Many many years ago, a student was chosen by a sensei. Very unlike today, where the student chooses the sensei. The means for which to start training in karate was much different. To find a teacher who would accept you was not as easy as it is today, where one could drive down the road and see many karate schools. Those karate schools are anxious for you to stop in and inquire about lessons. They will make sure you will enjoy what you hear. And furthermore, they intend to keep your interest.
Today's dojo has a lot to offer. Many different events, tournaments, numerous belt ranks you can earn, achievement patches, awards and certificates. All in the effort to sell. With rental space costing more than $1000.00 each month and, of course, the utilities to pay, each new student is a reason to stay in business. Karate schools can charge anywhere from $20 a month to $60 a month and even throw in the uniform for free if you sign up for one year. Classes are usually offered at a schedule of two or three time per week. After being in classes for about a month, you are then on your way to your first belt rank! The testing fee could probably be about $35 and, if you pass (believe me, you will), the fee for your organization membership and certificate will be an additional $30. That was for your first rank and you feel real good about your accomplishment and sensei is going to make sure you feel good about it. So, you have achieved the rank of low yellow. Congratulations! You look at the ranks ahead of you and see five more color belts. They are gold, orange, blue, green, purple, brown and red. Each color belt has two levels, low and high. Your next rank to achieve is high yellow. Sensei has told you that you have much potential and could very well earn your black belt in two years! Wow! That is exciting! You feel real good about your sensei, your school and the style it teaches. Classes are fun and to some extant, difficult, but not too much you can't handle.
On the other hand, we have the little private dojo, being taught out of someone's basement. It has minimal equipment to work with and much of it is homemade. The sensei is cordial, cool, calm and collective. Classes are a few times a week and you are asked to call to make sure it is on. You had to buy your own uniform, but that is okay, because sensei only charges $5 per class. In class on any given night it is you and maybe four others. Each person expresses the interest to learn the 'real karate' and is confident that sensei has a lot to teach them. The class session lasts for more than two hours and nobody really wants to quit because they are learning so much. What sensei has to offer is so enriched with knowledge, culture, history and proven facts. You know it works because you feel it. Work-outs often have you going home with a few bumps. Those are achievement bumps. The one's you got when you realized that the move you made had some profound energy and dynamic results! After a few classes, you inquire to sensei about how long you might expect to put in before making black belt. Sensei responds by explaining that your karate will improve and mature over many months and years and that the test for black belt is quite extensive. Perhaps four to five years may be a fair assessment of time. You are not discouraged, because you know that when that time comes you will certainly have earned it. 'Blood, sweat and tears' is what we call it. Each rank is a simple $10 to cover minimal expenses. And what really blows your mind is that sensei even buys your belt and presents it to you with your certificate. One day, you have the opportunity to go visit another dojo. Sensei received an invite and everyone is excited to mingle and work together. During your visit to the 'upscale' dojo you find yourself in conversation with one of their higher ranked brown belt. You exchange information about you karate experiences and WOW! He is surprised to hear that your test for yellow belt is as hard as their test requirements for black belt! In leaving the dojo you are excited to have made many new friends and gained much respect. Also, you are proud that you karate is tough and delivered in full strength and not diluted or watered down. Sensei has just a few students and is very proud of them, as they are very good.
The diverse difference in the two dojos and their sensei is simple. One needs the money to stay in business and the other needs a few good students to pass the art down to. When traditional karate conflicts with commercialism, we loose certain values. It is difficult to teach a traditional form of karate and be assured that everyone is going to like it well enough to stay and pay your bills. Many traditional karateka have grown up and gone on to teach wonderful commercial dojos. They offer the student many exciting games, get-togethers, celebrate birthdays and even give promotional discount to students who bring in more potential students. The sensei is faced with a choice of 'tough love' or 'tender loving care'. If the sensei teaches with firm discipline and demands excellence, he/she is likely to loose some students. Sore muscles after a hard work-out can be a good reason for some students to not return. These sensei will modify their requirements and 'cushion' their classes to keep students interest. Each student is 'money'. And with each rank promotion, that is more money. And, of course, there are ten levels of belt ranks to pay through before getting to the 'famed' black belt. That is more money. Let us not forget that this sensei also requires for you to buy all your gear through your dojo's store. More money. It is, after all, a business.
So many years ago, a sensei had to approve of you and accept you as his student. He found you and not the other way around. Karate was not watered down. It was difficult, demanding and you had to be dedicated. So what if you quit. If karate was too hard for you to learn from the master, then you had to leave and live with the embarrassment that you were too weak. The karate masters of old did not 'cushion' what they taught. A student learned as much as their master can pour into them. Many great karate masters went on to teach American students. Those first American students knew how difficult it was to earn their black belts. The 'rigors' of their karate were worn as a badge of courage for every sweating class they endured. Classes taught by the masters were not slack in discipline. Don't move unless instructed to do so and always speak respectively with 'Yes Sensei' and 'Please Sensei'. Our first Americans to bring karate back to the United States were determined to duplicate what they have learned and how they learned it. The mysterious art of karate attracted numerous students in the early days of its exposure here. Those students who dared to study and train diligently to receive their black belts also received many bruises, bumps, cuts and even broken bones. Karate was for the tough. Like my mother says, 'if it doesn't kill you, it will just make you stronger'.
I am proud to say that I am 'third-American-generation' karate practitioner. My sensei was a direct student promoted to black belt under O'Sensei Trias. Master Robert A. Trias was one of those 'first American' students who brought us the mysterious art of karate from the orient. I have endured my fair share of 'basement classes' and the 'blood, sweat and tears' of many work-outs, training and belt tests. It is unfortunate that today's sensei are graded for how 'good' they are by how many competitions and tournaments they have won. Kids can argue whose sensei is better. The one that has amassed more than 200 trophies or the one that has had a few tournament experiences. I have trained with some distinguished 'masters' over the years and not any of them had a room full of trophies, let alone even a small closet of a few. I can tell you, though, that their karate was very effective and very believable. What do we use as a guide in choosing the right karate dojo? Especially when we don't even know what we are looking for. One must look between the moves and see the reality of what is being taught. Is it commercialism and are you keeping someone in business? Nothing wrong with that. Is it traditional and still adheres to the principles, practices, and philosophies of true karate. Or perhaps, you prefer the watered-down versions. After all, it is quicker to get your black belt.
Commercialize or Traditionalize?