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.