Few martial artists are unfamiliar with the seven virtues of Bushido, the honor code of the feudal Samurai. Often equated with the European code of chivalry, Bushido has been been used as everything from a propaganda tool by the Japanese Imperial Military to the ethical conscious of modern corporations. The only problem is that Bushido as we know it has almost nothing to do with the Samurai (at least as we picture them), and even less with martial arts.
Because of our fascination with all things Eastern, and the fact that American school owners have figured out that character development brings in more students than intense training and bloody noses, many commercial schools have latched on to the image of the Samurai and their code of honor. The virtues of Bushido have become taglines on flyers, and soccer moms are rushing to drop off their kids for the parenting they failed to provide.
The problem is that martial arts training rarely builds character, it reveals it. If we truly believed that martial arts training built character and made people better human beings, we would suggest enrolling every convicted felon in the local dojo for rehabilitation. After all, if martial arts are the secret to becoming a compassionate, honorable person, there should be nothing to worry about, right? I shouldn't have to clarify that last statement as sarcasm, but this is the internet. No person in their right mind would take a violent criminal and give them the tools to make them more skilled at violence (though codified prison-based fighting systems do exist as it is).
Do you know what martial arts training does a really great job of building though? False humility. The kind of humility that makes people point out that their humility makes them better than you. This is the same trait that drives people to ostracize those they feel are arrogant and condemn them for their egotism. It's the same trait that leads people to become trolls, attacking others for not conforming to their beliefs. If you were truly humble, you would understand the actions of others have no bearing on you and would mind your own business, leaving people to their own devices. I would prefer someone who is loud and arrogant over someone who pretends not to be any day. At least one is genuine... So if martial arts training does not really build character, what about the Samurai? How did they exist as these semi-mystical beings devoted to a life of honor and a divine sense of virture and righteousness?
Anyone who has heard the term "wakashudo" is already aware of some of the heinous practices observed by the Samurai (and why you should never use "osu" in a proper Japanese dojo). The Samurai were no different than any other warrior group with power. While the term Bushido has its origins dating back to the 10th century (though the first written record I am aware of is the 17th century Koyo Gunkan), the concept of this honor code as we know it was born during the 200-year peace brought on by the Tokugawa Shogunate. Rape, pillaging and murder are all just accepted facets of waging war for an army on campaign in another land, but now that we have an entire class of testosterone-filled warriors with no war to fight, being paid to do nothing, we have to ensure those practices don't happen in our own backyard. During the Sengoku Period, the concept of Bushido primarily focused on service to the lord and other aspects of military duty. It evolved into the code of ethics we know today essentially to keep the bored Samurai in check. But that's not good for marketing the arts to children, is it?
So how did the imagery of the Samurai and the concept of Bushido become intertwined with martial arts? Most martial artists are familiar with the story of how the old, combative arts evolved into paths of self-perfection. The evil -jutsu systems that were only concerned with killing gave way to the modern -do. The actual history is a little more grey.
It wasn't until the release of The Karate Kid in 1984 and the paradigm shift in potential students from adults to children that the focus of training began to transition from real fighting to character development. Now it's a rare sight to find a school that actually bangs, because too many lawyers and single mothers got involved. That's actually why I stopped accepting children at my school, Trio Martial Arts Academy, in 2015 and only train teens and adults. Our training intensity usually weeds out those who aren't serious, but I digress.
When the focus of growing one's school became the enrollment of children, instructors had to find a way to make their schools appealing. What better way than a guarantee of taking the bratty and defiant kids who wouldn't do their chores and giving them "the tools of success?" Are there instances of students coming up in martial arts and becoming better people? Are there tangible, character development benefits that most people will receive as part of their martial arts journey? Absolutely. In my opinion however, that is due to the morality and mentorship of the individual instructor, irrelevant to the actual training. Of course there are entire arts, like Aikido, that have made their name focusing on developing morality and benevolence. Then again, I'm not sure of too many people who would classify modern Aikido practice as "martial" anymore either.
Nowadays, a common criticism of various practitioners is that they are arrogant and are therefore somehow unqualified to teach martial arts or undeserving of their rank/position. To attempt to discredit someone because they do not live up to the fantastical ideals you believe a martial artist should embody due to the cultural delusion of ethical superiority of the Samurai and their code of honor is a blatant disregard for who they really were and why Bushido exists in the first place. The truth is that humans are flawed, and even good people have their moments. If we are going to judge people on their character, it is imperative we take them as a whole. Just because you feel someone is arrogant or they have too much to drink one night does not make them a bad person, nor does it make them unqualified to teach. To expect an instructor to hold the keys to ancient wisdom and perfection because they have a black piece of cloth around their waist is unrealistic and naive.
Like everything else, the individual circumstances of the instructor and their students should determine the relevance of any judgement, of their character or otherwise. If you are teaching children, then I wholeheartedly believe you have a responsibility to be a good role model for them, to mentor and guide them, to hold them accountable. However, if you're an adult looking to learn about surviving real world violence, then who better to study from than a reformed criminal? An ex-banger with a rap sheet will know more about violence than someone who grew up in the suburbs learning strip mall kiddie karate. Context is everything.
All of this is to say that we need to stop judging martial arts instructors for simply being human. Please do not take this article to mean that I condone criminal or immoral acts! I believe we all have a responsibility to do the right thing, to follow the law and be moral. The purpose of this article is to break the mystique of the Bushido and tear down the moral pedestal we hold the Samurai on. It is meant to emphasize that we are all human, that we are all flawed and that we all make mistakes, regardless of how long we've been training. I know instructors who refuse to socialize with their students outside of class because they are afraid of breaking the façade. They refuse to allow their students to see them as human beings, and then are surprised when their students show no loyalty. All this does is help to cloud the fact that instructors are people too, and lead to the inevitable disappointment when a student finds that out... And then we're right back to the purpose of this article.
EDIT (November 22, 2020) - Let's take it a step further. As I said, many old masters had vices of their own and some even insisted the consumption of alcohol was necessary for martial arts. In his book, "Karate Do to Ryukyu Kobudo," Murakami Katsumi maintains that Kyan Chotoku taught Aragaki and Shimabuku more than just Karate, saying that Karate practice was not enough and they should engage in bouts of drinking and associate with prostitutes to complete their training (view source). Then there's this quote from Motobu Choki, "It is necessary to drink alcohol and pursue other fun human activities. The art (i.e. karate) of someone who is too serious has no flavor" (view source). There was also a series of articles published in "Ryukyu Shinpo" from 1915 praising the life of Itosu Anko that mentions that he and his close friend Asato were described as "people who often frequented the red light districts" and enjoyed drinking.
Oh, and before my detractors twist my words and rush to say I am now advocating prostitution based on these examples, let me completely disavow such practices and state that the quotes and actions of these men are only included here to further reinforce the point that even high level instructors are imperfect.