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Spend a few years in karate and you will find that there are all sorts of scoundrels associated with karate who—for all of the years they have spent talking about character perfection—are nothing more than bullies, thieves, liars, con men, or worse. There are lots of good people who train in karate as well, but in my experience the distribution of bad to good people pretty well matches the distribution in society at large; there is nothing magic about karate that makes its practitioners good people or moral exemplars.

Claims regarding the moral benefits of karate are pretty ubiquitous. These claims are everywhere from the copies of the dojo kun hung on training halls to the cheesy adverts in newspapers offering to help “little Johnny” stay off drugs, become more disciplined, to raise his grades, and turn him into Superman if his parents fork over some cash to “Grandmaster” (hold on tight to your wallet when someone starts trying to sell you morality.)

This association between karate and character does more than just line the pockets of snake oil samurai. It provides a platform for unwarranted moral posturing on the part of your friendly neighborhood shihan. If you want to find someone worth venerating as a moral exemplar, you are more likely to find them volunteering at a soup kitchen, working with special needs kids, or lending a hand at the local homeless shelter than at a karate dojo.

The moral pretensions of disingenuous karate teachers can be genuinely harmful. I remember a club that was affiliated with the same national organization I belonged to once hosted a seminar taught by a senior karate teacher. About an hour after training (ironically concluded with a period of seated meditation and recitation of the dojo kun), the group gathered at a local restaurant and the visiting instructor loudly asked the students “who is gonna f*** sensei tonight?”. This question was not meant to be funny or ironic, considering this man’s history it probably counted more as foreplay.

I had brought several of my students in a minivan to the event. Upon hearing this I politely excused myself (I still regret that I was polite about this), gathered my students, and drove off. Some of my female students were as young as fourteen years old. We never again visited any events hosted by this group.

The host club trained in a gym run by a local women’s advocacy association and many of the students who trained there found the club through this organization. They understandably assumed that any group using its facilities would be sensitive to the fact that a substantial portion of the women served by it had been victims of some form of misogynistic behavior. Several women who had trained with the group reported to the institution—and later to several higher ranking members of their karate organization—that they had been the victims of sexual harassment and other associated abusive behavior. The fall out from this essentially destroyed the club.

From conversations I had had with several of the members of this group (before all of the harassment charges came to light) I knew how important karate was to many of them. It represented a way to empower themselves. Some of them had already lived though devastating emotional and physical abuse. Karate training represented a foray into a world larger than the quaint Midwestern landscape, and it was supposed to have something to do with “seeking perfection of character”. I can not imagine how much emotional damage was done to these people. I expect that it was worse because they suffered at the hands of men whose power was underwritten by both physical power and supposed moral authority.

Forget everything you have ever been told about “fighting spirit”, most of the time the instructors using this term are bullies. It is not a moral issue or character issue. It is a matter of what an individual has learned they can take and survive. Someone who has survived by acting less dominant, by trying to avoid confrontation, or by “flinching” to protect herself does not necessarily have a character problem. The bullying instructor who—believing some self-serving and naïve semiology—equates these behaviors with some species of bad character simply reveals his own ignorance.

Learning is the key. If you show students that they have a better chance of surviving by moving in to stuff an attack, they will. Provide them with a safe environment to explore assertiveness. The degree to which they experience success will bear on how they learn and incorporate this behavior. Moralizing the natural “flinch” responses in lower ranked students is unproductive, pedagogically naïve, and offensive. If you really need to recast the flinch response for your student, turn it into something like an eye gouge. Do not turn it into a moral indicator.

Some people claim that “fighting spirit” implies a willingness to sacrifice oneself in order to realize some strategic end such as providing time for family or loved one to escape an attack. This sort of behavior may be gallant; however I have found no evidence of the rehearsal of (existentially) self sacrificial behavior in regularly practiced in karate classes. In fact most of karate training involves modeling methods of survival. I have met many people who do not train in karate who would gladly make any sacrifice for their families or loved ones. I have met bullies who train in karate and who simply hide their fears behind aggression. The correlation between preparedness to sacrifice oneself and karate practice is a loose one at best.

The primary aim of karate training is to improve the student’s chances of survival in a fight (in the real world, as opposed to within a constructed environment). All of the other benefits (real or imagined) of karate, such as focus, determination, character development, etc are, to some degree dependant on the process of striving to develop the ability to fight (in the context of a community of fellow karate learners.)

If you are concerned about developing character, model the kind of behavior you want to see in your students, including modeling the “losing” side of partner drills. Do not spend all of your time fawning over the amazing physical skills of your most talented athletes while ignoring the efforts of those who struggle. Draw attention to the importance of cooperation in training. Train hard, and proclaim less. Let the students know you struggle to improve just as they do. There is nothing wrong with reciting the dojo kun, just remember it is not a magic formula.

Moral issues are not all easy or obvious. Be prepared to have conversations with students after class. They will want to know about dealing with bullies, abusive partners, imagined street defense issues, they will want to tell you about fights they have had and all sorts of related stuff. Do not expect to, or act like, you have all of the answers to their questions. Many times they will get on your nerves and will seem hopelessly naïve. If you have the time to teach them how to hurt people you should have the time to talk to them about it. By spending the time talking about these things after class you are confirming the importance of moral thinking for your students. By acknowledging the difficulty of knowing what is morally required of each of us, and the difficulty of acting accordingly, you encourage genuine moral thinking.

"Try to see yourself as you truly are and try to adopt what is meritorious in the work of others. As a karateka you will of course often watch others practice. When you do and you see strong points in the performance of others, try to incorporate them into your own technique. At the same time, if the trainee you are watching seems to be doing less than his best ask yourself whether you too may not be failing to practice with diligence. Each of us has good qualities and bad; the wise man seeks to emulate the good he perceives in others and avoid the bad."
Funakoshi Gichin


May 2020

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