12. Don’t be a dumbass

Don’t be a dumbass

Yeah. You. The guy curious about koryu training. Don’t act like a dumbass.

I’ve had it up to my neck with rude, idiotic, psychotic, immature, and clueless people curious about koryu martial arts training. I don’t understand it. People don’t go tromping into a stranger’s house tracking muddy feet, farting at the dog, and throwing their cigarette butts on the shag carpet (or do they?) and expect a warm welcome. Why do people do so many etiquette faux paus when observing a koryu dojo then, and expect a ready acceptance?

I’ve written about proper etiquette in entering a koryu dojo before, and so have several other writers and teachers of koryu traditions. But somehow, people keep popping up clueless, simply clueless about proper etiquette and behavior, so…

I’m gonna make this REAL simple. I’m not even going to do a lot of explaining, in order to keep things short and simple. If you don’t understand the why or wherefore of certain pieces of advice, then go look it up. Go to koryu.com and dig up my more in-depth articles, or those by folk like Dave Lowry or Meik and Diane Skoss.

So before you even consider going to observe a koryu practice:

The koryu isn’t for everybody:

If you are taking psychotropic drugs, have a serious mental disorder that requires medication, hear messages from the CIA talking to you in your head, or believe that flying saucers implanted radio transmitters in your body, don’t go to a koryu dojo. They don’t want you.  Being sad or depressed sometimes due to twists and turns in living is a fact of life. But if you are prone to being clinically insane, then stay away.

If you are a high school dropout, too bad. Go back to school or get your GED before asking to join.

If you are seeking something to add to your self-aggrandizement, stay away. Many koryu will emphasize that you can’t show off any of your skills without the instructor’s permission, if at all. Certainly, you will not be allowed to show off your kenjutsu kata at a birthday party at a bar.

If you posted your creative sword twirlings on YouTube to the music of “The Last of the Mohicans,” “Gladiator,” or “Highlander,” ending your “kadda” by falling to one knee and poking the sword tip into your parent’s grassy lawn, head down so your long front bangs fall over your teenage-angst ridden eyes…Go away kid, ya botherin’ me. We don’t need teenage angst. Go spend your time watching another “Twilight” movie instead.

If you are under 16 and are immature and still play with video games more than you socialize with people, stay away.

If you are over 16 and are immature and still play with video games more than you socialize with people, stay away.

The koryu is wide open for people regardless of race, ethnicity, religious preference, sexual orientation, etc. But you have to bend to fit the style, not the other way around.

Trailer park trash, white trash, ghetto gang bangers, Chicano low rider gangstas, local Hawaii “mokes,” basically, idiots and slobs of any race or creed: you’re not going to be welcome. Sounds elitist? It is. Too bad. Like the title of this blog states, dumbasses are not welcome in a koryu regardless of color, creed, religion or sexual orientation.

Like one koryu teacher told me, “I think koryu are not for dumb people. It may be for lazy people, but not for dumb people.”

Why? Go think about it. That’s your koan, Grasshopper. If you feel insulted about being considered dumb, do something about it. Pick up a book and read it. Better yet, pick up a book without any anime manga illustrations.

Email intro’s:

So you think you still qualify as material for koryu training? You want to find out where to train?

A lot of inquiries now happen via email. Fine.  That’s a very nice, tentative, exploratory way to inquire about training from the teacher.  But a couple of do’s and don’t’s:

When you email the teacher, give him or her a title, such as Mr. or Mrs. or Ms. Most koryu teachers in America don’t care (or even don’t LIKE) being called Sensei Such and Such from a stranger. Besides, calling someone Sensei Joe is not the proper standard form in the Japanese language, and most koryu teachers speak some level of Japanese. Better, if at all, to call them Joe Sensei. But better by far to say Mr., Mrs. or Ms.  Because some teachers, for certain reasons, don’t like being called sensei by complete strangers.

Some, of course, do love titles. Just as I wrote this, I surfed onto the e-budo web site and found someone who was insulted, simply insulted that a curious inquirer didn’t put the sensei at the end of his teacher’s name. You ALWAYS call teacher X by X-sensei, he insisted, and while you’re at it, he himself should be called Y-sensei. Don’t ever call him Mr. X. That’s not high-falutin’ enough. On the other hand,  I refer to my sensei in a number of ways, even dropping the honorifics when referring to him in a crowd that has no idea of proper etiquette levels in spoken Japanese. I (and other folk I associate with) tend to actually be rather forgiving of cultural differences when working with a general audience.

Observe proper email etiquette. In other words, DON’T WRITE ALL IN CAPITAL LETTERS BECAUSE IT MEANS YOU ARE SHOUTING IN THE PERSON’S EARS FOR ATTENTION!!!!  Check your spelling, grammar, diction and usage of slang. If you write like an idiot, chances are the teacher is not going to get a very good impression of your intelligence. Most koryu teachers I know are college graduates. Many hold advanced degrees. They expect some brains from their students. If you are stupid, dropped out of high school, or flunked English 101, too bad. The koryu aren’t for you.

Don’t write, “I want…” The koryu teacher doesn’t give a shit about what YOU want. You have to conform to the training regime, not the other way around.  And if you expect to become “samurai,” fuggedabout it. You’re living in a preteen’s wet dream.

You can ask about the system, what happens in training, the training times and if it would be possible to observe a class. No koryu instructor will turn you away if you are respectful and truly seeking training. You can tell the teacher that maybe you did some modern budo, like aikido or judo, or kendo or karatedo. But alas, that’s going to just give the teacher some insight into your abilities, and unless you trained directly with Ueshiba Morihei, Asai Tetsuhiko, Gichin Funakoshi, or the like, training a year or two at the local kids’ karate class is not going to make the teacher think you’re incredibly skilled.

Chances are, the teacher will know many of the other martial arts teachers in the area and have a respectable view of reputable teachers of Japanese traditional budo. But if you were training in a fly-by-night school, he may have never heard of your teacher or group. He may not even care, either.

Watching a class:

Think about what you are going to wear before you show up. You don’t have to dress like you’re going to a senior prom, but don’t wear a torn-up t-shirt to show off your amazing pecs and brick abs (or beer belly and fat butt crack, or clothing that exposes too much tits and ass…that goes for women, too, by the way). Don’t wear t-shirts that have off-color or obscene images or words, and take off your damn baseball hat. What, is it super-glued to your head?  Did your momma never tell you to doff your cap when in a formal indoor setting, like a church, to show respect?

You can dress informally but with respect, say in a polo shirt, or whatever is appropriate for your locale and cultural environment. In Hawaii, Bermuda shorts and a polo shirt is considered near formal wear.

When you are about to enter the training hall, take off your footwear. Observe where and how the students doff their gear and do so in the same manner. Note that they don’t just chuck their footwear in a jumbled pile. The shoes and slippers are arranged in an orderly fashion so that they can be efficiently and quickly put back on. Sometimes there is a getabako, a shoe rack. You figure it out. But if you just throw your shoes in a pile, the teacher will notice that and consider it a strike against you.

When you enter the dojo, it’s nice if you do a bow to show respect to the environment, but the teacher will probably not expect you to know the etiquette of the dojo. But in any case, don’t act like you just entered a gym class. Think more like you stepped into a tea ceremony room. Or a church. Why? Look up the articles in koryu.com.

Don’t think a koryu dojo is like a modern strip mall karate chain outlet training. If you try to show familiarity with “dojo etiquette” and grunt, “OSU!” you will only look like an idiot. Why? Look it up. Koryu.com.

If the teacher offers you a comfy, cushioned chair to sit in because he says the class may be long, take it. He’s trying to be nice. If you decline and say you’d rather sit on the wooden floor or tatami, then you had better sit in seiza through the whole practice, or at the very least, if your feet hurt, cross your legs quietly. Sticking out your legs and stretching them, slouching against the wall…You don’t do that in tea ceremony, you don’t do that in a koryu dojo. Why? Look it up in koryu.com.

Sit up straight and shut up. Ask questions only if the teacher asks if you have questions, or if he comes up to talk with you during breaks in the training. If you came with a  friend, keep your conversations to a minimum.

If you see a move that, by golly, looks like something from your aikido class or judo class, or from kendo kata, don’t go trying to repeat the move by yourself or with your tagalong buddies.

If your cell phone goes off, excuse yourself and go outside of the dojo to answer it.

I don’t know why some folk don’t realize it, but as much as you are watching the class, the teacher is watching YOU out of the corner of his eyes. Act like a doofus with no notion of formal respect and he’s going to note that down.

When class is over, go up and thank the teacher if he doesn’t approach you first. Ask some questions, but keep it short unless the teacher wants to talk more. If you have a lot of questions, ask the teacher if you could email him again. And just because YOU want to join the class doesn’t mean you CAN join the class. The teacher will weigh a lot of things in his mind as to whether or not to let you in.

Now, whether you email him or ask questions afterwards, do some homework ahead of time. Go to koryubooks.com. Read up the articles there about what a koryu is and isn’t, read up on Dave Lowry’s books, which are available in bookstores and libraries, so you don’t sound like a smug idiot.

Some questions you might ask:

It is fair to ask who the teacher’s teacher was, what the name of the particular style of koryu is. Then if you have some doubts about the claims, check it out by asking questions on forums like e-budo.com.

Don’t ask “what federation do you belong to?”  as if it was a modern budo group. Koryu belong to the ryu, not to this or that federation.  I belong to the Bitchuden Takeuchi-ryu. Period. There’s no Hawaii Takeuchi-ryu Association vs. the Hawaii Takeuchi-ryu Society with competing officers and board of directors. We either ARE in the Takeuchi-ryu or we’re not.

Oh, by the way, if he says he belongs to an association of American Grandmaser Soke’s, he’s not doing a koryu. He may be good, his self-defense techniques may look cool, and he may talk the talk, but so far I haven’t seen anyone associated with those American Gandmaster Soke Ultimate Eternal Grandmaster organizations that are actually authentic Japanese koryu systems.

Don’t ask about tournaments. There aren’t any.

Don’t ask about promotion schedule or testing. Like I told one inquirer who thought our ryu was just like kendo, there aren’t any promotion testing or schedule. You get your rank when the teacher thinks you deserve it. And as a teacher, I don’t have to test you. If you train all the time with me in a small group, I should darn well know your skill level without having to test you. Now, some koryu associated with modern budo, like a lot of iaido groups aligned with the modern kendo federations, do have tests and promotions. But they are kind of a hybrid.

Don’t ask what color belts we will give you. We really (up until recently) don’t have any belt colors other than white, brown and black, for jujutsu, and kyu rankings are very, very recent.  I hardly pay it any attention until you get a “serious” rank, such as shoden mokuroku. Don’t know what that means? Go to koryu.com.

In iai we wear dark blue belts, or obi, to hold together our gi and hakama. You want a black belt?  You can wear one. That doesn’t make you ranked as a “black belt.” It just means your hakama won’t fall down.

If you decide to join, some groups have a tuition, some don’t charge you anything. Most koryu in America are not-for-profit ventures and just barely cover the room rental.  It’s fair to ask about monthly fees and other charges.

Joining a koryu, however, is not just putting your money down and jumping in to train. The teacher makes the decision, not you. Maybe he or she will turn you away for some reason. The koryu is not for everybody, and maybe the teacher doesn’t want to waste your time and turned you away because he figures you will lose interest in a few weeks.

I have not turned away many people myself. I once did ask an obviously psychotic person to leave or I would call the cops on him. I don’t allow crazy people into my classes. Eccentric, socially awkward: maybe. But insane street people talking about ninjas coming out of the walls, no.

Anyway, new students come dribbling in, but most of them leave after a few classes, so in my case, they weed themselves out. So why would I want to invest so much time in you unless I thought you would stick around a while? It’s not like I’m making money off you, after all. It’s more like I’m trying to pass on a treasured tradition, and if you don’t have the time or willingness to bend your ego to fit the system, why should I bother?

I spent most of this article ragging on newbies to koryu, but here’s the really good part. If you are earnest, mean well, have a good sense of respect and humor, and carry yourself properly, then most koryu teachers will welcome you with open arms. There’s not enough of you out there joining up. I yearn for more students who aren’t insane, whackos, dumbasses or low class, low-IQ losers from the nether end of the gene pool.

I myself have never been turned away when I asked to study koryu jo, iai or jujutsu. The teacher and fellow students loved having a new face to train with. And more to the point, if you show a willingness to stick around for the long haul, you become a part of a martial arts “family” that can’t be duplicated by any large-scale, for-profit, hundreds-of-students modern martial arts school. Being part of a koryu is way, way different from that kind of sterile, faceless training system. But you have to be ready for it. Don’t act like a dumbass.

7. McDojos, McDonalds and Masa’s Sushi


Sooner or later, if you frequent the online chat boards dealing with martial arts, you’ll encounter the derogatory term “McDojo.” Like a fast food chain of restaurants, a McDojo is often in a strip mall, offering to give you a quick taste of generic martial arts training, quite frequently from a franchised, formulaic enterprise. Like a fast food restaurant, the food will be homogenized, reduced to the lowest common denominator, and served up quickly. YOU TOO can earn a black belt in X amount of months, guaranteed as long as you pay your money. Hot showers, padded walls, no need to learn too many arcane terms or rituals…as long as you pay your money. You can drop off your kids and leave them there for several hours’ worth of organized yelling, screaming, kicking and punching…as long as you pay your money.

Sounds like the worst aspects of greedy capitalism wedded to organized violence, doesn’t it?

Actually, for someone on the totally opposite end of the spectrum, I don’t think I knock the typical McDojo as much compared to other purists. The way I see it, there’s a wide range of ways you can organize a training system, with McDojos on one end and the really, really “go away kid, yer botherin’ me” traditional dojo on the other end. It’s a spectrum, and the lines get really blurry in between.

It’s not that making money is wrong. Even in the most traditional of dojo, money and capital are needed for a variety of things, such as paying rent, electricity bills, organizational fees and so on. I learned that the very hard way, by not having enough money from student fees to pay all the rent. One has to learn to budget and plan, unless you’re independently wealthy.  It’s very rare to find any budo group that shuns money of any kind. The economics simply would be impossible for it to survive in this day and age, where there are no daimyo lords to sponsor your training.

Anyway, there’s a range. And there’s some good in McDojos too, as long as you don’t expect them to offer you what they can’t.

What McDojos are good for

McDojos are great for a physical kiddie activity that’s an alternative to soccer, Little League Baseball, and so on. Their classes are usually big, full of boisterous kids screaming at the top of their lungs, and having a good time rolling around atop the foot-thick multi-colored tumbling mats. They’re also great ego-boosters for the parents if Junior Boy gets a black belt in half a year’s worth of training.  You can brag about it to the neighbors.

Because they are organized as money making ventures, you can bet that the  leaders of the dojo have a concern that they have lots of kids in the classes, so they’ll pep up the regular training with lots of tournaments, picnics and other family friendly activities. There’ll be frequent promotions. There’ll be lots of tournaments where your kid has a chance of winning trophies taller than them. And maybe, the kids will get a little healthier and develop a little more self-discipline from the training.

If a McDojo is able to offer up all of the above in a satisfactory manner, then it’s a good McDojo. It’s still a McDojo, but it’s a decent one. You can’t knock it for not being what it’s  not supposed to be.

It’s the same with our local McDonalds. It offers decent hamburgers and fries. Not great. Nor would I compare it to the bistro 15 miles away that serves Pan-Pacific New Age cuisine such as buffalo burgers with zesty sesame sauce, or even the cheap Japanese noodle shop on King Street that makes its own noodles and broth from scratch. McDonalds is all about a mediocre meal served quickly with lots of saturated fats that fill you up quickly when you don’t have the time or effort to cook your own food or drive farther out to a better restaurant. It fills you up. You can’t ask for much more. And you know what you’ll be getting. Walk into any McDonalds in any state of the Union, and aside from just a few items that are a nod to the local tastes (in Hawaii, it’s Portuguese sausage, eggs and rice on the breakfast menu, and a bowl of saimin noodles for dinner and lunch), the food is pretty much the same. Bland, but the same. No surprises.

Step into one outlet in the chain of Joe Blow’s Tae Kwon Do and MMA Grappling McDojo (which probably also promotes cardio kickboxing for the parents) and you pretty much get the same kind of training no matter which outlet you call upon. No surprises.

…And that’s about it. You can’t expect much more because they’re not designed to offer more. We’re talking mass production. We’re talking maximization of profits. We’re talking FRANCHISE!!!

Do you detect a smug sense of elitism on my part? Au contraire. The McDojo supplies a necessary need, else they would not exist in such proliferation, just as McDonalds exists because it also serves a need, and profitably at that. I teach and train in a small group. But we couldn’t possibly ever offer martial arts to lots of little kids who are screaming to punch and kick like their favorite anime action character. We simply aren’t geared for that.

On the opposite end of the spectrum are what I would liken to a one-of-a-kind craft shop, or a fine dining experience with limited seating. The food is exotic, the taste is acquired, and it’s not for everyone. Masa’s Sushi down the street seats only eight customers. It is barely profitable, but the proprietor is the chef himself, and he makes sure every one of his customers (and he knows all of them by first name) is happy with his specialty sushi menus. Masa’s personal tastes can’t be easily reproduced and franchised, so it will always stay small. Perhaps a couple of his assistant chefs, after decades of working with him, will open up similar small restaurants in other cities. But Masa’s will always be small-scale, for the connoisseur who knows how fresh maguro should taste, who can discern the quality of the beans used in the natto sushi.

It’s not for a lot of people, and it was never meant to be. In many ways, that’s how a lot of my former teachers and associates teach martial arts. It’s a craftsmanlike tradition, taught in small groups, with one-on-one instruction.

But the variety of martial arts enterprises is a RANGE. In the middle are a lot of modern budo organizations. They are big, like Shotokan or Aikikai. They have “franchises” in which the outlets offer more or less the same fare (specific kata and/or kumite). They also manage to embrace some “small group”  values such as a somewhat high level of quality control and training, adherence to high technical skills development, and so on. These groups may have somewhat large classes of adults and children, but they stress rigorous discipline and attention to excellence. Competition may be possible but it has its place, and flashy, crowd-pleasing impractical techniques (that look good at anime conventions and cosplay fests) are not permitted. By their nature, they won’t attract as many off-the-street students as the dyed in the wool McDojos. They’ll attract people who prefer the integrity of such training, but who don’t have the inclination or cultural or personal character to pursue more idiosyncratic forms of martial arts.

So having a range of martial arts school types are, in my opinion, as natural as having a range of restaurants, from fast-food franchised burger joints to Dennys to one-of-a-kind fine dining.

The problem I DO have is when people try to randomly stick the characteristics of one system of teaching onto another. Usually, this means some McDojo tries to use a methodology or concept that by necessity just doesn’t fit. For example, some unscrupulous McDojo, in an attempt to exoticize their schools, have found fit to go beyond simply labeling their teachers “sensei” to calling their top masters “shihan,” “kyoshi,” “soke,” and so on. Perhaps they’ve exhausted all the shock and awe that came with the title of sensei, or of giving themselves 13th dan ranks.

But come on. I can  understand “shihan” if you’ve been given that teaching title in a very carefully regulated and systematized association such as the JKA (Japan Karate Association’s Shotokan system), but “soke” Joe Schmoe of his own Schmoe-ryu Kempo Kung-Fu Mud Rasslin’ Kurottee? That’s like someone saying, “Yeah, I’m the master chef for the Evergreen Mall’s McDonald’s.” Nope, bubbah. You’re not a master chef. You’re a fry cook.

The baggage that comes with being a soke can take up a whole other blog, and it goes beyond simply declaring yourself the master of your own style, which you may think only entails punchin’ and kickin’ and ninjerin’ around. There’s a lot more to that, and it will, as I noted, take another blog.

That caveat aside, I can see the worth in a McDojo. I wouldn’t want a bunch of screamin’ crazy kids trying to join my own little dojo anyway, just as Masa wouldn’t want people to take up his eight seats and then try to order some Big Macs at his sushi bar. A McDojo has its purpose. A middle-of-the-road large dojo that has lots of students and offers strict training in judo, aikido, kendo, karatedo, etc., has its purpose and clientele, and we have our own little, tiny clientele too. But let’s not mix them up and pretend that they’re all the same.

6. Step by step and inch by inch

Budo pedagogy: progressive learning in budo

Jeremy Beatty, Yagyu Seigo-ryu Batto-iai
Jeremy Beatty, Yagyu Seigo-ryu Batto-iai

A short while ago, a curious incident occurred in my dojo. Well, it was curious for ME. I’m not sure if it registered at all on the other people involved. Anyway, we had an eager, excited new young student in our iai class. I took him through the first reishiki (forms of etiquette) and the first kata. He was doing poorly at it, but I figure, given time, he’d be fine. He just needed to hone his movements. So I told him to work on what he learned for a while and left him alone.

I turned my attention to another student and tried to correct his techniques for fourth kata. The new student ran up to watch what we were doing, even to the point of trying to imitate some of the form. Ignoring this red light, I walked away and approached another student, who was doing the ninth kata of the series. The new student ran up to us too and watched us eagerly, then he blurted out, “Wow! Can I learn that too?”

I had to pause a beat to even comprehend that on this, the first night he actually stepped on the floor to learn iai, he wanted to jump all over the place. After recovering from my amazement, I could only laugh in disbelief and then replied with a curt, “No!”

I turned away. Then my conscience took the better of me and so I turned back to the crestfallen student and explained to him that in a budo training system, you do the forms in a progressive way, going from the basics and moving up to more advanced sets, only through the guidance of a teacher. You don’t jump around, especially when your basics were still so shaky.

I’m not sure if he understood where I was coming from. When I thought about it, I realize that quite often, the pedagogy of teaching budo (which is very true in koryu but holds no less authority in many modern budo that are taught traditionally) may be completely foreign to modern youngsters and teens brought up in a society of instant gratification, infantile pop culturalism, and denigration of excellence and striving. Then again, the pedagogy is not exclusive to budo. The essence of the way you train in budo is the same in many traditional arts or apprenticeships, and in my old age, I think it may have to do with simply the way humans learn certain things: very slowly, empirically and through many, many years of effort.

That’s anathema to people raised on instant-everything. Learn form 1, move on to form 2. They get the sequence, but their body dynamics, timing, distancing…everything that really makes up the art…suck. Try to tell those people to wait and they get indignant. They may protest, “I can do Ippon-Me Mae! Why can’t I learn the next kata?”

Sure you can do Ippon-Me, sort of. You can do it but your basics suck. If you can’t do a kiri oroshi right in Ippon-Me, what makes you think you can do it right in Nihon-Me Ushiro?  You just end up with someone who can do a lot of things badly.

When I first started doing iai seriously in Kyoto, one of my teachers was famous for making his beginning students do only one kata over and over again for hours on end until he/she “got” it.  You never progressed beyond that until you reached a level that satisfied him, and that level was extremely high. Even my main teacher was firm about having me learn one kata at a time decently before moving on. He was less strict about getting it “perfect,” but he did advise me to focus on quality of the kata I knew, not on the quantity.

“If you just practiced these kata over and over…” and he ticked off a list of only five forms, “Then all the rest of your forms will be fine,” he said. Years later, I am coming to understand what he meant. The basics count. Big time. They are your foundations. If your foundations are based on a hill of sand, you’ll never build anything enduring on top of it.

Focusing on the basics is not something a lot of modern-day students want to hear. But it’s necessary. You don’t have to be 100 percent perfect in doing a front kick, for example (most of us will, after all, never reach “perfection”), but you should reach a certain level of expertise in a basic movement before trying to move on to work on more advanced work. However fancier or complex an advanced form may be, it will still look like junk unless the basic forms that make up the advanced form are at a decent level.

Eagerness and enthusiasm are good things to have. But you shouldn’t have them overwhelm equally important elements of patience and striving for perfection of form. I still like to go back to the first kata of Muso Jikiden Eishin-ryu and repeat it several times before I get into the specific techniques I want to work on during practice.

And after all, the best musicians still go back to playing basic finger exercises. Tiger Woods still practices his basic swing, ballet stars still work on basic form, form, form.

5. When it’s time to quit

Budo should be fun! A student enjoys sake through a lotus stalk after hard practice.
Budo should be fun! A student enjoys sake through a lotus stalk after hard practice.

I’ve previously written about joining a classical Japanese martial arts.

But conversely, there are times when you should quit a budo.

This sounds like heresy, right? Maybe it is. But at a certain point in time, you may stop and think, “What the hell am I doing? I’m not enjoying myself, I’d rather be (insert a pastime here), and I’m hurting too much after practice.”

That’s when it’s time to reassess your goals and personal feelings about your martial art. Sometimes careful reflection rejuvenates your commitment. Sometimes, if you take a long, hard look at the physical, mental and emotional toll a budo takes on you, it may be time to leave. Okay, you may think of yourself as a “quitter” and you forego rational and logical conclusions and continue to beat yourself up mentally, physically and emotionally. Let up, bro. There are other things in life besides the dojo.

This sounds antithetical to promoting the martial arts, but I’ve left a couple of schools myself and feel better for it. So I “quit.” Hey, I’ve still got a happy life and a decent job. That’s the more important things that matter more than a pastime, be it budo, golf or playing bridge on Saturday nights.

To start with, you have to go back to why you joined a budo in the first place. Hugh Davey (Shudokan Martial Arts Association) and I were sitting in front of a cheap Japanese restaurant waiting to be seated and we conjectured that if all you wanted to learn was how to defend yourself, most moderately athletic people could learn that in a few months, give or take a week or so. So then what comes after that. Between the two of us we had close to 50 years’ worth of martial arts backgrounds, and yet we figured that nothing more really comes out of it if self-defense is all you’re looking for. Learn how to punch, kick, gouge eyes and knee a groin, and the rest is pretty much learning about the mindset and strategies of personal self-defense. You don’t need to perfect a front kick for years to defend yourself adequately. So we concluded that folks like us who continue to practice for decades are probably two shakes short of crazy.

On the other hand, if you enjoy budo practice for other intangibles, such as the physical exercise, the body dynamics, the camaraderie, the philosophy, the history, the sheer FUN of doing it…then you continue budo…Until these don’t become fun any more.

Several reasons may therefore impel you to leave. If it’s the physical exercise, then if you conclude that the physical training is hurting you more than it is helping you, you’re basically beating up on yourself. You could pull back on training and realize you’re not a twenty-something anymore. If that’s impossible given the training requirements of the style, then you may consider leaving so as not to water down the training system.

When you get older, your body ages and weakens. Age has its advantages but as a middle-aged guy, let me tell you, what it does to your body sucks. So you may have to forego training simply because your creaking old body can’t take the punishment anymore. No shame there. We all get old. Football players, for example, age really fast. You don’t see many 50-something-year-old professional football players still in the first ranks of the pro leagues, do you? The body can take only so much punishment from a contact sport like football before it simply gives out. Ditto extreme sports like rugby, boxing, pro wrestling, and so on. The lifespan of athletes in those competitive sports tend to be rather short. Why wouldn’t competitive judo and karate be different?

When I was in my mid-20s, I started graduate school. I was holding down a part-time job to pay the bills and I loved martial arts so much I was training in karate, aikido and judo at the same time, all the while jogging several miles a day. My body fell apart eventually and I realized overtraining was a bad thing. (D’uh!) I had to concentrate on getting a degree so I scaled back my training. By the time I finished graduate school I was getting close to 30 years old, and my schedule didn’t allow the freedom anymore to train as hard, and besides, my body was already aging. I had to focus on only a couple budo that I could do that wouldn’t hobble me when I needed to go into work. Doing competitive judo and karate, and then doing hours and hours of aikido simply was not physically possible for me anymore. So practicality forced my eager hand to scale back on training.

Another problem may arise when political and interpersonal dynamics become messy. A dojo is a place for training, but to keep it going, you need structure. The dojo needs to have a teacher, it needs to be part of a system of budo, and oftentimes, the technical system is held together by an organization. The organization can be big, such as a national group, or it can be an independent dojo run solely by the teacher. In any case, the political and social structure of the dojo may turn sour. Rather than subject yourself to that kind of emotional and psychological anguish, you may rightfully decide to leave.

There was one aikido dojo I used to train in that didn’t feel quite right. Instead of helping each other, oftentimes students who were senior to me (in spite of having trained in aikido for some four years prior, I donned a white belt to practice at this place) tried to beat on me or poke me when I was trying to work slowly on a technique. It took all my self-control not to side kick or punch out those students  in reaction to their snitty jabs because by then I had all those years of aikido, a dan ranking in karate, and a dan ranking in judo.

But where did that snotty attitude come from? It came from the senior teachers, who had a problem with their self-esteem. Soon enough, I began to understand the dynamics of the place. Some teachers hated other teachers. They were jealous of their ranking and spent a lot of time maneuvering to put other factions under their power. It was not a happy place. Eventually, I left. I didn’t want to deal with those off-the-mat politics. Later, I learned that the head instructor finally left and set up his own dojo because he was disgusted with the politics as well, and a huge split fissured the remaining teachers into two parties, with each side threatening to sue the other side in civil court. Do you need that kind of b.s.? I would hope not. Luckily, living in Hawaii the were always alternatives to training at that really spiritually draining place.

There was a karate group I used to train in where the physical training was excellent for young folk. It was intense, physical and challenging. However, over the years I was training, the whole system slowly began to focus on tournament sparring, something I had very little interest in. But I was just one of many low-level black belts. If I didn’t like what the head instructor was doing, then I couldn’t really challenge him on his decision to focus on tournament play to the detriment of everything else. It was his dojo. So I left.

As for judo, I enjoyed it immensely as a young man. But the emphasis in many judo dojo nowadays is on competition, especially since it’s now an Olympic sport. The intensity of keeping up with national-level competitors for me was too much when I had to also work and go to graduate school.

Did I wimp out? You could say that. On the other hand, I had reached a level where I was training with folk from the US Judo Olympic team. They could wipe the floor with me when it came to stand-up randori, but due to my training in Kawaishi-style judo, I managed to hold my own and even tie them up in matwork. And in karate and aikido, I had excellent instructors and trained with a number of very good karateka and aikidoka in the day.

It was just that the politics, emphasis and personalities made things very uncomfortable. And so, because I didn’t HAVE to do it for a living, when it ceased to be fun, I left. After over a decade of training, I walked out the door and never returned.

Although I still miss judo randori, the beauty of doing karate kata and the smooth flow of aikido, I don’t miss the politics and the wear and tear it took on my body. Your experience might be different, of course. One of my friends teaches Okinawan karate and he spent years researching the roots of karate, traveling to Okinawa to study under the best teachers of his system. If I were younger and not involved in what I’m doing now, I’d study with him. His style is wonderfully technical, powerful, and is doable even for older people. When I “retired” from competitive judo, I still helped out with a children’s judo dojo to enjoy being thrown and tumbling around with the kids, until my work schedule precluded that. And I find that my early aikido training really helps my current jujutsu training.

In the end, however, I left. I quit. Yes. I was a quitter.

But I was lucky to have stumbled into other martial arts that seemed appropriate for my lifestyle, personality, work commitments and locations. I eventually began a study of tai chi chuan and classical Japanese martial weaponry. Then I spent some time in Japan and began my lifelong study of iai and Japanese kobudo. Lest it sounds like I was hopping from style to style, I remain somewhat amazed that I have been in the Muso Jikiden Eishin-ryu iai system and the Takeuchi-ryu Bitchuden kobudo for some 24 years now.

The head instructors I met impressed me as teachers and as human beings. The political structure of both organizations were bearable, i.e., they pretty much left me alone and rarely asked anything of me. I’m a cranky old guy and not being asked to do a lot of organizational stuff was a real plus for me. The fellow students I met were accommodating, friendly and helpful. There would be an occasional jerk, but not more so than what you would find anywhere in any endeavor. Moreover, as I aged into my middle ages, I found I could still train without falling apart physically. The training for iai and kobudo could be structured so as to take into consideration my oncoming physical senility. So I stayed.

If the groups suddenly turned into a crazy cult that worshipped Brillo Pads, would I leave? In a heartbeat. I love training. I love budo, but it’s a PART of my life. It’s not my whole life. It enhances my life, makes my life richer, and enhances my health and sense of well-being. I enjoy it a lot. Training in budo gives me a lot of personal satisfaction, health, poise and stress relief. Once it becomes a drain, once it becomes a negative in my life, once it becomes a weird sucky cult, I would quit.