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Politics and Martial Arts

Updated on August 17, 2016

No, this isn't an article talking about the usual "politics" of the martial arts community that we have become accustomed to. If you wear a gi or other style of martial arts uniform, then you are already familiar with the usual debates as to which style is the best, who is the best teacher within that style, MMA vs. traditional, as well as the partiality and favoritism that occurs at even the best of tournaments. Instead, this is a discussion of national politics and its effect on the dojo.

As Americans, we all enjoy the freedom of self expression and an open, democratic-republic system of government with the right of the people to cast their vote in favor of whom they believe would best serve the public good. But the way in which we use that right may be suspended or limited based on the role we serve in society. As an example, soldiers and police, in serving their protective roles as a function of the government, may be prohibited from attending rallies, speeches, and demonstrations. Another example would be college professors (to say nothing of elementary or high school teachers), which are subject to disciplinary actions for offering opinions or explicitly demonstrating political support in the classroom. Which brings me to the dojo. How appropriate is it for a Sensei to speak of his political views in the dojo? Or even social media, where his students could be following him/her? And to what degree?

I have a friend who is in this situation. Lets call him Alex. Alex has been attending his school for quite some time. He has enjoyed his dojo very much. there are many good people with whom he trains and has made good friends with almost all of them. His Sensei is good-natured, friendly man with 30+years of martial arts experience and is an excellent teacher. Alex has been proud to have him as Sensei, and happy to call him a friend. But recently, there have been issues within his dojo that has made him uncomfortable. Alex's Sensei is an active supporter of one of our candidates for president. (i will not name the candidate as that is irrelevant to the issue.) Alex is a friend and follower on his Sensei's Facebook page, and every day the feed is filled with back to back political posts supporting his candidate of choice. Some of the posts have been humorous, but some have been degrading and somewhat insulting to non-supporters of this candidate. There are also numerous posts insulting the other candidate. One post even stated that only real Americans vote for his candidate. The Sensei is completely within his right to have this opinion, and is even within his right to post whatever he wants on his Facebook. But in his position and the role he plays, is it appropriate? I feel that it is not.

In Alex's dojo, there are female and male students. There are black, white, and Asian students. Some are Christians. Some are Buddhist. Some are straight, while some are gay. In any other climate on any other day, these differences are such non-issues as to not even be noticed. But in a presidential election year, these differences are highlighted in glaring high definition. Most of the country decides its party based on sex, gender, sexual orientation, and religion, and the candidates at the head of the parties make certain to play on those differences to create the "us versus them" climate as part of the political game. This is where a Sensei can alienate his students, intentionally or unintentionally. When someone, especially a Sensei, decides to express their support for a candidate, they put themselves in the "us versus them" arena. The Sensei may or may not completely agree with everything their candidate represents or stands for, but unfortunately the perception is that you do in fact believe in everything the candidate represents. Take Trump for instance. Most conservatives fall in with him because he has been showing support for police, gun rights, job reclamation, and cracking down illegal immigration and terrorism. The Sensei may believe in all of these worthy ideals and believe Trump is the best man for the job. But Trump has also shown degrees of racism, insinuated Hillary Clinton should be gunned down by second amendment supporters, and said women who are harassed in the workplace should just find other jobs instead creating a storm of controversy. The Sensei may not agree with these positions, but because he is publicly and explicitly showing his support, he is perceived to have these negative traits as well. His female students may start to feel he is really sexist underneath, or even feel there is now the potential to be harassed by him. His non-white students might withdraw for fear of potential racism. Parents might withdraw their children for fear that instead of teaching their kids self defense they are in fact learning violence.

What if the Sensei supports Hillary? Her husband had one of the most prosperous runs as president in the 90's. She is now showing support for the LGBTQ community. She is an advocate of ending police corruption and support of the Black Lives Matter Movement. And she is working towards reforming immigration policies. The Sensei may agree with her and find value in these causes. But Hillary has also shared responsibility for the loss of soldier's lives in Benghazi. She illegally used private e-mail servers to exchange top secret information compromising national security. And now there is the strong possibility that she has committed money laundering through her charity. The student that sees their Sensei supporting her could think that he has no support of the military or the police and that street thugs should be treated as heroes. This could insult soldiers/police officers who are students, or students who are family members of those who serve. The student could start to believe the Sensei has no regard for the law, a perception that could undermine the principles of integrity and honor that are at the core of the arts. The perception of respect can also be lost by posting insulting comments and memes. One of the tenets of the martial arts is that no matter how much you hate your opponent, you must and will show respect. Where is the respect in posting insults?

Politics are tricky. With any candidate there is the bad and the good, and it is difficult if not impossible to find one person who could embody enough qualities where there wasn't a portion of the population who wont feel marginalized in the political arena. But no one should feel marginalized in the dojo. The dojo is the place where we come together as one people, helping us to find common ground with each other, while helping each of us to find and be the best version of ourselves that we can possibly be. There are no men, no women. No gay or straight, and the only color we concern ourselves with is the color of the belt. The Sensei should encourage this, and encourage his student to carry the spirit of the dojo into the world. He cant do that if he brings the spirit of the political world into the dojo.


© 2016 Yoshi Sakamoto

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    • NateB11 profile image

      Nathan Bernardo 14 months ago from California, United States of America

      I like your discourse on the issue of politics in martial arts. It's true, politics is inherently divisive and once you introduce it to any forum of life you've risked alienating people. There is a Sensei that I've known for more than 30 years and he posts some political stuff on his Facebook which I just so happen to disagree with; but that's his business, as far as I'm concerned; and noticeably these issues never come up when we work out together, we've never brought politics to the dojo. I guess what I'm saying is that in my own life I feel people should post what they want on their Facebook but politics definitely should never enter the dojo.