Should budo teachers be professional? This is a discussion that comes up with fair regularity in modern and classical budo circles. They are a lot of people who see budo as a pure art form and equate accepting money for teaching as selling out the soul of the art. As an art form and classical legacy, budo should remain pure and above simple economics.
My early budo background is in Kodokan Judo, which in the USA nearly has an allergy to professional instructors. There is a feeling common in Judo and many classical budo circles that being a professional budo teacher requires that you sell out the core of your budo to attract a steady stream of students to pay the bills. The feeling is that to make money teachers have to quit teaching real budo and start doing marketing schemes and selling belts.
Then there is the example of Japan. There are very few professional budo teachers in Japan. Pretty much every city and town has one or more public dojo that anyone can rent for a very reasonable fee and hold a class. Nearly every town has a judo dojo and a kendo dojo, while cities may have several (we won’t even talk about Tokyo and Osaka, which have so many judo and kendo dojo it would take years to visit them all). Many towns and cities also have a couple of koryu being taught as well. None of these teachers is getting paid for teaching. The dojo communities are clubs where everyone gets together for the love of what they are doing. It doesn’t hurt that even smaller towns will have several kendo seventh dans and the judo club in even a small town will be run by a 5th dan or higher.
But there are professional budoka in Japan. Not a lot, but they do exist. There are some professionals employed by the various local and regional governments to teach budo to the police. There is the wonderful example of the Kokusai Budo Daigaku or International Budo University, which is what it's name says, a 4 year university focused on the martial arts. It employs a lot of people who are professional budo teachers and researchers. There are also a few professional instructors around teaching privately. Most of the ones I'm aware of are teaching karate or aikido.
What you don't have in Japan is a martial arts industry promoting business techniques for maximizing the cash flow generated by schools with a variety of schemes to get students to pay for extra classes and training. The budo teachers are professional teachers, not professional businessmen. The difference is, to me, an important one. Professional budo teachers are focused maximizing the effectiveness of their teaching of budo. Professional businessmen focus on maximizing the profit of their business.
Every teacher I have dealt with in Japan never stops displaying professionalism. Professionalism is defined by Miriam-Webster’s online dictionary as “the skill, good judgment, and polite behavior that is expected from a person who is trained to do a job well”. It is something I have found lacking in many so-called teachers outside Japan. There are many teachers who do show professionalism outside Japan, but there are far too many who start teaching long before they have sufficient mastery to serve as examples of good technique, much less be able to communicate what students need to do. Just because you’ve got a colored belt doesn’t mean you’re ready to teach.
In fact, the organizations in Japan generally have a minimum rank for running your own dojo. In the Kendo Federation it’s 5th dan. In the Judo Federation it’s 4th dan. Those are the minimums, but you don’t see many dojo run by people with the minimum rank. The only time that happens is if an area doesn’t have anyone else. Generally in the Kendo Federation, no one under 7th dan opens a dojo. In Judo it’s usually 5th dan. You don’t see people running out to start a dojo.
Running a dojo is considered a serious venture that calls for lots of experience. Outside Japan, 5th dan may sound like a high rank, but in Japan it’s not. It barely gets you into the “serious student” category. People spend a lot of time developing their skills to the point where they can teach. Often even after they open their own dojo they will may the journey a couple of times a week to train with their own teacher. I have to say, watching 7th dans working on things while an 8th dan makes corrections is a fabulous thing. They are all working at such a high level that it’s gratifying if I can just figure out what the correction is.
Outside Japan see a lot of “teachers” who have stopped training, or at least their physical condition suggests that they aren’t training very hard. If training and continual improvement is good enough for your students, it’s good enough for you too. Budo teachers owe it to their students and to themselves to keep practicing, to keep training, to maintain their physical abilities and continue polishing their themselves as examples of budo.
Oddly enough, I’ve never seen an example of teachers who stop training before their bodies give out in Japan. In fact, I see just the opposite. Teachers whose bodies are slowly fading still pushing themselves to get out on the floor and train, working hard to slow down the fading of their skills, discover something new about timing or spacing or control and giving their students another lesson in perseverance. It’s not about always being the best. It’s about always giving our best.
This is what I would like to see more of. It’s not about having a pretty belt and a nice title. It’s about always working to have the best for our students. It really doesn’t matter whether you are being paid money or not. Students are giving you a chunk of their time, their life. If a teacher is worrying about how to extract money from their students and is constantly coming up with new programs to sell to students, that’s not professional. If a teacher is constantly working on improving their ability to transmit the fundamentals to their students and is working every day on improving her own fundamentals, that’s a professional teacher.