Interview with Longtime Karateka Robert Hoffman: The State of Karate in America

Robert Hoffman began training Shotokan Karate in 1970 under Teruyuki Okazaki and about a decade later, opened his Chester County Shotokan Karate Club. In the summer of 2019, Hoffman joined in discussing the current state of karate in the United States. All images provided by Robert Hoffman.

 

Martial Arts of Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow: Welcome Hoffman Sensei! We are excited to have you here to talk about the current state of karate in America.

Robert Hoffman: Thank you for inviting me! I look forward to your questions.

MAYTT: Sensei, when you first open your dojo, Chester County Shotokan Karate Club? How did you acquire new students and what type of methods or what methods and outlets did you use to acquire those students? How do you attract potential students today?

ECTC training 2019 (2)
Robert Hoffman in 2019.

RH: I started my dojo in 1980 or 1981. At that time, I hooked myself up with a community service and they had an ad program. But even with that, I obtained new students mostly by word of mouth. Now we did do some demonstrations at the local parks and schools and such, but that never really transpired into obtaining any new students. It was more of an entertainment value. I would say, back then, it was mostly just word of mouth.

Today, we’re doing mostly social media type things marketing. Facebook and Instagram are the main points we hit on the internet. Also, we have a fairly good website that gets a lot of views and people contacting us.

MAYTT: From the methods you have described, what has been the dominant age demographic of those who have trained at your dojo and what has been the least throughout your school’s lifetime?

RH: Initially, it was mostly adults. I would say, it was mainly people from mid-twenties to mid-thirties. That slowly changed. Currently, we are getting new youth coming through the door. With that, the ages would be in the six to twelve-year-old range. It has been very limited in terms of getting new adult students. What we do get are typically the parents of the kids. It’s been a little disturbing that I haven’t had new adults come in, but I do know why; we’ll probably get to that here shortly.

MAYTT: When did your dojo see its greatest membership growth and was there a particular time or year that correlated with the growth?

RH: Most likely, it was probably in the 1980s – all the way through the 1980s. I think back then it was still something of interest and a little mystery to a lot of people. But it wasn’t out there for the mass market. So, I would say that that would be early on. It started to taper off probably in the mid-1990s to a point now were almost non-existent. As we do know now, the reason behind that, like I mentioned, is still basically unknown. At that particular point in time, there was a lot less competition, not only in other types of combative sports but also in terms of martial artists doing traditional martial arts. Now, there is a karate studio in every shopping center. There’s a lot of competition.

MAYTT: Absolutely. How does your dojo address developing new and future instructors?  

RH: I don’t know if you are aware of what traditional Japanese call the kohai/senpai relationship – junior student to senior student. We’ve kind of nurtured that type of thing as the main instructor. I nurtured some of my better upcoming new students into helping out with classes. Our organization has a very stringent instructor program that’s run through the Japan Karate Association and the Department of Education. So, when somebody shows an interest in being an instructor, I make them go through that program. I currently have three, besides myself, that have passed that program which takes about five years.

MAYTT: That program is a combination of an in-house or an individual program and organizational instructors’ program?

RH: Yes, it’s a developmental thing. We first allow the students to nurture that interest with that junior student-senior student relationship. Somebody takes a junior student under their wing and sees if they have any interest in becoming an instructor. They may show that interest and we offer them to join a formalized program.

MAYTT: It sounds like it’s a formalized program through the larger organization. How does that program help develop future instructors?

RH: To complete the program, the practitioner has to go through about fifty formalized training sessions, run by the head of our organization, who is kudan. Besides that, they have to teach so many classes. There are about forty-five term or research papers that they have to do and submit and then there’s an examination at the end.

It is a very stringent and structured program. I equate that probably to a master’s degree in terms of what all is involved in doing and getting through it. So instructors in our organization are very stringently developed and trained.

MAYTT: Over the last few years, several martial arts writers have claimed that traditional martial arts like karate have been on the decline since 2004. Do you agree with this assessment and has your experience been different?

Japanese School 2016 (3)
Robert Hoffman leading a class in 2016.

RH: We are just starting to attract more of the younger demographics. In the last six months, we’ve been trying to get some of our junior students (seventeen and under) to help out with instruction during those classes. I can’t tell you whether it is successful or not as of yet, but I can tell you that as we’ve gotten some very positive feedback. The kids are really enjoying it. I think it may be something that could be very positive and possibly attract new students overall. I’m hopeful that it will be something

MAYTT: Those same writers also contend that the eighteen to twenty-nine age group/demographic, specifically males, is almost vacant in karate as well as other traditional martial arts dojo across America. What do you think is contributing to the decline and can these traditional martial arts survive without those specific age demographics?

RH: I think I would probably tend to agree with that. In order to popularize and get it to the masses, the tradition has to be laxed just a bit, because most Americans do not particularly care for that rough and rugged type of training regimen. I don’t know if such laxness led to the demise as much as other things out there. I suppose the main problem is that traditional martial arts take a long time to develop, master, or even become good at it. What we have now is MMA and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu – a lot of things that after three or four months of training, instructors just let you go whether you have any talent or discipline.

I think what is still popular is some karate and other martial arts are what we fondly call McDojos, schools that really don’t teach traditional martial arts and are very similar to MMA and some of the jujitsu out there. It’s also where you get the kids or the people with three or four months of basic training, you put the equipment on and you just let them pound each other.

The discipline, then, is something that very few people are willing or interested in putting in the time and effort. I don’t know if I would say that’s causal because of how we Americanized traditional martial arts. The decline of traditional martial arts has been directly related to the Internet and people now want instant gratification. You go up on the Internet and anything you want to know, see, or do, you can have instantly. There are even courses of karate I’ve seen where they’re teaching it online. I assume you probably see the same thing in your discipline. From that, people think that’s the way to go. They’re not willing to put the time and effort in it.

MAYTT: You’re not the first to say this, Hoffman Sensei. Many others have said some of the exact same things you have said. It’s amazing how almost everyone is seeing the exact same thing occurring in their own martial art.

RH: Well I think you really have to agree that’s what it is. I get a lot of times, especially from parents. The parents come in with their six or seven-year-old, and say, “Oh, little Johnny played soccer, he’s done this, he’s done that, he’s done ten or fifteen different things already!” By the time a kid is seven years old and he doesn’t do what he did last summer anymore, I basically tell the parents, “All you’ve done is to teach your kids how to quit things. If you want to come in and do this, what we can teach you is to work through the difficult times and when you want to quit, because that’s what life is.”

My students that have stayed with me for a long time I have five students that became either physicians, architects, or teachers. They attribute a lot of their success in grinding out life to traditional martial arts training. And it’s not easy to do this. Day after day, year after year, but it does have a benefit that most people are not willing to spend the time to gain that. I’m lucky in that regard. I get around forty students and I probably have twenty-five of them with me for over twenty years. I’m not bragging, but there are certain groups of people that want to do the long haul and will understand and get the real benefit of traditional martial arts training.

MAYTT: In your opinion, how can traditional martial arts, such as karate, adapt to the changing modern martial arts landscape and the American business model? Is there a way for schools to maintain tradition and integrity while staying current with the times?

RH: Well, I think, unfortunately that’s a catch twenty-two. I think we have to realize that, in order for us to stay traditional and stick with the traditional values, we’re going to have to learn to be able to weed out those people that just want instant gratification and find those people that truly are interested in traditional martial arts. We’re doing a little bit more push, as an organization, towards the colleges – that’s actually how I began karate, back in the late 1960s and early 1970s. That was the only place where you could find traditional martial arts. A lot of the people started in the college arena are some of the people that seemed to have stayed. I don’t think there is anything that will really improve that issue when you do get your kids or the younger people in their stay for six months. We try to instill in them that this is a long-term benefit, and when they’re ready to really want to learn this type of stuff, they can come back and we’ll be there for them.

I think one of the things that we need to do again, and this is back when I started, is create an aura of mystery around the art. All the instructors, way back when, only gave a little bit of information and you had to earn more, if you understand what I mean. It’s really difficult today because there are so many people out there and we have the Internet, where other people are willing to give every little bit of information to get recognized. I think that instructors want to instruct truly traditional martial arts. We need to be a little more concerned about what they give and when they get it. You get a student and you want them to push themselves to better understand the technique or aspect you’re doing in class; it’s kind of a risk-reward thing. You work this hard and I’ll be willing to give you the next “secret,” maybe that’s what you call it. Make it sound as though if you give more effort, I will give you more information. I will make you better, rather than give it to them all right away. Give what you’re teaching a little more value.

That’s something I’ve been kicking around. I still have lots of people that are instructors around my age and experience doing it for fifty years and we’re all feeling the same thing. Maybe we’ve gotten to a point, trying to get new students and giving them everything right away. The material really loses its value. I think we have to learn how, as traditional martial artists, to create value for information, rather than give it to them right out of the gate. There is nothing more frustrating than having a student work for four or five years and make shodan and quit because they think they know it all.

MAYTT: When martial artists, particularly dojo owners, discuss the changes within the industry, many point to the rise of Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) as two of the major factors. Do you feel that MMA and BJJ are contributing factors to the decline of traditional martial arts? If so, what do these arts offer in comparison to karate and other Japanese martial arts like judo and aikido?

RH: Absolutely. When I first started my dojo, people liked what people do now in MMA and BJJ. Between ages of twenty-five and thirty-five, they liked to mix it up and rumble a little bit within safety parameters. I think a lot of the people in that age group still want to do that. They don’t want to go through the time and effort to get to a proficient level of fighting. I think your discipline, aikido, probably more than any other, takes a tremendous amount of time to be adequate and people aren’t willing to wait that long. MMA, when I’ve talked to some close friends, they get two or three weeks of training and off they go on each other. They get gloves on and they’re playing around. It’s that instant gratification; you get me a little bit of information and let me go have fun with it. Our training sometimes isn’t fun, but a lot of reputations to do and learn how to do what we do correctly takes time. To just bang and beat on each other doesn’t really take much time at all

MAYTT: Sensei, is there something that karate offers that may not be present to MMA and BJJ that would still make it a valid choice for people?

RH: In terms of sparring, not so much. For example, I have friends that are in different organizations that hold tournaments ten to fifteen times a year. There, the kids put on their headgear and their armor and kind of bang on each other, with no expertise. That kind of mentality seems to be a lot more popular. There are a lot of dojo out there, which I will not call traditional martial arts, will do that with a lot of students, as the kids and other students seem to like that. Unfortunately, even with that emphasis on sparring, my friends are telling me the same thing – they don’t last. They get bored with it after six months or a year, and then move on. I’m at a loss, as with most other people, to how we instill or explain the benefits of what we do in karate. And you would think that people in their thirties and even forties would enjoy those types of benefits, rather than pounding on each other all the time. So now, somehow, we’ve got to come up with the sporting aspect, or a better one to compete with MMA and BJJ. It’ll be interesting to see how karate does in the Olympics, however. Does aikido have competitions?

MAYTT: One style of aikido does have competitions, but it’s not that popular as other styles of the art.

RH: Right. We had the same issue. As traditionalists, my own instructor has always been a Japanese instructor and I feel the same way; we try not to become the bastard son of what we are doing here. Unfortunately, those “bastard son” styles have become the more popular ones at this point in time. Hopefully, the pendulum will swing back.

Even so, we have to do a better job – all of us included. We have to instill, or at least let them know, the benefits of the methods we practice as opposed to how others do it. How to do that? Well, again, people don’t really care about the tradition of being precise and having excellence in what you do through rigorous, hard training. They want to have a little bit more fun. I’m in absolute, total agreement that there are benefits in karate, but those benefits haven’t helped. There are people that would possibly look into our traditional arts, but they are more interested in that quick fix.

One of those benefits is kata. A lot of my students, as I mentioned, have been with me between twenty and forty years, and they prefer doing kata now. They can still do all the movement and still get all the benefits of the hard, rigorous workout and they can do that by themselves. They do a lot of self-training, whereas judo and aikido are very difficult to do self-training. You need that other person’s feedback to see whether or not what you’re doing is effective. Unfortunately, our kata can’t do that. I do run into that problem. They get to a point where they’re doing their forms more like a dance routine, rather than training their bodies and trying to do this in terms of visualizing an opponent. But that’s I blame that on me; I have to work on that a little bit more.

You know I believe kata is something that is a benefit to a certain age group. Actually, my younger students really like learning new kata too. It’s a challenge for them to learn new movements, but I don’t give them a lot of new ones. They have to earn in order to learn a new form – it has to be something of value to them.

MAYTT: According to martial arts writer Jesse Enkamp, most karate schools focus on one of the three approaches “bad guys” use to take advantage of their intended victim, the “blitz.” The other two methods include the “con” and the “surprise.” In what ways can karate form a stronger self-defense foundation that would include training for the other two methods and how can they be implemented for the average practitioner?

RH: That’s an excellent question. I want to be clear about my karate, I do not teach self-defense because I think teaching self-defense, in its purest form, makes no sense because it’s still way too situational. However, I do teach awareness. A lot of times, I’ll tell the kids, “Okay, now for your next class, we will have a class on awareness.” What I do is when they come in the door, I’ll ask what color car was parked in that parking spot or I would put a little piece of paper with letters on it and ask them what letter is on it. That basically teaches them to have an awareness of their surroundings. I think what you need to also teach your students is that it’s not just learning movement. In everything you do, you have to mentally envision a situation where there was a situation that might be. My main focus is awareness and awareness today. I was in Philadelphia over the weekend and there were people walking down the streets that were totally unaware of their surroundings. Now, that’s frightening enough for me. And yet, somehow, you have to question your students as to why they are performing such a movement – what purpose did you have for doing that movement; what situation would that particular movement be beneficial for you in defending yourself, and under certain conditions?

In addition, the founder of our style of karate, Gichen Funakoshi, had twenty precepts (Niju Kun) he offered to traditional martial artists. Here are a few specifically that we as traditionalists should instill and teach students almost immediately when starting: first know yourself, then know others; mentality over technique; calamity springs from carelessness; and make adjustments according to your opponent. One of the more relevant ones are: when you step beyond your own gate, you face a million enemies (awareness of your surroundings and others).

MAYTT: I can see how that type of training can increase awareness. How do you see the state of karate and other traditional martial arts being/looking in the next five to ten years? Is there a possibility that such arts could disappear?

RH: No, I don’t think so. I believe there is a certain sector of people out there that very much benefit and seek out what we have to offer. I think, unfortunately, what we have to do is live with the fact that we’re not going to make a living out of this thing. I don’t do this as a – well, I wouldn’t say hobby because it’s a passion of mine.

I think that traditional martial artists are going to have to go back to being how they were a hundred years ago, especially instructors. The instructor had a dojo in their house and the students received bowls of rice, favors, or they did things for the instructor. In this situation, the instructor never got paid here. I think the traditionalists are going to have to come up with the idea that they’re going to have to do this as a labor of love rather than a job.

I think what we need to also do to get away from, and I don’t know how your organizations are, but I started way back when it was the Japan Karate Association, it encompassed hundreds of thousands of people and a lot of the senior instructors disagreed with some of the politics. Those instructors started their own organizations and now our organization is getting smaller and smaller. We don’t talk to each other at all. As a martial art, whether it’s aikido, judo, kendo, or karate, I think that everybody doing this needs to work together. Maybe have an instructor from some other dojo come to yours and give a seminar and so on and so forth. I think the only way we are going to keep this traditional art going is if we stop with the politics and offer what we know and what other people know to each other.

In spite of the current situation, I don’t think karate will die. I think the art will ebb and flow. I don’t think it’ll ever have the popularity that I saw when I got started in college – we would get a hundred students to show up at the beginning of the semester because they were so intrigued and interested in what it’s all about. Of course, by the end of the semester, there were only four or five that were there to test, but there was a lot of interest. I don’t think we’ll ever get that again. Today, I think to find more students is to go out and find them on the Internet and social media, showing them what we can offer.

MAYTT: Final questions, Sensei. Given your many years of experience in karate, what advice would you give to someone looking to open a dojo today?

RH: Don’t. [Laughs] Go back to the old traditional ways. Sometimes, you didn’t decide to open your own dojo. Sometimes, your instructor told you that you needed to go out and do something to spread the art. But we as traditionalists, if you decide to do that, you got to make sure that, like I mentioned before, if you’re going out there to make a living on this thing or if you’re out there to increase your ego, then you’re doing it for the wrong reasons. If you are going to open a school for those reasons, then you’re going to fail and be extremely disappointed.

MAYTT: Thank you Hoffman Sensei for participating in this discussion about karate’s current state!

RH: Thank you for having me and good luck with your endeavors!

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