I don’t know what it was that I had seen or heard that inspired me to ask this. A few days ago I posted a question to a social media site asking for thoughts and opinion regarding the prospect of learning the martial arts from someone who while having technical excellence in the craft as a technician and an instructor was also what we would characterize as a “bad person” be he a complete jerk, wife beater, pedophile, drug abuser, etc. The responses were varied for yes and no, but it was the reasons for the answers that I found interesting.
We all expect that our instructor be the resident subject matter expert when it comes to our martial training and education, but how important is his character? Let’s face it. In todays society a truly good martial arts instructor is few and far between. In the area I reside now there are several martial arts schools. When I came to the area I really only wanted to find a place to train. Don’t get me wrong, the back yard is fine for regular practice but I missed having facilities and the human element of other students when engaging in my practice. I checked out all of the classes in town and when just looking at the school websites I didn’t see any that really offered anything to grab my interest and when going to observe and talk with the instructors I didn’t talk to any that I could consider a real teacher, but perhaps I am a little jaded.
So let’s pretend you want to take up karate. A man operates the only school in your area that you believe to be extremely technically proficient and knowledgeable. He’s highly regarded as a martial artist and as an instructor. You’re ready to sign up next Monday but then you are told by some of his students that he makes regular sexual advances at the female students, or constantly makes inappropriate comments, or bullies people in class or in public. The inappropriate behavior or unsavory habits of the instructor do not detract from his ability to effectively teach. So while his conduct beyond the confines of the dojo is completely unacceptable to you, would you still sign up? Would you proceed in aligning yourself to him in attempt to absorb only the technical excellence of the craft and hope to be unaffected by his seeming unsavory character? Or would you pass and hope for the miracle of another school opening up across the street by Mr. Miyagi?
There is no right or wrong answer to this question because everyone’s personal standard of what is acceptable and what is not will vary from person to person. When I posed this question to a social media site I received a lot of feedback. Unfortunately there was a common thread of misunderstanding in the example I posed when asking the question. The most common answer I received I think was either out of misunderstanding (and the readers were correcting me) or they were the ramblings of individuals whom were just wanting to throw in two cents but merely ran circles around giving an honest opinion of the matter due to fear of offending anyone or being challenged in their opinion. An answer like beginning with “depending on the person” does not tell me what you would do. The point I wanted was to know what YOU would do if you knew that the prospective instructor is a “bad person”. In other words, just how important is character when it comes to selecting an instructor of the martial arts?
I did receive a lot of historical references of past masters of our arts with regard to some of their more incongruous conduct out side of the dojo. To that I say thank you for refreshing our memories that even back in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s nobody was perfect. People of all calibers are still human. As an instructor myself I can tell you that I have made several seriously bad decisions that affected the perception of those around me as both a person and as a martial artist. Motobu and Kyan were infamous for antics such as picking fights to test their skills and whoring in the red light districts, yet both men are thought to have been two of the greatest karate instructors in history.
So would it be fair to say that as long as the inappropriate behavior doesn’t interfere with the training at the dojo I don’t care what they do? As long as their character doesn’t adversely affect his ability to teach or my ability to learn, I don’t care. Of course it’s also commonly said that we check our social life at the door of the dojo before we enter, and it could be argued that the same goes for the instructor. We’ve seen some state that the instructor isn't supposed to be a role model or sage, but more a technical coach and that beyond learning the techniques of the art we are immune to the character flaws of our Sensei. What do I care if Sensei binge drinks, smokes, uses recreational drugs, cheats on his wife, dates his students, picks fights, or swindles parents with black belt club memberships? What does it matter if he’s a complete jerk or egomaniac? How does that affect his ability to teach? The short answer: It doesn’t.
However, to assume that aligning yourself to an instructor who’s personal character and reputation rest in murky waters will not affect you is foolish at best. For better or worse those whom we align and associate with affect us on both personal and professional levels. To put it bluntly, your name whether you like it or not is associated to the dojo in which you train and it’s not limited to the reputation of the technical teaching that goes on within it’s walls. Unfortunately, you don’t get to make the distinction of who gets to make that association or how it is done.
Always be acutely aware that perception is always in the eye of the beholder. Be true to your self when engaging in martial practices and always be aware that it’s human nature for us to emulate those around us. Although we may be able to disconnect the unsavory character traits of our instructors within the confides of the dojo we are still affected by it never the less. Be very clear with regard to what it is that you as a student want. If your perspective instructor has some habits that you would never your self entertain or partake in then you may want to hold off on aligning your self to such a person. However, if the behavior is that which you feel isn’t a big deal then what will it matter if you join? At the end of the day the most important opinion is yours, but bear in mind that whatever choice you make the general population will see your choice and develop their own perception of your choice which despite all attempts to remain disconnected will affect you both personally and professionally.
Honshū & Hokkaidō
The two species of wolf native to Japan until their extinction in the early