KARATE AND CHARACTER
By Colin Smith
The universe seems bankrupt as soon as we begin to discuss the character of individuals - Henry David Thoreau
A central proposition of karate training is that it promotes moral excellence and firmness. To me, that’s bull, and here’s why. All Japanese martial arts claim adherence to morality, enshrined in bushido (way of the warrior). Classical samurai were taught to avoid violence and to live in peace and harmony with others. (See generally Donn F. Draeger, Modern Bujutsu and Budo – The Martial Arts and Ways of Japan Vol. 3.) Once the Meiji Restoration had booted out the weaknesses of the Tokugawa Shogunate (1603 – 1867), the Japanese adopted the ancient Greek cultural ideals of art, philosophy, heroism, intellectual refinement and physical fitness as a template in forming the moral basis for their own society, particularly in the army (Draeger 32). Classical martial arts soon gained popularity as an educational tool. Probably the most prominent teacher to embrace this notion of morality was Jigoro Kano, the founder of judo. In 1889 he described his system as “an educational method of physical growth, mental growth, and moral growth” wherein the physical art becomes a “realization of the Way of managing human and social life.” Judo’s ultimate objective was “perfecting oneself and benefiting the world.” (Steven Cunningham, Judo: Morality and The Physical Art 1).
Westerners typically latch onto fancy-sounding Japanese terms but have no clue what they mean. Take the complicated bujutsu and budo, for example. Bu, usually translated as “war”, is written as crossed halberds (battle-axes and spears mounted on handles about six feet long) separated by the symbol for “stop” So bu means “to stop conflict.” (Gichin Funakoshi, Karate-do Kyohan – The Master Text 247). Jutsu are the techniques employed in hand-to-hand combat; do translates as “way” or “path” to be followed in order to maximize the underlying purpose of training in martial arts. You can see where this is going: they are not merely intended as bags of physical skills and tricks but rather as vehicles for understanding the principles and philosophies of life. “The highest element,” said Kano, “is the mind and spirit (intellect), for it is this which makes possible the realization of virtuous conduct. A powerful person without morality is like a gun that cannot be aimed. The outcome is likely to be disastrous.” (Cunningham 2). Shigeru Sahashi, former government minister and exponent in aikido, hated the way in which martial disciplines were employed as sports. “Budo,” he said, “is not a sport. It rests in the bu, the polished skill needed in martial hand-to-hand techniques, raised to the level of a do, which is a way a man should follow…The technical aspect must not override the spiritual side of budo. To train properly is to establish hontai, which is morality. To establish morality is to increase a man’s ethical conduct and benefit mankind.” (Sahashi, Shin no Budo (The True Budo, 1972), quoted in Draeger 51-2). Westerners can’t resist nationalizing these terms to suit their country’s social customs, and they screw things up in the process.
Draeger rolled his eyes at the manner in which the concept of do has been turned into box-office entertainment. “Thus,” he wrote, “what was originally spiritual essence expressed in physical exercise and having an objective character, and which can thus be considered something cultural, has been cast aside, and something purely physical, subjective, cheap, and monotonous in nature, and certainly not of a cultural nature, has been allowed to replace it.” (Draeger 180).
I know a little about Shotokan karate, so I’ll confine my remarks to this style. The Shotokan expressly asserts a link between physical training and the development of moral and ethical strength, i.e., character. The root of the link, probably pinched from Kano, is invariably attributed to a homily dreamed up by Gichin Funakoshi: the ultimate aim of the art of karate lies not in victory or defeat but in the perfection of the character of its participants. (Randall Hassell, Shotokan Karate: Its History and Evolution 151). Taking the lead from their teacher, both Hidetaka Nishiyama and Masatoshi Nakayama asserted the character factor. Nishiyama described karate as a physical art “almost without equal,” adding that “Western students may be interested to know that the Japan Karate Association emphasizes its character-building aspects, in which respect for one’s opponent, or sportsmanship, is the cardinal principle. The maxims which they teach to their students can be summarized in the following five words: character, sincerity, effort, etiquette, self-control.” (Nishiyama and Brown, Karate: The Art of Empty Hand Fighting 15). Here was the first express distillation of Funakoshi’s dojo kun, assuming he actually devised them, that supposedly contained the essence of karate-do: though a fighting art, it’s not for random violence but rather a foundation for doing the right thing. The dojo kun became this mission statement, hung on the wall of a dojo and cultishly recited by non-Japanese at the end of every class (during all my training in Japan I never once saw the Japanese do this). Its apparent purpose is to take a potentially lethal activity and give it an ethical security blanket, of great use to kids who need most to comprehend the dangers associated with going around smashing up people.
“Force,” said Funakoshi, “is used as a last resort where humanity and justice cannot prevail, but if the fist is used freely without consideration, then the user will lose the respect of others while being censured for barbaric action.” (Funakoshi 247). The aim was character development, which required an “insight into the art, a mastery of its techniques, a polishing of the virtues of courtesy, integrity, humility, and self-control to guide one’s daily actions. These require at least ten or twenty years, if possible a lifetime of devotion to the study of this art.” (Funakoshi 14). He thought that karate would never be accepted by society if it projected an image of arrogance and wild thugs. Nakayama agreed. In two separate instances, eleven years apart, he wrote (in 1966) that “the ultimate goal of karate should be the attainment of a developed moral character built through hard and diligent training (Nakayama, Dynamic Karate 11), and (in 1977) that “the first purpose in pursuing this art is the nurturing of a sublime spirit, a spirit of humility. (Nakayama, Best Karate Vol. 1 9). Every book or website produced by non-Japanese instructors makes the same claim. The Americans, Edmund Otis and Randall Hassell say that karate is “an art of virtuous people – people of high character.” (The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Karate 42). Virtue and character comprise essentially the same qualities: moral or ethical strength, excellence and righteousness. How about Dorfman and son that claim to “impart the teachings of Masatoshi Nakayama Shihan on both the technical and intellectual spheres [sic]…to guide and develop karate-ka of all ages along the true path of karate, [and to] become beneficiaries of all the valuable and deeper aspects of karate training which will stand them in good stead for the rest of their lives.” (www.karatenomichi.co.za/dojohq.php).
So what does all this mean? I think it means that high-ranking instructors’ overriding responsibility is to protect and nurture the ideals underlying karate-do by demonstrating good character. But what is character? Plato said it was wisdom, courage, temperance, and justice. Aristotle distinguished two levels: morally, as in justice, courage and temperance; and intellectually, as in prudence and rational thought. Plutarch agreed, but added honesty and humility. Christianity embraced these classical virtues but placed faith, hope and charity on an equal footing, praising leaders who demonstrated these qualities. These standards stayed put during the massive cultural, political and religious turmoil prevalent in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. People still wanted their leaders to embody justice, integrity, benevolence, wisdom, courage, prudence and temperance. Modern interpretations say that good character is about integrity, defined as “an unimpaired condition; soundness; a firm adherence to a code of especially moral values.” (See generally Thomas C. Reeves, A Question of Character 11-17). Western (non-Japanese) religions uniformly preach the values of right and wrong, fairness, integrity, and a true moral compass. The notion of justice, in particular, is a recurring theme in the Shotokan. Funakoshi defined true karate-do as a daily dedication to mental and physical training, and that “in critical times, one [must] be devoted utterly to the cause of justice.” (Funakoshi 3). He maintained that “if karate-do is followed correctly, it will polish the character, and one will uphold justice, but if used for evil purposes, it will corrupt society and be contrary to humanity.” (Funakoshi 247). Although he did not define justice in this context, he probably meant to convey its customary definition: “the upholding of what is right and lawful, especially fair treatment or punishment in accordance with honor, standards, or law.” (Webster’s New Riverside Dictionary). He also invoked this as the third of his Nijukun (Twenty Precepts), proclaiming that “Karate wa gi no tasuke – karate is a great assistant to [auxiliary of] justice.” (Hassell 193). Nakayama proposed that “training means training of body and spirit, and, above all else, one should treat his opponent courteously and with the proper etiquette. It is not enough to fight with all one’s power; the real objective in karate-do is to do so for the sake of justice.” (Nakayama, Best Karate Vol. 1 9).
That’s some mouthful. From it we can identify integrity as crucial to the success of any organization, including karate associations. Who cares if your school wins the most medals, counts the most members, has the most black belts, or can get every student to do the splits? Integrity begins with the chief instructor, supposedly the guardian of technical and philosophical leadership. Like the CEO of a company, the chief instructor should encourage transparency and honest communication, not secrecy, blackballing and hypocrisy. We bow – make that genuflect - to the karate sensei because we’re told from the get-go that they know what’s right and wrong, good and bad, and we can learn from them as leaders, listening to them, and imitating their strengths. But in my fairly long career I’ve seen the Shotokan littered with examples of senior instructors behaving in a manner irrefutably incompatible with the dojo kun to which they pledged allegiance as devout adherents. And every one of them hides behind the protective shield provided by the hierarchical sempai/kohai system, according to which – in their minds – senior sensei are not accountable to juniors whenever their actions conflict with the dojo kun.
Things will never improve as long as nobody pokes the nests of entrenched senior instructors. On the flip side it has been argued that “the ideal of karate-do is that we revere our masters and look to them for an unerring example to follow. The reality of karate-do is that both we and our masters are subject to human foibles. In all cases it is crucial to perceive the difference between the ideal and the reality, and not to base our judgments solely on one or the other.” (Hassell 154). But this is politically correct nonsense and symptomatic of a worldwide phenomenon: the unwillingness or inability to render free and pointed criticism of senior instructors because students assume that their status renders them flawless repositories of the qualities outlined above.
I used to be a sycophant, following seniors around, going ‘Wow!’ like they were some karate Pied Piper. But after what I’ve seen, I could write a book on why the dumbest thing is to equate elevated rank with moral excellence. It’s the enthralled sycophantic students and discussion forums who routinely advertise karate sensei as poster boys for magical karate powers and exemplary character.
I asked karate magazine editors why they exhibit a remarkable reluctance to apply a seasoned filter to the drivel that piles up in their inbox. Why the slavish coverage of instructors? Is it to ensure maximum advertising revenues? I was told that criticism of senior instructors is “negative crap” and that “I was extremely naïve to think any publisher would allow it. Senior instructors, especially the Japanese, are not the honorable icons they make out to be but damning them in a magazine benefits no-one.”
But that’s the root of the problem. The Shotokan brims with high-ranking sensei in leadership positions who dispense homespun advice on non-technical matters -- karate and character; karate and humility; karate and justice; karate and morality -- but who consistently fail to practice their advice and have no business giving it. Karate instructors cannot, and should not, supplant the role of parents or, dare I say it, clergy in trying to instill values in their students, and those who lecture about morality and character venture onto slippery territory, automatically inviting close examination to determine whether their own actions match their pronouncements. Too often, karate sensei consider themselves untouchable, made worse by the notion that the karate environment is a place for intellectual exploration. To use your brain is not only a challenge to the position of the sensei as “head thinker” but also an expression of independent thought which might offend him. With rare exceptions, instructors at the peak of the karate pyramid become dangerously vindictive in the face of unwelcome ideas emanating from juniors, who must demonstrate the appropriate levels of contrition and foot-kissing in order to maximize their instructor’s grandeur. Their arbitrary power in the dojo clashes with the idealistic morality propounded by Funakoshi, giving rise to a variety of behaviours for which they are largely unaccountable. There is no other conclusion to draw when faced with the facts of those behaviours: infidelity; willful street brawling; tournament impropriety; medal greed; nepotism; dueling; betrayal of loyalty, courtesy and etiquette; braggadochio, unlawful seizure of private property.
I was not only a witness to all of these behaviours but also a perpetrator. I’m not permitted here to identify those instructors who have transgressed big-time. I once had a few axes to grind but, like Colonel Frank Slade, I’m now too old, too tired, too battle-scarred to grind them anymore.
Over the years, though, I quickly realized a simple truth: karate has nothing to do with building good character. To be sure, like all life experiences, the impact of its influence is irresistible. I’ve written elsewhere about what it was like training for two decades in Stan Schmidt’s instructors’ class in South Africa, so I know what assiduous training can do for physical fitness and strength, self-confidence and mental concentration, and tolerance for impressive degrees of pain via heavy kumite. Regular, lengthy karate training under instructors with strong leadership qualities can positively influence players’ attitudes and behaviour; and scientific studies indicate that individual personality is modified through consistent training by physiological effects on the brain’s chemistry, i.e., the longer the training engagement, the more permanent the presence in the bloodstream of particular chemicals that alter brain activity.
Stripped down, however, karate is essentially about fighting, and fighting is the one thing humans have always used to establish social order, to settle disputes, or in self-defense. Nobody can pinpoint when man considered fighting as a means to improve his morality and behaviour, and karate definitely can’t offer evidence. Some may argue an instructor’s exertion during training demonstrates good character – he leads by physical example. But what if afterward he inebriates himself in the local pub, goes home in a drunken stupor, and beats up his wife? Assumptions that long, treadmill years of arduous training, coupled with nasty injuries, ultimately steer players away from aggression and/or revenge are false because no data exist to measure the extent to which players confirm these assumptions. Funakoshi’s proposition – that the aim of karate is to perfect character – is illusory. Inspiring as such rhetoric may seem, it establishes no fact, nor even a probability. Other factors mould our character, like our upbringing, our environment, or the pure-and-simple luck of the gene-pool draw. But not karate.
Funakoshi’s claim is a fiction because nobody can provide empirical evidence to demonstrate, no verifiable method to measure, the improvement of morality through karate training. I know instructors who sold out their professional integrity, proving incontrovertibly that their ritualized recitation of Funakoshi’s dojo kun is a farce. The purported link between karate training and the improvement of morality and character is a certifiable myth that deserves to be exploded now, buried in concrete along with the other fabrications so prevalent in the Shotokan about dead and living instructors.