Last Thursday night, plagued by a nagging wrist injury and still not sure I was getting everything I wanted out of my aikido training, I payed a visit to a nonprofit Shotokan karate club on the north side of Milwaukee. If nothing else, it was certainly an educational experience.
First of all, I learned karate is not all that much easier on an injured wrist than carefully practiced aikido. This seemed strange to me, since I haven't found the same to be true of taekwondo, which is similar to karate in many ways.
There were other lessons, though, that were much more profound.
To this point, I've mostly had experience with the more lighthearted side of martial arts training. I don't mean to suggest that the people I train with don't take their arts seriously enough or try to do their best, but there has never a question of why we're all there: we enjoy martial arts training. Training in the dojo or dojang is not primarily a matter of honor, devotion, or even necessity for us. We train to get a workout and to do something we enjoy.
What I found at this karate club, though, was very different.
We ran to line up at the beginning of class. We bowed as we were curtly ordered by the senior student, first to the shomen (we were in a gymnasium--where was the shomen?), then to the instructor. We stood silently as the instructor introduced me to the class, then lectured on the history of Japanese karate and how serious an undertaking karate is. He told me that some people cry when undergoing the training he starts to deal out at purple belt level.
No one else spoke. No one smiled.
Kihon (basic techniques) were done as military-style drills with the instructor barking orders every step. Kata were done in a similar fashion, though the instructor softened a little while teaching me the first kata. We never got to any kumite (sparring); I suspect this was a basics-heavy class for my benefit.
At no point did anyone other than the instructor speak, except rarely for clarification of instructions, and I'm not sure I ever saw anyone smile.
Before and after class, the other students were friendly enough, and the instructor was a genuinely nice guy--even if he had a hard time keeping his low opinion of taekwondo to himself. He was very complimentary about the aikido club and showed real interest in my difficulties with the wrist injury.
What I couldn't wrap my head around was why all the friendliness had to be put away before stepping out on the dojo floor. I have read the Dojo Kun and the Niju Kun; there's nothing in there that says karateka aren't allowed to smile. Why do these students keep coming every week if they're not going to try to enjoy themselves? Are they preparing for duels? Do they think that a smile or (heaven forbid) an occasional laugh will weaken their punches?
I must confess, my understanding is limited here. My martial arts training to this point has been in aikido, an art whose founder believed in training joyfully, and taekwondo, an art that is not afraid to be honest about its identity as a sport. I don't understand why anyone would pay to undertake training and then not try to enjoy it (I suppose it's possible that there are a few people who genuinely enjoy maintaining a perpetual grimace while a little man sternly barks orders at them in Japanese, but there can't be very many).
The only guess I can make is that some people think martial arts training is too big a deal to be treated like a mere sport. All that ritual and silence and furrowing of brows must convince some people that they are becoming genuine warriors rather than just hobbyists.
To me, there are two things wrong with this attitude. First, the martial arts, as fun, interesting, and valuable as they are, don't deserve to be elevated to the level of a religion. Second, most of us, no matter how hard we try to be something more, really are just hobbyists. We have (at least) families and jobs that will always be more important to us than martial arts training, and rightly so.
Needless to say, I won't be returning to that karate club. If I ever do leave the aikido club (it seems less likely every time I go looking), it will be for someplace where the instructor has a sense of humor and I'm allowed to behave like the hobbyist that I am.