The Character Development Myth

Hidden truths about karate.
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The Character Development Myth

Postby HanshiClayton » Wed Dec 24, 2008 6:12 pm

This is an excerpt from pages 250-252 of Shotokan's Secret, the First Edition. A similar discussion begins on page 338 of Shotokan's Secret, Expanded Edition. The following text is from the First Edition.

    "The ultimate aim of karate lies not in victory or defeat but in the perfection of the characters of its participants." So said Gichin Funakoshi, a person of unquestioned good character. Is this statement honne or tatemae? Is it true, or does it conceal the truth?

    Most of my friends in the art have never stopped to wonder what Funakoshi’s “perfection of character” actually means. They have a vague idea that it means to have the courage of your convictions; to speak the truth; to live according to a higher moral standard; to resist temptation; to defend what is right and oppose what is wrong; to stand up for the weak and the helpless. These are all very noble ideas, drawn straight from our Judeo-Christian heritage. (Think of the chivalry of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.) In fact, these western ideals are the opposite of the Japanese idea of “good character.”

    Japanese cultural values are drawn from a completely different heritage. The Japanese people are quite unconcerned about our quaint Western concepts of good and evil. Their idea of personal integrity is to close ranks with their neighbors to keep the truth (honne) hidden and leave the falsehood (tatemae) unchallenged. The idea that an individual would follow his conscience instead of going along with the crowd is horrifying to them. The very idea upsets the wa (the Japanese sense of harmonious communial unity).

    The Japanese don’t acknowledge a Supreme Being or a higher moral standard. They are skeptical about the sanctity of human life. Finally, they sincerely believe that they are a superior race surrounded by inferior races. They casually regard all lesser races, peoples and cultures as gaijin, barbarians. If Japan’s historical treatment of conquered nations is any guide, gaijin occupy a position somewhat below livestock on the social scale.

    “Character development” to a samurai meant to suppress all sense of personal responsibility and instead give his superiors instant, blind obedience. A samurai was expected to seek his own death in the service of his lord, and therefore learned to “push through” pain, injury and hardship to the point that death in the line of duty could be attained. Well-trained samurai were expected to behave like lethal, relentless killing machines, even to the point of self-destruction.

    Can you point out the places where traditional karate training develops the samurai virtues of mindless endurance and absolute obedience? Ask yourself these questions:
    • Does our karate training require instant obedience?
    • Does it require blind, unquestioning loyalty to the master?
    • Are we trained to “push through” pain and injury, to overcome fatigue, and never show weakness?

    The blisters on our feet say “yes” to all three questions. This is the “good character” the Japanese masters expected karate to teach. It has nothing to do with courageous individual action, protecting the weak, or obeying your conscience. Good character in Japan means to be silent, to follow orders, to ignore your conscience, and never question your superiors no matter what they tell you to do. In peacetime, this makes Japanese society a model of harmonious cooperation, of which they are very proud. In wartime, however, the same values produce widespread atrocities and horrendous war crimes. That is a harsh judgement, but Japan’s history bears it out.

    Karate-do does not “perfect your character.” It teaches you to act Japanese. From their point of view it is the same thing. We have to ask ourselves if these are the values we want our students to embrace.
Bruce D. Clayton, Ph.D.
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