Mass Market Mediocre Mini-Mall Martial Arts

I was recently pointed to these two business articles about a chain of martial arts schools that is trying to grow into a nationwide franchised enterprise, like any normal retail business.

The question comes up: why should martial arts stay a matter of family businesses and local chains in an age when all other retail stores are becoming efficient national chains? This is the first time I’ve heard about a school getting venture capital to grow. As I think about it, it surprises me that it would be unusual…why should martial arts be different than any other business?

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As a member of a small traditional martial arts dojo, it is of course my knee jerk reaction to be against the corporatization of martial arts. However–having sometimes found myself on the wrong side of the knee-jerk exclusionism of other traditional martial artists–I believe it’d be better to think this though a little.

I’ll start off by saying that at this point in my life, I’ve had two excellent experiences spending years training in a small school with a dedicated instructor who did not teach full time. In between, I spent one year at a commercial school run by a teacher who rarely instructed (or left the office) and had ambitions of expanding. I think that this experience was best exemplified with the Sifu telling me “train for a second year, I’ll give you a black belt, and you can be a paid instructor when I open a new school.” I left shortly after that (when my year-long contract ran out).

So was that commercial school an unmitigated “bad thing?” No. First off, I actually really enjoyed my time there, I kept in great shape through the hours of working out, and in the end I did learn quite a lot (but learned none of it well). In the end I regret quitting when I did because I then spent a year not practicing and getting out of shape until I moved to San Francisco.

So yes, there is a benefit to commercial schools…I just think there is more benefit to non-commercial schools. But yet, let’s be realistic…not every martial arts student is a passionate dork. Most people do not train in martial arts to learn to be warriors, preserve a culture, master themselves, or any other traditional “budo” goal. They train because they think it is more fun than going to the gym, or because they want to feel confident on the street, or to get their aggressions out by sparring, or because they just want to be part of a community. Commercial schools thrive because they cater to this.

Yes, these schools are watering down martial arts, but they are also spreading the martial arts and improving peoples lives (through exercise, discipline, social structure, etc). As long as they are not dishonest about what they teach (which many are), it is hard for me to see where they are harming people.

I think traditional martial artists are quick to say “that’s not right for what martial arts are to us”, so thus it is not right for anybody (as an aside, I have seen passionate essays written by traditionalists on why the way “other people” practice martial arts is not “budo”…they feel that if you are not traditional like them, you do not deserve the word “budo”).

This snobbery is a powerful thing, and I feel it within myself as well. I’ve recently been elitistly looking down on an excellent instructor I’m familiar with that is licensing instructors around the country who have learned his art through seminars and trips. He is clearly watering his art down…but spreading it further and showing more people what it can be. Who am I to judge him for that?

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I think that the useful analogy here is Starbuck’s. Starbucks makes mediocre espresso for a high price (a San Francisco snob speaking here). People are always afraid that Starbuck’s is going to drive local coffee houses out of business and blandly yuppify the country. But a funny thing has happened: it turns out that when a Starbuck’s shows up in town, the business of local coffee houses actually increases.

What really happens is that Starbuck’s shows people that coffee can be more than just burnt tasting diner drip; most are happy with how Starbuck’s has improved their caffeine addiction and stay loyal to it. A minority of Starbucks customers however have had their eyes opened and are inspired to become coffee gourmets.

What I’m saying is that I think pervasive mini-mall martial arts can have the ability to improve the lives of those who would never dig deeper into the martial arts anyway while simultaneously inspiring other students to dig deeper and find a “gourmet” martial art that is appropriate for them. At the least, a consistently mediocre corner karate school is probably a better way for kids to be exposed to the martial arts than anime and kung fu movies. I also think that a well run national chain could universally improve the quality of the many of the local mass-market martial arts schools.

I often state that most people vehemently oppose Walmart, and then shop there. Meanwhile, I fully support Walmart and what they’ve done to improve the lives of Americans (mainly through lowering inflation), but I absolutely hate shopping there. I think national martial arts in an American commercial model could be a good thing; but you will never catch me dead practicing in one.

[update 11/06: I saw a newer article that states that Kovar’s is changing their name to “Satori Martial Arts Academy” and plans 150 storefronts within 5 years. I wouldn’t bet against them.]


Hidden Fortress Yari Duel

I just came upon a clip of one of my favorite samurai movie-duels, Toshiro Mifune’s yari (spear) fight from Kurosawa’s Hidden Fortress:

While famous as the film that inspired (in part) Star Wars, it isn’t one of Kurosawa’s best. However, this scene is far and away the best one in the movie (at least for those of us partial to the yari).

Some other clips are also on the site:

"No Bullshido," The Movie

A funny thing about practicing in a space right on the street is that all of the neighborhood comes walking by. In The Mission, we get a lot of weirdos walking by to be sure, but I always suspect that they think it is us who are the weirdos in funny costumes. Plenty of normal people stop and stare as well; I suppose we are just local color in San Francisco.

A few weeks ago a guy walked up to us on a Friday evening and introduced himself. He said he lived in the neighborhood and had seen us practicing before. He went on to explain that he was working on a film competition and wanted any advice or help we could give him. He and a group of folks needed to make a short film with the topic of ‘martial arts’, and the entire project had to be completed within 48 hours.

Gary offered to help them with choreography and with props. In the end, they decided to do their film as a comedy; thus they did not need to worry about the choreography being practiced and did that on their own. However, they did use our dojo as the set for the first scene and borrowed some costume elements from us.

I think the whole idea of this contest is great, I can see how the time limit would really inspire passion and dedication in the participants. It really sounds like a lot of fun. The film, titled “No Bullshido”, turned out pretty well too. I like the balance they kept of making fun of the protagonist and his martial arts with a light touch.

The film and a description of the project is available at:

A direct link to the video is:

The 48 Hour Film Project:

Lovret’s Budo

I’ve been thinking about the article My Budô by Fredrick Lovret (alternate link)

I do not directly know much about Lovret. My understanding is that he is licensed in Daito-Ryu as well two other arts with occluded history. I used to train with a former student of his style who spoke extremely highly of him. However, since then I’ve mainly heard his name as it gets dragged through the mud by purists who doubt his martial lineage.

I really enjoy this article’s breakdown of the three reasons people study the classical Japanese martial arts: for culture, for combat and for self. There is really a lot to think about in that as far as what and why we practice. And how we are all “slightly insane.”

The real reason I’ve felt like posting this article is that his breakdown is helping me to think about the schism that seems to exist between most of the classical bujutsu I’ve seen (especially “iai” arts) and the few traditional arts I’ve seen that feel like what we do (mostly “aiki” arts). I think that he is on to something as far as what the fundamental difference is in his description of “bujutsu as culture” versus “bujutsu as budo” practicioners.

However, I do not think that “bujutsu as budo” quite captures what “our side” is about, since the budo aspect is very strong for a lot of the “bujutsu as history” folks as well. Lovret is defining budo in such a way as to exclude them, while I’ve seen “culturalists” define budo in such away as to exclude folks like him. Nonetheless, whatever you feel about his choice of words, there is indeed a palpable duality: those who love the style and its lineage versus those that love the art and its techniques; those who preserve versus those who grow; those who want to be part of something versus those who want something to be part of them.

It’s not clear to me why this duality is so clear–and there are teachers who straddle both camps and blur the lines–but the “as culture” crowd often seem to push hard to exclude us apostates while the “as budo” camp turn up their noses in return (as Lovret is doing here).

Beyond all that, I have to mention how amusing I find his insistence on a proper haircut and polished shoes. I see his point, that classical bujutsu is a military discipline for the elite. But it is very far from the attitude of our dojo. Of course, our art is descended from about as low-ranking of samurai as you could get. They had their hands dirty with keeping the peace rather than drilling for war. Our attitude would be closer to “do what you’ve got to do to get by.”

This article makes me want to meet Lovret Sensei and see what makes him tick.