Why you can’t be a Soke – Founder of a Martial Art

The topic of people who proclaim to be founders of some new martial art system is a heated political, moral and ethical debate. This one of that I actually have a lot of experience with as I was, at one time, awarded the title of Soke by two different associations…but I threw them away. First we have to understand the word Soke, its history and grasp the concept that people cannot train in multiple arts and just call themselves the founder of some new system by selecting an Asian sounding name for an art.

The use of the title for Soke dates all the way back to the 1600’s in Japan and, believe it or not, had nothing to do with martial arts. Soke was a political title often held by the head of family who was in charge of a hierarchical family method. It was most often used by Buddhist monks who had created a “secret transmission” of their teachings. It wasn’t until the Tokugawa reformation in Japan that it began becoming a licensed title in the Japanese government. Even then it was not martial arts related at all. It was, in fact, used by aristocratic families to determine who would become the heir to the family rights or business. In the mid 1800’s it was used to determine who had rights to familial items such as theater, plays, art, poetry, business methods and so forth. We didn’t see it being used in martial arts until around the late 1800’s and it is pointed out that Kodokan Judo was probably the first to adapt a Soke system in their art of Judo. If the Kodokan didn’t recognize a person teaching Judo they were not teaching it no matter what training or rank they had.

Today, especially in the United States, many people believe they can dabble in several martial arts, even earning a black belt in a few, and come up with a mixed curriculum which gives them right to be called a “grand master” or “founder” of a martial art. Nothing is further from the truth than those that run around proclaiming such nonsense. I am certain this will get me a lot of back lash because I have heard people refer to me as a Soke, or founder of a system, but in all essence I never was. What I am going to say next will probably upset even more people but here goes:

There doesn’t exist ANY organization in the USA, or world that I am aware of, that can issue a Soke license at all. When doing an internet search one will come up with over 25 plus organizations that proclaim to have authorization to award people Soke licenses as founders of new martial art systems…but they are all charging money for such things and that is exactly what it is about…making money from idiots who want to be the next Bruce Lee. The majority of Soke councils are a bunch of people who got together, promoted each other to Grand Master and now offer to “license” others as one (I have actually witnessed this happen too). In reality most of them did this because no one would promote them or they had no way to get promoted because they failed to understand one cardinal rule in martial arts…you have to have a qualified Sensei who teaches you, outranks you and that you adhere to their instruction to be promoted.

Today it is common for people to call themselves “Shodai Soke” or first founder of a new martial art system. Just because a person mixes martial arts they have studied together it doesn’t mean they are qualified to be a founder of anything. They will argue, throw fits and proclaim about historical figures such as Jigoro Kano (founder of Judo), Bruce Lee (founder of Jeet Kune Do), Chojun Miyagi (Goju Ryu) and other famous names that did it so they can too. I mean, really? So you claim you are as qualified as those people? Come on. First off Bruce Lee founded a method of training, not a martial art, but I won’t get into that in this blog post because that will ruffle even more egos. Kano Sensei did found Judo, and he did so when he was a young man, but he was highly qualified in Jujutsu systems, recognized as an expert and his idea became a watered down, softer version of combative arts so the populace in Japan could train without having to become warriors or learn the real dangerous parts of the arts. I will state, since I am a Nidan in Judo, that it is not an art that won’t cause serious damage to people who study or use it because it can and does.

There are also many people out there who proclaim to have inherited some ancient martial art from some Japanese instructor. This idea is even more absurd especially if you are NOT direct family or of Japanese decent. The chances a Japanese Soke would entitle someone outside of their direct family, or of a different ethnicity, as the inheritor of their families ancient, and often well guarded, martial art system is absurd..but people love to stroke their ego so they claim this and never can show any verifiable proof of such when asked.

It is also common for people who are head instructors in a school to believe they can call themselves a Soke or Grand Master. That is completely false and even more ego stroking than it is reality or factually based. The head instructor in a school is simply the person in charge, not a Soke, not a grand master and definitely not a founder of anything other than naming their dojo, dojang or kwoon.

So how is it that I am qualified to speak on such things? Because I have had two different organizations award me the title of Soke and Shodai Soke for founding a martial art system that I didn’t create…all I did was teach what I had learned. The first Soke title came in 1999 when I was a mere 29 years old and I filed it in the trash. In 2006 I was awarded another Soke title and I filed it neatly into my scrap book where I keep all my other “joke” awards. I have heard many people say that the name of my dojo organization was the name of the martial art system I created which is not true. I called my organization (I had five dojo at the time) the “Aiki-Te Ryu Karate Kai”. Kai meaning association. It had no connotation towards being a name of the martial art I taught. In my dojo I taught several different aspects of the systems I trained in and built a curriculum around them but that doesn’t make me a founder of a martial art. It just meant I taught what I had learned over the years, built a curriculum around it and developed it.

In 2008 I abandoned all of that Aiki-Te non-sense and began studying Shorin Ryu ShorinKan Karate and Kokusai Rengokai Kobudo. In 2014 I switched my entire curriculum over to the same system as my Sensei teaches in his ShorinKan dojo. Through my 38 years of martial arts training I have earned black belts in Tae Kwon Do (8th dan), Judo (2nd dan), Kenpo (honorary 4th dan), Aikijutsu (1st dan), Goju Ryu, Jujutsu and Iaido (teaching license). Today I teach Shorin Ryu ShorinKan and am ranked at 6th dan under Eddie Bethea Kyoshi and Shuguro Nakazato Hanshi out of Okinawa who is a real Grand Master of Karate. I have no cares about moving up in rank…all I care about is preserving and teaching authentic Okinawan Karate the way it was meant to be. Those Soke licenses are filed away and just something I laugh at from time to time…or use as a teaching “what not to do” part of my student’s training.

In the past 15 years I have met so many “founders” (Soke) of martial art systems that I get confused on what they are claiming. You can’t take Karate and mix it with Jujutsu and call it a new form of Karate. You are just teaching Karate with Jujutsu. You can’t take Kenpo and study Judo and call it a new form of Kenpo or Judo. You are simply teaching Kenpo and Judo. I honestly don’t get why people feel such a strong need to be called a founder of some new martial art. There is nothing new to what we study…it is all part of the training process where we discover more about how to use our martial arts through interfacing with other styles. This is nothing new and has been going on since, well, before martial arts became popular. The Chinese and Okinawans shared their arts with each other which developed into what we know as Karate today. The name Karate is a generic term that defines the arts that sprang out from Okinawa. No one founded Karate because they all studied Karate. In the 1930’s it became popular for people who were seen as expert instructors (note that they were considered experts by all the others teaching) to name their system of Karate. From this sprang Goju Ryu, Shorin Ryu, Shorei Ryu and many others.

What is important to understand is that the men who named the first “systems” of Karate were all EXPERTS. They were not just some guy who had 10 years of training and no one had ever heard of. Recently I had a discussion with a young man who claims to be a Soke. He was awarded the title by an organization who has no international ties to anyone who is a legitimate inheritor of a martial art system from Japan. They claim, on their website, to be internationally certified but they are just a bunch of guys who run a small association and self promoted themselves to Grand Master. When I asked for verification of his certificate, their certificates and where they earned the right to award Soke titles I was hung up by their president. This just proves that they are full of it…as many people who claim to be a Soke are as well.

I know that this is going to hurt a bunch of egos out there but it is factual, not biased, not hearsay and definitely not something I have taken lightly. This is the 14th revision to my blog post before I even posted it and I began writing this in 2012. In my professional opinion and experience as a martial arts instructor of over 25 years I can attest that anyone who claims to be a Shodai Soke or Soke of some ancient martial art system is lying to you. The entire thing became popular because people want to be the BIG MAN and market their “ideas” to make money or gain prestige. They want the uneducated masses to think their title makes them better than anyone else so those people will pay them to teach them. You want to know what prestige is? It is when a person is a true expert of an authentic martial art system and they have dedicated their entire life of 35 or more years to that one art to become a true expert in it. That is honorable. That is respectable and that is how it should be. The world needs more true Masters and less jack of all trades in the martial arts.

The argument against this is often followed by how tough a person is or how their “new art” can beat any traditional / authentic system. That argument has been around since I began training in 1978 and it is always ego driven as well. In every art there are exceptional fighters…be it traditional or eclectic (modern). If a person trains in Kung Fu for 25 years and doesn’t know how to fight they will lose. If a person trains in Karate for 10 years and understand how to fight they will win. It doesn’t matter what the art is one studies…what matters is the person’s ability to use it when they are being attacked. That comes down to learning from a qualified instructor who has actually used their skills…which many instructors today have never done unless they are involved in security, law enforcement or live in a very bad place.

Personally I just walk away from people who claim such nonsense as being a Soke. I also walk away from people who proclaim to be a Grand Master with less than 45+ years of dedicated training in a SINGLE martial art system under a VERIFIABLE Grand Master. The goal of martial arts is not to be so full of ego that you seek rank, titles or other crap like that…it is to just train and perfect your art for your entire life. That is what many have missed in this world of who is higher rank than whom or who has won more trophies than whom.

I have visited Okinawa several times and the last three years I have trained exclusively with the ShorinKan people under the direction of Minoru Nakazato Hanshi, the son of Shugoro Nakazato Hanshi Judan. The training is insightful and there is so much to learn that a single lifetime will not be enough to perfect it all in this single art. I still attend seminars in other arts and have guest instructors from other martial arts at my dojo. I enjoy learning about other martial arts but my core foundation system is what I will seek to perfect. There is no need to train in Jui Jitsu to enhance my Karate because Karate has plenty of grappling in it when done right…the emphasis is just different. I don’t need to train in Kung Fu to make my Karate better because Karate is a cousin to it so we share a common bond.

In every martial art there are the same principles that govern them. There are different ways we each perform those principles but when a person has a strong foundation in a single martial art system they can adapt and gain from exposure to other arts. This doesn’t mean you find a better system but rather you experience other arts to improve your understanding of the core art you study. There is also no reason to “reinvent the wheel” because, I can promise you this, whenever you think something you came up with is “new” it isn’t. The fact is that your understanding is just getting better of the art you actually have studied.

I am a big fan of all sorts of martial art systems but I am not an expert in all of them. In my dojo I teach the arts that I am qualified to teach. There are days I teach something I learned when studying Judo, Kenpo or other systems but I explain to my students that it is from that art…I never claim to say it is part of Karate or I “created” it by mixing it with Karate. That is absurd but there are a lot of people out there who make such claims.

In closing it is important for those who are uneducated on the martial arts to become educated. It always makes me feel terrible for a person who comes into my dojo and tells me all about their great training under Soke so and so and then they don’t even know how to make a proper fist or align a punch for maximum power and efficiency. I feel sorry for those people that never were taught the principles that make an art work because the instructor was more focused on being some great Grand Master that they forget the entire purpose of teaching which is to properly train others. In order to be a great teacher one must be a great student…that is what most have lost sight of who seek rank, titles and jump from art to art and school to school. There are times I don’t understand or agree with my own Sensei but that doesn’t mean I go out seeking a different one or school to train with. The truth is that I didn’t agree or understand what Sensei was teaching me at the time but eventually it made sense. Had I just quit and went to a different teacher that told me what I felt was right or wanted to hear I would have never understood what my Sensei was actually teaching me. Let go of your ego, throw your “Soke” licenses away. Stop jumping from art to art and take the time to become a TRUE expert in an actual martial art. If you are reading this and think I am full of it then you are the one that needs to listen to what I am saying the most.

If you don’t agree with what I have written that is fine to because everyone is entitled to their opinion BUT if you haven’t trained as long as me then understand that I may just actually know a bit about what I am writing. Regardless of the outcome of you reading this, your feelings, your bruised ego or your thinking you can kick my ass what I have stated is simply a fact…and it is researched, verified and full of them.

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