Interview with Longtime Karateka Eon Waldron: The Americanization of Shotokan Karate

This is a transcript of an interview with Eon Waldron in the spring of 2019. Here, we discuss the early current state of karate in the United States.

Martial Arts of Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow: I would like to welcome you and thank you for taking some time to talk about karate.

Eon Waldron: Thank you for having me.

MAYTT: When you first open up your dojo, Tora Shotokan Karate Club, how did you acquire new students? What types of methods and outlets did you use to acquire other students?

Eon Waldron teaching a virtual class. Source: Tora Shookan Karate – NYC.

EW: Well, I started training in Brooklyn College. So quite a few people know who I was. They encouraged me to start a karate school. So most of the people knew me from before I started the school. That’s how I really got started. I knew what I was trying to do. I used to be the assistant instructor at the club at Brooklyn College. It was a little frustrating because, sometimes, you wouldn’t get a room for the club, but it was still a great experience.

MAYTT: Based on your dojo’s past and current membership enrollment statistics, what has been the dominant age demographic and what has been the least? Also, what methods of advertising did you find were most successful for your age-dominant demographic?

EW: In the early days, I would say it had mostly adult students. Then, those students began not coming down to the night classes. It turns out that our adults started dropping off their children for classes. Right now, the dojo’s demographic are mostly children, about eighty percent. Most of the students are youths/preteens. I’ve found that the adults don’t stay long because there is always a problem with a job or they’re never really there as often as they’d like to be.

The best way to attract children students are karate flyers. That really drives enrollment; actually handing out flyers personally to people really helps bring in new students. The website is a little slow on that front. There are a lot of karate schools, with a lot of websites.

Another thing that drives enrollment is a karate sign up. A nice, clear, lighted karate sign lighted that that people can see at night, because a lot of people usually by the time they get out of work, it’s dark.

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

EW: The dojo gets a surge in newer students around the spring. The second surge is summer, when school is out, for about a month or two. I’ve been trying to retain most of those students when fall comes around and school starts back up again, trying to make that time of year have a larger surge in students.

MAYTT: Some believe that the quality of instructors has diminished over the generations and that because of improper training and instruction, both instructor and practitioner as a whole do not compare to those of old. Would you agree with such a belief?

EW: I agree with that to a certain point, because there are a lot of instructors who many have twice as many students as me, but they aren’t certified and aren’t teaching any kind of karate. There are some parents that are just glad to have their children doing something called “martial arts,” but those instructors are not really teaching the students real, traditional martial arts. On the other side, there are some instructors who might be really qualified and skilled and might be forced to teach children. There’s a difference, then between the certified instructor teaching traditional karate and the one who is not.

Also, it’s a different type of child nowadays. The students that we’re having now are totally different from the 1970s, 1980s, and the 1990s. Back in those days, people really took karate seriously and they were committed to training, rain, sun, snow, or sleet. It didn’t matter what the weather was like, you came to class. The majority of the students are not like that. I have found that the type of training I went through with the International Shotokan Karate Association (ISKA) and the Japan Karate Association (JKA), not many newer students are interested in that type of training, let alone what’s being taught. About one in ten students might be really interested in the training and interested in really learning what you’re teaching them. The other nine are there because maybe their parents want them to be there or their parents don’t want them at home just playing around.

In short, there are a lot of martial artists out there that aren’t really qualified teaching non-traditional karate.

MAYTT: That seems like an issue that needs to be addressed. There is debate regarding what would build a better instructor to carry on the art’s legacy; either by an in house/dojo instructors program or one that would be facilitated and maintained on the larger organizational stage. What are your thoughts?

EW: I think both are important. However, a practitioner might have a lot of skill and in-house training, but that training might not assist them in creating a syllabus and testing requirements for each belt level. Our karate organization in Brooklyn has about eight schools, we have it structured where we have a special class to train upcoming instructors, giving them the knowledge of what to teach. The same thing occurs in the ISKA. There is an East Coast Technical Committee. The instructors there are chosen in part of developing karate, both in the written and teaching form.

I think that’s a great step in furthering karate, however, I would like to see more in-house development. I think there is a lack of development in these in-house programs because of finances – some may not be ready to go out to these special classes and learn how to teach karate to their students.

I feel that a sense of standardization of Shotokan Karate is a very important thing.

MAYTT: How does your dojo address developing new and upcoming instructors?

EW: We have a group of experienced instructors. Though having a group of instructors is beneficial for any school, there is a small problem with that. We have many instructors teach on different days of the week, allowing the students to see different and varying teaching styles, not just one. However, I feel that this confuses the students when being taught by two or three different instructors. This is different if the school only has one instructor, where he’s passing down his knowledge down to the students. Everyone has a different way of teaching and it’s not wrong, but it still produces some confusion among the students. This demonstrates itself especially during exam time. Two or three instructors perhaps helped a student with their exam preparation, each showing them different variations of the required material. However, this goes against achieving a sense of standardization for Shotokan Karate.

I’m not saying what they are teaching is wrong, but I hope to achieve the desired version of standardization of the techniques and kata within my school. I hope to improve the level of techniques and kata in my school by upholding a standard. We need to have standardization in any organization or school. Leading individuals need to come together and create a standard way of teaching.

In developing future instructors, I try to make sure they are not just teaching techniques. There are many ways to teach a person how to develop karate and themselves to better teach the art. I try to get past the mentality of taking a step and punch with my upcoming instructors as that breeds a short of neglect for students – they aren’t really learning the art. I think it’s important to view karate as something more than just kicking and punching. You have to see what the student is doing wrong and see how you fix it for that student, whether it’s in the form of an exercise or changing the pattern of their movement. I feel that is missing in parts of karate today.

MAYTT: Interesting. Recently several martial arts writers have claimed that traditional martial arts like karate have been on a scene defined since 2004. Do you agree with this assessment and has your experience been different?

EW: I agree to a point. It’s like if you have ten students, maybe one of them is truly interested. I think that’s one of the main reasons for the decline; not because no one is teaching, but because more people are not interested.

There’s a lot of people that are training for different reasons. Some people want to fight and think it’s important to fight. Very few people want to do form. One of Teruyuki Okazaki Shihan’s main goals is not to fight because he grew up fighting and he realized that kata is the most important thing, not fighting.

I think it is a decline, but I don’t think it’s because of the instructors. A lot of stuff has since the beginning of karate in this country, mainly there are a lot of people suing due to injury. You’ve got to be very careful with the type of martial arts you’re teaching and how you’re teaching it. Back in the day, if you got clipped in the face and cut, nobody would sue. But now, it is more prevalent.

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?

EW: That’s one of the problems we have with maintaining students in that age group. Let’s say someone comes into the dojo at seventeen. When they turn eighteen and finish high school, their lives start to change. Maybe they go to college or find a significant other; maybe they got a job and the hours don’t line up to karate training times. Those life events are the factors that greatly affect that age group. I remember that I would try to get a job that would not affect my training.

That was really hard because most of the jobs that I found didn’t leave time to train karate at my normal hours.

What we have tried with that age group is if someone is going to college, we encourage them to start a karate club affiliated with the dojo and try and “take it over” when that student is finished college. This is, in a way, to “capture” more members of that age group.

MAYTT: In your opinion, did the Americanization of karate influence the art’s initial rise to popularity in the United States? Do you see that same Americanization contributing to the art’s now decline?

EW: I think the Americanization of martial arts might be why martial arts became so big in the United States. It was through the military that Shotokan Karate and other martial arts found their way into the United States. The arts were traditional when they first came over to the country then people started to Americanize them. I think the reason why karate became Americanized was because people weren’t patient. Some people didn’t want to wait ten years for a black belt. The Americanization became a much faster way of learning and moving up in rank.

During this process, the traditional aspect of karate began to decline as instructors started to develop a following and started learning much more from books than previous instructors. With this, many established their own organizations with leaders to further the Americanization.

People wanted to see flashy techniques and kata in karate and wanted to have more patches on their gi, so the art became more commercialized. Because of this, many have pushed to get karate into the Olympics. The art has been watered down because of the process of Americanization.

I do think the process has contributed to the decline of karate.

MAYTT: I see. 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?

EW: Yes, we try our best to maintain a level of integrity and standard to continue the tradition of Shotokan Karate. Karate isn’t all about punching and kicking, but it’s kind of hard to portray that when we do demonstrations on the street for all to see.

Don’t wait for an organization to have a camp twice a year; begin within your own school. Start a camp in your school. But with camps, they are focused on the kids and preteens because that’s what makes up seventy-five to eighty percent of students.

Of course, you have to market to people, but cannot lose the essence of tradition in that respect. In light of that, you got to have a little bit of fun with everything too [Laughs].

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?

EW: I never thought about it until you mentioned it here. I think Mixed Martial Arts really took away from the traditional karate because it’s more like boxing, but a little more real. A lot of people would look on TV and see these fighters and the amount of money they make. With traditional martial arts, there’s not really a lot of big money. There are tournaments and you could get a medal or a trophy. That’s about it if that’s what you’re satisfied with. But those that see MMA want more than that. Somehow, getting into the ring equates to earning lots of money. In MMA, there are many skilled fighters out there. They’re young and strong, and they could take on punches, but very few that I really admire or respect.

Even in some of the classes we have for corrections and probation officers, all they think about is MMA in their own situations, like it’s the only thing that can help them get out of any kind of problem in their field. The issue is that they’re not training their techniques enough to develop the skill to link them together.

MAYTT: 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?

EW: Most definitely. Karate strengthens your mind and your body. And this is something that mixed martial arts doesn’t really do because they are focused on rapid development. There is some discipline with people going into the gym to lift weight and hitting the bag – I’m not going to take that away from them. But what martial arts do, especially traditional martial arts, is gives you a sense of confidence. It really strengthens your mind and your body.

In the beginning of martial arts training, I would think of myself: I couldn’t really defend myself until I reached shodan. That’s one of the strongest part of someone’s karate life: achieving that black belt. Then after that you really have to transition yourself to develop your body. That’s what karate does for you because it takes a long period of time to develop well and you can learn a certain skill.

MAYTT: Most karate schools, according to karate writer Jesse Enkamp, focus teaching defense tactics as from only one of the three basic approaches that “bad guys” would use to take advantage of their intended victim, that being the “blitz,” usually in one-step sparring scenarios. Enkamp mentions that two other approaches are neglected: the “con” and the “surprise.” How do you see karate creating a more well-rounded self-defense foundation that would include training for all three methods rather than focusing solely on one? Is this possible and how can such training methods be implemented for the average practitioner?

EW: You have to go back to the basics. You have to first know how to kick and punch right; you have to develop your technique. Then the next thing is to practice some kind form that applies to reality, on the streets. This isn’t picking something out of a kata, like a bunkai. This reality-based scenario then needs to be taught exactly how it will happen. Somebody on the street is not going to punch you the karate way; they’re going to see you hard. They are going to use some kind of attack with a knife in different ways. This is something that instructors should practice or think about when they are teaching. This is the type of training method they think that they need to use.

MAYTT: In addition, martial arts Youtuber Icy Mike asserts that karate is missing many “pieces of the puzzle” that is self-defense, citing Kyokushin’s rules of no strikes to the head and the art’s emphasis on kata as two main reasons. Has this been your experience and, in your opinion, how would karate go about adding more “pieces of the self-defense puzzle?”

EW: Sometimes there are aspects that are hard to train within the dojo. We can teach and training head strikes and such, but if you hit somebody in the head during practice you’re going to get sued or the person is going to get hurt. There are still aspects of karate that are still effective in self-defense situations. There are techniques centered around the head, the groin, and the legs, but that takes away from the traditional sense of karate. Because karate is more commercialized and Americanized, more and more instructors are incorporating more of those techniques.

MAYTT: Final question. 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?

EW: I don’t think it will disappear. I can’t really speak for other organizations but through the JKA and ISKF, they are very strong and effective with their teaching methods. I’ve seen decline in membership and numbers; I’ve seen splits from organizations, and the organizations I am a part of are recuperating from those issues. If those organizations are increasing in size and membership, I don’t really see traditional martial arts really disappearing in the near future. There is always a revamped karate program that is appealing to a certain type of person that is hungry for this type of training, for this type of karate. I feel our organization is acquiring people that have that knowledge and providing more people with the knowledge to strengthen the art.

I don’t see traditional Shotokan Karate phasing out anytime soon. I think it’s going to have a comeback.

MAYTT: Thank you again for taking the time to talk about Shotokan Karate!

EW: Thank you for having me.

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