The Price of a Dollar

Tou'on-ryu, Goju-ryu, Karate, Kobudo, Vancouver, Kitsilano, Dojo, Lessons, Classes, BC
Kanzaki sensei & Mario after a morning of training at the park in Beppu, Oita-ken

I think I’ve told readers the story about the day I almost screwed up my relationship with my Tou’on-ryu teacher, Kanzaki sensei. If not, I think its worth mentioning again. When I first started learning Tou’on-ryu Kanzaki sensei he would not let me practice with his other students at the dojo. He was a wise man and instead he taught me outside at a park close to his home. This afforded him a number of advantages. First, he could assess my character and see how sincere I was as a student, what my work ethic was like, whether I was short-tempered, etc. In other words he could assess my character. Second, it allowed him to retool my Karate without disrupting regular practice. Finally, it allowed him to ‘pull the plug’ as the saying goes on my training if he thought I wasn’t a decent person and there would be no impact on his other students.

Usually after these marathon, outdoor training sessions, we would go for a bite to eat at a ramen shop that he was fond of (which unfortunately is closed now) and chat about his time studying under Kyoda sensei and Juko sensei. It was during one of these after practice lunch sessions that I foolishly offered to remunerate him for his time teaching me. The minute I finished that sentence, I realized I’d made a mistake. What had been a pleasant and cheery conversation up until that point evaporated. Kanzaki sensei’s demeanor changed instantly and he said,

“Kyoda sensei never took money for teaching and I have no intention either!”

In a flash it was over. He returned to slurping on his bowl of ramen and never said anything else about my poor choice of words. Lesson learned. I mention this story not to highlight my stupidity as well as my social and cultural ineptness, although that’s true, but to highlight the stark difference between behavior in the dojo and in our work lives.

A dojo in the truest sense is a community and like any community there are certain expectations of behavior and few expectations of reward. We take on these roles and behaviors because those actions make us feel good. Think about the simple act of opening a door for someone in daily life. It makes both of you happy (at least I hope it does) and you probably have no expectation that the person you opened the door for is going to run after you to give you a reward. That’s the furthest thing from your mind.

The dojo of old were similar in some respects. Teachers taught, not because they were getting paid, but because they wanted to give something to their students and their respective communities. Students learned because they enjoyed the process of learning and socializing with their peers. They didn’t really expect anything in return. If any money changed hands it was to keep the dojo open or to perhaps buy the teacher a gift mid-summer (Ochugen) or at the end of the year (Oseibo) to show their appreciation.

Dojo within the last few decades have become largely for-profit businesses and as such incorporate business norms. Their focus, theoretically, is very different from the dojo of old and encompasses fees, rents, profits, wages and the like. Their expectation of reciprocity is immediate. You paid X dollars and the dojo gives you Y services – prompt payment equals prompt service.

Now before you say that I’m against dojo generating money, I’m not. They have to keep the lights on and the doors open. Or am I saying that these business values are inherently bad. No, they are just different. However, what I want to point-out is that dojo that are run as businesses can’t have it both ways. Teachers that treat you as a friend, comrade or even a “family” member more often than not can alienate a student with this approach. Why? Because the primary motive is generating income. So, if a student is late in paying his fees for example, he might be charged some sort of penalty. That would be a reasonable course of action for a business to take. But if you act like your students are “family members” then charging a penalty to a “family member” wouldn’t be acceptable, right?  The student would take it personally, wouldn’t he?

The Karate-do teachers of old knew this distinction and to my knowledge never charged for their instruction or treated their students as customers. No, they treated their students like family and wanted them to succeed and give something back to their communities. I’m all for profit, if that’s what you want for your dojo, but don’t fool yourself into thinking that your students are ‘family’ as you take their money.