Thursday, April 26, 2007

Sociology, psychology, and Anthropology in Karate

I have noticed some articles available on the internet disparaging the concept of including various Japanese rituals such as bowing, sitting in seiza, mokuso, sempai/kohai relationship, and other such things in a North American Karate club. The main idea that these articles are saying is that since most North Americans are not Japanese we should not try to imitate them, but to show respect in a "Western" manner such as shaking someone's hand, or calling out "yes sir" instead of "Osu".

In my past, before I became a mother, I took some years of University courses in Sociology, Psychology, and Anthropology. From what learning that I have acquired during those years, I would say that Japanese rituals help create a "sub culture" in the dojo. What I see happening within North American Martial arts is a creation of it's own cultural mores, and norms which is based on Japanese traditions, but has become it's own entity.

What are Cultural mores, and norms?

"Organizational culture embraces such
organizational needs as common language, shared concepts, defined
organizational boundaries, methods for selecting members for the
organization, methods of allocating authority, power, status, and
resources, norms for handling intimacy and interpersonal
relationships, criteria for rewards and punishments, and ways of
coping with unpredictable and stressful events (Schein, 1985a).
This shared culture helps to create solidarity and meaning and
inspire commitment and productivity (Deal, 1985).

Culture may operate both consciously and
sub-consciously in the organization (Rousseau, 1990; Schein, 1984,
1985a, 1985b; Wilkins & Patterson, 1985). At the surface level,
culture can be observed through examination of behaviors and
artifacts, including such things as the physical setting, rituals,
languages, and stories. At a slightly deeper, less conscious level,
organizational culture is defined by the unwritten rules and norms
of behavior, often conveyed by stories, rituals, language, and
symbols. At the deepest levels, often totally sub-conscious, lie
such things as the fundamental assumptions and core values of
individuals, groups, and the organization (Connor & Lake,
1988). It is at this deepest level that the organizational culture
can be most tenacious and most powerful (Wilkins & Patterson,

Martial arts has developed this kind of "world" where we all know that you have to do something special if you arrive late to the dojo. We all know that training involves the spirit, and by Kiai-ing with our technique we are showing forth strong spirit. These, and other concepts, are taught to us by our experiences as we train. Following the same norms, and mores helps create unity of purpose, and a feeling of belonging to the group. This is why so many different groups in our society pick a club name, a club crest, a club motto, a club handshake, a club uniform, etc. You need only think about the variety of clubs out there and you can see that each one has it's own culture built by the same interests, words, understandings, etc. A skateboarding club will have it's own actions, terminology, way to dress appropriately, and "inside" jokes.

I would offer that to do something as mentally challenging as practicing such a physical activity as Martial arts we need to create a different culture than the one in which we are comfortable. The rules, and expectations HAVE to change to allow us the freedom to learn how to break an arm, tear out eyeballs, crack ribs, etc. Doing such violent actions (even if we do them only in theory) is not normal in our everyday life. We need to be brought out of the what is "normal", and enter a place where we focus on our techniques with full attention, learn what we need to learn, and still use control so not to cause harm.

As an example, notice how the Military has created such a culture within itself. Standing at attention, shining one's boots, Yelling out "Yes sir!", speaking when spoken to, etc. These special values, and understandings allow the soldier to learn what it takes to be able to fight as a unit such as obedience to command from a superior officer. A Martial arts instructor also needs this kind of authority over the students to be able to stop a potential outbreak of severe physical interaction. In self defense, and fighting practice, aggression can be released too strongly, and the safety of the participants could be in danger.

Walking into a Dojo, and having to adapt to all of the new rules, and expectations helps form a Martial artist into new norms, and mores. Many white belts walk into a Dojo with a previous mental picture of what consists of training in Martial arts which is usually built within them by the various movies, and t.v. shows that they have seen. Suddenly faced with something that is very similar to the Japanese/Chinese/Korean traditions, but is outside of their normal behaviour helps them to transfer, and learn new skills.

In my opinion, adapting to such unique things as responding with "Osu", Kneeling in Seiza, the Sempai/Kohai relationship, and other oriental aspects of our training is very important, and even necessary to help with feeling unity with others in our organization, and with training in warfare.


Anonymous said...

Colin Wee said...

An interesting and related article at Budo Blues


supergroup7 said...

Wow Anonymous! Another fantastic link! I remember studying that experiment, and how shocked I was by the results. The webpage that you referred us to really brings all of that information into a well organized, and readable format. I love the last couple of sentences:

"Before you make assumptions about a person based on his or her behavior, remember that behavior is also a function of the situation, which can be more powerful than you might expect. "

It's so obvious that the situation that we are placed in, the expectations, and assumptions that we hold within us, and the authority figure's presence will affect how much we allow ourselves to be manipulated by others.

supergroup7 said...

That was really eye-opening Colin.. I enjoyed learning more about the mindset of the Shinto religion, and how the Japanese culture and language is based on maintaining each person's honor.

I think that Westerners are far more interested in "looking out for number one" in their attitudes, behaviors, and language. I don't know why we developed this type of "placing ourselves as first on the list" kind of mentality... but it sure seems ingrained in there. "I only want what is due to me", "Why did he/she get more than I?", "What's in it for me?"

Colin Wee said...

I think that Westerners are far more interested in "looking out for number one" in their attitudes, behaviors, and language. I don't know why we developed this type of "placing ourselves as first on the list" kind of mentality... but it sure seems ingrained in there. "

Not in you Mir.

Just so that everyone knows - I have met Mir before, and I would say she is walking on the path.


supergroup7 said...

Thank you for the compliment, Colin.

*Big blush*

[Mat] said...


What a very nice comment.


Martial Development said...

If we do need a separate "culture" in which to employ our skills and knowledge, does this mean that martial arts practice cannot benefit our lives ar large?

supergroup7 said...

Hi Martial Development, and welcome.

You said "If we do need a separate "culture" in which to employ our skills and knowledge, does this mean that martial arts practice cannot benefit our lives ar large?"

I feel that the separate karate "culture" allows us to create a new role within our psyche that permits us to explore areas within us that we normally wouldn't look at in regular life. i.e.: violence, humility, obedience, perseverance, pain control, emotional control.

As a wife, mother, or worker I would not allow someone to strike me on the chest, or grab my wrist and put me into a painful lock, but as a Black Belt it's just part of my training, and I actually look forwards to learning through this action.

supergroup7 said...

Oops.. I didn't answer the main question.. "Can Martial arts practice benefit our lives at large?"

Oh yes! I am a great believer that the skills that we learn in the dojo can be translated, and useful to us in the real world. However, we need a different environment than the everyday in which we can explore, and build these skills up.

MrX said...

Can this "sub culture" intimidate newcomers?

With the little military experience that I have, I am at home in a dojo because our behavior is quite similar (in fact, the "dojo" behavior has some of his origins that come from the Japanese military). This is not the case for my wife.

For her, she is a client of the dojo. She pays a service. She understands the teacher-student relationship but not the need for a strict hierarchy. She likes the art but not the "sub-culture" surrounding it. That is something she has accepted in order to continue practicing an art she now loves.

Does this mean she is less of a karateka? No. So is this sub-culture really necessary? Not for everyone. In that case, should it be imposed to everyone?

Great post!


supergroup7 said...

"Can this "sub culture" intimidate newcomers?"

Sub cultures always have that effect on newcomers. They are thrust into an environment that has different terminology, rituals, and signals. It is the manner of a subculture to exist like this. It happens by the demands of the actions, and necessary created words, and moments to make a certain activity run smoothly.

Take for example the subculture of "fishermen". I don't know if it's as noticeable but those who live the hobby of "fishing" with more dedication than the usual person have developed their own subculture. They have their own fishing outfits, and know which brand of rubber pants works better in a river as compared to a low lying lake. They have terminology, and discussions based on accumulated knowledge, and if you were a beginner at fishing you would be drowned in the complexity of how someone could bait a hook, or the differences between bank fishing, balloon fishing, trolling, casting.. etc. etc.

"Does this mean she is less of a karateka? No."

My question would be "How can anyone be "less" of a student of anything? We all learn, and therefore are all students regardless of how comfortable we are with the culture around us.

However, Does her discomfort with the rituals associated with Traditional Martial arts training affect her as she trains in this particular style of karate? That is a given.

If she is uncomfortable with the Sempai/Kohai relationship, with bowing, with the Japanese/ Okinawan/ Chinese/ or Korean terminology.. Then it would be a mental challenge to face those moments during her daily training. I would like to state that we all have our challenges as we pursue an avenue. For some of us it is financial, for some it is physical limitations, for some it is a difficulty comprehending certain patterns of movement, for some it is the interaction of people, and for some it is the different aspects of subculture. I could list even more things that could challenge us as we follow a path.. any path.. including fishing.

"So is this sub-culture really necessary? Not for everyone."

Like I mentioned before, the sub-cultures create themselves through the needs of that desired set of actions, words, and teachings. To study the art of war, certain aspects have to be in place. Discipline, and respect for our Instructors, and training partners for example, otherwise too many students would not be able to walk home after a class. Whether we respond with "Osu", "Si", "Oui", "Yes SIR!", or "Hooyah!" depends on what we have been taught by our Instructor and more experienced students as being the desired response. If one chooses to train in a Traditional Martial art... ( emphasis on Traditional) Then I'd have to say that the Oriental based subculture is an central aspect of that training. If one only chooses to learn various methods of self defense in an informal atmosphere, there are clubs that exist with no bowing, no other language, no meditation, etc. I would like to emphasize that these "modern" clubs would still have some form of subculture to make studying the art of fighting run smoothly. (Such as in a military, or police academy)

"In that case, should it be imposed to everyone?"

Subcultures exist of their own.. Gather a group of young new mothers together once a week and watch, and listen to the subculture that exists and will develop. They will talk about the complexities of potty training, teething, etc. You will see how they will develop their own jokes, signals, and group dynamics. It's part of being human. We create "groups", and unite in various ways. Those who do not conform to a certain group will look for places in which they can belong.

For example, I do not enjoy extreme sports, therefore I would not be inclined to hang around with extreme sport people, wear the outfits, buy the equipment, and learn the terminology.

noahcgjohnson said...

A very insightful post. I would like to use some of your arguments in a paper that I am writing in the course of my graduate studies at the University of Iowa. For bibliographic purposes, I was wondering if you could PM me your name? If you are willing to do so, just drop me a line at noahcgjohnson @ gmail . com Thank you.