Culture Shock: Criminality and Unpaid Labor in Martial Arts

I have to admit that when I published my article about Guruism and Cults of Personality , I was a little apprehensive. I don’t generally like publishing things that are that personal to me, but as responses and discussion piled up, one thing became clear: My story was personal, yes, but it wasn’t just my story. Dozens of readers responded with their own stories of abuse, neglect, and straight up crimes committed against them. I’ve compiled a number of comments from the resultant discussions and paraphrased some others. All identifying information has been removed. While I don’t want all of the negative parts of martial arts to become the sole focus of this blog (and it won’t), the resultant conversations let me know that there was a lot here to unpack– too much, even, for a single followup article. So I compiled a list, and will be drawing from those followup conversations as well as my own experiences to document the many ways Martial Arts Culture can turn into a toxic/abusive relationship– as well as ways to fight it. These will be released as “Culture Shock” articles and used, hopefully, to continue to inspire discussion in practitioners and help people realize if they’re in a bad situation.

This issue is important to me because martial arts are important to me, and people being exploited under the guise of “discipline” or “respect” or any of the other ridiculous buzzwords that people use to justify their abuse.

Content warning from here on out.

Red Flag: Straight-up, actual crimes

“Other than that, it seems my dojo has a problem with sexual predators. I was raped by one of the assistant instructors. A few years ago, a different student also tried to sexually assault me. A former student (who moved away for work) is well-known for sexually harassing other men, including my friends. Again, the head instructor knows all this.

“The final straw was when one of the coaches (a 45+ year old man) text him (17 year old lad) saying if he doesn’t stop being disrespectful he will come round to his house and break his legs with a baseball bat. I contacted the owner of the gym to inform him that his 45 year old mates are texting a 17 year old saying they are going to break his legs with a baseball bat. Gym owner stuck by his mates entirely saying we were trouble and toxic for the gym and said I think it’s best if you three (his younger brother also trained there and they kicked him out too even though he had no idea what was going on or involved at all) leave the gym and don’t come back, you aren’t welcome.”

As I mentioned in the previous article, I am lucky in that for everything I’ve seen and gone through, I’ve never been a personal witness or victim of actual crimes in martial arts. However, I got a lot of comments (the two above, among others) proving that, unfortunately, these things do happen, and while overall they’re rare, they’re more common than we want to believe.

How To Fight It:

It may be difficult, but if you realize you have been the victim of a crime call the police and hire an attorney. With the disclaimer that I am not an attorney, this includes but is not limited to:

  • Sexual Assault
  • Implied Sexual Assault
  • Simple of Aggravated Assault: the threat of violence either unarmed or with weapons
  • Battery: above and beyond anything involved in training and anything done without your consent/off the mats. This includes not “respecting the tap”– if you tap and someone decides to break your arm for whatever stupid reason, call the cops and call an attorney.

The issues here are, admittedly, tricky. While “Go to the police” is the obvious answer, it’s not always the course that’s taken for a number of reasons that are frankly above my pay grade. Additionally, the fact that otherwise good people either passively permit their instructors to do these things to other people or actively participate/encourage these behaviors is also above my pay grade. For information about how “good” people can be coaxed into committing atrocities, I’d recommend reading “The Lucifer Effect” by Philip Zimbardo (the psychologist behind the Stanford Prison Experiment), the Milgram Experiment, or The Third Wave experiment. 

If for whatever reason you decide not to go to the police, it’s important to note that what you accept is what you teach and if you accept and continue to patronize a place that goes that far out of bounds, if you’re not an active accomplice to crimes you’re still lending support to people who are. Maintain your own safety but do whatever it takes to get out of that environment. Don’t listen to appeals for loyalty, friendship, “respect”, or whatever other trash the criminals in your school try to use to keep you. It’s also important to remember that what happened to you is not your fault. You were not victimized because “it’s part of the art” or because you “lacked respect” or because you “had it coming”. You were victimized because you placed your trust in someone who violated that trust. Get gone, go to the police if that’s right for you, and don’t be a part of perpetuating that culture of criminality.

Red Flag: Mandatory Unpaid Labor

I was sitting at a bar with a friend one evening many years ago and, over a couple of drinks, he shared a story about why he had left one of his organizations in which he was a high ranking instructor. He had taken over teaching a lot of the classes at the school, as well as handling the books and other administrative duties. By his estimate, he was working about 20-25 hours a week at the school on top of his full-time job. He had no business stake in the school and was completely unpaid for his time. He asked the head instructor (the sole financial benefactor of the school) if he could at least stop paying school dues since he was basically spending all of his free time helping the school operate. How do you think the instructor responded? Let’s take a multiple choice test:

A. The head instructor cheerfully agreed to let my friend stop paying dues and, in recognition of all his hard work, cut him in as a financial partner in the school. They grew the school and are now both retired, teaching martial arts when they’re not popping champagne bottles on their respective private yachts.

B. The head instructor yelled at him for an hour about respect and loyalty and my friend took a “leave of absence” that, to date, has never ended. My friend lost his school and the head instructor lost one of his best students over a trifling amount of money (<$100/month).

If you chose A, then, as we’d say here in the South, “Bless your heart”.

How To Fight It:

This gets to be tricky because there are cultural and financial concerns to look at here, but let’s start with work that is done for the school outside of the bounds of a class.

Working for Free

Let’s say, for instance, you are an HVAC tech. You spend 40 hours a week repairing and installing HVAC units and go to train in the evenings. In the middle of the summer, the air conditioning unit breaks in your martial arts school. The school owner asks you to fix it. There is a right way and a wrong way for the owner to go about this.

Right Way: The school owner offers to pay you for your professional work. If you choose to do the work for free/at a discount, bully for you. If you choose to charge full price because you are a professional who needs to pay their bills, the school owner asks you for a quote, compares it to other similar professionals, and pays you what you are worth.

(Nobody Ever Told ‘Em it’s the) Wrong Way: The school owner insists on either free work or heavily discounted work. They either offer you rewards within the bounds of the class (“We’ve got testing coming up and I think we can work something out…”) or threatens your status within the class (“If you’re not willing to do this, I don’t know if this is the right place for you…”). I’ve seen both. I’ve literally seen someone go from first degree black belt to fifth degree black belt without training because they basically worked full time for the school owner. I’ve also seen people bullied out of schools because they either refused to work for free or asked to be paid for, say, teaching classes regularly at a commercial school. This brings us to the next point, which is equally dicey: Labor within the context of a class.

Teaching for Free

Martial arts often works as an apprenticeship system. You learn under an instructor, you slowly acquire skills that you can use, then you learn how to teach, then you become an instructor yourself. Back in “the day”, students would do this while living full-time on the grounds of the school and as such taking up some cleaning/maintenance responsibility as part of (or in addition to) their room and board. In Japanese it’s often referred to as the senpai/kohai system, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with it on the surface. There are, indeed, cultural considerations to take note of, and some schools utilize this clearly and with the consent of their students. For example, our friends at the Long Island Aikikai put this on their website regarding the routine cleaning of the dojo by the students:

In our Western culture, we often tend to think of cleaning as a “chore”, as demeaning work performed by others. It is important to our training that we transcend such ideas. To see work that needs to be done and to do it is, in and of itself, a special kind of training. The development of character and humility is equally as important as refining technique. The responsibility to keep the dojo clean is a communal one and all members should make sure it is clean and presentable for those that come through our doors. In this way we have the sense of a fresh start for all of our training, and leave the dojo in a state that reflects our respect for what we are learning.

This, in my mind, is okay because

  1. They say it clearly and up front.
  2. It’s a reasonably small ask (a few minutes per week)
  3. The instructors are included in this ritual.
  4. There are some cultural considerations for it (the Zen proverb about “chop wood, carry water” comes to mind).

I’ve cleaned my share of mats and I’ve cleaned my share of toilets in dojo I’ve trained in. The things that turn this from a communal activity to a toxic one are the same things that turn most good things in life toxic: Money and Control.

If you choose to teach beginner’s classes or kids classes or whatever else for free, there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. I’ve done it myself. The difference is that I did it at a not-for-profit school whose dues paid for the space and its upkeep and nothing else. None of the instructors were collecting a paycheck. These instructors also participated in routine cleaning and teaching.

My issue comes when, like my friend at the beginning of this section, you realize you’re doing an awful lot of free work to make money for someone else. If anyone is asking you to do free work to enrich them, or asking you to do something they wouldn’t (and don’t) do themselves, I’d find the exit door.

This is the first of many articles like this, but I want to (again) make my intentions clear. I’m not doing this to try to trash on anyone in particular, or to make it seem like all martial arts practitioners are greedy/manipulative/horrible people. I assume that martial arts instructors follow the same bell curve as most people: some are terrible, some are amazing, most are totally fine.

I honestly don’t believe that many of the toxic people I’ve encountered in martial arts believed they were doing anything wrong. However, that’s not an excuse for their behavior. Times change and cultures change. Martial arts isn’t an exception to that, but while time will progress without our intervention the culture won’t change unless we work to change it. You can’t fix a problem until it’s been identified, and it’s my hope that these articles will help to identify (and begin to fix) these problems within the culture.

2 thoughts on “Culture Shock: Criminality and Unpaid Labor in Martial Arts

    1. Your question can be read two ways. If you’re the one asking to help teach those unpaid classes, that’s your choice and obviously you’re getting *something* of value out of it, so you do you. There are also people who teach classes and are paid “in trade” in martial arts: room and board (even if it’s just sleeping on the mat, as I have done), private instruction, etc. That’s fine–the two sides have reached an agreement that makes them happy.

      If you’re asking someone else to teach unpaid classes at a center where employees, instructors, gym owners etc are paid for their time and services I would ask: why can’t you pay them? If it’s an occasional “fill-in”, there’s very little paperwork in the US for contractors under $600/year (and even then, it’s a pretty simple form). If you’re asking someone to work for free, consistently, while you and your organization receives payment, is that an acceptable business practice? Generally this is where people ascribe an importance to martial arts that you don’t see in other businesses because it’s a good means of getting your way: martial arts instructors have power over their students in a way you don’t see in other businesses. In this instance I think it’s valuable to think of a for-profit martial arts school like any other business. If you owned a McDonald’s and didn’t pay your workers because they were “gaining valuable experience” or “giving back to the art” , would that be an ethical/legal business practice?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s