Why are There so Many Karate Idiots?
The majority of karateka believe earnestly that they are pursuing “The Way”. That is, diligently and selflessly committing to the regimen of dojo, meditation, bowing to all the right people, learning the “right” way to do the right kata and understanding that “bunkai” is king - It has to work in “The Street”. At the same time they maintain, and publicly declaim their disdain for the financially successful “McDojo”.
Yet the internet, forums, social media and a plethora of websites are full of mindless, gibbering rants by psychos and Machiavellian 12th dans declaring their various mantras and prejudices epitomising the rule; “Better to say nothing and be thought an idiot than to open your mouth and prove it beyond doubt to all”.
So why is it that karateka seem to be disproportionately represented in these hordes of loonies? Firstly, I fear that these is a perception at play here. As karateka we are drawn to karate forums, therefore it’s in this context that we find these writings. It’s not necessarily that karateka are more nuts that the majority of the population, rather that, as we seek out budo writings, it’s the oddballs that leap off the screen into our faces.
Secondly, by their nature, it’s often the weirdoes, iconoclasts and “out there” types that feel compelled to share their views with the wider world (cynics may observe that this writer is choosing to publicly air his views, and from this draw their own conclusions…). In fact it is this writer’s belief that such public declaration is all to the good. Karate, like life in general is enhanced by those who challenge the norm and by corollary diminished by those who quietly accept the “truths” dogmatically passed down by their teachers.
So, you may ask, where is this argument going, if it is the case that karate practitioners’ behaviour is simply a reflection of the wider population, and anyway that one man’s nutter is another man’s innovative messiah?
I will argue that there are elements of martial arts practice in general, and karate in particular, that encourage less than conventional behaviour, and will attempt to explore the reasons for this. Firstly though it is pertinent to discuss the other side of the oddball argument – that side of karate that is bogged down with misplaced, but equally offbeat conventionality and why the structure and organisation of karate necessarily promotes and protects such views and behaviour.
Historically, karate as we recognise it began in Okinawa, but it is the Mainland Japanese iteration that I assert has the most influence in this regard. In turn of the 20th century Japan social hierarchy as a legacy of Imperial times remained important. This meant that the “sensei” (literally “one who has gone before”) was followed unquestioningly by his “deshi” or disciples. When the early teachers came to Europe they brought with them the same autocratic “my word is law” teaching style. On top of this was layered the mystical wonder of the East. Western practitioners took at face value the words of these exotic supermen and obeyed their every instruction without question. Bizarrely when the early Western students themselves became teachers they took on not only the autocratic teaching style of their teachers but also some of their individual quirks and mannerisms. Indeed there are still in the UK karate instructors who speak to their students in a pidgin Japanese accent. The upshot of this attitude is that for at least a generation karate was not permitted to innovate. As any student of evolution will tell you, any species that does not widen its gene pool in a changing environment will be subject to inbreeding, mutation and ultimately risk dying out.
That is exactly what began to happen to karate in Britain, and anyone that suggested change, adaptation or modification of practices was labelled a pariah, outsider or heretic by the establishment. Ultimately this meant that the oddest practices of the well-meaning but misguided “traditionalists” were touted as the sacred truth. Their hordes of zealots that came after held them to be the same messianic demigods and declared these truths to the exclusion of all others.
This is analogous to the practices of religious extremists who – deliberately or by misunderstanding – pervert the original message of their spiritual leaders or holy texts and shout their own twisted “truth” from the rooftops – or more likely these days a cable TV studio or YouTube webcam.
In essence the very practice of karate as undertaken by the Brits led to the first wave of loonies - and many of them are still here, with many stripes to their collective belts.
So that accounts for a big chunk of our nutters: they are simply a manifestation of the need of many to follow a perceived religious truth, and a by-product of that is that the survival of some of the more shall we say, “quirky” individuals.
In addition to the general scheme described above, I contend that there is something about the fighter that brings out the more unconventional in people. Fighting is in general a “macho” pursuit and through the aeons and generations has been in the main celebrated in the male of the species. Furthermore, battle exploits are almost always exaggerated, embellished and in some cases fabricated by either the protagonists or their supporters. Usually this is the victors, but it is common too for the vanquished to declare: “There were twelve of them to one of me” or: “He hit me from behind” to somehow diminish the ignominy of their defeat.
It is in this cultural context that fighters must be viewed. If it is not in the nature of an individual karateka to brag, and showboat about his exploits, it is an effect of peer pressure and convention that many become braggarts and showmen.
Most experienced martial artists eventually become teachers and, even if they do not actively pursue financial gain from their teaching, there is always some pressure to engage in at least low-level marketing. The sensei may not be looking for 2000 students or the next great pyramid sales scheme but he will want to a) attract some interest from his catchment group of potential students; b) draw people to his school rather than those of rival (inferior) groups or c) try to confer some credibility on his methods and experience to validate them both to himself and to his students.
This inevitably leads to creativity in the descriptions of his exploits, abilities and, methods and this is only a small step from nutterdom.
This peer pressure and cultural environment applies to all martial artists, but not all martial arts produce quite the same number of idiots as karate. Aikido, Kendo and classical Japanese Budo tends to attract cerebral types. As these pursuits are not mass-participation styles the temptation to tout one’s idiosyncrasies on the street is not so great. Chinese martial arts are typically spiritually-led. This tends to divide them into two distinct camps. On the one hand there are those whom we can lump in with the classical budo set; considered, earnest and intelligent. On the other hand there is a cohort that is largely the same as karateka- with more than their fair share of freaks, and I shall deal with them as the karateka. Boxing, pro wrestling and the various forms of MMA (e.g. cage fighting, BJJ etc.) are largely media driven so they will always attract attention seeking behaviour.
That leaves karate and judo. Both are modernised, partially westernised, widely practised manifestations of 20th century Japanese systems based loosely on classical budo. But Judo is almost entirely populated with hard-nosed (possibly cauliflower-eared) athletes, whilst karate has the previously-mentioned tranche of weird cousins we don’t talk about in polite company. Why is that? I contend this is the “no contact” syndrome. Let me elaborate.
Judo is an honest sport. The way to win is to either put your opponent on his or her back, or force him/her into submission. These objectives require skill and fitness in equal measure. Sports players who engage in earnest hard work and self-sacrifice recognise these qualities in their peers. The guy who has to really work to earn merit is not the guy who spouts nonsense. Any shortcomings in technique, method or training will result in the judoka being less effective at putting any opponent to the ground, or beating them into submission. This means that both the practice of judo is based on sound, practical empirical principles, but it is also true that the practical, empirical judoka is less likely to engage in bullshit.
Karate, however is a different kettle of fish. Go back to the 1950s and ‘60s and your typical British karateka was just like the no-nonsense judoka. These guys had to fight – and train – to progress. The problem arose with the arrival of the politician.
Vernon Bell was the founder of the British karate movement in the ‘50s. He may have been a hard man, but he was also an administrator, and by most accounts an eccentric. He sowed the seeds of the madness that we reap today. Whilst he may have been responsible for introducing most of the great Japanese karate pioneers to England he was also a self-publicist and may well have been the architect of a lot of the current misconception and mystical perception of the mass of the populace and the way they view karate today. Bell’s idiosyncratic approach is not the whole story, but it set a template for behaviour that his peers may have subconsciously assimilated into their interactions with wider society.
So the founder of karate in this country set a standard that other mimicked, but that does not explain why karateka in other societies, for example the United States, tend to the less than conventional.
Part of the explanation may be that karate is itself unconventional to western sensibilities, with its white uniforms, strange etiquette and so on, and therefore attracts the unconventional type. If this is true, judo may not be subject to the same pressures, as wrestling is a universal exercise, so despite the bowing and belts still has a ring of familiarity even to westerners.
So here is the nub of my argument. Wrestling, of which judo is a subset - whilst not completely benign, can be practised at full commitment levels with relatively little risk of serious injury to either protagonist.
This is not the case with striking systems. Punching, kicking, chopping and stabbing at vulnerable points to the body will inevitably lead to injury – sometimes serious, So all karateka at some time engage in watered down practices. Examples of such watering down include: “sundome”, the practice of stopping blows just short of impact; “bogu”, the wearing of protective gear during sparring; kata, where an opponent may be completely absent; “shiai” or sport, where dangerous techniques are omitted, or protective gear and sundome are adopted, and other methods of mitigating against risk of permanent serious injury during practice.
The result of this is that often these practices take the place of real fighting to the extent that the teachers forget – or worse, never even knew – the real effects of what they teach. As the teachers progress they gradually lose sight of the real objectives of karate: self-improvement by diligent practice, self-denial and hardship; and the ability to protect oneself in a life or death situation.
Being displaced from real conflict, form takes precedence over function, and anecdote and hypothesis take over. Once a sensei is allowed to wear a black, or red belt, and white, or brightly coloured dogi and is not required to prove himself on the street, or on the tatami, all sorts of oddities can be introduced into training. Once that happens, with no feedback, the nutter sensei can declare any old nonsense as truth.
Despite the popularity of karate and the wide availability of information, there is still a large population of ignorant people who we see the word “master” and buy his message lock, stock and barrel.
With the advent of the commercial karate teacher a wider catchment of gullible consumers is available and more capacity to spout nonsense. At this point there is a combination of naïve ignorance and wilful, cynical misinformation.
The answer to all these? Get them on the judo mat!
Martyn Skipper November 2013