Dojos used to be different.
If you wanted to study Karate under a master in Japan, you had to prove yourself worthy.
Your character, patience and spirit was tested through various tasks and chores.
In fact, it wasn’t unusual to wait months before you were accepted for “real” Karate training.
It’s the opposite.
New students regularly drop by my dojo to watch a class or try a free lesson, and sometimes they even demand to learn certain tournament katas or progress through ranks at their own pace.
That said, I like some aspects from both eras.
- But how did we get to this point?
- When were the martial arts commercialized?
- Why did “art” turn into “business”?
See, it’s more than just kicking and punching…
It’s money and power too.
And if you ask my friend Jamie Clubb, the history is complex. That’s why I decided to share his extensive research of the McDojo™ phenomenon with you today.
This is a huge article, so make sure you have lots of time!
I hope this piece will bring clarity to how socioeconomical, cultural and political influences have shaped the history of Karate.
Here we go:
Martial Arts Commercialization
The history of the commercialization of the martial arts can probably be traced back to when citizens were first taught how to fight and get paid for that privilege.
A retired or injured warrior did not always have a state pension to support him and his family. Teaching the arts of war to those who would never use them in service was an obvious source of revenue for these ex-soldiers. Horse-riding, for example, is a leisure activity and sport that has its origins in the military. Beginning as one-to-one or small group private lessons, popularity for one fighting art or another would grow until the more business-minded instructors worked out they could make a living out of teaching regular classes for the general public.
Citizens were drawn in the past, as they are today, by the desire to emulate the alpha role of the warrior who had the ability to better protect themselves and their families from violence. 18th century boxing champions Jim Figg and Jack Broughton made it fashionable for gentlemen to learn their noble art and academies gained noble patronage.[i] Meanwhile in turn of the 20th century China teachers were using fakir tricks and acrobatics, along with a welded on philosophy, to attract wealthy customers to their martial arts schools.[ii] Over in Japan the likes of Kano Jigaro – the founder of judo – and Funakoshi Gichin – “the father of modern karate” – were laying the foundations for organized martial arts schools via the classes they set up in their respective educational institutions. Kano would be responsible for introducing the most recognizable martial arts uniform, the keikogi, and bringing in the belt ranking system. Funakoshi and his teachers would work out ways to accommodate large classrooms of students by setting up militarized rows.
All the most recognizable and popular martial arts systems exist today due to the entrepreneurship of their founders. These men were not merely good teachers. They were driven by a desire to spread the name of their chosen discipline. By the late 19th century different ju jutsu instructors from Kano’s school had travelled to Europe and the USA, but it was Kano’s interpretation of ju jutsu in the form of his Kodokan judo that established an organized brand. Funakoshi and his son did the same with Shotokan karate and his contemporaries were not slow in promoting their respective karate brands outside of Okinawa and Japan.
However, it was General Choi, the man who coined the name Tae kwon do,[iii] who provided us with the most aggressive example of mass-marketing a martial art. Tae kwon-do’s demonstrations – which typically contained spectacular kicking techniques and the breaking of boards and bricks – were attractive. Many martial arts survived oppressive governments by convincing everyone that training in a particular system helped improve the spiritual growth of the country.[iv] Choi made tae kwon do, which was really Korean Shotokan karate, a patriotic art. He then went on to distance the art from its karate roots by adding new techniques, developing new patterns of movement and making the rules of the sport different.
But it was the way Choi left Korea to purposefully install tae kwon do schools around the world that set him apart from anyone else in the martial arts world. His concern over the karate connection was not so great for him to instantly promote karate black belts to instructors in his association.[v] This ensured that the International Taekwon-do Federation brand spread fast. Meanwhile Choi’s rival brand, the World Taekwondo Federation, established itself in South Korea with the backing of the South Korean government. Using its considerable influence the WTF brand achieved its status as an Olympic sport in 2000. Between these two federations and the countless number of associations that have since split from either side, taekwon-do has become the world’s most commercially successful martial art.
The idea of the McDojo fed its way into the martial arts consciousness around the turn of 21st century. By this time the tae kwon do business model had been copied by most mainstream martial arts schools and had mutated in line with other retail-based business methods. The exact origin of the word “McDojo” is not clear nor it the word it was derived from, McJob. The word McJob had already appeared in print prior to the publication of the philosophical novel, Generation X by Douglas Coupland.[vi] However, this novel is usually cited as the reason for its early popularization. Coupland used it to describe soulless employment in mass-market workplaces that treated their staff as if they were on a conveyor belt.
The term McDojo was almost definitely popularized by the internet forum, Bullshido, created by Neal “Phrost” Fletcher. They originally used it as their title and website address before the McDonald’s franchise threatened legal action.[vii] The McDojo is defined as a martial arts school that allows its teaching practices to be dictated completely by the need to increase revenue.
Selling the Dojo – Martial Marketing
In order for martial arts to become commercialized they needed to be marketed.
They were marketed to the gentry, to governments, to educational institutions and to the general public. Some martial arts, such as boxing, enjoyed a certain degree of patronage from wealthy benefactors and others, such as judo, had influence within their targeted institution. However, it was those that were forced to become entrepreneurial in order to thrive that would develop many of the models that corporate martial arts are now based.
Live demonstrations have been the time-honoured way to generate interest. Many used the primal alpha male display of a sporting contest to show off the ability of the person teaching and the style they were teaching. In Britain some of the first ju jutsu instructors and catch wrestlers apparently took on random members of the audience to demonstrate their skills. These bouts along with boxing were popular in music halls, on fairs (or carnivals in the USA) and on circuses. Inevitably the pressure of having to fight nearly every night against unknown opponents and the desire to see more entertaining spectacles led to a lot of professional catch wrestling to become staged. This became the professional wrestling of today.[viii]
Elsewhere this type of marketing was particularly prolific when different schools competed for customers. Englishmen were drawn to the exhibition of the straight boxing match, but even they engaged in cross-continental bouts with France’s kickboxing arts of boxe Francais and savate. In Japan jiu jitsu schools competed and it was one decisive tournament that helped establish judo’s business in the Japanese education system. The 1920s saw the popularity of “Boxing versus Judo” matches being held in Japan, which were bouts that pitted fighters from different countries against each other, representing their particular style.[ix] China also has a long tradition of different representatives of styles facing one another and actively engaged with Japanese schools.
These challenge matches were turned into a long-held tradition by one 20th century martial art. Brazilian jiu jitsu relied on it to draw future students. The Gracie family actively challenged any other martial arts school. They advertised in the local papers, goading other fighters into facing them by volunteering to injure anyone free of charge in their “Gracie Challenge”.[x] Their fights were held in garages, on beaches, in their own school and other martial arts schools and drew audiences on television as they fought under vale tudo (Portuguese for “Anything goes”) rules. They took the Gracie Challenge to the USA, where it established support from prominent American martial artists and movie stars. The challenge eventually became the mixed martial arts behemoth known as the Ultimate Fighting Championship.[xi]
At the turn of the 20th century the Chinese incorporated acrobatic displays and fakir tricks that had little relevance to the pragmatic roots of their arts, but encouraged the idea that fighters could develop supernatural powers.[xii] Such ideas were taken on by other martial arts. Japanese sword masters would demonstrate their abilities by chopping fruit and vegetables on students without harming them. The Koreans avidly took on the Chinese and western carnival/circus strongman practice of breaking hard solid objects with their bodies to sell taekwondo, tang soo do and various other systems that appeared after World War II.
Martial arts schools have also readily taken on marketed methods used by other businesses. They put adverts in papers, on the radio, on television, put posters up in shops and use the various different media available on the internet. The desire to tap into as broader amount of students as possible has led martial arts schools to offer an expanding list of increasingly abstract attributes. As my discussion on martial arts self-help, The New Martial Mystique, points out how self-help has influenced the development of martial arts in many ways and this can be seen in their advertising. Martial arts schools offer “Empowerment” and “Leadership” skills. Critics find little empowerment in being made to stand in line and not ever question the martial arts teacher. The leadership skills are often represented by the students who are on the biggest contracts or membership deals and/or have been nominated to be “Class leaders”, a role not dissimilar from being made the milk monitor at school. In addition to lists of benefits offered, martial art school posters display images of any number of different characters from happy children to movie stars and even cartoon characters.
Perhaps the most controversial advertising practice to date was introduced by the Go Kan Ryu karate school. This franchise was founded in Southern Australia,[xiii] but has fast grown all over the world and is heavily criticized by many in the martial arts world.[xiv] From its no-contact competitions to the practice of turning out instructors after just three months of training, one can see why it might be given the label of “McDojo”. However, what really seemed to set it apart from all other groups was the way it sent its instructors to sell the classes from door to door. Here karate would be touted using the same methods a sale rep might hawk windows. This was not just to invite students to a free trial lesson or promote awareness of the art, but to effect a cold sale with the instructor’s aim to get the person answering the door to sign up to a membership.
Such recruiting methods seemed to be the extreme of the pre-commercialized days of martial arts teaching when a student might have to kneel for days outside a revered teacher’s door before he was allowed admittance to a lesson. For many this was the ultimate in the degradation of the martial arts. Other critics might wryly note that this further proves another similarity martial arts have with religion, echoing the methods of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Get Them Young
Statistics vary, but it would appear that the overwhelming majority of martial arts students in commercial schools are children.
People are more willing to part with their money for their children’s perceived benefits than their own. This has led most commercial schools to focus on this as the primary source of revenue. Children are recruited through many different methods, including parties and many simply come directly from the place where Kano and Funakoshi expanded their martial disciplines: schools. The age for a child to start has also got younger and younger. Nowadays it is not unusual to see students as young as two in a karate class. This becomes less surprising when critics of many commercial children’s classes have described them as being little more than glorified crèches, where the infants play dress-up in martial art uniforms. If compromising the content wasn’t a big enough crime, many clubs have reduced the time of the standard one hour junior lessons to fit in more classes.
Rewards for progress are an even greater incentive for children as can be seen by the acquisition of badges in Boy Scout and Girl Guide clubs. Many martial arts clubs have also used belts as mini-incentives for children. When I began my training “Student of the Year” was a prize already institutionalized for both children and adults, but today larger clubs have brought in “Student of the Month” and even “Student of the Week” certificates. It could be argued that the expansion and proliferation of the coloured belt system was driven by children in martial arts and it wasn’t long before the junior black belt grade emerged. Given the original rule set by judo and currently supported by Brazilian jiu jitsu whereby no student under the age of 16 may be awarded a black belt, many felt the introduction of the junior black belt threw this once revered rank into disrepute.
Nothing seems to shout McDojo louder than the figure of a child wearing a black belt. We have gone from an era where finding a brown belt instructor in judo or karate in your local town was a rarity and the training would likely take place in a drafty old hall, where you would endure a lot of physical hardship to a time where we have an army of seven year old black belts playing tag in centrally heated and air conditioned full-time martial arts centres.
The Belt Factories
Due to coloured belts being the most common and recognizable form of martial arts ranks, schools that virtually give away their grades with little or no standards are sometimes referred to as “Belt factories”.
Achieving a coloured belt became enshrouded in the exotic mystique that accompanied the whole concept of training in eastern martial arts ever since the westerners were made aware of their existence. The rank of black belt was perceived as being testament that the wearer was a high level fighter. Humans, often driven by a desire to be the alpha animal in their tribe, are obviously drawn to such visible displays of apparent power and therefore it is small wonder that an entire business could be built around selling such ranks. The most extreme example of this to date is the mail order black belt service set up by the self-proclaimed “Ninja master”, Ashida Kim (aka Radford W. Davis, aka Chris Hunter).[xv] Black belt certification can be awarded through membership to Kim’s “Dojo” or through simply purchasing his book Mugei Mumei No Jitsu.[xvi]
Kano Jigaro, an educator, introduced gradings with belts to his Kodokan judo, taking it from the Japanese public school system. Just about every traditional discipline in Japan has a structured system of progression. The use of the obi ranking system was often found in swimming [xvii], as was the wearing of red and white colours to distinguish between opening sides in a sport. As the number of students taking part increased in a martial arts class and levels of different students’ experience and knowledge become apparent, it is understandable why someone would want to introduce a system of ranking. However, it is worth noting that there are plenty of combat systems and sports that have not adopted this method.
Originally the belt was a wide sash, as found on Japanese kimonos. In 1906/7 Kano adopted the narrower judo belt as we know it. Originally there were two white belt grades and three brown belt grades before the shodan (first degree black belt) was reached. A violet or purple belt was introduced to boys under the age of 18 in place of the brown belt and it was forbidden for anyone under the age of 18 to be awarded a dan grade.[xviii] Funakoshi wasn’t slow in picking it up for karate and soon many other Japanese arts followed suit.[xix] Korean taekwondo, tang soo do, hapkido, kong soo do and others had their basis in Japanese martial arts imported around the occupation of Korea, and adopted their grading practices as well. Their coloured belt order was different from the Japanese arts, but they retained the white belt to designate novice and the black belt to designate a student at the end of his coloured belt promotions.[xx]
It is important to note the reverence the black belt has achieved in the west is out of sync with the country of its origin. In Japan it is not uncommon for a student to gain a black belt in a martial art within a year. The legendary karateka Joe Lewis famously achieved his first dan in Okinawa after just seven months.[xxi] Such speedy promotions would be frowned upon in the west. When judo and karate clubs first started springing up in the UK, the British teachers were not typically black belts. It wasn’t until 2004 that the first British Brazilian jiu jitsu black belts were awarded. Arguments over standardization of grades in martial arts have long been a hot topic, even before the arrival of the “belt factories”.
The reasons for gaining a grade differ from school to school. Some demand a formal grading examination, which is typically paid for in addition to regular classes. These gradings are sometimes held outside of class time on a separate day as an important event on the martial arts calendar and it can consist of a complete ritual where a grading award is given to one exceptional participant. Others offer it after a lesson or hold it within the lesson or even instead of a lesson. However, some clubs do not have an actual grading examination procedure and bestow new coloured belts on students they feel have achieved a certain standard. Then there are those schools that use the belts to designate how long a student has been with the school rather than any level of ability.
Since Kano introduced the belt system the number of grades between white and black belt have increased in many martial arts. Originally there was only the white belt and the black belt, but this eventually changed to include a series of progressively darker colours in the Japanese styles. The Korean styles used their colours as symbols. The Chinese styles were late converts and used sashes instead of belts, and followed various sequences. Some Thai boxing academies have used arm-bands or sashes. Some Filipino and Indonesian martial arts have adopted belts whilst others have opted for coloured tee-shirts. The French system of savate uses coloured gloves. Even some western boxing schools have a progressive grading system now.
Additional grades have sometimes been represented by the adding of a tag to the previous grade’s belt. I guess this was done to not undermine the original colour order. However, some associations and schools had no problem with adding whole new coloured belts to their grading system. The camouflage belt or “camo belt” is an example of a controversial extra belt added to the rankings, and its creation is often attributed to the American Taekwondo Association, which is a common target for McDojo criticism.
Defenders of the decision to add extra grades argue that they are required to lessen the jump from one grade to the next. To be fair, we have seen similar arguments used with good justification in education when new qualifications have been created. However, cynics observe that few students make it to black belt level and most of a school’s profit is made from the coloured belts. In other words, if more belts are added then more payments are gained from gradings.
If you don’t have the patience to buy your way through the belt ranks, have no fear as there is service that will fast-track you to instructor status in a fraction of the time.
Of course, martial arts were far from being the first type of unaccredited institution churning out qualifications on demand. Diploma mills and degree mills are a global phenomenon whereby unaccredited qualifications are issued in a variety of formats. At their very worst they offer counterfeit accredited qualifications and are blatant fraud. At their very best they are honouree qualifications awarded to an individual in respect of their experience and achievements. However, in the main, these institutions are factories that manufacture qualifications for a fee. Typically a qualification is gained in order for an individual to stand a better chance of getting a job. You might feel that having some experience in martial arts might pad out your CV for a vocation in security or stunts, but few are under the illusion that it will get you a job. The only martial arts qualification that carries a job description and therefore the only one that carries any sort of weight is an instructor certificate.
The health and leisure industry was ripe for the exploitation of such qualifications. Pushed to provide a wider variety of services many leisure needed their fitness teaching members of staff – which are typically in possession of accredited qualifications in sport and leisure – to be able to run a wide range of classes. It was only a matter of time for entrepreneurs in fitness, often taking their cue from aerobics classes, to come up with their own brands and then offer instructor qualifications so that others can teach the franchise.
Today we have a variety of one hour fitness classes that gym memberships offer. The most famous aerobics/martial arts franchise, of course, is Taebo. This was the brainchild of karate champion and B-movie action star, Billy Blanks, who was clearly inspired by the aerobics boxing fusion known as Boxercise. It has spawned many imitations such as Body Combat, Thai-Box and many more besides. It wasn’t long before other martial artists worked out that they could also provide a class that used martial arts movements and a thumping high energy dance soundtrack to create their own attractive variation on conventional aerobics lessons. These programmes were very easy to learn and virtually anyone with a good grounding in fitness training could teach them.
Given the drive behind the belt factories, offering fast-track instructor courses was a no-brainer. Our more enlightened age of martial arts cross-training has put pressure on instructors of one art to try to accumulate more black belts and their equivalents. This provides a founder of an established or trendy new brand of martial art with another source of revenue coming directly from someone who might be regarded as his competition.
However, there is another longer term benefit for promoting more people to the rank of instructor in your brand of martial art and this falls in with the same business model that fitness franchises were offering leisure centre staff. General Choi, the founder of taekwon-do, worked out that he could spread his franchise by recruiting karate black belts in other countries and making them taekwon-do instructors.[xxii] Historically it is not unheard of for traditional martial arts instructors to create more than one martial art. However, today’s opportunist martial artists have taken their cue from the leisure industry and now offer a variety of programmes that provide instructorship qualifications. The previously mentioned aerobics/martial art fusion is the perfect example of a programme where an instructorship can be gained in a very short time – sometimes no more than a day – and given to someone with relatively little experience in the martial arts.
We have arrived in age where more and more instructors have multiple teaching grades in different systems. The aforementioned Go Kan Ryu School of karate has a common practice of giving promising students a black belt with a white stripe so they can start teaching their own class. The white stripe black belt helps to distinguish the student from the club’s genuine black belts, but many argue that the unknowing new student just sees a black belt teaching his class. It seems rather cynical for the non-black belt teacher to be given a type of black belt when he teaches beginners. Surely a badge or some other less misleading form of identification would suffice. However, the wearing of the belt is the least concern for many ex-GKR students and instructors who say that many of the white stripe black belts were complete beginners themselves as little three months prior to running their own class.
However, the mills don’t just stop at the doors the corporate leisure and karate industries. The swift awarding of instructor grades has become quite widespread on the seminar teaching circuit and many teachers, of varying degrees of reputability, grant them upon completion of the course without a formal examination. Seminars are aimed directly at people already training in martial arts. Many rely on established clubs to pool the bulk of their participants. However, the need to sell this service to as wider an audience as possible pushes many teachers to offer something more tangible. Following the martial arts pyramid scheme model, the teacher offers the student the perception that he will walk away from the course with the ability to deliver the same course.
Some might argue this is simply responding to supply and demand. After all, I have even known instructors who train on intensive courses with highly respected and famous martial artists and then award themself a type of instructorship without anyone’s blessing or authority but their own.
Memberships & Contracts
Like many other businesses that run classes, an increasing number of martial arts clubs insist on advance payments.
This practice has been around for decades for many US schools.[xxiii] Some clubs ask for a termly payment whereas others are on a monthly basis. As time has moved on direct debits and standing orders have been set up in many clubs, and there are several billing companies that specialize in organizing these instant bank transactions for martial arts schools.
Many clubs in the UK saw the arrival of the direct debit class fee collection service as an example of US commercialism influencing and changing the way martial arts were being run. The argument put forward by critics of the advance payment method is that schools that provide a good enough service have no need to worry about whether or not students will attend their classes.
Membership fees are also very commonplace in most marital arts schools. This annual payment is normally built into acquiring individual student insurance. Instructors usually pay a higher premium to those who run the association of their affiliated school. This is public liability insurance and students who are charged it are usually given record books for gradings and courses along with details on club rules and code of conduct along with an insurance renewal slip. Often these booklets are referred to as licences and may hark back to the martial arts myth that all martial artists had to be licensed. Many clubs copy gym memberships and include a joining fee, but might also include a club uniform. Some clubs use the opportunity to also sell various items of training equipment or offer different levels of membership with a scale of prices. Again, there are clubs that see no point in having students take out individual insurance let alone the various other fees.
Taking their cue from the leisure centre industry, some martial arts clubs took it all a step further by having their students sign contracts. This procedure allowed schools to offer an annual programme, which stipulated the maximum number of classes a student could attend during a month or a term and suited full-time martial arts gyms. The top end contract, offering an unlimited number of lessons, often has an attractive title such as “Black Belt Programme”.
The contract is perhaps the most controversial of all payment agreements as it binds students often beyond the time they have ceased training. Many argue that it is wrong to take fees from those who no longer wish to train and, again, a good school should not feel a need to carry out this procedure.
To be continued in part 2.
[i] Bare Fists by Bob Mee, 1998, Lodge Farm Books [ii] Chinese Martial Arts Training Manuals: A Historical Survey by Brian Kennedy and Elizabeth Guo, 2005, North Atlantic Books [iii] I am following Alex Gillis’s example by spelling tae kwon do, when I am not referring to a specific title of an association, in this manner. [iv] The Japanese interpretation of Chinese Shaolin martial arts via Shorinji kempo is a prime example of an art thriving by making the argument for growing a sense of national spirit. [v] A Killing Art: The Untold History of Tae Kwon Do by Alex Gillis, 2008, ECW Press [vi] Generation X: Tales from an Accelerated Culture by Douglas Coupland, 1991, St. Martin’s Press [vii] From my interview with Phrost on 30 November 2005: “Bullshido started back in May of 2002, as “McDojo.com”. Within a few months we had the Intellectual Property lawyers from McDonald’s all over us and we changed the name to Bullshido going into 2003” [viii] Western Boxing and World Wrestling by John F. Gibney (pseudonym of Robert W. Smith), 1986, North Atlantic Books, The Odyssey of Yukio Tani by Graham Noble, 2000, InYo: Journal of Alternative Perspectives ejamas.com [ix] The Fighting Spirit of Japan and Other Studies by E.J. Harrison, 1912, New York: C. Scribner’s Sons; London: T. Fisher Unwin [x] The Gracie Way by Kid Peligro, 2003, Invisible Cities Press [xi] No Holds Barred by Clyde Gentry, 2002, Milo Books Ltd [xii] Chinese Martial Arts Training Manuals: A Historical Survey by Brian Kennedy and Elizabeth Guo, 2005, North Atlantic Books [xiii] http://www.gkrkarate.com/index27.php?x=ABOUT-GKR~|^`1A ” Go-Kan-Ryu Karate (GKR) is a traditional Japanese style of karate. GKR was founded by Robert Sullivan in Adelaide, South Australia. Robert first began training in the art of karate in 1964, and spent time training and teaching in both Japan and the USA before establishing GKR in 1984” [xiv] Virtually every martial art style, system, organization and established instructors are criticized in some way by other martial artists. However, one has only to put Go Kan Ryu into a search engine to see the first page full of criticism coming from a very wide range of martial arts websites and online forums. [xv] Ashida Kim, Samuel Browning. http://bullshido.org/Ashida_Kim [xvi] Mugei-Mumei no Jitsu THE 21st Century Martial Art, Ashida Kim, 1998, Dojo Presshttp://www.dojopress.com/catalogbk7.html [xvii] “THE TRACY SYSTEM OF KENPO – HISTORY SERIES – THE HISTORY OF THE BELT SYSTEM(JUDO — KARATE) – PART I I (last updated 10/18/10) by AL TRACY “MYTHS AND REALITY” [xviii] http://judoinfo.com/obi.htm The Judo Ranking System [xix] http://www.minrec.org/wilson/pdfs/History%20of%20 Belts%20and %20Ranks.pdf [xx] A Killing Art: The Untold History of Tae Kwon Do by Alex Gillis, 2008, ECW Press [xxi] The Secret of Inner Strength by Chuck Norris, 1987, Little Brown and Co. [xxii] A Killing Art: The Untold History of Tae Kwon Do by Alex Gillis, 2008, ECW Press [xxiii] The Secret of Inner Strength by Chuck Norris, 1987, Little Brown and Co.