16. See, it’s like a job…

Boy, talk about controversy. Here I was thinking maybe all of five people in the whole world read my blog and then when I posted a frustrated piece about dummies walking into my dojo, I got a whole slew of comments, arguments and replies, positive and negative. That took me off guard, not so much because some people disagreed with my blog…after all, everyone’s entitled to their own opinion…but because there was so much discussion about it.

So I’m raking the leaves in my yard this morning and thinking about it, and maybe my blatant description and frustration with bad behavior from prospective students isn’t getting through. So let me tone down the heat, cool my jets, and use a metaphor that just hit me in explaining why some people, in my eyes, don’t get it.

Trying to join a koryu is not like walking into a Burger King and being able to have it your way as long as you pay your money. It’s more like a job interview.

Sure, the koryu can seem snobby and elitist compared to most modern budo schools. That’s just how it may seem. And so one might consider my own attitude to be snobby and elitist. Maybe. On the other hand, I’ve never turned away students like how some of my cohorts have.  I’ve taken in folk who stumble when walking, who are still working on basics after ten years of training, who had tattoos up and down their entire bodies below their neckline, who had no prior background at all in any martial art. I’ve even taken in an elementary school-aged student, even though my stated policy is not to do so, because I knew the father and he begged me to let the kid in.

In my own way, I tend towards the attitude one of my former teachers had. Quintin Chambers sensei was a gentleman truly of the old school, educated at Oxford in England, trained in modern budo and koryu in Japan. I asked him once about why he let in some people who I thought were really a couple quarts short of normal, and he replied that outside of the criminally insane or simply weird, he felt that he should give anyone wishing to join a chance. They pretty much weeded themselves out anyway, he said, and the ones who aren’t serious to begin with usually drop out quickly to join something flashier and more upbeat. It’s just natural attrition.

However, I myself do temper my entrance requirements, and in my earlier article I railed on about people who come into the practice room thinking we owe them, carrying on with bad manners and an inflated self-worth.

Lest my prior article sound that snobby, I know fellow koryu teachers in the West who are even more stringent than I am. One teacher, in 20 years of teaching, has only taken on one deshi. He’s turned away everyone else because they didn’t fit his requirements. Another will tell you that if you have tattoos visible outside of a keikogi, you either have to hide them somehow or have them removed. Period. If you don’t like, there’s the door and don’t let it slam your butt on the way out. Still another teacher will simply refuse to teach people who had aikido training. He himself was a high ranking aikidoka, but he once told me that when he took in a couple of aikido students into his koryu school, they kept “moving like they were doing aikido,” not like they were doing his koryu. He gave them a couple months to change their body dynamics and attitudes. They didn’t or couldn’t. He kicked them out and for a while he didn’t care that he didn’t have any students at all. Then through word of mouth, he slowly assembled a new cadre of students, most of whom have had competitive grappling or law enforcement training. These were physically tough guys you wouldn’t want to confront in a dark alley even without koryu training. They moved more “realistically” he said, more like what his particular ryu demanded.

Do I think they’re more snotty and elitist than me? Nope. They’re the teachers. They make the rules and if you don’t like it, hey, there’s a different dojo down the street. They’re not into building up martial arts empires. They are into passing on a very specialized koryu system only to people who they think are worth their time and effort, because life is too short for them to be teaching some prima donnas or people who will drop out when the going gets just a little too tough.

So anyway, I’m raking the leaves and my dog is begging me to play with her by holding a squeaky toy in her mouth, and it dawned on me. …I thought of a great metaphor:

There are some modern budo schools and a whole lot of koryu schools in which joining is less like paying your money and then expecting some kind of service, and more like applying for a job. …And you may not necessarily get the job even if you wanted it.

You see, as much as you think you want to get something out of training in a koryu, becoming a part of a koryu means you must shoulder some responsibilities of being part of a living, breathing legacy, and not disgracing that legacy and that school. As much is expected of you as you might be expecting of the training.

That is why, when you present yourself, it’s really important to put your best foot forward, like it’s a job interview. …Because you really are being scrutinized to see if you are a good fit for the ryu.

So the father and son who got me ballistic because they horsed around and showed a lack of attention? Of course I had a bad impression of them. If it was a job interview and the kid came in and started playing noogie noogie on my head or tried to fool around with my computer before I could even ask him questions about his education or work experience, I would have shown him out the door without even a fare-thee-well.

Or what about the person who came in to observe a class and instead spent half the time stretching out and demonstrating his front kicks to impress me? …Would you do that in a job interview? Would you play with your cell phone or Nintendo while the interviewer was trying to explain the job responsibilities?

The latter person came up to me after class ended, full of self-confidence, asking about joining the class. I gave him the particular information, and then he asked about how often we gave promotion tests, because, of course, he saw no problem in learning things quickly because he was sooooo good at it. I replied that in a really old koryu, there are no “tests.” The teacher trains with you so intensely, one-on-one, that he KNOWS how good you are, he doesn’t have to give you a test to find out. You get your rank when the teacher thinks you deserve it. That was the first of several replies that threw him for a loop, but he still insisted that he was going to join us from the next class because he thought he could get a “black belt” in no time at all.

In both cases, after they left, I turned to my students and said, “I’ll bet you guys good money that he/they won’t come back again.”

And you know, they didn’t. So why waste my time and their time trying to encourage such people to join my class when they aren’t really a good fit anyway?

On the other hand, there was a gentleman who showed up at the same time as the father and son. He asked to observe the class, we talked a bit and he said that he had only a limited background in martial arts. He “wasn’t that good.” That was so unlike the father and son, who touted their aikido and kendo training, who said they didn’t have any questions because they knew all they needed to know, and so on. The father and son fooled around with applying joint locks on each other when they saw us working through some jujutsu kata. The other guy simply sat quietly, intently watching us train. At the end, the father and son just bagged. They walked out the door laughing and still horsing around like two kids. The other gentleman came up to me and asked very good questions about time, tuition, affiliation, and so on. He asked if he could join, and when I said he could, he asked about a training outfit.

Of all the examples, he was the only who subsequently showed up to train, and he’s still training as of this date. So not only did he show the right attitude, he had the right intent, and his attitude was on display because he presented himself as if he was asking for a job, not demanding a right to train like you would demand how done your hamburger is at Burger King. He realized that he had no God-given right to join, he had to ask and I had to allow admittance, just like a job interviewer sums you up from your interview and your resume.

Later, I found out that his “limited background” in martial arts really meant several years’ worth of a very rough and tough system. He wanted to do martial arts again, after dropping it to get a busy, demanding job and raise a family, but couldn’t go back to his old system where sparring would be so bad that sometimes people had to miss work because they were injured so badly. We were a lot less accident-prone, perfect for his needs, and he is perfect for us because he brings a maturity and natural athletic ability that helps to raise the bar for the rest of the students. He brings as much to the class, or even more, than what we can possibly teach him, and for that I’m grateful for him, as I am for each of my students, no matter their particular athletic abilities.

He realized joining a martial arts school is not a Constitutional right; it’s a privilege that he had to be worthy of, and he carried himself appropriately.

If that attitude and expectation of prospective students is elitist and snobby, then I am proud to be guilty as charged.


15 thoughts on “16. See, it’s like a job…

  1. A one of the previous critics of your statement I pretty much retract my criticisms. I admit I was put off by throwing around the ‘koryu’ word, and a few inflammatory words about people… I failed to see the deeper message to were trying to get across.

    Now I have had some personalities that were poisonous to the training environment. I have probably been that person in some clubs in the past. But yes, I think I would agree 100 percent. I remain positively skeptical of all new students coming in the door. I am inviting, but I know someday I might have to ask someone that it would be best if they trained elsewhere again.

    Of course you speak in koryu terms. That is your art-worldview. But this really is more of a budo universal…be accepting yet realize that the wrong person can spoil a good thing.

  2. Wayne, did you ever get anyone walking in, quietly watching class, asking good questions and then dropping the bomb: ‘you are looking at me thinking if you want me in your dojo, I am looking at you thinking whether I want to be in your dojo’?

    Aside from being interested in the art, in a technical sense, don’t people need to feel confortable to join the teacher and the student environment for what they are, i.e. a bunch of people one might or might not want to associate with?

    I live in a place where there are no koryu (or to be precise, no koryu I am interested in from a technical standpoint), but even then, why should I just desperately want to join in? I do not have unlimited time in my life, so I want to make sure the teacher and the students would people I’d be happy to associate with regardless of the koryu.

    I understand that in some cases there can be attrition between personalities in every group of people. I understand that sometimes creating these attritions might be part of the role of the teacher. Nevertheless, why should anyone want to spend time with people they do not really like or respect (or just simply feel any connection to aside from training)?

    Does this kind of issue ever arise?

    1. Frederico,
      Actually, that has never happened, but it’s good you brought it up because it does bring up the other side of the coin. When searching around for a dojo, one should also consider that it’s a two-way “job interview”; actually, that’s how it should be even in a real job interview. As much as you are being checked out by the teacher or human resource person, do you really want the job? Do you really want to train in that environment? Job interviews (and checking out a dojo) are the same. You shouldn’t check out your judgment at the door. The job and company may really be a bad fit for you and bring you nothing but grief. Likewise a martial arts school that really, really doesn’t fit into your sensibilities. Good point!

  3. Good one, Wayne – I like the “job interview” concept. For the School of Budo, I don’t make admission decisions – but for our modern grappling, I honestly believe almost anyone can be admitted and removed based on conduct. I have called some people on stuff on the mat at times, had people walk off the mat in the middle of class, etc. but I think of modern martial arts as the “gateway drug” that might in fact have some positive benefit for folks struggling with issues.

    IME, koryu is like the way I treat my armed CQC class – it is invite only, you have to have a professional LE or military affiliation, or have demonstrated enough interest to attain a concealed weapons license. Why? We are teaching lethal or seriously injurious techniques – just as do koryu. While the usefulness of the koryu stuff might be more a historical exercise/research exercise (outside of jujutsu/short weapons) the fact remains it is about harming other people. Anything less than a totally respectful attitude for this is unacceptable.

    In the modern sense, the consequences of using such tactics in a real situation could be so life altering/life shattering that the seriousness should go without saying.

    I think tightly controlling who gets in is very important and a vital role for the instructor.

    I do find the tats thing to be a bit culturally dissonant, outside of obviously offensive, or gang- or prison- associated ink. Especially in our modern culture. My main training partner is heavily tattooed and would be prized student for anyone training martial arts based on his spirit and attitude As well, many very highly skilled, mature, and highly combat experienced military and LE folks are “sleeved” or otherwise “tatted up” these days. To dismiss them as serious prospects – especially with the natural affinity GOOD koryu has with law enforcement and military aims, is more prejudice than it is practical.

    1. Kit,

      As always, a good comment from a slightly different POV. The tattoo thing is my friend’s decision, based on how he perceives his own teacher would take it, culturally. So it’s up to him. I was trying to highlight the fact that some martial arts schools, based on various factors, will have a set of standards on who they admit, and barring religion, race, gender or other such factors which are really prejudicial, it’s all up to them. Most of the prohibitions are based on what you mentioned: it could be a potentially dangerous practice and you can’t let the wrong people in, else they may end up hurting other students needlessly, or take what they learn and use it in a very bad way.

      One fellow teacher told me of a student who attended only a couple of classes, learned a specific strike, and then excitedly told the instructor that he deliberately provoked a bar fight, and with one punch, knocked the other guy unconscious and took out all his front teeth. He was bewildered when my friend immediately kicked him out of the class. The student actually thought my friend would be proud of such “kick ass” behavior. You get all kinds.


  4. Totally agree that the teacher has the prerogative to bar anyone they wish, based on whatever criteria they choose. I personally am not a a tat guy myself, and I don’t think they look good visible in keikogi – interestingly I don’t think they look professional in police uniforms, either.

    That being said I don’t mind people having them, and think they look nice on some people…. ; )

    .I guess its a comment on what the purpose of training is…preserving cultural tradition? There are some that wouldn’t consider you if you had white skin as that is not of their culture. Or you could still be Japanese but from a different province and thus an outsider. But I get it from that perspective and the not appearing appropriate aspect.

    But is the goal continuing a strong fighting tradition?

    Then one might have to reconsider. Not that there are not strong students without tats – but you might miss out on one that could be very good for a dojo simply because of some ink.

    1. Javi,
      Thanks for the note. Upon reflection, perhaps I was a little hard but it was a frustrating week, I think. I’m a teacher at a college and before that I used to teach high school for many years, so my attitude about the importance of education was reflected in that blog. It’s as if you were a doctor and you met someone who was overweight, drinks a bit too much, and smokes. Perhaps the person is a really nice guy, but I’m sure the doctor would really want the person to stop smoking and take better care of his health.

      Your other comments are well taken as well, and helps our healthy discussion! Thank you!

  5. After reading this and the previous article, I must say I agree on the teacher banning some people from entering the class. Keep in mind what is/was the prime purpose of bujutsu/budo: harm to not be harmed, kill to not be killed. So, having this in mind i think some people should be kept apart from dojos. After all, the same happens with police corps and army, isn’t it?. Sadly all these people usually find their way in thai boxing-karate-whatever gyms that are only money makers.

    On the other side, I am a firm believer of sencond chances and don’t agree on banning a guy because he has been dropped from school. But again, this is a personal decision and I am sure that in cases that you do this apart from the fact of that guy having been dropped there are other red flags that make you ban him.

    Just to finish, I am sure there are more than 5 people reading your blog around the world. Me myself, am in spain. And we would gladly enjoy to read from you more frequently.

    Best regards,


  6. I second what Javi says about more than 5 people reading this blog round the world. I follow it from Mumbai, India and would definitely love to read more from you.



    1. Thank you Kama! Oh boy, now I feel like I have to take this project more seriously if you are reading this!!!

  7. Wayne, I read your stuff… and I’m about as picky as they get. Keep on spouting my friend, people have to take what comes. Some times it’s better than others… that’s what comes with honesty and not trying to be popular. Take care and do what you do, that voodoo, that you do so well…. 🙂

    I’m off for a weekend gasshuku at 0Dark-thirty in the morning flying off into the backcountry… I wouldn’t ever go back there if it wasn’t for the folks trying to learn and do their best. What a great life!

    Best regards to you and your lovely wife, and big hugs to Maxine.

  8. Chuck, with you it’s sort of like preaching to the choir, i.e., I figure you’d agree with a lot of stuff, but thanks for the support. At least I’m not totally off my rocker. And being in a rocker is closer at hand as the years go by, I think! …Or walking into the dojo on a walker…! Yow. The ages are starting to pile up.

  9. For what it’s worth, I very much enjoy finding that you’ve posted something new on your blog!

    I’m not entirely sure what happened over the last twelve years or so. Maybe I just got old and cranky as I entered my 40’s or that I live in New York City, but it seems to me that the majority of the people I encounter during the course of my day tend to express an overdeveloped sense of entitlement. Many individuals seem to believe that they are not to be denied anything they desire at any given moment and, all too often, believe that they must be acknowledged, repeatedly, for minimal efforts made on their part, particularly at work or in an academic setting. It is rare that I come across a person who believes or even can contemplate that the journey/hard work/effort put in towards achieving a goal is, in fact, the real reward, not the certificate at the end of the course, class, whatever.

    1. Gene,
      I hear you. I keep in touch with one of my old college professors and he recently retired. He said that he had enough of overly obnoxious, self-indulgent students who don’t have a clue and think the world owes them everything even if they’ve done nothing. “Weren’t we college kids always like that?” I asked, remembering my own youthful indiscretions. No, he replied. It really did get worse recently compared to the 40-odd years he’s been teaching, and he decided it wasn’t enough fun anymore to continue teaching when he could just retire. It’s not a good sign for our country.

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