51. Community building

Dear Karate-ka everywhere;

Ron Marcus of the UCSD dojo asked the following thought provoking questions: “I was wondering; is the community-building we do unique to our karate school, or do other schools do it too? Is it an integral, yet perhaps sometimes overlooked component of martial arts? How did past generations of karateka do it, if at all? It is our tight-knit community, among other things, that has made Aoinagi so attractive to me and so integral a part of my life.”

When karate emerged into the modern world as a sport the participants took on isolation. Instead of being a life-style it took on sportsmanship (of its own kind). Some karate schools currently call the sensei various terms such as coach, indicating a new role for the teacher. This is sports-slang not karate jargon. Karate, slipping from its feudal past, emerged into the world not really to maintain the traditions of the past but to spread to the future. Its traditions have not been passed because there is no precedence in our culture for such bizarre sub-cultural methods. Sports was the way of the future. Sport is what karate became. Let me explain;

In ancient Japan you could not just join a Daito-Ryu (aikijutsu) dojo. You had to be recommended and occasionally pass a long period of uchideshi chores as the compound, such as scrubbing floors, washing dirty laundry, and cultivating the garden. In modern America this would be considered stupid when there are other dojo around that you could just join and not have to clean the dojo floor or do any other menial (and demeaning?) task.

In ancient Japan you lived in a compound with other deshi. In modern America this would be considered a cult. In ancient Japan you knew the names and personalities of every student training, sometimes even their heritage back several hundred years. You ate with them, trained with them, slept in the same room with them, did compound chores with them, suffered with them, nursed them through their illnesses and watched some of them die. In modern America uchideshi is not practical. We hardly know one another. But it is not our fault. Many Americans can’t name everyone that lives within one or two houses of their home.

Martial arts have become a sport in the modern world. With the sport-façade much of the tradition has evaporated. Students take karate; students aren’t martial artists (except in name only). They often are present only to learn a series of techniques and gain recognition of their physical proficiency. The idea of knowing fellow participants is as foreign as knowing the names of every person going to high school with them. And yet when asked about the dojo community Sensei Kahalekulu said (and I paraphrase), “karate dojo is a closely knit, highly moral body of individuals striving to improve their tolerance towards life and acceptance of the imminence of death.” This does not fit the sports model. This fits the life-style model.

The Sensei of Aoinagi Karate are trained to teach life-style model of martial arts. They can teach competition but that is but a small part of what they want from their students. Although none of the current Aoinagi Karate Sensei have uchideshi and run a full-time martial arts compound each of the Sensei wish that the students learn to interact as martial artists rather than just learn to fight.

In this modern world of individualism, separatism, private homes with hallways and separate rooms for all sleeping individuals, double-bathrooms inside a house, history of horrendous cults where members are killed or commit mass suicide the concept of an uchideshi compound is not really practical. But the inward growth resulting from close interpersonal relationships should not be excluded. At Aoinagi Karate I have attempted to create the human environment so that students can, will and do interact in more than kumite practice.

The Aoinagi Sensei (all of them) understand the importance of human interaction in this complex world. We are no longer the hermits of caves in the mountains or the secret societies in desperately dangerous cultures. We live in a world population of 5.8 billion. That is about 10 times more than 100 years ago (580 million). We can’t live in dojo-compounds but we can learn the intricate subtleties of human interaction if we choose to create environments that are conducive to human interaction. Hence the new Aoinagi Karate Dojo. It is patent (come when you want, no initiation). It is interactive (look at the community building that Ron was asking about in his questions above). It is ruled by conflict negotiation rather than violence. It is positive rather than negative. It is different than most other martial arts dojo (but not all).

Returning to a critical part of Ron’s question: “Is it [community building] an integral, yet perhaps sometimes overlooked component of martial arts?”

Yes! As stated above, community building is a martial way of life rather than a sport. It is difficult to build into a sport aspiring for the Olympics the traditions of conflict negotiation, positive investment, living-togetherness, self-disclosure, sharing nature of the communal martial artists of old.

Now the question is out of my hands and into the hands of the hundreds of practitioners of Aoinagi Karate. What is it exactly that you want to learn. Are your interests mostly along the modern interpretation of the meaning of karate as a distinct sport?

Do you want your martial training to be like any ball team you have been a member where you learn some techniques, some sportspersonship and then go on to another type of ball team to repeat the process?

Do you want your dojo to be a unique experience involving communication, conflict negotiation, cooperativeness and the difficulties inherent when a group of people come together and enmesh themselves in the deepest levels of humanness; interpersonal relationships.

I applaud the Sensei in Aoinagi Karate for trying to make their dojo the launching pads of the new way of doing martial arts: as artists-of-life rather than as competitors in sport.

I hope you applaud them, too.