The Cult of the Sensei

Cult: A system of religious worship esp. as expressed in ritual. A devotion or homage to a person or thing. This is the ‘Concise Oxford Dictionary” definition. In common usage, a cult also tends to be a bit left-field, or even loony. The term is usually associated with weird and dangerous organisations, blindly following a charismatic leader figure. Think of the Aum Shinrikyo, who gassed the Tokyo subway, the Jesus Christians who abduct young people, and the… . . Sound like your association? Of course not, another characteristic of the cult is that its members follow their leader with an unquestioning devotion. Often this is brought about by some form of brainwashing. Whatever the mechanism, the cult member either does not know he has lost the faculty of free will, or will not admit it.

Another characteristic of a cult is the practice of weird rituals, and the adoption of a lexicon that is unintelligible to the lay observer. So it is that the typical karate class entails following a single leader figure in a series of abstract, abstruse exercises to instructions called out in a bizarre mixture of English and an Anglicised, bastardised Japanese derivative. The disciples may even offer chants of their own. (Some people call these chants “Kiai”.)

The danger here is twofold. Firstly the unscrupulous would be cult leader has a ready-made vehicle for his quest for power and influence. Second the well-intentioned honest, but weak sensei may find that the adulation and respect he receives from his kohai (juniors) goes to his head, and he allows himself to be sucked in to the whole shabang.

It’s easy to see how the ritual and mysticism surrounding karate could prove attractive to the would-be cult leader. In the main, karate dojo are populated by gullible forelock-tugging believers. These people want to be impressed, and expect to be amazed. Therefore, any old tosh that is couched in oriental mysticism, and presented with confident authority is lapped up. Examples include: “I won’t do this at full speed, or you won’t see it”; “I can’t demonstrate as I suffered an horrific injury ten years ago at the hands of my sensei, and can’t lift my leg above ankle height”; “I never spar, for fear I may kill a student”; “Don’t worry about my lack of success in competition, this stuff is designed for the street”; “You can’t make this technique work until you’ve had 30 years of practice, like me ”; “You never see me train because my sensei only teaches in private”. I have heard these and similar many times. And the public buys it! Add then the uniforms, the foreign language, the cod Zen and all the bowing, and you’ve got it made.

But it would be disingenuous to suggest that all karate teachers are power-crazed charlatans. Far from it. For many the reasons for taking up karate are all to do with honour & decency. What happens however is that the young teacher finds himself in a position where his students hang on his every word and breath, and a sort of idolatry culture prevails. Faced with a situation where all around him adore, revere and deify, it’s easy to believe the majority opinion, and be sucked into the whole power thing.


The poor old sensei is not to blame in this instance. We are. It is absolutely the responsibility of the student, the consumer, to question, to test and to verify. Instead we proliferate the myth. The main reason that sensei behave like demigods is not that they are egomaniacs by choice. It is because we treat them as such.
For example, I try a new combination out on my class, not entirely sure if it will work. I choose an uke on which to demonstrate. Suitably compliant, he attacks; I parry, counter and fluff the coup de grace. Nevertheless, he falls to the ground. The class then dutifully copy and again all fall down at the appropriate point. My initial uncertainty is eradicated because, look, the class have all made it work! Thus the slippery path is first trod. Increasingly I believe my own hype, and the students, in fear, ignorance or misplaced respect all follow, thus shoring up my power base.

What I am preaching is not a sort of mass “Dojo Yaburi” (lit “Breaking down the walls”, a mutiny). Rather I am imploring you all to treat everything you see with a healthy scepticism. Ask “Why?” It may be that a technique doesn’t work for you, not because it is fundamentally flawed, but because you have missed the point In a culture where the teacher either is foreign, or, just as bad, teaches half the class in a poorly pronounced, half understood foreign language, there is bound to be some misunderstanding. If furthermore the culture demands silence and blind obedience, it is certain that some of the messages will be missed. These are typical conditions in a karate class.

So as students it is our responsibility to ourselves to question, in order to fully understand and appreciate the principles, and to our sensei to keep his ego in check. As teachers, certainly we need discipline in our class to maintain safety, and to facilitate an efficient running of the lesson. Nevertheless, we must create & promulgate a culture where questioning is not merely tolerated, but actively encouraged. As a teaching tool, this reinforces the message to the students. Again, it ensures we question our own approach, and reins in any tendency to pump up our own self- image.

Karate can only become stronger, not weakened by this approach.

İMartyn Skipper April 2001
Martyn Skipper holds third dans in Henka Ryu and Shotokan karate but has avoided the constraints of style by exposing himself to many schools and styles in 25 years of training. He is currently practicing Shukokai in
East Lancashire. To contact him for seminars, or to discuss any issues from his articles email him on: