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Electronic Journals of Martial Arts and Sciences

Guelph School of Japanese Sword Arts, July, 2001

Issues of rank, authority and character in US dojo

Position paper - Deborah Klens-Bigman, Ph.D.

By most accepted practice, traditional martial arts dojo in the US follow a hierarchical structure much like that of dojo in Japan, consisting of a teacher, senior students and junior students.  The teacher is the main transmitter of the art form, the senior students are also to a certain extent teachers, and the junior students are most in the way of learning the techniques and customs of the art form as well as the traditions unique to the style and the particular dojo.

However, as anthropologist John Donohue, martial arts scholar Meik Skoss, historian Karl Friday and others have pointed out, US society is in many ways antithetical to the maintenance of the hierarchical structure.  Donohue has noted that the strong sense of individualism in US society creates an image of the martial artist more as a sort of "lone gunman" than as a cooperative member of a hierarchical group.  Add to this the heterogeneous nature of the United States, with its varying standards of conduct, and it is surprising that dojo maintain any real structure at all.

Even dojo with strong ties to Japan and with a relatively stable structure are constantly battling forces that attempt to subvert it.  An ambitious student who works hard to gain the attention of the teacher may wield a great deal of influence in a dojo and cause conflict among more senior students and the teacher.  These situations can be particularly difficult not only because of the inherent conflict between individuals and the group, but also the freewheeling nature of martial arts in the U.S., wherein a troublemaker kicked out of one dojo can usually gain entry into another and start the process all over again.

In order to maintain a beneficial hierarchy, teachers need to set standards of behavior for themselves and their students.  Most importantly they need to maintain these standards and support their senior students in the face of self-serving individuals who have the potential to disrupt the hierarchy.  Where mutual respect and a clear understanding exist, it is much harder for unscrupulous individuals to gain a foothold.

Donohue, John
1994 Warrior Dreams. Westport, CT: Bergin & Garvey.
Friday, Karl
1999 Personal communication
Skoss, Meik
1999 Personal communication