The Next Generation
- By Seamus O’Dowd
I have been thinking about the future of karate for some time, and the following question keeps coming into my head: Can the next generation exceed the achievements of the previous one?
Stan Schmidt Sensei once wrote that the job of a Sensei is to help his students exceed his own achievements. He believes that if the Sensei fails to do this then karate does not progress from one generation to the next.
Previous generations had legendary figures to inspire them and aspire to. My generation has had people like Kanazawa Sensei, Nishiyama Sensei, Shirai Sensei, Kase Sensei, Asai Sensei, Enoeda Sensei, Okazaki Sensei, Ozawa Sensei, Mikami Sensei and many others, including Stan Schmidt Sensei himself. Before them we can look back through the years to find that each generation had giants (in stature, if not in physique!) such as Nakayama Sensei, Funakoshi Sensei, Itosu Sensei and Azato Sensei, to name but a few. Stories abound about tremendous skill; undoubtedly exaggerated stories of effortlessly defeating opponents against all kinds of odds; character-building hardships endured; with humility and other admirable characteristics in abundance. All the way back to the days of Miyamoto Musashi we have stories of great martial artists. All the great Masters studied many fine arts such as calligraphy, poetry, healing arts and meditation in order to have balance and gain wisdom. They did not study just the physical, but the mental and spiritual side of the arts also.
Over the last few years, some of the pioneers who brought karate around the world have passed away. Sensei’s Asai, Kase, Enoeda, Ozawa, Nishiyama and others have left us with an incredible legacy and many wonderful memories and stories. They have also left a void.
The question is who will fill this void? Where is the new “Shotokan Tiger”? Who can be a driving force of karate in the USA like Nishiyama was for fifty years? Who are the new legends? There are many young instructors and many champions, but how many of these have the capability to become true legends?
The old Masters trained relentlessly, fought relentlessly and travelled relentlessly as missionaries. They brought karate to the world, one "town-hall" demonstration at a time. Their reputations were forged the hard way. There is no denying their calibre.
The new generation have it a lot easier. It is still tough to win a World Championship, but it is more controlled, more scientific and there are more opportunities to become a champion than when Kanazawa Sensei or Mikami Sensei did it. International travel is easier too. Instructors are treated like VIPs wherever they go - even mediocre ones. There is no real hardship to it in most countries.
If we are not producing a new breed of legends, then who is to blame? Is it the youths who don't have to (or want to) work as hard as their elders? Or is it the elders for not making them? Have the great pioneers failed ultimately by not providing clear successors to take karate to the next level for the next generation?
Perhaps karate has become too diluted – maybe these pioneers have unwittingly created a problem. It used to be that a “black belt” was seen as a formidable fighter, but every second person seems to be a black belt. In fact, we probably have more “world champions” now than we had black belts 50 years ago. Maybe the success of the pioneering work has also been its downfall: karate used to be seen as mysterious, exotic and exciting, but now it is seen as being almost common and mundane.
Perhaps the world has changed. Life is not as hard as it was in the 1950’s in post-war Japan, Europe and America. The people who brought karate to the world had to do so by travelling coach-class, often sleeping in the dojo and depending on students for food. Some, like Kanazawa Sensei, who are now (rightly) treated like VIP’s, even had to sleep rough on occasion in a foreign country, while trying to educate people about karate.
Perhaps the gap between the visiting Japanese Masters and the local instructors has closed to the point where we are no longer in awe of them. It was common in the 1950’s and 60’s for green belts to teach classes and for brown belts to be chief instructors! Stan Schmidt Sensei earned his brown belt at the JKA and was sent back to South Africa to set up the association there and be chief instructor. Nowadays, in many countries we have club instructors of 5th, 6th and 7th Dans, often “out-ranking” the younger instructors coming from Japan to teach.
Perhaps modern society is to blame. Have the martial arts been reduced to a mere sport because the world no longer needs Budo – the way of the warrior? Has the “microwave culture” of instant gratification pervaded so deeply that we want to be able to become great masters without having to put in the efforts and hardship of those who have gone before us? Are instructors now looking for the easy life and quick fix like the rest of society?
In martial arts this doesn't work. There is no easy route to true greatness.
No-one is suggesting that instructors should go and sleep rough for a while just for the sake of it. But instructors must understand that it should take more than just travelling to different cities to teach big seminars to become a “legend”. It should take more than winning a world title. It should take something special. Perhaps the key lies in the Dojo Kun. Of the maxims in the Dojo Kun, all the great Masters have, or had, all of these qualities to a large extent, but none more-so than “Effort”. The tremendous efforts that they each made for sustained periods commanded people’s respect.
Two subjects mentioned already are sport and the modern world. It is very possible that the next legends will be created out of a combination of these two. The media has become very influential, and sport has become very popular. This is a powerful combination. We have seen how UFC/MMA has achieved a lot of popularity and generated a lot of money! It may well be that the next legends will be created by those clever enough to manipulate the media. It may well be that it will be the better publicists rather than the better martial artists that will achieve fame, and possibly even legendary status. This is not a pleasant prospect for traditionalists.
The Masters who are with us have a responsibility to identify successors and provide them with all the knowledge and skills necessary to attain a high level in their own right. While a Master may hold something back and not teach all his students everything that he knows, he should reveal all his knowledge to at least one. For their part, the younger generation have a responsibility to work hard and achieve their full potential – to take what their Sensei has achieved and build on it, so that the future for karate becomes stronger for each generation, rather than becoming weaker.
Not all is lost. Although some of the Masters have passed away without a clear successor, there are still some Masters with us and some of these have very fine young instructors working with them, who have the potential to be great themselves. These young instructors are very lucky – they are getting to study with and learn from some of the greatest karate Masters of all time. My concern is that the focus and measure of quality has been defined by success in the sporting side of karate. I do believe that at least some of the younger instructors can become great in their own right, if they can get the balance right between personal achievement, study of other arts and development of character. Time will tell.