Visiting the Okinawan Dojo
By: Garry Parker
In centuries past, one did not gain entrance into a dojo without a formal introduction, via letter or personal reference, from someone trusted by the teacher. This protocol was applicable to the master’s potential disciples, and peers alike. Whether one was seeking to be accepted as a student, or simply seeking to meet a well known teacher with no intent of training together, the process was the same – an introduction had to be made.
Now, we have a karate dojo, or 10, in most cities, and most of them want your business. They conduct research and marketing campaigns, they are deeply involved in their communities, they advertise, and they bring in new and inexperienced students to ‘try karate’ in hopes that even a few of the hundreds of students that pass through the doors of the dojo will become serious students, and will become the next generation of leaders for Okinawan Karate. Some staunch traditionalists will scoff, dismiss, or turn up their collective noses at this type of ‘dojo business practice’ however, this is necessary to keep the public engaged and to keep our arts alive and growing..on a large scale. This is true in the USA, and in every country in the world, even the birthplace of Karate – Okinawa.
Gone are the days when a student would arrive at the genkan (outer gate) of the teacher’s home, day after day, until he was finally rewarded for his perseverance, and permitted to enter the gate as a nyumonsha.
Gone are the days when a student who had entered the gate, would work for years to prove himself worthy of instruction under the watchful eyes of the skilled master.
So what? Times change, and we have to change with the times, right? To an extent, yes. I am a firm believer in forward momentum, and embracing better or more efficient methods, as long as the old traditions are kept intact.
Okinawan karate is now widely known and practiced globally, and we the current teachers, are now the gatekeepers of Okinawa’s greatest cultural treasure. We all share an enormous responsibility to share and teach those that are worthy and dedicated. We use contacts, networking, email, social media, etc. to expand our collective footprint, and to bring us all closer together. We can meet someone that is well-known – a martial arts ‘celebrity’ (if that is even a valid term) – at a seminar or be accepted as a ‘friend’ on one of the many social media networks, and get a glimpse of their lives, at least as much of their personal life as they allow us to see. We join with other members on chat groups and it brings us all into the same room to discuss, learn, and grow. These technological advances have truly made our world a smaller place; now, more than ever before, we have an entire karate network, quite literally, at our fingertips. Even with these wonderful advances in technology, one tradition remains firmly in place.
Shotai: An Introduction.
Several groups have worked meticulously to organize seminars in Okinawa for those who are interested. Many karate practitioners are able to fulfill a life-long dream of training in Okinawa. Men like David Chambers of Classical Fighting Arts magazine, and Miguel De Luz of the the Okinawa Traditional Karate Liaison Bureau, have worked meticulously to coordinate introductions to top level Okinawan Karate and Kobudo master instructors to those practitioners that have no direct connection to a teacher/dojo in Okinawa, and may have otherwise not been able to gain access to some of the world’s most sought after Okinawan masters.
Others, including myself, have long-time teachers and direct connections in Okinawa; we work on a much smaller scale to make introductions to our teachers in an effort to spread the methods and culture of Okinawan Karate to those that we know and trust.
Still, some traditions do not change. To be accepted as a student, or even to visit a dojo in Okinawa, many teachers still require an introduction. My teacher of 25 years, still asks me on occasion about different people that visit, and inquire about visiting and training with him. We discuss their intentions, their lineage, their training methods, their current relationship with their current/previous teacher, and their reputation (real or perceived) within the Karate community. We discuss these visitors on a case by case basis; some receive a ‘shotai’ from me, others do not. Some have dropped in on him during classes at his dojo, only to be turned away, while others are welcomed with a smile.
Regardless of the visitor’s skill, rank, or position outside of Okinawa, protocol should always be followed. Humility and good manners are the minimum expected standards. When an introduction is secured, the visitor to the dojo should remember one cardinal rule: You are there to learn. Accept what the teacher has to offer, even if it’s only kihon. Often the teacher will start with kihon to gauge the skill level of the visitor, even at larger seminars this is quite normal. After the skill level is determined, the teacher will teach skill appropriate content to the visitors.
Recently, I arranged introductions and coordinated a meeting with my teacher, Takamiyagi Hiroshi, and two groups of visiting Karate practitioners from the USA; my Sensei chose to host them all as guests in his home in order to get to know them before determining if he wanted to issue a followup invitation to train. As the host, Sensei provided food, drink, and the unique entertainment of Okinawan culture, in the form of village taiko drummers, shamisen players, and Odori, and Sensei was treated with genuine respect by most that attended; some group members brought coffee, drinks, handmade gifts, and shared their native culture with the entire group, which Takamiyagi Sensei enjoyed immensely. Most of the group seemed to have a great time, while a few didn’t seem to enjoy themselves as much as one would expect; they may have been reserved due to the Okinawa summer heat, or they may have been suffering from jet-lag, or perhaps they weren’t sure how to properly interact with this new/different culture because it was their first time in Okinawa. It’s highly possible that there may have been a combination of the three.
From the moment of introduction, the visitor is being evaluated; behavior, body language, personal interaction, manners, and humility are all being mentally recorded by the teacher. This information is used to determine a visitor’s character, and to gauge their intentions. Remember the old mantra: ‘We never get a second chance to make a first impression.’ The initial meeting with a master in Okinawa will hopefully be the first of many for the visitor, followed by a long and mutually beneficial relationship between Seito and Sensei, or as Buyuu (Martial Friends).
Be mindful that the teachers in Okinawa can see through the facade that many foreigners bring to Okinawa, although extremely friendly and happy to share their art with all who are sincere, they know who is there to sincerely make a lasting friendship, who is there to network and expand the arts, and who is there for photo ops or other personal pursuits.
Once the introduction has been made, the rest is up to you.
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