I once had an interaction with someone who referred to their school as a genuine samurai school. They insisted their school was authentic and that it dated back to the warring states period of Japan, but refused even to tell me the name of it. There were other students of other schools that spoke to me of their experiences which sparked this essay. It led me to think about this sense of cult and the fondness for embellishing in Martial arts.
There are some warning signs that you're in a cult. Most cults are religious in their tones with lots of tight control, but not the right kind of control. I want to take this idea about cult behavior and put it in the scope of martial arts. I will list some issues that are cause for concern in martial arts schools and systems. Whether you're new to martial arts or have been around it is good to have the eyes open. Certain groups have been steeped in lies and embellishments for so long that people lost sight of the more traditional system which is set up for honest growth of its students, and not the stroking of ego or growth of the owner's wallet.
Are they claiming extraordinary things?
Is the group or teacher saying that no other group has a specific idea? Are they claiming only they know the essence of martial arts? Or that they know more than other groups? Are they the only school that does the armbar correctly? Are they the only school showing true samurai sword techniques?
Is there a claim that the teacher is infallible?
That you should never question what you are taught? Is the 'Do as your told' mentality prominent? For example, utterly blind trust?
Of course, we need to trust our teacher; however, we shouldn't put them up on an unreachable pedestal.
Are you actively discouraged from asking questions?
When you ask questions, are they deflected or answered in a vague way?
Are they putting down other groups only to build themselves up?
That group has such and such faults, and we are doing something better and you will learn more here than any other group.
Putting down other dojo and schools to the extent that they build up their own school is the sign of trouble. There is of course some healthy dialogue regarding other schools, but it should not often be or mean spirited.
Overly critical speech from the main teacher?
Is he pointing out your failures more than anything else?
Are they hiding criticism of themselves or their student base and school? Do they paint former students as enemies or speak of them as adversaries?
If someone leaves the school for the smallest infraction are they talked about in an overly negative and derogatory way?
Are they always on the defensive of every aspect of their teachings?
Is there anything tangible along with their goals?
Goals can include a belt and rank system. The status of colored belts, while beneficial, can also serve as something more sinister and problematic. Be careful of frequent testing and their associated fees. Be wary as well of any school that says you can't learn their sword techniques unless you're a black belt. Sword training usually is not behind a rank or paywall.
Are they conducting themselves humbly or arrogantly?
Do they appear arrogant? Saying things like, "people who do koryu do it this hard way." "This is how it's done in Japan; you wouldn't know!" "My teacher did it harsh like this so I am doing it the same way. Get over it!" Being a strict teacher with your students education and wellbeing at heart is not arrogant.
Is your teacher or group guilt-tripping you into maintaining a certain belief or standard that the teacher himself does not?
We need to be careful of these points. Not everyone is perfect, but how many of the above points can you pin to your school or teacher?
I might have walked away from some groups that I could have stayed with, but in the end, we have to be the judge of what we can take and not take.
Bad treatment, or racism, discrimination, lies, deceit, and drama, those are all valid reasons for not liking someone or not wanting to be in a certain group.
Danger & Red Flags
There are a lot of red flags that go up when someone that teaches koryu or martial arts won't let you know the name of their school, teacher, or lineage. If the teacher claims to be making trips there to train ask for the dates and locations.
If you have been practicing an art from Japan that has a lineage and you have never been there for training, and your school is secret, and you can't be shown any techniques then something is wrong. No school in Japan functions this way. No one is operating with that much secrecy. Be skeptical of anyone that tells you otherwise. A private attitude is different than a secretive one.
If you're someone in a school like that, then you are probably in a dangerous situation.
Someone who devotes 30 years of their life to a system that is so secretive that there is no information anywhere, no demos, no open discussions of their history or lineage, even their systems name! That is completely unacceptable.
If you spent 30 plus years of your life training in that environment, then something is wrong.
Any sane and rational person could get involved in that type of school as a young person but grow up and look around and see its not the norm. Questions should begin popping up at some point.
You have to draw the line between fantasy and reality.
Please evaluate your situation if you're in that environment.
I was in an environment where the dojo was being run shadily, and I saw unethical treatment. Put into a situation where I had also to keep the lies of my teacher, I became part of the lies through my involvement in the school, and I had to make a decision. Stay, be part of the deceit and get some teachings because its something I want to learn? I chose to walk away and not be part of it. Others stayed. In my view, lots of people do this kind of whoring behavior where they trade good sound morals and ethics to acquire ranks and techniques.
It is damaging to your psyche and moral fiber. In the end, it is entirely unwholesome as it poisons not only your life but other lives as well.
For myself, it is not worth it.
Some other issues to be aware of is when you view their biographies on their websites. Is there a claim of rank or are the head of an organization they created? Is their position in an otherwise bogus organization? That is another red flag. For example, something with Bushido in the title. Maybe its called Bushido-ryu and they are a 50th dan in Bushido-ryu. It is best to embrace the search function of the internet then. If you can't spot a fake name then just search it. What comes up? If its a bit of a dead-end and that person has a rank in it that usually means they gave it to themselves.
If someone claims to be 7th Dan (7th-degree black belt) in Fushukan* and within their biography, you see they started the Fushukan at an earlier time that means they gave themselves their rank. Such behavior is not normal in any decent martial arts system. Let's face it; there is no reason to lie. There is no reason to bestow a rank upon yourself. That is pure narcissistic behavior. It is best to question your teacher about his lineage directly. It is not rude nor impolite to ask about their training. If there is a lot of hemming and hawing or concealment or vague answers, then something is wrong.
If you only have a black belt in something and wish to teach, then teach it on your own merits and skill, and not lies. There is on reason trying to fake your way into a lineage or creating groups then giving yourself high ranks and titles in that group. The individuals lying in this manner usually have a lot of bad character traits that you will be exposed to, abused by and even inherit in your training with them.
Another issue is the use of titles like soke or, shodai soke, dai soke. Also English terms like Professor or Doctor. Even if they hold those titles, officially they shouldn't be continually referring to themselves as such. When you see these titles and terms, it should be a cause for a pause before joining. It is best to judge the teacher on his skill and character, and that of his students as well. Titles are misleading. Be very wary of anyone touting themselves as a soke. It is not a badge of honor or anything exceptional. It merely means someone (might have) inherited a school is the masthead of the organization. It does not mean they are even a martial arts teacher. Sensei, sifu, or sabunim are entirely respectful and standard ways to address a teacher in Japanese, Chinese, and Korean arts, respectively.
Not all titles are bogus, but when you see rank that is over fifth-degree its best to look into it and see where that rank came from. Usually, the charlatans enjoy using rank that seems high or the titles mentioned before. You need to give your teacher a lot of yourself as you train. It is dangerous to trust a predator with your supple intellect and exploitable wallet.
Which is better, someone with moderate skill and true teachings without lies, or someone with low skill at instructions with a heavily embellished biography and other problems with veracity?
I make the argument that someone who is a caring, compassionate teacher that has skills to pass on is a real teacher. The man or woman leading a group of people masquerading as a martial artist is extremely dangerous.
This is an issue in Japan as much as it is in other countries. Make no mistake that it is not only a western problem.
Just like the Buddha taught to the Kalamas that if doubt arises, then it is because there is a reason to have that doubt.
Lot's of people want to set themselves up as the leader of a group and to experience the worship of students. This is not what a teacher should be doing. I have seen countless videos, websites, and bio's claiming all sorts of things. I am unsure why people can not resist the urge to embellish and lie. Be honest about yourself and your art. Thank you for taking the time to read my ideas. If you have any questions, please send me a message.
*Fushukan is an arbitrary example of a non-traditional Japanese school name. Some such names used are budo this or that and ninja this or that. For instance, Budo-ryu or Ninja Warriors Ryu is not a traditional Japanese martial arts school name.