When I opened my first dojo in 1991 I was a young man of 21 years of age. Like most young martial artists out there who wear a black belt I thought I knew it all. Over the next 12 years I spent a lot of time training in several martial art systems. I had already earned my black belt in Tae Kwon Do and my journey took me into earning one in Judo, Jujitsu, Kenpo and other arts. During that time I started mixing all the things I learned together and teaching my own concepts in my dojo to my students. I even developed two of my own Kata, several weapons Kata and built my own self defense program to teach my students.
Sometime in the late 1990’s I was approached and offered to become a “founder” of a martial art from an organization that will remain nameless in this post. In 1999, my then Sensei, Junishiro Takanami began referring to what I did at “Aiki-Te Ryu Karate”. It really wasn’t a name to my system but more of moniker to the way I taught. He explained to me that Aiki was about blending and harmonizing the opposing forces inside of myself. Te meaning hand and referring to old Okinawan Karate. Somehow it stuck and we began calling what we did Aiki Te Ryu. Little did I know that this name would lead me to be given a “Soke” license as a founder of some martial art system…from three different organizations none the less.
While this was something I never asked for, nor really cared about, it did seem important at the time and I felt like it was perfectly acceptable since many people were doing the same thing. Deep inside though I never really cared for the concept however I was young and didn’t realize what I was getting into until many years later with all this Soke stuff. My students were always told the truth. Takanami Sensei always called my dojo the Aiki Te dojo…ever since I had opened it in 1991. He referred to it as such so it basically stuck.
So why is the title about giving it back and why others should to in reference to the Soke / Founder status? Quite simply because it is nothing more than ego stroking. We as martial artists don’t create anything knew. We just take what we have learned and apply it, or teach it, in a manner that is unique to our way of seeing it. Every Sensei does this and you can often tell who taught a good student by the way they do things based on what they learned from their Sensei. That being said it doesn’t give anyone the right to proclaim to have founded a new martial art system…but many do. I feel they do this to make themselves important or at least feel that way. Many of the people I have met who use the title Soke and claim such things never trained to a true master level in a single art but rather went around, jumping from school to school, won some trophies and thought that made them qualified to call themselves a founder of some new martial art. To me, as I see it now, that is fraud.
Are there legitimate Soke out there today? Absolutely but none of them have trained less than 50+ years and are under the age of 65 minimum. I will repeat that…none of them are under 65 years old or trained less than 50 years period. I have been blessed enough to meet five in my lifetime that are legitimate inheritors of a martial art system and therefor have every right to claim the title. In my travels and studies in the martial arts I have ran across many associations, groups or whatever who proclaim some invaluable right to recognize people as founders of a martial art. They are all ran by Americans who also claim some old, long line of legitimacy in their own martial arts training. They make over inflated claims, attach themselves to Japanese sounding names and quite often you can’t find the names in their lineage anywhere on the internet in a search…and if you do that person has been dead many years.
I ever ran across one group of people who were promoting people as Soke, or Soke-dai (inheritors of a martial art) and none of these guys were as old as me, been training even half the time I had nor really had any legitimacy to their claims of rank. So I was set on a path seeking to find out the truth and correct everything I was doing wrong. I spent hours every week researching, learning, on the phone talking to legitimate martial artists and listening to people who have spent their entire life mastering a single discipline of martial arts talk. I soaked it all in, wrote it down, organized it and kept studying to find an answer. That answer came after Takanami Sensei passed away in 2007. I sort of floated around for a year before finding a new Sensei to learn from and I was very fortunate to gain a great one too. During the time I was researching what I was finding out upset me greatly about the use of the word Soke and those organization that were giving it out.
What I learned is the majority of these organizations would promote anyone to founder / Soke status for money. Yes, you read that correct, it was for money. Some of the fees I saw for a Soke license began at $500 and went all the way into the thousands. For your money you got a really big, fancy certificate with all sorts of Japanese, Chinese or even Korean looking writing on it plus a patch proclaiming you as a member of their “Soke Council”. On the other hand many of the ones that I ran into were self promoted. This means they never earned rank but rather got rank in one of a few ways such as:
They got together with their own students and had all their students promote them.
They got together with their friends and created an organization. Then they promoted each other to Grand Master and so forth (I actually witnessed this happen in Wauseon, Ohio at a tournament I attend many years ago).
They didn’t get any rank from anyone but made an elaborate certificate, scribbled on it and proclaimed themselves grand master / soke.
They photoshopped a certificate inserting their name on it (this one happens a lot. There is even a guy in Ohio who has done this many times and posts them on his Facebook page. You can tell they are fakes too).
There are other things I learned as well but they get me so frustrated and made that I am going to move on away from this.
So here I was an 8th degree black belt at the age of 37, teaching a mixed up system of martial arts with no solid core foundation art and, to top it all off, I had accepted three titles of Soke from three different organizations. I even put this in newspapers, on my website and more. Then, one day, I just said NO MORE. I was lucky unlike many of the others out proclaiming such titles. How so? Because I know the difference between what is right and what is wrong. So I set out to correct my mistakes and become a legitimate Karate teacher…yes I said legitimate.
This journey took quite awhile to complete including going to Okinawa with my Sensei to learn. I spent a lot of time at seminars, camps and more in Shorinkan (the system I now teach) to get it down. Every spare moment I had I spent training, learning, asking questions and soaking everything I could in. Finally I was ranked as a 6th degree black belt, licensed as a Shihan instructor level and switched my entire dojo over to Shorin Ryu Shorinkan Karate. My certifications come from Okinawa as does my teaching license.
When I explain this to others they shrug as if it is no big deal but it is. It means I am no longer teaching what I “thought” was right and am now teaching a 100% legitimate system of Karate the RIGHT way. This means I am giving my students a true experience in an authentic and real system of Karate and they are learning it 100% factually. Others even laughed when I took the demotion to a 6th degree black belt. Yes I have “official” certificates from 6 different organizations for my 8th degree black belt but to be honest with you that small 6th degree rank I now hold has 100x more legitimacy than any of those other ones ever will.
Today I don’t associate with any organization that awards rank without an actual testing panel. I also don’t associate with any organization that awards or hands out Soke titles in manner, shape or form. To me it is fraud to meet someone, get some money and give them a title proclaiming they are a founder of a new martial art system. I also see it as completely ego driven because they know they would never earn such a high honor anywhere else so they find groups that simply don’t care who they promote nor the quality of the individual they are promoting…not to mention if the art and background of the person is “legitimate” or not.
Another thing that I find funny is how many Soke there are out there.I have met people as young as 22 years old who proclaim to be a founder of a martial art. You can’t try and explain to them they don’t know crap either because they immediately throw Bruce Lee or Jigoro Kano (founder of Judo at 22) in your face…as if these morons are even an 1/8 of the talent those two were. To even proclaim such a thing just demonstrates one’s HUGE ego.
A few years back I met a “Grand Master” at a tournament. He demanded being addressed as such. His Facebook and Twitter account both had Grand Master in the title. He wore a highly decorated Karate uniform full of patches and had on a beautiful, fancy and loud red belt. This thing had 10 stripes on it and his Grand Master title too. It was evident it had been embroidered by a company that doesn’t care about seeing a certificate of one’s rank (yes I know the company who did the belt and they don’t). Once again money talks…not skill. This Grand Master competed in the forms division. When he didn’t place he scoffed off and complained to anyone who would listen that the judges “Didn’t know authentic martial arts when they saw it”. What was funny is that three of the five judges are some of the most accomplished martial artists in this country too.
This type of thing happens all the time but usually they just show up at tournaments and don’t compete. At least this gentleman did…he was terrible…but he at least competed. I am sure, at his inner dojo tournament, he earned his world champion title but when faced with real, quality competition he lost. I am also sure he made up every excuse in the book to explain his defeat since he is a grand master and no one else is as good as him LOL. (PS. I heard him doing it too). Regardless these types are all over out there. We see them on Facebook and Instagram with their fancy belts, uniforms and students bowing to them all the time. For some this may be impressive, may even get them students…but for people like me I see it for what it is…total bulls**t.
These days I have ripped up those Soke licenses and thrown them away. I don’t care about ever being some Soke, Grand Master or anything of the sort. I teach a quality, authentic system of Karate so my students get the real deal…no smoke and mirrors. I promote what I do 100% honestly and am not worried about impressing people with titles, rank certificates or belts. It took me a long time to learn this lesson and it is one many of you who are sitting there calling yourself a Soke should learn. If it upsets you that I am writing this then you can bet that you know I am right. No one has the right to call their own self a Grand Master…I don’t care how talented you are. Your trophies don’t mean nothing. What you should be worrying about is training under a real Sensei, in an authentic system of martial arts and dedicating your life to mastering it. That is real way…not your title, not your certificate, not your fancy belt or patches. This is the truth and if you don’t like it I simply do not care. I have been training 38 years now and teaching for 26 years. I am definitely qualified to write this post because I went through the Soke, Grand Master, Founder crap and realized it was just that…crap. Read it as you will, take what you will from this blog but deep inside you know I speak the truth.