Karate Values, American Values

Americans do not usually see themselves, when they are in the United States, as representatives of their country. They see themselves as individuals who are different from all other individuals, whether those others are Americans or foreigners. Americans may say they have no culture, since they often conceive of culture as an overlay of arbitrary customs to be found only in other countries. Individual Americans may think they chose their own values, rather than having had their values and the assumptions on which they are based imposed on them by the society in which they were born. If you ask them to tell you something about “American culture,” they may be unable to answer and they may even deny that there is an “American culture.”
(from Handbook for Foreign Students and Scholars)

Karate Informality

A few minutes prior to the start of class, karateka (students) enter through the front door, immediately bowing to the sensei (teacher) and/or the kamidana (dojo shrine). The karateka remove their shoes, and enter the changing room to don their training uniforms.

The uniform, or dogi, consists of white pants, white jacket, and a special belt (obi). The left side of the jacket should always be folded over the right side.

When properly dressed, the karateka sit quietly in a neat row, waiting for sensei to start the lesson. They sit in the seiza position, with legs folded under them, following dojo protocol.

Karate Individuality

Class begins with a group bow. Students then move a few steps apart, to execute a set of synchronized warm-up exercises. Everyone counts out loud together, in Japanese.

After warm-ups, the students execute their katas in unison. Those who move too quickly, or too slowly, or who kiai (shout) at the wrong time are reprimanded for their lack of “focus” (kime).

Following kata practice, sensei demonstrates bunkai: self-defense applications for individual movements within the kata. The group is now broken into pairs, so that students can repeat the demonstration. Improvisation and creativity are generally discouraged in this portion of class.

Karate Equality

Near the end of class, intermediate and advanced students may spend time sparring together. When feasible, students of a similar rank will be paired together. This rank is made obvious by the specially colored belt they wear at all times. Popular colors include orange, green, brown and black.

When circumstances require it, students of unequal rank will spar together. Kohai (the junior student) is expected to lose to sempai (the senior student); otherwise, an “accidental” injury to kohai may occur.

Finally, class is over, and the students reassemble in a straight line on the mat, facing straight ahead. Seating is dictated by rank, with the senior practitioners at one end of the line. Thus, seating roughly matches the arrangement of student names posted on the wall for public viewing.

Class is closed with another group bow. Students should not raise their heads until indicated by sempai. After class, junior members may be held responsible for sweeping the mat, and cleaning other public areas of the dojo.

What do you think are American values? Are they, or should they be reflected in the structure and practice of American karate?


  1. Hmmmm, American culture existed more coherently earlier in the 20th century I think. Most of the latter half of the 20th century seemed dedicated to eroding it. Some things I think could still be considered an American Value would be pragmatism, and the Ability to Question both the Teacher and the Teaching.

    Are they present in American Karate? I’ve definitely seen evidence of their presence in several of the Karate Schools I’ve visited. Whether American Values and traits should be present in any martial art’s practice depends on your goal I guess. Are you attempting to pass on a cultural snapshot of the MA’s mother country at a specific time? Or is the goal to pass on an effective form of self defense?

  2. I think american values have been apparent in karate (and other MAs) for some time now. Where do you think the McDojos® come from?

  3. I think many American values are present in karate,
    though perhaps not distinctly so. I wrote and shared this piece with my class recently. It is one of 12 writings about the values I have found throughout my journey.


    An important tenet of Karate is the principle of Respect. Guests are sometimes amused or befuddled by the amount of bowing and training traditions to which students adhere.

    For example, students bow when walking on or off the training mat, they bow to their instructors and to other students, and at the beginning and end of class. They line up by order of rank (indicated by the color and striping of their belts). Exercises are performed with the highest ranking student leading, and students begin meditation by allowing senior students to kneel first.

    These uniformed rules and practices are not just relics from ancient times. Martial arts training is designed to reinforce the values of the art–for example, the value of placing Respect above Combat–before, during, and even after battle. In a fight, that can be the difference between succeeding with honor, knowing you earned your victory, or cheating and knowing you really lost (not only the fight but also a little part of your humanity).

    To excel at martial arts is not easy. As a martial artist, I remember the effort I made to attain my rank. It is difficult to forget how hard (and rewarding) it was to move up with each stripe from White Belt.

    It is with my own experience and hard work in mind that I honor the students and masters ahead of me for the efforts they made to earn their status and rank. Everybody’s effort is different and private, but regardless of the level of each person’s achievement, I know every student has had to overcome the best and worst of themselves, and their own previous efforts, to get to where they are.

    Showing respect is a way of honoring the highest values in people. Respect gives deference to Effort, Ability, Willpower, and Success. It shows how you value your work and the work of others. Showing respect honors your commitments to yourself…to your own Effort, Ability, Willpower, and Success.

    Having respect for martial arts also ensures you do not use your skills indiscriminately. A serious martial artist does not consider his skills something to play with or for use when “horsing around” or playing with his friends. That is the purpose for training at the Dojo (and why respect for the dojo is very important).

    Martial Arts are designed for combat–a human weapon can be as dangerous as a loaded gun. The warrior who respects himself, his art, his dojo, his teachers, and others always keeps this in mind. A fighter with no respect is only a bully. A fighter who respects and honors himself, his challengers, and even the challenges he faces… earns his title as Martial Artist.

  4. I think the values which are carried out and learnt in the Dojo are second to none. They teach discipline, hard work, courtesy, preseverance, respect and many more. Hopefully though, students are able to take these values out of the dojo and into there lives.

  5. What do you think are American values?

    Apathy, greed, obsession with celebrities. Unchecked sexuality. Violence and lack of moral compass. A lack of respect for indigenous cultures and other nations.

    It is what I would expect from a nation founded on Genocide, Slavery and War.

  6. Michael, how do you think Americans typically show respect outside of a Karate dojo? And why is it best to use radically different methods inside the dojo?

  7. I think it’s unfair (and more than a little judgemental) to try and condense an entire country’s culture into a few lines. America, China, Japan, Korea, every country in the world, is made up of millions upon millions of people. Can anyone definitively say Japanese culture is “this” and American culture is “that?” America especially, being a country made up of so many families of immigrants, each carrying their own history and culture from the region and country they are native to.

    There are dojos that are hyper-traditionalist, there are those more liberal; these exist in both Japanese and American cultures. To try and assign a set of values for the entire country fruitless at best, stereotyping at worst.

    Yes, we can recognize some trends and similarities between schools of the same nationality, but even this must be done recognizing that there is only so much we can gain from generalizing. And with the sheer number of karate schools in America, combined with the vastly differing cultures and values between regions, states, counties, cities, neighborhoods, and families, trying to nail down a set of “American values” is impossible.

  8. I have not, but I know a few Japanese natives. I have also spent an extended amount of time in other parts of Asia. How long were you in Japan, Chris? Did you experience every facet of culture that it had to offer?

  9. That is a fair question. I’ve spent just enough time in Japan to know it has a culture, and just enough time inside and outside America to know it has values.

  10. Michael, you used an example of winning in a fight you used the phrase, “cheating and knowing you really lost.” This one of the without a doubt the most naive and dangerous concepts I’ve ever read. Unless you’re play sparring in a gym or in a competition for points, or in a movie, in a real fight this attitude will get you killed or land you in a hospital.

    Fight is hand-to-hand combat. It’s warfare. There is no “cheating.” While you’re bowing to your partner they’ll be hitting over the head with a chair. While your establishing internal chatter about rules of engagement, they will be hitting you with a pool cue or dragging your kids into car. An assailant has no rules other than to break you down for whatever reason.

    There a difference between martial arts and martial combat – survival. If you want to live, you’d be well advised to throw out that Marquis of Queensbury “Karate Kid” rules crap. There’s nothing dishonorable about biting someone, using an object to smash the them with, and showing no mercy. There’s a matter of degree, such as “I don’t need to kill them just control them.” Or “maybe breaking their leg was enough.” The person who initiates an attack is not fighting by rules. Fight by whatever means at your disposal, win, and let the other guy be carried away by the ambulance. Show no remorse or hand wringing. Just remember, it’s never a good day to die.

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