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Why Are There So Many Losers in the Martial Arts

Why Are There So Many Losers in the Martial Arts

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Published by Efraín Suárez

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Published by: Efraín Suárez on Aug 30, 2012
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09/05/2013

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Why Are There So Many Losers in the Martial Arts ?
by Dave Lowry
"Do" is best followed by regarding the exponents of ages past, not those of the present day. -YamadaJirokichi Why are there so many losers in the martial arts? It's a question that had crossed my mind before,but after I was asked it by three different individuals within the space of a single week recently, I began tothink about it even more. Why are there so many impostors, poseurs, and downright mental cases to befound in the martial arts as they're practiced in contemporary America? If these martial disciplines aresupposed to produce such well-adjusted, stable and capable individuals, why do there seem to be so few of them around? What attracts their opposite and their weird behavior to the budo, and why do their numbersseem so disproportionate?The answer might not be a simple one, but certainly we don't have to look very far to find sufficient evidence. A tour through the martial arts schools of any reasonably sized city in the country will barely be started beforeone runs across his first (but not his last, by any means) beer-bellied "grandmaster," his gaudily hued uniformfestooned with a dozen patches and various other decorative embroidery, his belt slashed with all manner of hash marks meant to prove, in case you hadn't figured it out, that you're in the presence of a Somebody.Neither will you get too far before you run in to the 25-year-old eighth dan, the "master" who learned his artfrom a mysterious Oriental stranger who imparted everything he knew and then moved on into legend; the"sensei" who trained with Bruce Lee, Gichin Funakoshi, and Chosin Chibana, but who "lost his certificates"somewhere along the way. And you can bet before your tour is finished, you'll have come across a dozen more of the oddest assortmentof ego and megalomaniacs, pathological liars, pathetically inept impostors; people who run the gamut of thestrange all the way from the seriously mentally ill to the merely insufferably pompous. And it is to thesemisguided souls that students are going every day in hopes of finding some embodiment of the ideals of themartial arts, only to be met with greed, deceit, and a gross kind of hypocrisy that rots the spirit with the worstcorrosion, leaving stains of bitterness and disillusionment.To be honest, this is not a comfortable topic for most of us to deal with. We prefer to look up to thoseindividuals- and there are plenty-who do reflect the true spirit of the budo. We're uneasy and embarrassedwhen the others seem to get so much attention. In fact, it makes some of us quite angry. Several years ago agraduate student in sociology wrote a paper in which she reported findings that had to do with the kind of people who take up the martial arts, specifically karate. Now it should be pointed out that this student was nota budoka herself, and her definition of karate would doubtless include many schools and organizations thelegitimate karateka would unhesitatingly label fraudulent. Nonetheless, her findings have a significance for everyone interested in the arts, and in the way they're perceived by the public in general.In summation, her research indicated that the majority of karate students in the United States had only a highschool education or less, held no full-time jobs, and were supported in part or full by spouses or parents.The publication of excerpts of this paper in budo magazines led to all kinds of protesting replies from karateteach- ers. "Why we've got a doctor practicing in our dojo, and two lawyers," was the typical response, andone true enough, I'm sure. But if those outraged instructors had looked around, they'd have found that theaverage student in their school was not a lawyer, or doctor, or any other kind of professional, but was morelikely to be poorly educated, poorly motivated; in many cases exactly as that sociology student describedthem. And unfortunately, it isn't the odd doctor or lawyer training in karate who goes on to become a teacher.Much more often it is the student who cannot do anything else who becomes the next sensei. And by sodoing, karate becomes a way of losers.Now I am sure to be deluged with letters decrying this sort of name calling. I'll be informed that just because akarateka doesn't have a college diploma, just because he mightn't be a sophisticate, doesn't mean he isn'tsincere, honest, and genuinely interested in making the budo a valued part of his life. I'll be informed of this,but I already know it. I know plenty of people just like that: auto mechanics, garbage collectors andcolumnists. People who haven't the ability to distinguish a Reisling from a California Cooler-and who prefer Pabst Blue Ribbon in any event. They train faithfully and sincerely, and are cultivating a deep understandingof the values of the budo. I would not for a moment consider any of them losers, nor would I or any other reasonable person tag that title on to someone just because of his occupation or tastes or interests. Thatwould be naive and narrow-minded in the extreme.
 
But it would be equally naive not to observe the preponderance of people in most training halls who couldfairly be labeled losers, and this has always mystified me. As a schoolboy; my training in karate and the classical martial arts of Japan took place in this countryunder Japanese instruction, with teachers who were well schooled and literate. Even those who came fromhumble backgrounds had been raised in a tradition that accented learning and the fine arts. They werepeople of great insight, and while they may not have been cosmopolitan, they were ineffably sophisticated intheir own way. My judo training was with a state university's team and naturally most of my fellow traineesthere were equally scholarly inclined. So it wasn't until I'd left school and was introduced to the rest of themartial arts community- mainly through my writing for KARATE ILLUSTRATED and BLACK BELT-that Idiscovered this was not the norm at all.To better explain the norm as I see it, let's take a look at the life of a fictional character I'll call Joe. JoeShlomotol. Joe works loading trucks at a cargo dock. He's married; has a couple of young kids. He playedfootball in high school, but since graduating a couple of years ago, he hasn't been especially athletic; heaving100-pound boxes eight hours a day doesn't encourage a lot of physical activity in one's off hours.Now it's an unfortunate fact that guys like Joe don't get a lot of attention in our society. Joe's not going todazzle fellow players with his knowledge in Trivial Pursuit; his occupation isn't one that carries a great deal of respect, even though it's just as honest and necessary as any that do. He's not, to be blunt, the guy HughHefner has in mind when he asks the rhetorical question "What kind of man reads To sum it up, Joe is notthat much different from many of us, and like most of us, he knows he'll live in relative obscurity.But Joe's problem is just that. He doesn't want to be one of the rank and file, you see. He wants to beadmired, to be respected, to gain a little of the ego satisfaction he feels is due to him. And he can get it at thelocal dojo.When Joe goes to his dojo, he takes off his work clothes and exchanges them for a uniform with a scarlet jacket and bright blue pants. He ties on a red and gold belt and if that isn't enough a sign of his status, theletters "Sensei" stitched across his breast should make it clear. Outside these walls, Joe might be justanother ordinary person, but in the dojo, he's Master Shlomotol. His students bow when he enters the room,and address him respectfully. To his wife, kids, boss, and co-workers, Joe's pretty average. In his dojothough, he is Sensei Somebody with a capital S. His rank is so special it can't even be connoted by a regular black belt. Joe's is specially striped. The same is true of his uniform. And, if he's inclined to participate in thetournament scene, even his name will be a standout, complemented by some colorful nickname of hischoosing, like "Mr. Speed" or "Mad Man." The showier his uniform and dojo, the more theatrically hepresents his arts, the more students he'll attract. Through the martial arts, the nobody is indeed on his wayto becoming a somebody.Viewed in this light, one begins to see the role the martial arts play in the life of people like Joe. In a worldwhere they're just another face in the crowd, something like karate can be the sole source of ego gratification.It becomes their only means of achieving recognition at all. From this perspective, it's also easier to see howdesperately they will cling to the gaudy accoutrements of their presumed arts, and how imaginative can bethe stories they tell to fill the gaps in their real training, or more usually, to substitute for any training at all.Imaginative, and comically sad. I have heard and read stories by ersatz martial artists that would not bebelieved by their own mothers, and witnessed schemes and deceit among them that would make thehardened con artist step back.My favorites? A popular West Coast karate teacher has told his students he's also a "master" of judo, havingattained his rank during a test presided over by none other than the son of modern judo's founder. RiseiKano. (Kano retired from his duties as president of the Kodokan in 1980, incidentally, and even before that,he was not a participant in ranking examinations.) Another West Coast "master" claims to have won a no holds-barred international martial arts contest thatsounds too hokey even for inclusion in a James Bond fantasy. He's explained that the reason why no one,including masters of Japan and Korea, are aware of this contest is that it's "top secret" and only open to thereal killer-type guys. Anyone who's been involved with the budo for very long has his own collection of these outrageous tales,some as easily disprovable as the Risei Kano nonsense, others so preposterous no one would even makethe effort. Most writers for KARATE ILLUSTRATED and BLACK BELT I know have been plagiarized bylosers, who apparently feel that pretending another's words are their own will gain them some of the attentionthey crave. Once a story I'd written on the Japanese spear was simply sloppily rewritten and submitted toBLACK BELT for publication by an alleged master. It was killed only when an alert editor spotted it. Another 
 
time an obscure concept I introduced in this column was taken and misused in an effort to self-servedlyexplain something to which it had no logical connection. These incidents are flattering in a way, but they alsoreflect the spiritual and moral vacuity of the pilferers who steal them.Whether it is falsely claiming a rank, constructing a fictional background, or stealing another's ideas, suchshams have one thing in common. They are the work of losers, and their presence in the budo has cast amiserable shadow over it.The next question we might well ask, once we understand the loser's motives is, why does he choose thebudo? And in that regard, the answer is a little easier.If I tell you I'm a heavyweight boxing champion, and you're skeptical, the matter can easily be settled. Youcould produce a book of boxing champions that doesn't include my name. You could check my story withboxing organizations, and most empirically, we could put on gloves and have at it. You could find outimmediately that I'm not a champion, heavyweight or otherwise.If I say, however, that I'm a karate master, what are your choices? Karate organizations are so disjointed, itsstyles so diverse it's impossible to have adequate records. And while putting on the gloves would beacceptable proof in boxing, the karate impersonator can and will quickly claim that he'd like to show his stuff,but he can't, because it's just too deadly, too dangerous. Oh, how many times have we heard that one, theconsummate master who's never faced an opponent in shiai or even in regular training. In hisautobiography, Funakoshi recounts a meeting with one of these, a man who claimed he could rip humanflesh with his hands. Goaded by a mocking Funakoshi, he finally attempted to demonstrate, succeeding onlyin pinching the skin of the shotokan master. I heard of a kung fu master in my hometown many years agowho was so fast, asserted his students, he could stab his fingertips into one's eyes before they could blink, soskillful he could leave his fingerprints on the eyeball's surface. Alas, he feared blinding opponents indemonstrating this unique gift, his students added, and for that kindness they appeared to adore him evenmore.These are at least some of the reasons, I think,- why the budo seem to attract more losers than other fields of en- deavor. They are more than a bit mystical still in most people's minds, and looked upon with awe, as arethose who are-or claim to be-proficient at them. They lend themselves to showy displays which appeal tocertain segments of our society and, because of protestations that they are too deadly to actually exhibit, theloser is saved conveniently from ever having to "put up or shut up."That the budo, as I've said, suffer dreadfully from the presence of losers should be clear. It is been myexperience that legitimate martial artists of every persuasion hate them with an endless, unremitting fury. Ihave as much of this enmity as anyone I suppose, but I cannot help but feel something else for them at times,and that is sympathy.This may appear to be a misplaced emotion. These losers have been at least partly responsible for reducingthe level of the budo in America to that of a circus side show. When they presume to teach, they can ruinstudent's lives and cause them to lose all faith in the martial arts.The real reason I feel sorry for them, though, has to do with the memory I have of one of them. He was ayoung man, recently graduated from high school, who had a part-time job at an office near a dojo where Iwas allowed to train. The fellow was obviously crazy about the martial arts. He could often be seen after workin the office's parking lot, twirling a pair of nunchaku with deft, if useless dexterity. These were displays muchadmired by many of his companions, and I gathered he was looked upon by them as something of a buddingmaster.Not surprisingly, the fellow often came into the dojo to watch and the students, some near his age, introducedthem- selves after classes, inviting him to join us. He would've liked to, he explained, but you see his teacher had been a wizened old master from the Orient who'd entrusted him with everything he knew before he died.The young man informed the dojo students that his skills were far too dangerous to be practiced in public.To the students' credit, they didn't laugh in his face, but of course he was the butt of several jokes in thedressing room for weeks. For me, he was symbolic of every other loser in the martial arts, individuals for whom the fraud becomes so important to their sense of self worth, that even when they're presented with thechance to proceed from the shallow pretense of the budoka they've adopted, into its real heart, they chooseinstead to stay on the sidelines, watching. And that is the place of the losers, whether they are like that pitifully silly young man with his translucent lies,or the successful dojo operator who believes he's fooled everyone with his carefully constructed tales.Because whether their shams gain them the fleeting admiration of a few friends or even an entire career, itcan never gain them entrance into the infinitely more rewarding world of the real budoka. Like that young

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