The Death of Protocol

Do you know how to make a traditional glass of Awamori? It’s a very simple question. Do you know what to put in the glass first? Which way to stir? How to pour the bottle? How to toast with your glass? Who has to drink before you can? Who makes the drink for highest rank at the table?

“Traditional karate is a dying art.” -Anonymous

I show up to training and bow as I meet my fellow karate-ka. I wish them good morning, in Japanese, and ask if there is anything I can do to help the class run smoothly. Today it is my mission to wait patiently by the front door of the building. I will be there to hold it open when higher ranks enter the school. This job is not a bother at all. I’ve been to Okinawa to train, and I know that people hold the doors for higher ranks there. It is all part of the art. There is a lower rank reserving a parking spot in the parking lot. That allows the teacher of the school to have a good parking spot. It’s not about lavishing your teacher, but about showing them respect in the same way they show their teacher respect. I’ve watched my teacher do these things for his teacher, and now it is a privilege to extending the same kindnesses to him.

Training commences and it’s the second row for me. I’m not going to lie, I’m glad I’m not in the front row. I may have even pointed out my luck of making the second row to a few high ranks in front of me. (Ha!) Today there are enough high ranking black belts to fill multiple rows. In a traditional martial art that can be difficult these days. People don’t crave the discipline of protocol and nuances anymore. They want to throw their belts on the floor, bow at their own discretion and have a handful of people in their style addressed as Master. PAUSE. This is not a bad thing, it’s just not traditional Okinawan Karate. I promise you that my mission of this blog today is not to criticize non-traditional schools! I am simply in the grievance of watching the traditional ones dissipate with each passing year; some sliding slowly off the cliff that they professed to train on. I wonder if the pendulum is swinging back to the days of fathers teaching their sons in a garage- the privacy of a family art from one teacher to one student. If it is, I’ll be training solo with my teacher until the day he refuses to train me. This is my art.

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As you may have gathered, I train in a very formal style. Out of all the dojos I have been a guest in, my teacher’s dojo has the most strict protocol that I have ever seen. My teacher believes that we should train the same way in the USA that our art is trained in in Okinawa, and so we do. Unfortunately for a dojo, that doesn’t always win you the most students in this day and age. As our numbers dwindle and our higher ranked blackbelts talk of retirement and closing their schools, I can’t help but notice that we don’t have the numbers to fill their future absence. It makes my heart ache.

High ranking blackbelts are paramount to a traditional school. While your teacher gives you your art, it is not their job to be correcting your protocol on a day to day basis. That is the second and third higher rank’s job. That protocol should filter down as high ranks help lower ranks learn how to act and teach. They are supposed to police the rest of the class to allow for an environment of respect. This is just as important as the primary instructions you receive for your kata, kobudo, kumite, etc.

I will touch upon disrespect briefly and concretely. Students who are intentionally disrespectful should be removed from a traditional school immediately. There is no room for disrespect in a traditional dojo. People who are disrespectful shodans grow up to be problematic yondans! A person with poor kata can be corrected, but a person with intentional disrespect is a bad apple, bound to spoil your dojo.

As I worked to co-open a school of my own, I took on the role of second in command. Protocol is one of my favorite parts of karate. I love teaching students about it because it is teaching about the culture of my art. We found that the key to maintaining a strict protocol school is being okay with having less students in pursuit of the ones who want to preserve its practice. Of course, there is a lot more money in laxity. If you want to run a dojo paid for with the student’s tuition you may have to compromise on the discipline. While we are unwilling to do that, I acknowledge that we are not in a financial obligation of providing for our family with our dojo’s income. I’m not judging what people do to make ends meet in a business, I’m just choosing to not compromise my karate under any circumstances. (Maybe I judge a little as that did seem passive aggressive. I’ll work on that.) I find that too much of karate is spent focused on money and politics these days. We have made a choice to not allow that in our school.

We train our students for free at the time being. CRAZY, right? While I recognize we won’t be able to do that forever, it allowed us a liberty to train for simply the love of training for the last two years. We asked nothing in return but their respect and time.  It has inspired me in a beautiful way to fall back in-love with karate without any of the clouding factors. I know it isn’t possible, but I wish all teachers could experience that at some point.

I’m sorry I have no witty words or many things to laugh about in this post. This is one for the people I watch around me, clinging to our art and able to identify with the difficulties of watching it slide away from us. I wish in ten years to write again about this, but maybe in a light of the re-birth of traditional martial arts. Until then I will close by saying that though there are few of us, may you find strength in keeping your art preserved. You are not alone.

Best wishes from our dojo. Kanpai!

Kelsi

I Want a Divorce

Orion beer

The Karate Relationship

Dating

I consider my time spent as a kyu rank (colored belts) as dating; It’s the start of a brand new relationship. Karate and I dated for three years, and I was always doing: a new kata, new weapons, new responsibilities. I was committed to 3-4 classes a week. I was a kid when I became a karate-ka, so the progress grew as I did at this point. Each year I got a little taller and a little better at holding my own in a fight. I was hooked.

Along came my blackbelt when I was 16 years old. I think of a first degree blackbelt as an engagement to a style. You’ve decided this is the style you want to pursue, and you’ve announced your commitment to the world. Oh man is it exciting! I learned how to move my body in more sophisticated ways. I appreciated the newness of the moves, but it would be a decade before I really appreciated the subtleties I had begun to incorporate into my practice. This engagement separates the “I did karate,” from the martial artists. A lot of people leave after their shodan. That’s okay. A wise blackbelt in Okinawa once said to me, “karate is always waiting right where you leave it.” I hope the shodans come back someday to begin again.

My nidan (2nd degree blackbelt) came and went, and I felt karate beginning to shift into more of a lifestyle. Maybe lifestyle isn’t the right word. Karate just becomes an inseparable part of yourself along the journey. I loved the new katas, pai sai dai now, and I began to accept a larger role in teaching. I felt like I knew my kata. Looking back now, I laugh a little as I type that. To know a kataIn the beginning, knowing is synonymous with memory.

Marriage

Many people would argue that Yondan (4th degree blackbelt) is a marriage to karate. I disagree. Sandan (3rd degree blackbelt) is the marriage. Sandan is where karate becomes routine. You settle into your karate, or in my case, develop a little complacency. This is where the new wears off.

Somewhere between here and yondan is where you see people floundering. The newness is gone and the normalcy has become boring on some level. I still loved karate, I just wasn’t in-love with karate. I had begun to find some frustrations in politics (fucking politics) and didn’t want to go to classes most days. I’d been training about 15 years at this point, and started considering a divorce. Not because I wanted an affair, though I’ve seen that happen a million times. Look at that pretty style. Those look like nice new exciting fight moves, and they don’t yell at me because the dishes aren’t done! No, I didn’t want an affair. I just wasn’t sure I wanted karate.

I think this is the pivotal moment in a martial arts career. It’s deciding that you’ve made a commitment and that you will stick to that commitment. I went to class as a duty at this point, and I slugged through some really tough months, which surmounted to just under a year of forcing myself to train. Classes sometimes left me feeling worse than when I went in some days. All of the little nuances wore on me as only a great relationship can after that long!

Love

Want to know the best part? I fell in-love with karate again. It was a slow creeping-in of these tiny moments. Little mental pauses during training where I started to realize that all of karate was interconnected in ways I had not seen before. There weren’t basics, and kata, and fighting. It is all the same. The more I looked, the more of the overlapping spectrum I found. I was beginning to put the puzzle together and see the whole of karate.

My kata began to change too. Rather than monotonously marching moves, I began to feel what the kata needed for an ebb and flow. It was a beautiful transition of thought and performance. My kata are still so humble compared to those around me, but I began to see what the kata needed. Each kata needs something different. It’s the difference between someone who practices memorization compared to those who actually practice their kata. I don’t know exactly how to explain it, but if you’ve been there, you get it.

When people say that the first through third degree of blackbelts are what karate can do for you and fourth degree up are what you can do for karate, I respectfully disagree. I think the fourth degree up are when you begin to find new parts of old karate. It is what you are able to discover if you persevere and don’t give up. I don’t think you can find this until you’re well into a second decade of training and teaching, and I am sad for those who never see it.

Best wishes from our dojo. Kanpai!

Kelsi

Humility

Humility.

I used to love the word humility as a young adult, but have subsequently found that humility is much easier to proclaim as a trait than it is to swallow.

Ranks

The first time I really stumbled into humility as a martial artist was as a nidan (second degree black-belt). I had been away at college, working through full-time undergraduate courses and working a full-time job on an ambulance. I was tired in life, as every poor college kid working full-time is tired.

Returning to my dojo to train for a night, I hadn’t been keeping up with my practice, and I was asked to run the class through THE set of basics. Now, I should have known the order. I did know the order-as early as a green belt-inside and out. Here I am, looking around for low ranks to tell me the next move to lead the class. I have at least ten years on their senior, and I can feel my face turning hot.

So I’m teaching this class, or disastrously failing at it, and I just want to crawl under a fucking rock and play dead. Actually, I wanted to stop training. In those moments I wanted to stop karate until college was finished and I could perform like the humble martial artist I thought I was. Well, that moment is what humility tastes like. Humility doesn’t feel like that moment when you know the answer and chose to not say it. No, that’s not humility, that’s having social skills. Humility tastes like fear and embarrassment.

Conclusion

I want to pause here, though the story concludes soon, and talk about how amazing humility is. We never really appreciate what it is to make giant mistakes until we are buried beneath our own. To ask for help from people below us in our hierarchy is humble. To sympathize with the student who forgets takes moments of forgetting yourself.

It didn’t take my Sensei long to realize that I was rusty. He quietly positioned himself behind the class and began doing each of the moves before I had to call it out to the class. No one other than he and I knew that I had forgotten the order. He just silently gave me the order, and when I was done he took over the class for the next lesson.

Ladies and gents, that’s the difference between greatness and arrogance in a teacher. It’s the gift a teacher gives when they see a student drowning in a topic, and help them through it in front of their peers. You see, humility doesn’t have to extend beyond the teacher and the student. The lesson can be learned right there at that moment, the student knowing they need to practice more. We must keep each other humble, but also whole.