Dojo, Academy, Club, School… What Do These Names Really Mean?

Karate is taught under many different banners. Some of these are “schools” or “academies,”  while others are called “dojos” or “clubs.”

I am sure that there are other names, too. Is there really a difference?

bb at nakazato dojo croppedI’ve delivered karate instructions under two of these names, and I believe the answer is “no.”

Someone once told me that unless you teach in a place that you pay rent or a mortgage, pay utilities, and all of the other expenses, you are only a club. Not only that, you’re not really a professional teacher.

When I began teaching karate, it was at my church.  Because the church was happy to have a new activity in their facility, I was lucky and was not charged rent for use of the space. I decided to call what I was doing a “club” as the name of my business.

When I moved into my own rented store, I dropped “club” from the name. Did I become a better teacher by renting a space and dropping club from the name? I don’t think so. Was I more professional in how I ran my dojo because I rented space? No, not that either.

The traits that formed me as a professional teacher are not that I paid rent or utilities or other expenses. I became a professional teacher by adopting best practices given to me by those whom I respect in the martial arts, by continuing my own training, by attending workshops and seminars. I have always been willing to modify my teaching methods as my student population changed while still keeping a high standard of excellence. And of course, by caring deeply for my students.

Over the course of the last 20+ years I have come to know many martial arts instructors from around the USA, and the world.  I learned something from all of them, even the bad instructors. Some of the teachers that I hold in the highest regard teach in recreation centers, churches, and other non-traditional settings. They consistently produce outstanding martial artists. These are not just students who can kick and punch, but who become fine citizens.

To me, that is the definition of a quality and professional martial arts program. The name is just that… a name.

I look forward to continuing to teach everyone in our new arrangement, and to enjoy the mutual progress we all make, and the striving to be better and to learn more in each and every class. Our new space is… spacious!… compared to the the retail space we just left. That means we can have students do a wider variety of things in the class, and it also means that students have a place to gather before class to warm up or practice without interrupting the class that’s in progress.

We’re still a dojo no matter where we are at the time. Any time or place where we learn “the way” of karate (that’s what dojo means) is our dojo. Let’s make the most of our new location, and be the best karateka we can be!

Farewell to Our Founder!

It was just last month when we mentioned the birthday of our founder Shugoro Nakazato. Sadly, we were informed of his passing roughly two weeks after his 97th birthday.  This issue is dedicated to him.

Shugoro Nakazato was born in Naha city, Okinawa, on August 14, 1919. In 1935, at the age of 16, while attending normal school in Osaka, Japan, he began his lifelong karate study under the direction of Ishu Seiichi. Nakazato studied under Sensei Ishu for six years.

nakazato-10thDuring World War II, he was in the Japanese cavalry. Following the surrender of Japan, Nakazato returned to his home in Okinawa to find his family a casualty of the war. In June 1946, he began his study of karate under Chosin Chibana, who was the Menkyo inheritor of Anko Itotsu. In 1948, Chibana’s Shuri Dojo closed, but Nakazato continued his study with Master Chibana, being personally tutored for over a year in Chibana’s own home. In 1951, Nakazato was instrumental in helping Chibana open his new Dai Ichi Dojo in Naha city at Matsuo.

Chibana continued his personal teaching of Nakazato at the Dai Ichi Dojo until January 10, 1954, when Nakazato received his Shihan Menkyojo and became Master Chibana’s Shihan Dai (Main Assistant). After working as the Shihan Dai in the Matsuo Dojo under Chibana’s direction for one and a half years, Nakazato was commissioned by Chibana to found the Shorin-Ryu Shorin Kan Nakazato Dojo in Naha city at Aza.

Nakazato was appointed as one of the directors of the Okinawan Karate Federation when it was formed in 1956, associating the four major (shiryuha) systems of karate in Okinawa (Goju-Ryu, Ueichi-Ryu, Shorin-Ryu (Ko), and Shorin-Ryu (Matsuo). During this time, Nakazato devoted all of his time and energy to teaching and perfecting Shorin-Ryu karate.

nakazato-awardIn 1960, the Okinawan Karate Federation promoted him to Eighth Degree Black Belt and titled him “Kyoshi.” Seven years later, Nakazato continued his progress in karate when Master Chibana and the Okinawan Shorin-Ryu Karate Do Kyokai promoted him to Ninth Degree Black Belt and bestowed the title “Hanshi” on him.

Nakazato was designated as an “intangible cultural asset holder” by Okinawa Prefecture in 2000. He was awarded the Order of the Rising Sun, 5th Class with Gold and Silver Rays on November 4, 2007.

I had the privilege and honor of meeting Hanshi Nakazato during my trip to his dojo in 2013. The respect and loyalty for him among his students there and the visiting students with me was an inspiration to continue my studies in this system. We know our system will continue as it is in the good hands of Hanshi’s son Minoru Nakazato, a transition that was planned and underway in recent years.

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You Were Just Promoted to Shodan. Now What?

Some students, mainly youth students, believe that reaching shodan (1st degree black belt) is the end of their studies.

They could not be more wrong.  Shodan is where your most important studies begin.

Reaching shodan level is like graduating from high school. Like that educational milestone, it is a great accomplishment but you really don’t know as much as you might think. High school graduation means that you are ready for advanced learning, whether that’s college or some other training. High school education is a foundation, not an end.

senseikamaIn martial arts, to get this higher learning you must remain active in the dojo!

It is common for some new black belts to reduce their dojo attendance. Where as an under belt they might have attended 2-3 classes per week they now only come maybe once a week. Some schools, like ours, provide a special intensive monthly back belt class where students are trusted with high-level material. This three-hour class explores what we know in more detail, and discover for ourselves new ways and new applications.

Regardless of how many days you come to the dojo it is important that you do continue to come.  True growth comes through learning and learning occurs in the dojo. This is why we practice on our own, so we can make the most of our time on the dojo floor.

Attending seminars and assisting your Sensei by teaching classes are also great ways to increase one’s knowledge of technique application, not to mention sharing what you have learned with those you are following in your steps.

So you are a shodan! Now what?

Don’t stop learning!

Come to the dojo as often as you can. Help your teachers and the other students striving for a shodan understanding of their art. Your interest in generously sharing what you learned, your setbacks, and your experience, gives others students great encouragement and also helps you understand your karate studies with a fresh new perspective.

Brown Belt. Close, but not Close Enough!

Some students think that they have “made it” because they reached brown belt level. They believe that black belt promotion is so close they can taste it, and because it’s that close, it will automatically happen.

Don’t fall prey to that thinking!senseikama

As I like to say, “close only counts in horse shoes and hand grenades but neither are used in black belt tests.” In many traditional karate styles it takes 4, 5 or more years to prepare for a shodan (1st dan) test, which is much different than many of the “McDojos” that seem to be on almost every corner.

While working through brown belt requirements in the quest for shodan, some students, especially young students, can feel a little burned out. This is the time when parents, friends, fellow classmates, and their instructors must find ways to encourage them and keep them going.

I have seen many students reach brown belt and lose the desire to continue. That is like dropping out of high school in the 11th grade. There is no GED in karate (well, perhaps at the McDojos, but I digress).

I encourage all advanced students and black belt candidates to dig deep and practice.

Don’t just go through the motions but practice with a purpose (read the How to Practice article in the January issue). Put in all of the extra time that you can. Ask your sensei and the other black belts to work with you. You might be surprised that the same ones who work you so hard in class will bend over backwards to help you to join “their” club.

Parents and students should stop thinking that shodan rank is the end of the journey. On the contrary, it is the beginning. I know of students, usually young students, who stop training as soon as they receive their black belt.  This is a big mistake!

The door to advanced knowledge is about to open and they are not there to take advantage of it. A week or two off to recoup from the test might be in order but it is important to get back into the dojo as soon as possible. A black belt’s relationship to martial arts should last a lifetime. A change in dojo might be a necessity because of moving, going away to college, or other reasons, but quitting should never be an option. Brown belts need to push on to Black and Black belts should never stop their quest for learning! They should always keep practicing, but when they’re not near a dojo, they can add to their knowledge in other ways. There are many excellent and highly readable books about martial arts techniques and the history of the arts that will expand their horizons and deepen their interest, which will improve their skills.

Why Do We Test?

This is great question and has many answers. Cynics say that testing is just a means for instructors to make more money in fees and by selling belts. It should be a way to gauge student progress. Others say it showcases talents, and shows student progress for parents.

Student progress can always be measured during classes, but the test is a different environment with focused scrutiny on one student’s performance. The ability to perform alone is very important in the event a student may need to execute self-defense techniques in a real-life situation. A test may seem stressful, but that is an important experience for all students to have, a step that increases their senssenseikamae of accomplishment and their confidence in their techniques. It is important to direct stress, where the body creates and releases a great amount of energy, into greater focus and concentration. Under these circumstances, executing the pattern of a kata or a defensive technique. We have had two recent black belt tests where despite physical exhaustion and the stress of the test, the students performed far better than they usually did in class. Testing brings the best out of our students, it seems.

Every test allows us to gauge progress and showcase those increased abilities and knowledge to parents. They need to be assured that their sacrifice of time and their investment in classes are worthwhile.

Fees cover various expenses of the tests, but those are actually small in relation to their actual costs, and the volunteered time of advance students in the dojo, and our occasional visitors from other dojos, who evaluate our testing students.

Students, nor parents, should ask when they are going to test. Instead, students should consistently demonstrate their skills and abilities in class.

Trust me, Sensei is watching. Other black belts are watching too. Sensei and the other black belt instructors use class time to determine when students are ready for a test. Demonstrated skills and abilities in class should be the determining factor. It’s always obvious who is practicing at home and who is using their class time most effectively.

I have seen students be promoted all the way to Shodan even though they did not test well. Consistently performing at a high level in class helped the instructors to justify the promotions. Belt tests are very important. Consistently working hard in class is even more so.

How to Prepare for a Belt Test

Preparing for a belt test starts immediately after the last test. That means students are always working toward their next belt goal. Preparation does not start a few weeks before a test; preparation is constant because all new martial arts skills are built on the foundation of everything you learned from the beginning of your studies.

Every belt level has new material to be learned, and all students are expected to improve all of their prior material. Naihanchi Shodan performed by a brown belt should look very different from an orange belt’s performance of that kata. The higher the belt, more is expected. Low belt students may make basic punches, for example, but higher belt students will punch with precision, speed, and power. If you watch lower belt students, it seems they perform kabb at nakazato dojo croppedta one movement at a time. Higher belt students perform kata in a way that shows a kata’s movements as connected to each other, with one completed movement seeming to prepare for the next one.

This is why every class and every practice session at home is a preparation for the next test, not limited to just the sessions a few weeks before.

Sometimes students and parents have difficulty understanding this. But it’s not any different from our school experiences. Learning how to add and subtract in early grades prepares us for multiplication and division, which eventually prepares them to be architects, engineers, statisticians, accountants, programmers, and other careers. Learning how letters sound prepares students to read, and as they read they learn vocabulary, and as they learn that, they learn how to speak and write, read signs and books, and go through their days.

Just like those learning foundations, martial arts has its own. We build that foundation through practice, not by preparing for a belt test.

Failure to consistently practice all that a student has learned (see the January issue’s “How to Practice“) will hamper the student’s preparation for an upcoming test. Trust me! I will be watching, along with all our black belts, and my very own teachers. When they visit, they are always watching to see improvement on previously learned kata, and the most basic techniques.

In many cases students are not allowed to test because of they have trouble remembering and repeating the techniques previously learned. It’s like building a house without a foundation. A house can’t stand through storms and winds if it does not have a solid foundation.

Don’t focus on the next belt test date. Focus on always doing your kata and techniques well through continuous practice, paying careful attention in class, and asking questions of me and the advanced students.

Karate for Teens: It’s a Special Opportunity for Them and Others

Increasing the number of teen students in the dojo can be a major challenge. Many teenagers already have what they believe is a full schedule. Every teenager has school classes, homework projects, part time jobs, dating, parties, and other social activities. Others participate in athletic teams, school bands and other extracurricular activities. Trying to “squeeze” karate lessons into schedules can be difficult for many of them and their parents.

Teens who are most likely to join a dojo often like sports but do not belong to any teams or clubs. Others have a sibling or parent with a martial arts background. There are teens who are trying to overcome or manage obstacles such as bullying, shyness, and physical or mental challenges.

The teenage years can be challenging because teens sometimes just want to “fit in.” If their friends do not participate in an activity or their friends think that it is silly (not cool), it can be hard to get them to commit.  Participating in competitions and demonstrations can entice teens to start lessons and stay active in the dojo.  I call it the “competition bug.”  Winning trophies and medals makes everyone seem to be “cool.”

Regardless of the reasons for starting lessons, teen students can be the best students in the dojo. Their physical coordination is better than younger students, their stamina is usually better than older students, they have good memories and they catch on quickly.

The key is getting them beyond the beginning stage where the basic fundamentals are drilled over and over. Those that stay into the intermediate level tend to last a long while. Boys tend to gravitate to the sparring aspect and the flexibility of girls usually make them outstanding kickers.

Taking on leadership roles in the dojo builds confidence and self esteem and also helps to keep teen members.  This is an excellent way to develop skills needed in their future education, jobs, and families. It’s better to learn those skills now, especially during the teenage years when peer pressure issues can be a problem. They also learn that commitment can require sacrifice, and that going to class, even when they don’t feel like it on a particular day, is worthwhile in the end. Psychologists call this an understanding of “delayed gratification,” an essential experience they will need when making hard decisions in adulthood.

Martial Arts participation on a high school senior’s resume also creates a positive impression for college admissions officers and potential employers. It shows dedication to goals, the ability to work with others, take direction of adults outside of school settings, and a desire to improve character and health.

There are many selling points to attract teenagers into the dojo.  Getting them to listen to the advantages of starting karate lessons is the challenge.  As adults, we know that the reasons we first get involved in activities are not always the reasons we stay. Focus first on what seems to be most important to them at that time.

They may begin classes because a friend is a student, but they stay because they meet new friends, their sense of progress, and new feelings of confidence. Getting teens into the dojo is a major challenge. It’s important to focus on the benefits they believe are most important first. They will understand the other benefits as they continue their practice.

I have enjoyed working with the teens in the dojo. They can be a real joy to work with, and their progress inspires other students, and me as their teacher. Thank you for entrusting this important part of their education to me and the other students and families of the dojo.