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Electronic Journals of Martial Arts and Sciences

Guelph School of Japanese Sword Arts, July, 2002

Introduction: Ethics and Issues in the Martial Arts

Deborah Klens-Bigman, Ph.D., Panel Organizer

Once again, we are presenting the results of this year's Guelph School of Japanese Sword Arts panel.  The topic was a very broad one, and we had a correspondingly broad response by participants this year.  The discussion that followed was surely lively, though as might be expected, it did not really solve any of the problems brought up by the varied papers presented.

Dakin Burdick gave probably the most disturbing presentation, detailing a sexual assault by a martial arts teacher upon his student.  Those of us with some experience could see what would happen in the narrative early on, and the accounting had the dire inevitability of a train wreck.  Fortunately, the victim had the courage to bring her assailant to justice, though the casualties brought about in the case included the man's dojo, along with much of the rest of his personal life.  Dakin also outlined some precautions for both teachers and students, which was followed up in the discussion afterwards.

Don Cunningham's multimedia presentation of "Frauds and Flakes in the Martial Arts" thankfully went off with minimal technical difficulty, and complimented Dakin's paper, though it took an approach both broader and more specific.  Broader in the sense that the presentor was interested in the validity of the claims of various martial arts teachers as to their skill in, and the authenticity of, their respective art forms, rather than just one-on-one behavior with individual students.  Specific in the sense that he brought up particular individuals and evaluated various claims to "mastery" based on available sources of information.

One of the themes brought up in Don's presentation was violent treatment of students on the training floor, also echoed in Dakin's paper.  Are students who allow themselves to be treated in such a way potential victims or consenting adults?  Another point for lively discussion that very much reflected individual opinions.

Gil Gillespie's paper, presented in his absence, sought to further define the role of the "sensei" in the martial arts class.  Through Gil's experience as a youth coach and a martial arts sempai, he sought to consider the role of both "coach" as a mentor and "sensei" in terms of being teacher, technician, and someone genuinely concerned with the well-being of the student.  Unfortunately, for reasons of time, Gil's paper was summarized for the actual panel, but we are presenting his full paper here.

My paper asked whether, in a place as culturally diverse as New York City, for example, there is a place for teaching ethics in the dojo.  Some martial arts teachers I have met leave out philosophy or ethics altogether and concentrate on technique alone.  I point out that ethical considerations have developed as part of the koryu tradition, and teachers who wish to follow that tradition must incorporate ethical training along with budo.  In addition to ethics and proper behavior, it is sometimes incumbent on the teacher to discern when a potential student is ineligible to take part in the dojo.  While this is unfortunate, sometimes the welfare of the group must take precedence over theat of a potential student.

Michael Alexanian's paper outlined the ethical teachings followed in his Tamiya ryu Michigan Dojo.  Charged with teaching an old form of iaijutsu that has been recognized as an Intangible Cultural Asset in Japan, Michael has adapted a set of "Seven Principles of Bushido" to guide his students in their training; emphasizing that the principles apply both in the dojo and in their everyday lives.

So, while ethics and issues was a broad topic, we nonetheless got a set of specific presentations that examined only a small tip of the iceberg.  Unfortunately, there are many more aspects that were not covered, for example teaching disabled students, or working with older adults.  There is clearly much more to be mined on this topic, but we certainly generated a lot of thought-provoking argument.