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Reluctant Superstar Sensei

There’s a dichotomy in the Marital Arts world. Well, there are actually a few, but one that I’ve been contemplating lately – and further highlighted by a recent Black Bet Magazine article by Sensei Andries Pruim – is how we spotlight modest Sensei.

In the music industry, Don Williams was known as the “reluctant superstar.” He wasn’t fazed by notoriety and he will never be accused of chasing fame and fortune. Don was a master at what he did, and he did it simply – and with all of his heart. Don was just as happy to be playing to two-dozen fans as he was to twenty thousand.

He believed his music was uplifting and he loved to share it. His style, his songwriting, and certainly his values, were never shaken or even influenced by popular opinion or by financial factors. He was always true to himself.

Within the Marital Arts world, we have some Don Williams.’

As Karate ages, bits fall off, bits change or evolve, and as much as we try to preserve it, pieces are lost. Even more disconcerting is that pieces are added. Yes, I understand that the evolution of anything means change, but, in the case of Karate, change needs to happen under a microscope – not because self-made ‘Sensei’ or experts say so.

I once heard a Sensei say, “I don’t teach Mea Geri Keage because I don’t think it works.”

Preserving a tradition isn’t done by dumping the parts based on personal preference.

Hanshi Don Owens, BC, Canada

This brings me to the dichotomy. There are many, many Sensei amongst us who aren’t front and center trying to promote themselves or their Karate. Sensei like Don Owens who has literally spent a lifetime training, studying, and teaching the Art: the Art he absorbed from the likes of Masatoshi Nakayama, Jun Sugano, Masao Kagawa and Masayuki Shimoda.

Lineage makes legitimacy.

Along with training under Sensei Owens regularly, I am currently training under Sensei Bran Power Jr. and Sensei Brian Power Sr., both of who are still training alongside the likes of Sensei Toru Shimoji and Sensei Avi Rokah. They also believe that tradition means keeping the direct lines of information alive.

Sensei Pruim defines legitimacy like this:

Legitimacy, in my opinion, is when a style is taught in such a way and with such standards that the student, for example, of Shotokan karate, could train at any Shotokan dojo in the world and be welcomed for the quality of their skill.

So, how do we ensure this type of legitimacy continues?

I think it’s time to afford these teachers of the Art more credit, and, with their blessing, more attention.

Sensei like Owens and the Powers (and Pruim for that matter) are going to continue training and teach Karate whether they have a handful of students or hundreds, but we all know how the stats work: hundreds start Karate and only a minority fall in love and make it a lifestyle / lifelong journey. Therefore, we need to get as many people in front of these Sensei as often as we can. We need to sponge up what they know. We need to interview them officially and have the colloquial chats. We need to invite them to our Dojos and have our younger students spend time with them – they will learn a lot more than just Karate.

We still have in our grasp a generation of Sensei who are directly connected to our historical Karate roots, but what also may lie ahead is the loss of the knowledge – and virtues – that they embody.

What a shame it will be to loose so much knowledge because of political or other whimsical reasons. Karateka have been known to simply stop training because their Sensei have passed on or have stopped teaching for one reason or another. Some call this the ultimate loyalty: I think it’s contrary to the very groundwork of what Karate is.

One thing I know for certain: for traditional Karate to flourish in the future, we need to treasure the past. In this case, historical knowledge is like the ocean beneath the ship: if it dries up we run aground.

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