There is no shortage of Karate ‘masters’ these days. They’re quite literally everywhere: in your neighborhood, city or country; online media, blogs, and forums. Although I should correct myself as the term ‘master’ is prosaic compared to what most of these teachers self-servingly call themselves. A cursory look on the internet will give you titles like sensei, shihan, saiko-shihan, renshi, kyoshi, hanshi, soke, doshu, zokucho, gunshi….the list is never ending and reading it just makes me depressed. Yet from my point of view, few if any, have put in the years of hard work or have the competence to label themselves with such grandiose titles.
Karate ‘masters’ suffer terribly from the idea that simply showing up to the dojo is enough to qualify them as an expert in their particular art. Whether that means ten, twenty or thirty years, it all seems rather arbitrary because many of them forget that they have to not only practice their chosen martial art, but they have to practice it correctly. Karate-do cannot be learned from osmosis and presenteeism is no substitute for proper practice.
All this brings me to the focus of this blog entry. I was reading an article on a little known folk art in Shimane Prefecture, Japan called Dojo Sukui. Without going into a lot of detail, it involves singing and mime, and has been around since the 1600s. The article caught my attention because Mr. Tsutomu Ichiugawa was the first person in 30 years to be granted the title of ‘meijin’ or ‘master’ by the Yasugi-bushi Preservation Society. ‘Master’ is the highest title allowed in this folk art and he is now the only living ‘master’ of the tradition.
If you read the article from a Karate-do perspective there are a few take-away points that you can glean. First, it takes a lot of dedication and hard work to achieve ‘master’ status. This means that no matter how much you may walk around the dojo every night, without the dedication, hard work and study, you will not improve’ never mind getting a lofty title like ‘master’. Second, calling yourself a ‘master’ doesn’t’ make you one. Like any professional or societal group, that recognition comes from an assessment of your peers; not yourself deciding that you’ve put in enough time and deserve the title. Third, not everyone can or should be a ‘master’. The title of ‘master’ not only requires the highest level of competency; it also comes with a heavy responsibility to properly pass on the art correctly. No, I don’t mean your interpretation of it, but the accurate transmission of it. That is no mean feat and that is something I personally would not want to be responsible for.
So, before you start demanding everyone to call you ‘master’ or sign your emails or online posts with some other absurd title, think about what those titles actually mean and whether you are the right person to fill that role.