Innocent Phrases

Innocent Remarks that can cause damage.


We have the most passionate, professional instructors, and staff in the martial arts community.  I frequently travel within our industry, and I observe; there is no doubt we have the best.

As good as we are, we are still susceptible to making innocent mistakes.  Inadvertent comments that cause damage.  Most times we are unaware of these errors.

I’m talking about the innocent remarks made to old students who drop in to visit, asking students why they don’t participate in class, or the recruiting of parents or friends at the school.

I know these comments are harmful because I have observed the uneasy reactions of people hearing these comments, the actual feedback from individuals who have experienced them, and how I felt in the past when directed at me.  Don’t fall into the trap of thinking people are more sensitive today than in the past.  People have almost always reacted this way.

It is essential to understand why people take these comments negatively.

A student who has not trained for some time already comes into the school feeling uncomfortable.  Many of us have been there before and felt a sense of guilt, even though not grounded.  No one wants to hear comments such as “Where have you been” or “When are you going to start training?”  These innocent remarks, sometimes just conversation statements, make the person feel uncomfortable and forces them to justify their decisions.  These remarks can cause a person to resist revisiting the school.  Many have not returned.

The best thing to do when seeing an old student is to express your sincere excitement to see them.  Ask them how they are doing.  If they ask about training, discuss it.  If they start giving reasons why they haven’t been coming, quickly say no problem.  I like adding a philosophical response such as “training fluctuates through life.  Sometimes we can train, other times we can’t.”  This kind of reply puts the student at ease. The nice thing about this comment, it’s the truth.  Finally, ask yourself what you would like to hear if you were in their position?

When making the innocent remark of asking why someone hasn’t been attending your class, you are questioning the intent of their decision.   You are unintentionally forcing the student to give a reason or make an excuse, thus creating a feeling of indignity.

There is a reason the student is not participating in your class.  It could be because of schedule, time, or maybe they don’t enjoy your class.  Embarrassing them is not going to solve anything other than creating more negative feelings.  I have black belts who never attend my classes.  I never ask them why.  I know they are great people and there is a reason.  I don’t need to put them in an awkward position to justify their actions.  Shaming someone into attending your class is not the answer.

The final innocent mistake is in recruiting.  Yes, we are in the business of helping people and to encourage them.  However, there is a fine line between motivating or creating a problem.  If a parent or friend shows interest, of course, discuss the possibility.  But be careful of initiating the topic. You may not know the state of mind of the individual.  They could take your innocent suggestion wrong and think you are judging their physical condition or worse.  Training ideas need to come from our TVs, emails, or other marketing literature encouraging participation.  Passive marketing is the safest way.  Finally, none of us want to be sold or pushed into doing something we don’t want to do.  We do not want to look like those hard marketing schools. That is not who we are.


The following quotes influence me as I communicate daily.

“Be careful with your words.  Once they are said, they can be only forgiven, not forgotten.” -Unknown

 “Words have energy and power with the ability to help, to heal, to hinder, to hurt, to harm, to humiliate, and to humble.” -Yehuda Berg


In closing, we have all made these innocent mistakes.  When in discussions with others, always put yourself in their place. Think about what words and phrases motivate and what could possibly offend.


Choosing the correct word and phrases is another form of karate training.


Take care.

Ray Hughes

Ojii-san Batta (Grandpa Grasshopper)

It is my hope to share my thoughts, experiences and ideas in this blog. Blogging is new to me, and I don’t consider myself to be much of a writer; however, I do have thoughts, experiences and ideas.  I will do my best to share them.

I have spent most of my adult life training and teaching Japanese martial arts. Now, I hope to communicate the many positives that have resulted from my life’s dedication to these arts.

I don’t know why, but I have always possessed a great passion for Japanese martial arts, architecture, customs and all that these entail. My passion continues still today. I mean, who has a dojo in their house? For me, this is a lifelong dream!

This is a list, in no particular order, of some of my up-coming topics:

  1. What is a founder?
  2. What is my role as founder?
  3. What do we add, change or modify, if anything, from our style and the way we were taught?
  4. How important is Japanese martial arts customs and manners?
  5. Bushido in today’s times
  6. Should we try to manage our emotions?
  7. If perception is everything, can we manage this thought?
  8. Grandpa Grasshopper

My overall goal and objective:

To use ancient Asian martial arts training of the body, mind and spirit, and apply it to learning today’s important life skills.


Topic 1: What is a founder?

By definition

“Founders begin with a thought or idea and then take an active interest in getting the enterprise off the ground, finding and investing resources to form the company and helping it succeed.

Founders are also entrepreneurs.”

Once a founder always a founder.

In 1975, I moved to Mesa Arizona. I then founded Arizona Wado Karate in Mesa, Arizona in 1976.

Sensei Ray was one of my first students. (Sensei Ray will be part of many of my up-coming blogs.)

I am very proud to say that this group of passionate, dedicated students, starting with Sensei Ray, have kept our dojos open continuously to this day and will continue onward. I believe we have helped thousands of people develop important life skills thus far and will continue to do so into the future. I am extremely proud that we have kept our goal, “the student comes first”, at the forefront of our decision making.

Throughout the years, we have had many highs and lows, but we have always survived and conquered challenges.

Topic 2: What is my role as founder?

Staying in my lane

Sensei Ray and I have spent many hours discussing this. Together we came up with this as a starting point:

  1. Advise leadership on:
    1. Curriculum
    2. Courtesy and dojo manners
    3. Establishing a broader training plan for 3rd degree black belts and up
    4. Write a blog expressing my thoughts, ideas, and experiences. (In no particular order.)

Together we have spent so many hours discussing our curriculum. I am very pleased at the direction we are taking and the overall organization we are undertaking.

Topic 3: What do we add, change or modify, if anything, from our style and the way we were taught?

This topic will always be under review. What is good? Who am I to decide? This seems to be a moving target. My basic thought on this has always been. Never change technique and kata. Change the way we teach as we learn new things. Stretching, for example, has changed dramatically in my lifetime as science has learned about our bodies. Look at all the records being broken in all athletics due to better teachers through science. We need to always look to improve our teaching skills.

Topic 4: How Important is Japanese Martial Arts Courtesy and manners?

For me this is such an important role in our dojos. It is easy however, to forget and become lax in this area.

It’s through courtesy and manners we learn about respect of everyone and everything. We need so much more of this today. I don’t like calling people names. I feel name calling is another form of bullying. I have lived through both calling kids names that stuck. I feel so bad about it now. Luckily, I have had the opportunity to apologize to most of them. I have also been called names. Especially about being short. Very few things got me angrier than “short” nicknames.

We should all try harder to listen more and speak positively whenever we can.

Our words can make or break some one’s day.

Topic 5: Bushido in today’s times?

How do we use some old fighting philosophy and use it today? Most martial arts schools are not using them as they say, “it doesn’t apply to today’s society” I disagree. When you look at most of the samurai tenants in bushido, they all apply.

Topic 6: Should we try to manage our emotions?

I was always taught and have taught myself that we never show our emotions. Never show pain, happy, sad, upset, out of control etc. Nothing more than a blank stare. I still believe this.

Topic 7: If perception is everything, can we manage this thought?

I have often thought about our perception verses reality and is there a difference?

I think we can learn to use our minds to change our perception to reinforce a good life skill.

Topic 8: Grandpa Grasshopper – Ojii-san Batta?

You will have to know about the old TV program Kung-Fu, with David Carradine, to understand the grasshopper reference. I believe the main connotation was “a young grasshopper has so much more to learn from the old blind master. At this point in my life I have so much more to learn (grasshopper) but I’m old but caring like a grandpa. I would recommend everyone watch this old TV program, a little corny but mostly some very good philosophy.


I look forward to your thoughts and comments.

May all your tomorrows be better than today!

Sensei Marlon

Ojii-san Batta. (Grandpa Grasshopper)

Your issues are in your tissues

Mental and emotional benefits of Yin Yoga.
“Your issues are in your tissues.”
The mental and emotional benefits of yoga are various. It is not uncommon to be in a yoga practice only to find the unsettling feeling of anger, jealousy, or resentment arise from what seems like out of nowhere. The good news is that yoga can help you acknowledge and sort out your difficult feelings—whether they arise on or off the mat.

You bump up against the body and feelings any time you are in a yoga class. And there are times in life when you want to be anywhere except where you are. It’s a natural part of the human experience. And yet, if you can learn to stay with discomfort, the next moment often yields something new and sweet—release, emotional relief, or transitional personal growth. What brings you to the yoga mat over and over is that wonderful feeling of completeness and peace when you stay present with whatever arises during practice, and also when you bring what is present in your daily life to the mat.

Journaling after yoga practice can help you to find clarity in the mire of feeling and emotions. It can feel like talking to a good friend — only that compassionate, wise person on the other side of the dialogue is you. A journaling practice can be done in a form of specific questions and answers. Do whatever works for you.

Combining yoga and journaling can help with self-understanding. Yin yoga, combined with journaling is beneficial for acknowledging, “digesting” and “sorting” emotions that arise for you on and off the yoga mat. This practice includes longer holds of postures (one to three minutes) because that allows space for emotions to bubble to the surface. Consider using the old-fashioned, manual art of putting pen to paper instead of typing your notes—studies show that the mere presence of computers or smartphones alters the way you think.

Putting Bushido into Every Day Life

Sensei Ray came across this article the other day and wished to share it with our dojo.

Martial artists who train long enough come to understand that the physical side of their training is only one part. We learn that though it is important to develop our body to be strong, fast, and flexible it is equally important to train our mind and our spirit as well. The ancient Samurai had a code in which they lived by. It was called The Bushido Code.This code was made of Eight Virtues in which every Samurai must remember and practice. Today many, many martial artists all over the world are taught these precepts on the dojo floor and are encouraged to practice them within their own personal lives.

These eight virtues are; Righteousness, Courage, Compassion, Respect, Integrity, Honour, Loyalty, and Self- Control. Though some people may argue the specific words that were encouraged, the vibe is all the same. To develop our character and personalty in the most highest regard.

We learn about these virtues on the dojo floor within our training. We learn about being right and being wrong and to practice courage when fighting with an opponent. Respect for the senior Belts and Compassion for the junior belts is something that is taught at the beginner level. Integrity, honour, loyalty and self control are something that is expected at a black belt level. These virtues are so important as a martial artist. It is what sets us apart, what is expected behaviour on the dojo floor. Anything less is disappointing for a martial artist. There is a very famous saying from one of the greatest Karate Masters, Gichin Funakoshi. He said, “ A Martial Artist is an Artist of Life.” This saying is so profound, even by today’s standards.

We Martial Artists have a duty to carry this attitude into our personal lives, professional lives and public lives. By practicing these eight virtues every single day makes us be the very best we can be not only physically, but mentally, Emotionally, and Spiritually. It is our job to know right from wrong, and to practice courage within our day to day lives. Remembering to respect the 6 areas of our lives: family, friends, teachers, country, our God and ourselves. To show Compassion to the same 6 areas and to every living thing. To do what we say we are going to do and keep our word to people, to practice honour and loyalty within our life without expecting anything in return. Lastly to know ourselves so well and practice self discipline and self control. By putting the Bushido into our every day lives, we can influence those around is in a positive way. This in turn teaches our kids and then the ripple affect will happen.

Everyone who sticks with the Martial Arts knows that they received so much more than what they thought they would when they started their training. They not only learn a self defense or how to fight, they learn these eight virtues that were laid out by the Samurai so long ago. They become an artist of their life.

Let me explain something to you…

I came across this blog post the other day and felt the need to share it. We sometimes take for granted what our Sensei does for us and it doesn’t hurt to be reminded of what they’ve put themselves through. Please take a moment to read and pass it on to those around you.

Let me explain something to you…

About your Sensei. The person you refer to as Sensei is in that position for a valid reason. It seems today I hear a lot of former students or ex-black belts disrespecting their Sensei for a myriad of reasons. In order to better help you understand why a Sensei deserves, or let me put it a better way, demands your respect let me lay it out for you.

The Sensei is the one who has dedicated their life to the art they teach you. You will never have as many years of dedication in because you came after them.

The Sensei is the one who spent many days and nights opening their dojo, cleaning it, making it better…for YOU.

The Sensei is the one who has made sacrifices you will never understand just so you have a place to train, to learn and gain in your art.

The Sensei is the one who, often at great costs, has given up their free time, their family time…time they could be out doing many other things just so you can learn and train.

The Sensei is the one who has invested thousands of dollars in their own training just to learn how to teach you properly.

The Sensei is the one who has often broken bones, but still showed up to teach class. Torqued muscles, tendons and had strains but still showed up to teach class. Had a migraine, was sick, had a bad day…but still showed up to teach class. All these things are excuses why you miss class.

The Sensei often goes without so that the dojo and students will be taken care of. This means they give up having nice things at times, vacations, going out to dinner, hanging out with friends and family…all so you can learn Karate.

The Sensei has spent more time in a dojo than most of you that train with them have been alive.

The Sensei is the one who is always there for your training…

The Sensei quite often sees a need and fills a need for their students. They see that poor kid who has little of anything and needs sparring gear and they just go ahead and get it for them. They see the student who is struggling to come up with funds to buy their own weapons for Kobudo and just buys extras so they can participate. They see their adult students losing their jobs and says “Don’t worry about paying til you’re caught up”. This is the role the Sensei plays and it demands respect.

I can sit here and think of a thousand more reasons why you should never, ever disrespect your Sensei too…but, in all honesty, I shouldn’t have to. I shouldn’t have had to even write this blog…but, then again, people live in a shallow world these days. Perhaps we should step out of it, be bigger and better, and then the world will change. Respect your Sensei, take care of your Sensei, honor your Sensei…because, one day, your Sensei will no longer be around.

By Steven M Franz, Rokudan
Shorin Ryu Shorinkan
Franz Karate

What is Karate?

kobudo stamp 2WHAT IS KARATE?


Robert Hunt


If you’re impatient, here’s the summary – karate is a martial art born on the tiny island kingdom of Okinawa of Chinese ancestry, absorbed into the culture of Japan in the middle of the twentieth century and conveyed to the rest of the world shortly thereafter at the end of the Second World War. But there’s a lot more.4 girls doing kata

Because of our desire to understand life, we often try to box it all up in easy-to-digest packets that we can set on our brain shelves and feel comfortable about. Religions are like that, trying to wrap enlightenment in ribbon and convince the world it’s true. But it can’t be done. We can’t explain supernatural with natural concepts, it’s impossible. The Tao that can be named isn’t the true Tao. If you can describe God, it isn’t God.

Karate feels like religion in that way. We want a definition, but there is none that can contain all the protruding corners of the art, no matter how many exotic names we invent. It defies containment. The moment we hold down one corner, another pops up. First it’s this kind of martial art, then that one, then it’s a way to enlightenment, then physical fitness, history, Olympic aspiration, you name it. It can’t be confined. It’s human experience. It’s life. Try to come up with one word that describes your entire life.

So where to start? To begin, we know karate’s roots lie in China. Various fighting arts had developed there for thousands of years, and since Okinawa took much of its culture from China, the fighting arts came along. But karate isn’t Chinese, It’s Okinawan, born of the need for survival on a tiny island subjugated by an overwhelming power. Karate grew among the upper classes of that island, in secrecy under fear of persecution, and came to be known by the rest of the world only after the subjugation ended and fear of retribution faded.


1600 to 1900

On the Japanese mainland, north of Okinawa, around 1600, a powerful, visionary warlord named Tokugawa Ieyasu, arguably the greatest leader in Japanese history, vanquished the opposition and united Japan. He ordained himself Shogun, military leader, all powerful and his successors ruled Japan for almost 300 years.

            The story of karate more or less parallels that time period, a period referred to as the Tokugawa Shogunate. Why? Because, nine years after Tokugawa unified Japan, he allowed the losing side, the Satsuma, under the once opposition warlord, Shimazu, to “conquer” Okinawa. By doing so, Tokugawa directed Shimazu’s rancor to the south, away from his own capital at Edo in central Japan.

Many believe the Satsuma conquest cultivated the birth of what we call karate, because it initiated a 300 year subjugation of the island and forced the practice of martial arts into secrecy. The secrecy, itself, may have nurtured the art. It also created a need for a self-defense method that didn’t involve standard bladed weapons, since such weapons were outlawed.

Beginnings are difficult to pinpoint in almost any historical context, and everyone who tells the story has an opinion. Few historical movements ever claim an exact start and finish date, but 1609 and the Satsuma conquest of Okinawa is still useful for understanding the history of karate, keeping in mind that karate’s origins took root in China centuries before.

The Japanese set sail from the southern island of Kyushu with 3000 soldiers on 100 ships.  The Okinawans had no standing army and maybe a few hundred very brave men to defend the homeland. Despite brief, fierce fighting, the Satsuma took over in weeks, captured the King, occupied Okinawa, and outlawed military weapons and the practice of martial arts for everyone except a few nobles and palace guards.  Because of all that, a secret self-defense system blossomed.


Civil War

            But history is never swept under the rug and forgotten, especially in Japan, where families maintain detailed diaries of their obligations dating back hundreds of years. Imagine having an obligation to fulfill that was incurred by one of your ancestors during the Revolutionary war. That’s Japan.

In 1868, Japan again saw civil war. In that war, The Boshin War, the Tokugawa themselves were overthrown by a combination of Satsuma heirs, finally acting out their 268 year grudge, and wannabe businessmen looking to “open up” Japan to the wealth and enlightenment of the western world (a time dramatized by the films “The Last Samurai” for adventure and “Twilight Samurai” for reality).  When it all settled down, Japan entered the modern era around 1900.  In modern society, karate lost its martial importance and came to be the physical exercise, philosophical pursuit and tournament game we have come to recognize today.


Meiji Restoration

            After the Boshin War, the Emperor Meiji was restored to power in the so-called “Meiji Restoration”.  The Emperor Meiji was a young, weak figurehead leader who became a noble excuse to wrest political power from Tokugawa.  After that, Japan made Okinawa an official part of the country, a protectorate at first and later a province, and the old Okinawan Kingdom officially disappeared into the foggy ruins of time.

The Okinawans eventually became Japanese citizens, the world modernized and karate gradually lost its martial raison d’etre. Teachers began to teach it not for its ability to protect, but for its discipline, physical fitness, character development and/or simply to preserve ancient culture, like a living museum. Like the Japanese arts of judo, aikido and iaido, instead of a martial art practiced for survival, it became a path to physical discipline and spiritual enlightenment.


Modern Karate

            Gradually the practice of karate became more widespread and less secret. Once the Japanese stopped punishing them, the Okinawans opened their secret dojos. Around the turn of the 19th century into the 20th, when the world became gentler for awhile, teachers began to display their art to a larger audience.  Itosu Ankoh, a one-time bodyguard to the Okinawan King, even began teaching it in middle school.  Itosu, seeing it as a way to build citizens and pass on one of his country’s few real treasures, adapted the art into something like a physical education class.

In 1921, the young Japanese Prince Hirohito, later to become Emperor, visited Okinawa and witnessed a demonstration.  He was intrigued, just as you and I were the first time we saw karate. He asked the Okinawans to send someone to Japan to teach and the secret box was opened. Karate was on its way to becoming the international sport we know today. The Emperor, like the rest of us, saw an authentic martial art that we both could experience first hand, a direct connection to an ancient world of Gods and warriors.

The evolution of karate as an actual fighting method, for all intents and purposes, ceased at the end of the 19th century, kept alive by a few dedicated teachers who tried to preserve the “old” ways.  But even that didn’t last long.  A couple of generations later their followers prac

tice it mostly as an interesting pastime.

From 1600 to 1900, however, there was a martial reason for the practice of the art – to avoid death and defend against the Japanese, an idea that still bounces around the Okinawan psyche. During those 300 years and the 1500 leading up to them, the practice of a martial art was taken seriously and people lived and died by their dedication to it. The techniques that we so lightly play with in class today were once passed on in deadly seriousness.


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This article was assembled from personal experience, research and interviews, as well as the work of John Sells (Unante), various works of Patrick McCarthy, Mario McKenna, Hawaii Karate Seinenkai, Meibukan Magazine, Joe Swift, Sal Canzonieri (Natural Traditional Chinese Martial Arts articles), Benny Meng (Ving Tsun Museum), Earnest Estrada, Scot Mertz, Andreas Quast, the internet and Takao Nakaya (Karatedo History and Philosophy).

These articles are included in a free monthly newsletter email of the Scottsdale Martial Arts Center. If you would like to receive the newsletter, send your email address to

Contact Robert Hunt directly at
Facebook:  The Art and the Way
Scottsdale Martial Arts Center:

Olympic Competition: Good or Bad?

As most of you know karate will be in the 2020 Olympics. Though this is great news for our young athletes, it causes concern for some of the traditionalists. Many of them feel this level of competition may cause catastrophic harm to the art of karate. They already feel competition is contradictory to the philosophy of karate–conquering “self” and trying to perfect technique. Competition, they believe, is succumbing to ego with the hope of receiving glory. In their opinion, Olympic competition will take these negative factors to a higher level.

16-of-historys-greatest-philosophers-reveal-the-secret-to-happiness Though these are legitimate concerns, I wonder if these traditionalists (Sensei) are putting this concern in the wrong place. Maybe this potential problem should not be laid at the competitor’s  feet, but with the Sensei themselves. Competitors are students, they have teachers. Shouldn’t these Sensei teach their students how to combat the evil within? Shouldn’t they show them the benefits of striving to reach and hopefully participate in Olympic competition while enlightening them of the pitfalls that accompany this trip? Shouldn’t this general philosophy be taught anyway?


The Greek-speaking Stoic philosopher Epictetus once said “The most important thing in the  Olympic Games is not winning but taking part; the essential thing in life is not conquering but fighting well.” Nothing speaks more clearly about the true philosophy of the martial arts than this statement. It’s the effort, not the glory that is important.
There is nothing wrong with students aspiring for athletic greatness. Life is short and opportunities need to be taken advantage of when presented.ancient_olympics_wrestlers
We traditional practitioners believe in humility and the importance of conquering the battle within.   Our youth are smart and eager, and will learn if taught properly. The responsibility of teaching the benefits of Olympic aspirations and the potential danger that accompany it resides with us teachers. Eliminating the experience is not the answer. I say, “Go for the gold, youth is Fleeting.”   

Let Them Be Young

               Let them be Young
               by Ray Hughes
Now that karate has been accepted into the 2020 Olympics, the old argument resurfaces- “one should only train for mental and physical improvement and not for glory.”

Though I completely believe in this philosophy, I can understand the desire of young practitioners who aspire to compete in the Olympics.

Being a philosophical instructor, I know the battle is within. Our ego is what needs to be suppressed. What could be more egocentrically driven than training and competing for Olympic gold?


But is it fair to expect young people to think and act like old people?
All of us, regardless of age, are striving to be wise. But age and experience directly impacts the development of wisdom. So how can we judge young people who are in the process of living and learning? And if some of us old people where fortunate to develop some wisdom, didn’t it come from the experiences we encountered when we were young?
The point is, though it is important for young people to do their best to be wise, let them be young. Let them try to accomplish things that require youth. As we all know, youth is fleeting. It is not here very long.
Allow our youth, those who desire to compete at the Olympic level their due; they will have plenty of time to get old and wise. Just maybe their Olympic experience can positively affect the wisdom of future young practitioners.

Black Belt

kobudo stamp 2Black Belt

Robert Hunt




Ohtsuka and Funakoshi

“Black Belt isn’t an award for which you can test.  It’s the person you have become.”
In 1924, in his very humble upstairs room, Funakoshi Gichin invited his seven senior students to a gathering. They had been studying with him for about two years. Funakoshi had dug up some black ribbon and cut it into seven pieces, each long enough to fit around a person’s waist. Funakoshi presented those ribbons, along with a hand written certificate, to his seven students, Ohtsuka, Gima, Tokuda, Katsuya, Akiba, Shimazu, and Hirose, as an expression of his gratitude for their commitment to his art.
Thus began the tradition of belt rank in karate.
Of all the misunderstood aspects of karate, there is possibly nothing more misunderstood than this perceived pinnacle of the art, the nadir of the struggle – the black belt.  And what the black belt has come to represent is literally the story of modern karate. There had never been rank associated with karate during its 400-year gestation in Okinawa. It was a way of survival, not a political event. It would be like Wild Bill Hickok testing for a rank in gun fighting. Many Okinawans ridiculed the idea in the beginning, but, after the Second World War, most came to accept it, although the standards and time spent to achieve each level often vary so much as to be meaningless. The black belt took on a brand new meaning when the ancient martial art met up with western media. The idea of a “black belt”, a person who achieved the apex of martial prowess, caught on in the west like fire in a Eucalyptus forest and a culture blossomed around it. Movie writers quickly picked up on the symbolism and the financial potential. Karate school owners saw the marketing prospects. Black Belt Magazine opened publication.
Soon the idea reached the ludicrous. One karate school created a membership card for its students who received their black belt rank. Alongside a photo of the recipient was placed a photo of their open hands, palms forward. The claim was that these black belts were so deadly their hands had to be registered.
So what is a black belt, if not the ultimate warrior? Anyone who wears one, unless they are deranged, will quickly admit they are not the ultimate warrior (except me, of course, I really am). At its heart, the black belt is a bond between a teacher and a student.  Teachers have set a target based on their own or someone else’s standards and the student has achieved it. Anything else is what we bring to it.
But, in its essence, the black belt is not an award that can be bequeathed. It is a symbol of what we have become, the person into which we have molded ourselves. The idea that a person could cram for a black belt test, honing fundamentals and two person drills and reviewing kata for the testing floor is ridiculous. That should be what we have been doing the entire time we have been studying – building strength and endurance, balance, movement and kata, power, speed and reflexes through endless practice. We can’t cram for it like an Algebra test. We can’t try out the test to see if we can pass and test again next year if we don’t. We are either there or not. The test is redundant. The black belt person has already been born out of the discipline of years of practice.
Not until modern times did it appear and almost immediately get caught up in human illusion and mythology. Funakoshi and the Okinawan teachers who followed him from Okinawa to Japan in the 1920’s wanted karate to be accepted by mainstream Japan, which meant acceptance by a semi-governmental organization of the times called the Dai Nippon Butokukai which oversaw the development of the modern martial arts such as kendo and judo.
Kano Jigoro created modern Judo out of Jujutsu in the 1890’s and became a leading martial artist of the burgeoning 20th century do arts. Kano developed a grading system based on color belts, to

1930's Teachers

1930’s Teachers

introduce judo to schools and accommodate the idea of school grades. The ranks were six basic (kyu) levels, 3 white and 3 brown, and 10 advanced (dan) levels of black. Funakoshi mimicked the idea. Karate flourished in Japan and dozens of styles eventually developed.  The Butokukai began to take notice and in 1938 called for the styles to present their syllabi and ranking systems for acceptance as Japanese martial arts.  Over a hundred applied. Ultimately seven were accepted – Wado-Ryu, Shito-Ryu, Kushin-Ryu, Japanese Kenpo, Shotokan, Shindo Jinen Ryu and Goju Ryu.



With that move, karate was brought under one organization and standardized into 10 kyu (color belt) levels and 10 dan (black belt) levels. It has remained more or less the same ever since, with the world accepting Japan’s lead, except for the occasional deviate who seeks more than a humble 10th degree and proclaims himself 12th, or 15th or even 20th.
Funakoshi, by the way, never received more than 5th degree and many of his students, Shotokan funakoshi_gichin2ikon, Oshima Tsutomu, for one, would therefore never claim higher. The Butokukai was dissolved after the war. In time, the various organizations began to award rank themselves, a practice which continues today. The question of authority always arises. Who awarded what to whom? Some who had been around longest simply claimed whatever rank to which they felt entitled. Everyone mostly looked the other way – you accept me and I’ll accept you.
The general structure has endured ever since and, even though much of the karate world no longer has ties to Japan, most modern schools based on Okinawan/Japanese karate use the idea of ten degrees of colored belts and ten degrees of black.
If we work towards a goal, a rank, and finally become it, no matter what happens, we will always have the abilities we honed along the way. If we accept a political position, just for the sake of recognition, we will never gain the knowledge, but instead always remain just another politician. The karate journey, however, and the quest for the black belt has changed lives, thousands of them. Karate holds within it the seeds of greatness, of not giving up, of striving for perfection – at one time, perfection of technique for survival, but also perfection of our internal spirit.

Therein lies the meaning – shodan is the first milestone on an endless journey toward the perfection of the human spirit.

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This article was assembled from personal experience, research and interviews, as well as the work of John Sells (Unante), various works of Patrick McCarthy, Mario McKenna, Hawaii Karate Seinenkai, Meibukan Magazine, Joe Swift, Sal Canzonieri (Natural Traditional Chinese Martial Arts articles), Benny Meng (Ving Tsun Museum), Earnest Estrada, Scot Mertz, Andreas Quast, the internet and Takao Nakaya (Karatedo History and Philosophy).

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The Last Samurai Revisited

The Last Samurai Revisitedkobudo stamp 2    


Robert Hunt


We watched The Last Samurai the other day…again. Food for the soul for a modern martial artist.
It’s mostly fiction, or Hollywood fictionalized history, but no less fun to watch, with nicely delineated good guys and bad guys, romance, action, and, finally, a movie about the martial arts that speaks to our cumulative hearts. Thank you Edward Zwick.
There was a real last samurai, very similar to the one depicted.
His name was Takamori Saigo, and the person on whom Algren’s character was based was a Frenchman named Jules Brenet. They didn’t fight together, they were not even on the same side, but they both existed at about the same time in history.Saigo 1 - Copy
There are pivotal junctures in human experience when life takes a new direction in a short period of time, like the American revolution, for example. When things that have been in place for centuries change in a decade, history bends like bamboo in the wind.
Such was Japan in the 1870’s suspended between the old and new world. It finally evolved into a clash between the Shogun and the Emperor.
In 1600 Tokugawa Ieyasu had taken control of Japan at the battle of Sekigahara by defeating a group of clans, among which was the Satsuma clan from Kagoshima in the south. Tokugawa and his progeny ruled Japan for 260 years and forced it into isolation.  Foreigners caught there were executed and their death was not pretty.

In 1854 Admiral Perry landed with a fleet of warships and warned that, if Japan didn’t open its borders, he would force them to and that he would be back in a year. Imperial Japan (the Emperor et al) was impressed with western military power and knew they had to somehow enter the modern world. They resolved to take over the country from the ruling Shogun, Tokugawa’s descendent, Tokugawa Yoshinobu.

Tokugawa Yoshinobu - CopyThe situation was resolved with the Boshin war where Tokugawa was deposed and control was placed in the hands of the young, weak Emperor Meiji, not much more than a pawn.  The act was referred to as the “Meiji Restoration” to give it a noble feel, but it was the standard story of one side wrenching power from the other.
Takamori fought for the Emperor, the Imperial Army, in that war and helped defeat the Shogun, but not so much to see Japan modernize as to regain power.  You see Takamori was Satsuma and his clan had been part of the losing side at Sekigahara, 260 years before. No one forgets anything in Japan.
Takamori Saigo was happy to see the Shogun beaten and the Emperor in power, but not so happy to see all the modernization. For one thing, modernization meant doing away with the samurai class, their cushy stipends, and their position at the top of the Japanese hierarchy. They would no longer have the authority to chop off a commoner’s head if he didn’t bow low enough.

Emperor Meiji - CopySo, ultimately, Takamori turned against the Imperial Army and, by extension, the Emperor Meiji in a series of battles referred to as the “The Samurai Rebellion”.
The war lasted from January to September of 1876 and, contrary to the noble samurai in the Hollywood movie, Takamori did use guns. (He was noble, but he wasn’t stupid). There was even a final battle where Takamori and his warriors charged an overwhelming force of the Japanese army using only swords. But the reason wasn’t budo purity, it was lack of ammunition – they had run out of bullets.  In the final days, before that battle, they had taken to melting down metal statues and trinkets for bullets, smuggled to them by sympathetic civilians.

But the elements were all there for a good film; a military hero ostensibly loyal to a weak, easily manipulated Emperor; capitalists who wanted to westernize the country and improve its army to defend it against other powers; modernizers who thought 260 years of isolation was about enough; but, alas, no Tom Cruise.
The Japanese army was modernized in the Boshin war by French and German military advisors, (not American civil war veterans). That’s where the Frenchman comes in.
The Algren character, Jules Brenet, was a handsome, dashing Frenchman sent to Japan in 1867 to train the Shogun’s army, which he did. He then fought with it against Imperial Japan (the Emperor, his manipulators and Takamori).  When Tokugawa lost, the French pulled out, but Brunet, caught up in the mystique of Japan, resigned from the French army and moved north to Hokkaido, where he formed a new “nation” and, in league with some Tokugawa loyalists, planned to take back Japan.
It didn’t work out, of course, and Brenet had to be rescued and taken back to France where he rejoined the French army and became a muckity-muck.Jules Brenet - Copy
Edward Zwick, who wrote, produced and directed the Hollywood film, used Brenet and Takamori based characters to craft his work of art, as well as the book, The Last Samurai: The Life and Battles of Saigo Takamori by historian Mark Ravina. Zwick changed the Frenchman to an American because Americans buy more movie tickets.
But what does this film have to do with our modern martial arts? Why does it speak to us so passionately?
What this film so aptly depicts is the moment in Japanese history when everything changed.  The ancient world emerged into the modern one and the old ways were no longer needed. The martial arts evolved into martial ways – jutsu became do – what we do.
This could be our story. Our arts, be they karate (karate-do, if you will), iaido, aikido, judo, kendo all stopped being martial arts and became something we could pursue without threatening anyone in power. The Imperial government did not want charismatic warriors like Takamori, seething in glorious dreams of rebellion in some far off corner of the island – and so they encouraged the “do” arts.
The same thing happened about the same time in Okinawa with karate. The old masters died off and people like Itosu and Higashionna turned karate into less violent, gymnastic-like pastimes crafted to build the human body and spirit more than to fight.
The interesting thing about the movie is that the disciplined practices that it depicted so well, are more creations from after the samurai rebellion, than before it. The unending practice of jujutsu, batto jutsu, kyu jutsu and the like simply for the sake of perfection is “do” not “jutsu”. In ancient Japan (and ancient Okinawa), warriors were practicing their arts (jutsu) for the purpose of killing, not spiritual development.
Zwick’s depiction of the Japanese martial arts and their devoted practice to “sharpen the spirit” is part of the “bushido” nonsense put forth by Inozu Nitobe in his book Bushido: The Soul of the Samurai, at the end of the 19th century, but that’s a different story.
The Last Samurai was a good job of Hollywood make-believe coupled with bits of Japanese history – an imaginative fabrication that articulates our own martial story so well.

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