Why Learning Japanese Matters

By Erik Hofmeister

KarateKanjiRikkiHitatsuFor the test to Shodan, there is a written component which includes questions about Japanese terminology.  Athens Yoshukai has written tests starting at blue belt expecting a basic understanding of karate-related Japanese words.  Commands in advanced classes and tests are given largely in Japanese. Why? Couldn’t the command just as easily be “right leg front kick” as “migi ashi mae geri”?

Yoshukai is a traditional martial art.  One of the elements of that is learning, understanding, and respecting the cultural origins of the style.  Language is a major contributor to culture. Learning the little bit of Japanese we do helps us to understand the Japanese culture and pay homage to it within the context of karate.

In my opinion, traditional arts require a mental or cerebral component in addition to the physical aspects.  It’s not enough to be able to DO karate, you need to understand and KNOW karate. The language requirement helps to highlight that cerebral component and requires effort studying.  Before a test, a student can’t just run through kata and techniques- they also need to study written material.

Finally, our organization is tightly associated with Yoshukai Japan.  Students may be called upon to understand a Japanese speaker giving commands in the dojo.  Some students may travel to Japan, and having some rudimentary understanding of the language is helpful.

Learning Japanese can be frustrating for some students.  This is particularly true if you don’t understand the utility and need.  Demonstrating your understanding of Japanese for karate can be a point of pride- look at this cool piece of information you have for communicating about karate!  For anyone who has tried to learn martial-arts-related Korean, Japanese is a breeze, so be thankful you don’t have to learn Korean!


Types of Authority

By Erik Hofmeister

You’re an experienced, but enlisted-ranked, military firefighter and arrive on the scene of a fire.  There’s an officer on the scene from another unit with no MilitaryRanksKaratefirefighting experience and a lowly ranked private already fighting the fire.  Do you A) tell people how to put out the fire or B) wait for the officer to give orders or C) allow the private to continue their efforts?  There are three types of authority in rank-structured organizations like the military and the dojo: rank-based, positional, and situational.

Rank-based authority is the most obvious.  A brown belt gives instructions to a green belt because they are a higher rank, and so have authority over the lower ranked students. Obviously, this authority extends only within the dojo and with karate-related tasks.

Positional authority is that given in titles independent of rank.  At Athens Yoshukai, this is the instructor structure- Head Instructor, Senior Instructor, Instructor, and Assistant Instructor.  Students in the instructor hierarchy have authority when it comes to the management of the dojo and teaching of students. If a high-ranked student bows in class who is not in the instructor hierarchy, they then turn the running of the class over to the highest instructor.

Situational authority is often dependent on who is on the scene first with some ability and knowledge to handle a situation.  If a student has an injury, the first person to tend to them with any first aid knowledge can give others orders, regardless of their rank or positional authority.  If you encounter a situation that needs management, you must give specific orders to individuals (e.g. pointing at a person, “YOU, call 911!”) as opposed to diffuse orders to a group (“Someone call 911!”).

The interplay of each of these is unquestionably complex and requires consideration. Layered on top of this is the dichotomy of dojo-associated activities and non-dojo-associated activities.  When in doubt, ask a high rank or the head instructor what the appropriate course of action in a given situation is.

Karate Should be Fun

By Erik Hofmeister

My wife put off trying karate for years.  When she finally agreed to try it out, she said, “I’ll keep doing it until it’s not fun.”  I thought this was a terrific philosophy. I think some people may object because they think karate should be hard, or painful, or a struggle.  Some classes, or even stretches of time, are unpleasant. I don’t disagree-anything worth doing is hard. But shouldn’t it also be fun?


Something fun is something we find enjoyable.  Something enjoyable gives us pleasure, which is a state of being happy or satisfied.  There are many ways to achieve happiness or satisfaction, but scientific studies suggest five major contributors: pleasure (sensation), engagement (absorption of an enjoyed yet challenging activity), relationships, meaning, and accomplishments.  Karate touches on all five of these.

Although training can be hard, and sometimes suffering is involved, ultimately being active and athletic gives us a positive, euphoric sensation.  If karate is constant suffering, or we do not experience that pleasurable component after working hard, something may be wrong.

Engagement is achieved through performance of repetitive actions, kata, and other activities which allow us to be purely in the moment.  We don’t need to worry about work, or significant others, or similar distractions. We can be focused, similar to purposeful meditation. A class period passes and it seems like just 10 minutes elapsed.

Although karate is not a group sport, relationships are extremely important.  I believe most karate students continue with their training because they make friends in the dojo and have positive social contacts.  Working with peers, going to events together to have shared experiences, and talking with fellow students before or after class or at social functions all help to foster positive human contact.

Meaning is provided by students contributing to the growth of the dojo, teaching other students, participating in WYKKO events, and feeling that they make a contribution to the school and organization.  Opportunities for meaning need to be carefully cultivated. It is easy for a student to just show up, do class, and go home, without thinking of how important they are for the dojo or organization.

Accomplishments are obvious in martial arts- we have a rank system, with a clear hierarchy, which provides a visible confirmation of accomplishment.  In addition to the rank system, individual skills can be small accomplishments- executing a break perfectly, or perfecting a kick, or learning an entire kata.  Accomplishments abound in karate.

Doing karate should be fun.  All five characteristics that contribute to happiness can be present, if the student and the instructor are mindful and careful to cultivate those characteristics.  Even after having a hard class, where you sweated and suffered and groaned and even hurt a little, it should still have been fun.

If karate isn’t fun for you, reflect on why that may be.  Are you not able to be engaged, due to too much stress or the exercises not being appropriate?  Do you have some physical pain which makes activity not pleasurable? Do you feel socially not a part of the group?  Do you feel that you lack meaning, or that your participation is not appreciated? Do you have a hard time identifying your accomplishments, or are you too focused on rank-based accomplishments to not appreciate other accomplishments?  In any of these circumstances, you should talk to other students and the instructor. You should be happy doing karate, but you may need to take some active steps to overcome any barriers you have to that happiness.



By Erik Hofmeister

At the Athens Yoshukai dojo, we have a protocol distinct from some other martial arts schools and even most WYKKO schools.


White Belts Are Guests

At AYK, we consider new students guests.  They are not yet full members of the dojo.  They aren’t expected to teach or sweep or conduct other duties of students.  They are accorded respect, but new students come and go. Once they have tested and showed their dedication, then they are considered full members.  We address white belts by their first name, to indicate that they are indeed visitors but not yet members of the dojo.


Color Belts are Members

Once a student tests to 8th kyu, they are considered full students in the school.  They are expected to keep the dojo clean and may be called upon to warm up class or teach.  They are addressed by their American-standard title (Mr., Ms., Dr., etc.) and last name. This is to create a culture of respect and formality among the students.


Black Belts are Teachers

Although students teach throughout their time in the dojo, once a student reaches Shodan, the expectation for teaching is greater.  They are still learning, but they now have a greater burden for passing their knowledge on to others. Thus, they are addressed as Sensei and last name.  This is to indicate that blackbelts are responsible for teaching.


The Head Instructor

The highest-ranked student at the dojo is the head instructor.  This person is responsible for all the teaching and direction of the dojo.  The head instructor is addressed as Sensei. This indicates that the head instructor is ultimately responsible for the dojo, and is accorded a respect distinct from blackbelts in the dojo.

Taught by the Master

By Erik Hofmeister

I have read blogs that insist that you should make sure you will work with the head instructor before joining a school, and some which suggest that a school which asks students to teach is taking advantage of them by not paying them.  I obviously disagree with both of these stances, and here is why.

BlackbeltMasterKarateYou don’t need to learn from the head instructor.  You don’t need to learn from a blackbelt. You need to learn from someone who knows more than you and, sometimes, someone who knows as much or less than you.  In educational psychology, studies have shown that peer teaching is as or more effective than learning from a lecturer. Maybe the student can be more relaxed and hence receptive, maybe they feel more invested in the educational process, maybe the more junior teacher can identify more easily with the student.  This is not to say that less experienced teachers are objectively better, but that students may learn as well from others who are closer in rank and experience to them. Ultimately, it is up to the head instructor and blackbelts to make sure that the techniques are all correct and well executed. All of the instruction, however, does not and maybe should not come from the head instructor and blackbelts.  Doing so may hamper student learning.

As has been mentioned before, students learn by teaching.  In my opinion, not allowing students to teach is detracting from their own education and progress.  Asking students to teach is to their benefit as much as it is to the dojo’s benefit or the learner’s benefit.  Once a student starts to have their own classes that they are responsible for in a commercial school, the issue is somewhat different.  In that case, some compensation should be considered, as the student is directly helping the bottom line of the school and relieving the head instructor to do other (hopefully money-making) activities.

I have heard veterinary students complain during surgery labs about being taught by residents.  These are individuals who have finished vet school, an internship, and started specialty training in surgery.  Such people are more than qualified enough to teach a student basic surgical techniques. They do not need a board-certified surgeon to teach them how to tie a basic knot.  I feel the same with martial arts students. A white belt does not need a third degree blackbelt to teach them how to punch. They can be taught the basics of punching by, say, a blue belt.  This is not to imply that the blue belt has mastered a punch. But a white belt does not need to master the punch. They just need the basic elements, which the blue belt knows.

Commercial vs. Free vs. Club

By Erik Hofmeister


A commercial school is one run to be profitable.  A free school is one run where students pay no tuition.  A club school is one where students pay a minimal tuition, and is usually associated with another organization, such as a city’s parks and recreation department or a YMCA.  They each have advantages and disadvantages which are important to realize as you consider opening your own school or joining a dojo.



Commercial schools almost always include kids classes, since kids bring in the majority of income.  Club and free schools have more freedom, limiting student enrollment. The students for commercial schools are partly motivated because they are financially invested, whereas for free and club schools, the students come to class only because they want to, as they have little to no financial commitment.  Most commercial schools have no caps on the number of students they take, and the general drive is to constantly get more students, as more students equals more income. Some club or free schools may have student caps, since beyond a certain point, more students is not always better.



Commercial schools offer more classes, at more times, since that is the primary employment for the owner.  They may incorporate other styles, to appeal to a broader market base. They usually also include daytime classes to capture more demographics. Free and club schools offer fewer class hours- usually 2-3 a week is a minimum.


Administrative Time

Commercial schools require significant administrative time, both in planning and execution.  A business plan, location, lease, business incorporation, and similar steps need to be taken before opening.  During execution, commercial schools require more administrative time (specifically billing, filing taxes, and similar money matters) and large amounts of time dedicated to marketing.  Free and club schools require some administrative time, but are generally less than a commercial school.



Commercial schools usually occupy a commercial location, which is a substantial expense.  Club schools usually use another organization’s facilities. Free schools have a variety of locations, but are usually low-to-no cost, such as the instructor’s house. Organization costs and liability insurance are similar among school types.



Obviously, the greatest difference among the types of schools is income.  Commercial schools generate money for the owner, whereas club and free schools generally do not. Some club schools may generate some income, but it may not exceed the expenses.



As anyone who has ever invested money should know, with greater risk comes greater reward.  Your tolerance to risk should be clear. If you are highly risk averse, a commercial school is a terrible idea.  A significant amount of startup costs makes it a huge problem if the business fails, and if you don’t also have a primary job, you’ll need to be able to pay yourself.  A club or free school has less risk and, hence, less payoff in terms of financial return.



When it comes to the three pillars of motivation: purpose, autonomy, and mastery, each is satisfied by running a school, regardless of the type.  This is probably the most important idea I can impart: you can feel great satisfaction from running a school of any type.


If you can tolerate a high degree of risk, have the initial money for investment, and need the income, a commercial school might be for you.  Otherwise, a club or free school may be the best way to go.

Anatomy of a Great Kata

Image result for kata

A post by Sensei Hofmeister:

Kata are a series of movements designed to teach a wide variety of principles in karate: balance, focus, striking height, techniques, combinations, stances, and more.  There are many elements in kata.  So what makes a great kata?


In Yoshukai, the movements in a kata are not all executed at the same tempo, or as quickly as possible.  The transition from one stance to the next should be done quickly, and execution of each technique should be done with kime (focus).  A brief beat should accompany most techniques as kime is used.


It should go without saying that stances should be distinct (e.g. kougeki vs. boubi shikodachi), and the student should settle in to the stance immediately before executing the technique.  Without a solid base, techniques will not have power.  Stance first, then technique.


The student should be relaxed throughout the entire kata, except at the moment of execution of a technique.  At the point of execution, the student should add power and tension to the technique.  The rest of the body- stance, shoulders, etc. should be relaxed- only the muscles required for the technique should be engaged.  After executing the technique, the student should be relaxed again.


Throughout the kata, the student should have the same easy, rhythmic breathing.  This is true even on execution of a technique, since the only muscles which should be contracted are those involved in the technique.  The core can be engaged without altering the rhythm of breathing.  Audible breathing during kata (except when noted), or during execution of a technique, can reveal to an opponent your breathing cycle, which they can use against you.

Hands and Feet

Many students neglect the non-technique hand.  During a technique, the hand in chamber should be stable and closed without being clenched.  The hand executing the technique needs to be correct- the hand position for haito is different from shuto is different from nukite is different from shote.  During kicks, the foot position should be correct- using koshi for mae geri, pointing the toes for mawashi geri, etc.


The student’s gaze should be focused toward the direction of the technique.  The head should be held up, the back straight.  Some students tuck their chin down, hunch their shoulders, or bend forward slightly.  Having correct posture will make balance easier.


Obviously, the actual sequence of techniques and execution of the techniques and stances must be correct.  The above elements, when considered separate from knowing the actual kata, will help students increase their mastery of kata and their own body mechanics.