well, thanks for the question and it is a fair one. I no longer train in the martial arts, however I have in the past trained under many teachers, in Canada, the US, Thailand, and Japan. I've trained with Korean teachers, Brazilian teachers, Japanese teachers. I've visited many d?j? and experienced the technique of teachers both low and high ranked. I spent ten years of my life devoted to that, all in my twenties.
In North America, most schools of martial arts are for-profit enterprises in a competitive marketplace. That leads to a fair amount of marketing hyperbole, on the one hand, and mis-advertising on the other. Martial arts are supposed to involve a fair amount of self-effacement, yet a perusal of the yellow pages shows a great many schools proudly advertising the dan-ranking of the head instructor, along with the usual stuff like 'member of the Korean Army tactical weapons squad, etc.,. The cases of Korean instructors (not to pick on any group in particular, just an example) getting on the plane in Korea with a second dan and stepping off the plane at LAX with a 5th dan I suspect has happened more than once. So so much for the qualities of modesty and honesty.
In Japan, many martial art schools are for hobby-practitioners - especially, I would say, the more arcane and unusual styles. Training is twice a week at most and isn't particularly strenuous or serious. I came to discover that people were promoted to high ranks in many cases not because of proficiency in their arts, but because they were older and it was appropriate, in regards to Japanese social practices (what someone's job is, and how old they are determines social rank), that they be ranked higher than younger practitioners. Herrigel is a good example of that. He arrived in Japan in his 40's, and was a university lecturer, socially a high status position. He trained once a week for three years
and at the end of that Awa awarded him a 5th dan in ky?d?. 5th dan therefore means nothing. He states in his book that he trained for 6 years, which is a lie. What can the morality of the rest of what he offers in his book be like if he lies at the outset about something for which there was no need to lie? This is one aspect of what I mean about bullshit.
I trained in Dait? Ry? Aikij?jutsu in Hokkaid? for 4 years. This is an art with many splinter and derivative styles, including Aikid?. I trained almost all of that time in the central style under a very good teacher in Obihiro City. I also visited and trained in many, many other schools in that style and its derivatives all over the island. I've practiced techniques with sensei who are supposed to be 'Grandmasters' in their particular sects and felt their techniques personally, and came away unimpressed in many cases, despite walking in hopeful that I would find a 'true master' to train with. Even when I went down to T?ky? to take my dan
exam with the head of Dait? Ry? Aikij?jutsu for all Japan (my teacher's superior), I thought his techniques were not altogether impressive. He tried to show me a 'correction' to a choking technique. I felt his technique would not have actually choked me out. I felt he was using too much strength and did not have the bio-mechanics correct. I know what being choked out is and know what an effective choke or strangle is supposed to do. He didn't have that game. I received my dan rank but I came away a bit deflated. It's just a piece of paper after all. Really good teachers are very few and far between in my experience - I'd say I've had three during my time in the martial arts, out of maybe 40 places I trained in.
Japan is by and large a very peaceful society. Fights and assaults are quite uncommon. Many martial art teachers haven't ever been in an actual combative situation, and neither have their teachers, or their teachers before them. After a while, things start to, uh, drift away from reality. Case in point is the following video:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gEDaCIDvj6I
I've seen more than a few schools run by guys like that. Their students seem gullible enough, and I'm curious to know what those students did after the match- did they stay with their teacher? Maybe combative reality is unimportant to some people doing martial arts, but it there is not some core of reality to the practice and the techniques, it isn't really a 'martial' art, its a form of dance, or something else.
Some further background: what started me on the path of seeing the light, as it were, in regards to most martial art schools, was my experience in the late 1980's going down to L.A. to train with Brazilian J?jutsu master Rickson Gracie. I had been training in a Korean art derived from j?jutsu for 8 years prior to that and was, if I might say (and not to be self-aggrandizing), reasonably skilled. After 5 minutes on the mat with Rickson, however, it became rapidly apparent that I had nothing
whatsoever, technique-wise, that would put a dent in Rickson's game. He wasn't stronger than me, or faster, or anything like that. His techniques, none of which were hard to learn or execute, were simply unstoppable, and he showed me that many of the techniques I had been practicing (and thought I was proficient at) didn't really work when the other fellow wasn't co-operating with you. It was incredibly eye-opening. He could tell me what technique he was going to do to me, and within 30 seconds, generally, he would execute that technique no matter what I might do to try and stop him. It was incredibly humbling. One of the best experiences I ever had. He never tried to wow me with flashy or exotic moves - he just did the basics, the same ones he showed me, perfectly. I finally came to understand, for the first time, what j?jutsu really was - it's like wrestling with quicksand. And, it's like putting on a jacket. That might read humorously to some, but it makes sense to me!
Many people stay within their one school and style their entire time and that school often ends up much like a weird bubble. Not to say that some good things don't go on in that bubble, but sometimes one's sense of reality becomes quite skewed.
When I was traveling and training at various j?jutsu schools in Japan, I would find that many of the techniques shown (especially those involving ground grappling) either were too reliant upon strength, or just didn't really work, not if I tried to resist them. Another experience in Japan: I go and visit a new d?j? and be paired up with a black belt for the practice session. After working with someone for 3 hours you tend to get a decent sense of their skill level. I concluded he was probably a newly minted black-belt. I looked later on the school's name tag board and saw to my shock that he was a 5th dan. I didn't return to that school. Ranks don't generally mean much, in other words. Just because a person has trained a long time doesn't always mean much either in terms of skill or combative effectiveness I'm afraid.
I think once a school starts revolving it's curriculum around a series of colored belts, and starts staging highly artificial forms of sparring, and establishes hierarchies of teachers and ranks and affiliations, things are often going downhill from the original teachings. If you're paying to train, in many cases, you are buying your belts. Particularly in Japan there is a tendency for followers of an especially skilled martial artist to codify and institutionalize a curriculum of techniques after that master has passed on. The dynamism and openness becomes hardened over with a concretion of ritual and rankings and a lot of that masters original teachings really get lost thereby. Bruce Lee alluded to this when he made his comments about the 'classical mess' of martial arts.
And let's face it, 98% of the martial arts being practiced today, while they like to link themselves back to the hoary days of old, centuries of history, etc., are really 20th century creations for them most part. All the major Japanese styles/forms in practice today are modern creations- J?d?, Karate, Aikid?, Kend?. Same for Korean styles like Tang-soo-d?, Hapkid?, Tae-kwon-d?.
I think, as Yamada mentions in Shots in the Dark
, people tend to like mirrors which show them to their best effect. I would say that many martial art schools in North America, the mirror being held up is that you will become tough, you will become disciplined, you will associate to a lineage of proud warriors, you will become confident, you will fear no man, blah, blah. In a highly militarized culture such as the US, such reflections are bound to be attractive to many. And some people, once they realize what sorts of things will be attractive sales propositions, have no compunctions in regards to flogging that message at the cost of everything else. It's a business and you have to survive. It's good to focus on kids classes. etc. Dangle lots of little carrots to keep them coming back, offer discount packages for multi-month memberships, two-for-one deals, etc..
Not to say that one can't derive lots of positive things from getting together socially with others and practicing something, especially if it involves some exercise. That's all good. And there are many decent people teaching selflessly as well. People may also be quite satisfied training in a school that teaches unrealistic moves, or declares itself to be about 'ki-training' and that sort of thing, and that's fine too, so long as they aren't under any illusions about it.
Finally, think back to the movie The Karate Kid. I think one message was pretty well delivered: Who was teaching the real
martial arts in that movie - Mr. Miyagi, who had his student wash cars all day, etc., or the guy with the 'Cobra-Kai' school and the kids in the black outfits and the militarized drills and fierce expressions? That Cobra-Kai scene is a good representation of the bullshit I was referring to.