Real or Fake?

Is Your Martial Arts School Legitimate?

Let’s say you join a martial arts club, partly on the dojo’s literature that claims it’s the exclusive representative in the United States of a 1,000 year old mystical martial arts only taught previously to Chinese Taoist sages.

Cool, you think. You’re learning stuff only few Westerners are privy to, and it raises your status during cocktail hour discussions. As you break a sweat during training sessions and fork over the monthly dues, you don’t mind. You’re imagining that you’re in the footsteps of ancient samurai warriors, or Taoist mystics.

But are you? Or are you and your money being neatly parted by a con artist who knows how to use just the right words to scam you, and what you are learning is only a mish-mash of techniques stolen from videotapes and obscure books?

In the past, we’ve made fun of these groups and their prey. But we continue to receive notes from people who are desperately inquiring about the legitimacy of a group they’re considering joining, and we also receive letters of protest from students of some groups widely reputed to be bogus.

The problem is, we’re not a martial arts clearinghouse. Furyu doesn’t stick a stamp of approval on any dojo as to whether or not they’re telling the truth. Ye Old Publisher makes a “real” living as a high school teacher, and the kind of money I make doesn’t allow me to travel much to investigate all the dojo in the United States.

But the questions keep coming up, so herewith is a short, concise primer on finding out if your neighborhood ninja-kung fu-jujutsu-wok stir fry-Tibetan meditation school is for real. There are actually some really easy steps to finding out if your group is legitimate or not before you contact me:

Check Out the Literature

While Furyu refrains from making direct comments about specific groups, you can find a substantial amount of background on people and martial arts styles in various sources. Donn F. Draeger’s books on Asian martial arts are a good place to start.

If it is a modern -do form, such as karatedo, judo, aikido, and so on, your search is relatively easy. You can ask the teacher if the club is affiliated with any organization. Each -do form has large umbrella organizations that certify and rank members. Some schools are independent due to political and/or personality differences, but you can still check on whether or not they’re any good by referring to published info. If, for example, you want to know if Jiyushinkan (an actual, independent club) does teach a viable variant of aikido, you should observe their classes, talk to the teachers, and then compare what they teach to books on aikido in any large bookstore.

The Internet, although it’s a source of cheap frauds, is also a great resource for networking. Various discussion groups will be able to put you in touch with people who can give you frank opinions about nearly any martial arts organization in the US. There are discussion groups for karate, aikido, iaido, and jujutsu. Post a question about a group and you will get a lot of replies from nearly anyone who has an opinion about it in a few days, if not hours.

The koryu (ancient martial arts) are a bit harder to ferret out, which is why you will find more fakes, frauds and truthshavers here than in, say, Shotokan karate. For one thing, most of the literature remains in Japanese, and there aren’t that many practitioners in America who can go back to the original source materials easily. How do you know if Master Joe Bob is really a teacher of some ancient swordfighting art called Tenshin Shoden Shinkage Shinto Booga Booga-ryu?

Again, obtain as much information as you can on your visit to the dojo. Then try to find resource material that corroborates or deny the claims. I know they’re going to hate me for giving ’em more work to do, but besides the above mentioned books and Internet groups, there are several individuals who can help you, if they’re not too busy. Hugh F. Davey of the Shudokan Martial Arts Association maintains strong connections with legitimate credential-giving authorities in Japan. Diane and Meik Skoss of Koryu Books were/are members of several koryu arts and study groups in Japan for several years. Now relocated in the continental US, they are a prime resource of information. Kim Taylor, who puts out the Iaido Newsletter, teaches at the University of Guelph, Ontario, Canada, and sponsors several sword and iaido seminars, is also a good source. All of these people can be found by searching the Internet for their web sites and/or discussion groups.

People like the Skosses and Kim Taylor, etc. are becoming more important, because the frauds themselves are organizing into their own legitimizing groups. To lend an air of authenticity, some groups are banding together and awarding each other tenth degree black belts. So then they legitimize each other’s fakery. If you check out such individual instructors against their self-serving groups, you may be put under the impression that they’re legitimate, unless you hunt the Internet and contact other people not connected with them.

If it is a koryu, nine times out of ten the style should be listed in the Bugei Ryuha Daijiten, a compendium of martial arts systems put together by Watatani Kiyoshi and Yamada Tadashi. This book is over 1,000 pages of small type and has yet to be fully translated into English, and obtaining an out-of-print copy in Kanda, Tokyo, would set you back several hundred dollars. But it sits on the bookshelf of most bilingual researchers, and anytime someone asks me an obscure question about koryu lineage, it’s the first book I pull out.

Another warning sign that your style may be fake is if you ask about lineage, and the teacher or the senior students put you off, saying you’re not ready for such secret knowledge. Japanese society is notorious for its mountains of paperwork, and all legitimate martial ryu (styles) were assiduously recorded and documented in some kind of provincial or clan record. Watatani and Yamada assembled all the known references together into compiling several thousands of ryu listing. If the koryu is not listed in the Bugei Ryuha Daijiten, I’d be very suspicious.

All Books Are Not Created Equal

One word of warning, though. All the books on the shelves of your local chain bookstore may not be equally legitimate. As a longtime journalist, I’ve run into cases where people believe anything that’s been printed, because it’s printed. That’s not true. Even the most sincere writers can make honest errors in accuracy. And with mass media and the fast buck being so omnipresent, books, magazines and the Internet are flooded with frauds of all kinds, not just in martial arts. Books have been printed on glossy stock with fancy photographs that, to my eyes, are full of crap (pardon the expression, but that’s my gut reaction to some of the stuff I see).

Someone once sent me a book about his teacher and style, perhaps to make me aware of this “unique individual.” What I saw, however, was a carefully orchestrated con game foisted on that admirer and the rest of the students; a con game perpetrated for decades through a masterful use of obscurity, oriental stereotypes and misunderstanding of Japanese history.

Just because an instructor appears in Black Belt, Inside Karate, Karate-Kung-Fu Illustrated, or some other mainstream martial arts magazine doesn’t mean they’re legitimate, either. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not knocking these magazines. They’re good at what they do. They offer mainstream martial arts entertainment for the average majority of martial artists in this country. But they seem to go through so many different profiles of so many different martial arts “masters” that inevitably, a couple of frauds slip through that are easily picked out by those who know what to look for. Again, I would rely on material obtained through more discerning researchers, such as Hugh F. Davey, Kim Taylor, etc.

Study the Trappings

You can also study the environment. Most legitimate martial arts teachers, whether or not they are professionals or part-time instructors, should carry themselves as professionals. Picture that sensei outside of his outfit as a family doctor, for example, or a lawyer, teacher, or other professional businessperson. Do his personality and bearing strike you as that of someone you can trust? Contrary to some popular beliefs, teachers of martial arts in China and Japan usually act like regular, decent people. They don’t offer profundities in halting broken English and live in monasteries. In fact, most teachers in Asia, save for the very large modem organizations, don’t make much money at all from teaching martial arts. They live normal lives, and act like normal people, although they may be teaching extraordinary skills. If your Caucasian master of Janken-Po-ryu squints his eyes to look more oriental and slurs his speech like a combination Marlon Brando and Master Po, but he’s lived most of his life in Butte, Montana, don’t think he’s a wise master. Think that this guy’s got some serious mental problems.

Wu style T’ai Chi Ch’uan master Eddie Wu didn’t hide anything from us students when he gave a workshop. Rather than speak in circles, he was to the point, clear and logical in his discussions. When I was perplexed and said I didn’t understand a certain technique, he didn’t say, “Ah, grasshoppah, you must meditate for 20 years on a bed of nails before you understand.” He said, “Grab me.” I grabbed him and went flying through the air and understood, very quickly, what he was talking about.

And while my Japanese teachers and sempai in Japan run the gamut of personalities, I’ve never met a legitimate teacher who grimaces and growls like a Toshiro Mifune-style samurai thug out of the 15th century, except for one guy who was just a grouch, and all the other high-ranking members didn’t revere him as a modern-day samurai reincarnation. They called him (behind his backs to me) an old wind-bag granny-nag.

Also, observe the trappings. Modern -do style schools may of course have things that will entice parents to sign their children up: trophies, banners, exotic-looking weaponry, badges and patches. Sure, I’ll grant you that. But do the trappings overpower the training? Do so many badges and stick-ons on the training outfits obscure the outfits themselves? If so, the teacher may be trying to hide something–like the kata training really sucks, for example.

The koryu are even more austere. Thus, if you enter a koryu dojo and find all sorts of odd orientalish-looking decorations, consider it a warning sign. Most koryu are influenced by Shinto, Zen, and/or Japanese esoteric religions in their architecture and decoration, so they tend to be severe and simple in terms of training outfits and dojo furniture. A hanging scroll, perhaps a flower arrangement, a single altar and a rack of training weapons. That pretty much described one of my home dojo in Japan. No giant tiger painting on black velvet, for sure.

Beyond Legitimacy

So you’ve maneuvered through the minefield. You think you’re in a legitimate style. That doesn’t end your quest, however. Beyond whether or not the style is legitimate, you have to ask the question of whether or not you really want to belong to the school. Unless you’re just interested in doing it just long enough to obtain a yellow belt, impress the guys at the office, and then quitting, you should realize that making a commitment to master a martial art will take many years out of your life. Is that particular dojo someplace where you will feel comfortable for so long?

Sure, the teacher may be legitimate, but doing martial arts in a place where the chief instructor hits on the young women is not a healthy environment, our state of American politics notwithstanding. Do the sempai and teachers create a healthy, positive environment in which children and students will learn positive values of respect, sincerity and etiquette, or is the dojo’s agenda to simply create overly aggressive bullies and punks that will win tournaments and playground fights?

My article also doesn’t address the hybrids that are proliferating nowadays. These people, at least, are honest in stating what they are doing. They may be combining karate with aerobics, adding in a dash of Thai kick-boxing, freestyle wrestling, kung-fu, and whatever else they can throw in that won’t make them gag. All I can say is, if you like that kind of stuff, then at least be forewarned that what you see is what you’ll get. You’ll get a mix of all that, and not any single strong and consistent style. It’s up to you whether or not this type of approach to martial arts training appeals to you or not. And in truth, a lot of people would rather have the satin outfits, danskins, and pumping-loud muzak and do aerobics karate than the somewhat quiet, restrained and serious “traditional” martial arts training. It’s not a matter of legitimacy here. These guys, to their credit, at least tell you up front that they’re teaching a mix-and-match system that their genius cooked up. It’s more a matter of taste and class, I guess.

On the other extreme are martial arts schools that begin to border on cultish behavior. People may argue that legitimate church groups are like “cults,” but the Catholic church in America doesn’t ask that its lay members denounce their parents and friends and do things that actually injure themselves or destroy their lives. Legitimate church groups, whether you believe in their religion or not, operate within the confines of social constraints and morals, and are usually forces for good deeds and elevated behavior. Cults on the other hand, utilize severe brainwashing and oppressive group dynamics. The human leader is always right, even if he’s found sleeping with the young boys and girls in the group, because Jesus is with him. The founder is the incarnation of Jesus Christ, even though he served time in federal prison for racketeering, money laundering and tax evasion. Similarly, an intimate dojo environment will be close-knit and friendly, but not cultish. The teacher will be respected, but not put on a lofty pedestal.

(The final, horrible marriage of religious cults and martial arts cults, may be in the works even as I write. Reports in magazines and the rumor among my US Mainland contacts have it that a major cultish religious group is planning to buy out many shopping mall chain martial arts groups, using them as fronts to recruit young members into its religion. Then the horrible affair between cultish martial arts and religious cults will be truly consummated.)

In the End…

Our age is a treacherous one. False prophets and frauds abound in all human endeavors, from religion to businesses to martial arts, promising salvation but taking your money, your own truth and your souls away from you. If you are in such a group and continue to want to believe against belief, you are perpetuating the dishonesty and lies. And you should get out as quickly as possible. If you are wondering whether or not a particular group is legitimate before you join, hopefully this little article will help you to decide for yourself before you jump in.

I’ve always felt that there is a difference between religion and martial arts. For reasons I will get into later, I felt you can belong to any religion (or even be a non-believer) and you can still be able to do any martial arts, even the most esoteric ones, as long as you are tolerant of other cultures and non-Western concepts. But martial arts are like religions in a sense that their structure and system is very open to abuse and the development of cultish behavior or greedy chicanery.

Fools and their money are soon parted. Don’t be a fool. Use your common sense and the available resources to make your decision about joining a martial art. Don’t let the visions and dreams of being a great martial artist delude you into seeing the lies of a false prophet for what they are.

My thanks to Father Douglas Skoyles for the inspiration to write this article.

Copyright ©1998 Wayne Muromoto. All rights reserved.

This article first appeared in Furyu, #9, Summer-Fall 1998.