so. But it can be loosely defined as the activities associated with the governance of a specific activity, as well. In this circumstance, the politics behind the practice and governance of karate dojos and clubs. And this is something that’s been in place since the time when karate gained popularity at the end of the 19th century/start of the 20th century.
Originally, karate founders brought their teachings back from China, where they studied Kung fu in certain monasteries while trying to escape the military draft in Japan. This somewhat depends on what history book you’re reading, of course and it really doesn’t change the topic of today’s discussion. But these founders brought the martial arts to Okinawa, where interested pupils decided they wanted to learn. Okinawan karate was born!
These founders didn’t have associations, organizations and in most cases, they didn’t even name themselves as a style, per se. In most cases, karate styles were named and discerned from one another after the founder’s death, when students would name it after the founders, in their honour. It isn’t until all these styles began mingling with one another and spreading to the mainland that certain vested parties began imposing rules, restrictions and governance on karate schools, and the ability to do certain things or train in certain ways became difficult, if not outright forbidden.
Why am I bringing this up? Well, I was lucky enough to be taught by a Sensei who had no interest in politics. Sensei was never one for joining associations or organizations and taught karate plainly for the purpose of karate itself. And to pass on the knowledge, which should be an ambition of every committed practitioner. But I was never exposed to anything that required further membership to practice and study karate, nor were there any conditions to being taught or tested. Decisions and choices ultimately fell to the relationship between Sensei and myself. As it should be.
I bring this up, because I recently had the good fortune to find a school of my style within a day’s drive from my current location. This is important, as Sensei lives on the opposite end of the country and visiting for even just a few days costs thousands of dollars in flights and travel expenses. Not least of which is the fact that putting myself inside a contained, metal tube with a batch of people who could potentially be carrying the COVID-19 virus doesn’t appeal to me. So I was excited at the prospect of having found some of the “brotherhood/sisterhood” I had hoped to visit and train with, albeit on a contingency basis.
I excitedly opened up my email and reached out to the dojo, which brought me into contact with the dojo’s secretary. First red flag. Although it’s 2021 and I can easily understand that many if not most dojos have started to carry an online presence, knowing that a dojo has a secretary to manage day-to-day affairs tells me that this dojo is likely very commercialized. I’m viewing this through the lens of someone who has trained his entire life in storage rooms and rented gyms, after all. I received a response from the dojo lead instructor. Out of respect for his privacy, I won’t name him here.
Our conversation was short and to the point. I explained that I was about 3,400 kilometres from my Sensei and would be, for the foreseeable future. I explained that I wanted a place to train where I could connect and grow with my style of karate (since there are dozens of martial arts schools in Regina,m but none are Uechi). I humbly asked permission to travel to the Sensei’s dojo to participate in a couple of classes on a contingency basis, and we could see where things would take us.
I should make a point of mentioning that the Sensei was completely polite, respectful and friendly. There was no animosity or rudeness in his reply. But the content of his reply took me aback. I had a phone call with this Sensei in order to introduce myself and discuss the matter further. Basically, I was a black belt but I wasn’t a black belt by “their standards.” In order for me to train and have my rank be recognized, I would need to be tested against their standards. I’m sorry…. I thought we were studying the same style. Perhaps I was wrong.
Once I took their equivalency testing, my rank would be recognized but I would need to join their karate organization, which of course involves fees and membership requirements. Then, I would be required to alter my training to accommodate the “right way of doing things,” based on the specific lineage of their school as their master had branched off from Uechi-Sensei some time ago. So, things I’ve learned and have been practicing for over three decades would need to be changed. Yeah, because THAT sounds like something reasonable…
But here was the last straw that broke the camel’s back…. He wanted me to get my Sensei’s permission, in writing and signed, allowing me to train in his dojo. Well. Last time I checked, I was an adult and free to come and go as I choose, but maybe I missed something in the fine print. Oh, wait! Sensei never HAD any fine print! I ended that phone call with a feeling of loss. I thought I had found like-minded individuals who trained in my style with whom I could connect and occasionally visit. This apparently wasn’t the case. Despite Sensei’s best efforts to prevent it, I had now been exposed to the political side of karate.
Maybe I’m being too sensitive on this one. Who’s to say? Well, I’m to say, and I don’t I am. The martial arts is something steeped in deep tradition, history and discipline. The political side of things should never touch karate. This who teach, should teach for the sake of passing on that knowledge and avoid the trappings of bureaucratic nonsense. But that’s just me. I’m old school. But it appears that at least for the moment, I will continue my martial arts journey on my own. ☯️