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Money in Shotokan Karate: Insights into a Difficult Relationship

Money and Shotokan Karate have always been a difficult relationship. But they do not have to be, if money is treated right. By Dr. Christian Tribowski

Money in Shotokan karate has been causing many discussions. Observers have accused associations, instructors, and dojos of exploiting the art of Shotokan to become rich. They also associated the foundation of more and more Shotokan organization in the last 50 years with greed. The assumption: Famous instructors set up their own association as cash machines. While in some cases this might be true, one can plausible doubt this assumption, on the other hand.

But I will discuss some foundational questions in this article. Because the relationship between money and Shotokan karate is more complex than many critics take into account. I discuss the following questions:

  1. Why does money in Shotokan causes popular outrage? Does it cause harm?
  2. Why is money used in Shotokan at all? Do we need money in Shotokan?
  3. How to mitigate the tension money causes in Shotokan? How can one judge, whether an organization, dojo, or instructor focuses too much on making money?

Why Does Money in Shotokan Causes Popular Outrage? Is It Harmful?

Shotokan karate is not the only art and/or value-driven system that struggles with money. The conflict between money and other values dates back to the foundation of physical currency in ancient times itself. Jesus Christ, for instance, became famous by what is called today as The Cleansing of the Temple. The bible writes:

And Jesus went into the temple of God, and cast out all them that sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the money changers, and the seats of them that sold doves, And said unto them, It is written, My house shall be called the house of prayer; but ye have made it a den of thieves.

Matthew 21:12–13

What happened? One day, Jesus entered the temple in Jerusalem and became outraged about all the merchants and money changers, who strolled around the temple and tried to make money. He felt that the sacred place of God should not be humiliated with profane money. Hence, he kicked every one out of the temple, who wanted to exploited it for business purposes. Money should not have the same importance as God.

Such an understanding of a sacred sphere, which shall be protected against the harmful and disgraceful effects of money, can be found in almost every religion, philosophy, and society. Therefore, Shotokan is not an exception.

Money Corrupts Other Values

Today, the subject of social and moral philosophy deals with the relationship between money and other value systems. Especially, Michael Walzer from the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton and Michael Sandel from Harvard University have contributed to a better understanding why money causes popular outrage. In short, both argue that money corrupts other values.

To make this abstract idea a bit more tangible, let us imagine a medical doctor. He follows – usually – the moral principle of the Hippocratic Oath. The Oath says in the third paragraph:

I will use treatment to help the sick according to my ability and judgment, but never with a view to injury and wrong-doing. Neither will I administer a poison to anybody when asked to do so, nor will I suggest such a course.

Hippocratic Oath

Therefore, the Oath obliges medical doctors to increase the health of their patients under all kind of circumstances. It also consists of a very important element. Readers easily overlook it: It says “to my ability and judgment”. So, not wealth and purchase power determine the type of treatment or whether a treatment takes place at all, but the skills of the doctor. As a result, the moral value of altruism becomes superior in this understanding then making money.

Money Can Undermine Fairness and Justice

Why is that? Because it Walzer and Sandel argue: It calls to our conscience of fairness and justice. One can become sick without intention. A doctor, who takes monetary advantage of that exploits the bad luck of people. Such a behavior undermines trust, fairness, justice, and solidarity. If everybody would only strive for their own advantage one could trust no one. People would become other peoples wolf (Thomas Hobbes). As a result, society and community would fall apart.

Just imagine you would be seriously sick and a doctor, who has a cure, would withhold it from you until you pay him? And what if you do not have the money? Would his behavior clash with your sense of fairness? And what if you die because he withholds the treatment although he could have cured you? Would you feel in the moment you die that you have deserved it because you are poor? Most people would deem such a case more than a failure to render assistance. The doctor intentionally took your death. So, if money is the most important factor for a doctor the Hippocratic Oath becomes corrupted and degraded. In other words: If money becomes sacred all other values become profane. Money then turns from an means to an end.

Money Corrupts Also the Values of Shotokan

In a similar way, but less serious, this scheme also applies to Shotokan (but also to teachers, judges, police(wo)men, firefighters, scientists, social workers, soldiers, officials etc.). The agreement between Shotokanka is the perfection of character as codified in the dojo and niju kun. Thus, they agree upon to follow certain ethical rules like honesty, fighting spirit, respect, and seeking truth. Hence, every karateka should place them as priority. The reason for that lies in the conviction that following this rules leads to a more balanced character as well as civilized society and community.

But what if somebody seeks to make money in the first place? Then, all these values become corrupted. Respect is only paid to the highest bidder or potential customers. The value of honesty and truth have to go out of the window as well. Because making money works best in asymmetrical relations: One party knows more than the other. Honesty and truth mean that this asymmetry will be reduced other the time. Everybody can become a master.

In conclusion, business man or woman try to maintain the asymmetry by not disclosing everything they know (secret knowledge). Therefore, a Shotokan instructor, who strives for money more than for the Do, will withhold certain insights into the art in order to have an edge. He will also teach only what satisfies his students and not what is necessary. They will exploit every revenue stream. They do not care about character development but about wallets. As a result, McDojo´s emerge.

Opponents Fight Against the Negative Effects of Money in Shotokan

The opponents of mingling Shotokan with money try to avoid such situations. For them, the Do and all the values which come with it, shall be deemed and treated as sacred. They protect this sacred values against the profane value of money. Thus, they criticize the intrusion of money into the sphere of Shotokan when ever it takes place. This has clearly a positive effect on Shotokan. Values and their execution have still a high priority in many associations and dojos.

But the fight against money can become double-edged sword. Because a professionalizes system needs money to operate.

Why is money used in Shotokan at all? Do we need money in Shotokan?

Money has negative traits. It can push other values out of their sphere. It also offers a means to turn human beings, the nature, and animals into commodities. On the other hand, it has certain positive features. It makes relationships and processes possible which could not become reality without its existence. For instance: Professional instructors and associations.

In a world without money most members of a society have to hunt, gather, or work as a farmers. Social scientist call such a system a subsistence economy. A complex division of labor like today could not emerge. Exchange would be based on barter. To save up something in order to spend or consume it later poses a difficulty. The most people would work to stay alive. As a result, only feudal lords could effort instructors like the daimyo did with their Samurais in medieval Japan.

Positive Features of Money

In comparison to a subsistence economy a money system has some advantages:

  • Money works as a means for exchange;
  • It can be easily divided in different sizes;
  • Money stores economic value;
  • It transmits economic value.

Imagine you take part in a seminar with a instructor from abroad. Instead of paying money you barter. Somebody would bring potatoes, others pork, and so on and so forth. However, the instructor neither likes potatoes nor pork but rice and fish. Bad luck for him because they are not to your disposal. The instructors would have to carry all that stuff safely back home, too. He had to travel by ship because he would have a container full of potatoes and pork. Some of the potatoes would rot and the most of the pork he would need as payment for the cargo company because it takes 50 days from Europe to Japan on a container ship.

No instructor would go on a journey like that. All that would be way to difficult and inefficient. Therefore, no relationship would take place. With money, on the other hand, he or she just needs a bank account. The hosting party transfer the payment and many problems would be solved.

Without Money no Professionalized and Global Shotokan

While this example exaggerates and we are far beyond the 15th century it shows one thing very clear: In order to have professionalized instructors, associations, and dojos with a sophisticated level of Shotokan skills money is a necessary means. If one cannot make a living through karate the standard and skill level stays very low. Professionalized in this regard means that somebody works full time, has a certain education, works based on standards, and fulfills specialized tasks others cannot fulfill. And without such professionals Shotokan would maybe not exist or not on a global scale.

A system of volunteers, in instance, could not deliver similar services like a professional one. Because the volunteers must work most of the time somewhere else to make a living. Therefore, they can only spend a very little amount of time for practice and for their voluntary work. In addition, no volunteer could effort to travel the world to give seminars like many instructors do.

To be a global and professional system Shotokan must use money. Its features (storage, exchange, divisibility) make a certain skill level as well as international exchange possible. I sum, money works as a means to reach the end of Do.

But how can the negative aspects of money and its positive features be reconciled in a way that it only has positive effects? And when reaches money the point where it becomes destructive?

How to Mitigate the Tension Money Causes in Shotokan?

As mentioned before: Many systems have the problem to use money and must avoid to become corrupted by it. Practitioners, law makers, politicians, as well as social scientist and philosophers have tried to find a satisfying concept to solve this dilemma. To understand the solution it is sense full to go through an analytical scheme developed by German sociologist Uwe Schimank. It consists of five types of organizations and five stages of their orientation towards money.

Money is not an issue

Money comes in without struggle because of a patron, subsidy giver, or a gigantic endowment. People in this organization only follow their actual values like curing disease, producing art, teach, or practicing karate.

Losses of money should be avoided

Money comes in without struggle but losses should be avoided. This applies very often to public transport authorities. They should avoid losses. But if losses take place it is more important whether the organization offered enough services especially to citizens in need.

Losses of money must be avoided

Money comes in but the budget is restraint. Therefore, the management must avoid losses under all kind of circumstances. Schools, museums etc. are in this group. The important thing to note her is that the people working in this organization are also restraint. They must work in order to avoid losses even if it corrupts their values. For an karate instructor that could mean that he only teaches where his costs are fully covered spares poor countries or dojos out.

Losses of money must be avoided and gains should be generated

Money comes in but limited. On the other hand, the stakeholders appreciate the generation of more money. In this organization the employees are limited in their behavior in two ways: Firstly, they must work in a way that losses are avoided; Secondly, they should work in a way that their organization also generates a surplus. Applied to a karate instructor: He only teaches where the costs are fully covered or even better: He only teaches where the host pays more than the actual costs.

Gains are the only aim

Money comes in without or with struggle – it does not matter. The only purpose of the organization is to make money. Everything is an investment and should generate a maximum return. Therefore, the members of the organization will only do what sells. This stage can be called the McDojo Level.

The Trouble Begins at Stage 3

So, what can we conclude from this typology? The difficulties begin at type 3: Losses must be avoided. As a result, money can begin to unfold its corruptible effect. For instance, a dojo faces financial struggles and cannot afford to loss students. Under this kind of circumstances the instructor might become willing to let some rules slide in order to keep students. Of course, it depends a lot on how instructors deal with this situation and how many workarounds they can find. But at this stage money has become important and must be part of the equation for an instructor.

However, even at stage 4 instructors can find solutions without sacrificing the Do. Instructors can open new revenue streams like additional courses, merchandise, or getting another martial arts into the dojo in order to share costs. External funding and co-operation also workout very well. All that can mitigate the economic pressure without corrupting the Do.

Type 5, on the other hand, means: Game over for Do. Here the Do becomes pushed out of the equation. As a result, the organizations focuses solely on money making. The only reason to bring the Do back in is to sell it as a product. In other words: Do becomes a means to the end of profit-maximization.

How to Judge Whether It is Only About Money?

How can one judge whether they he or she is a member of an organization of type 5? The answer must be: It can become difficult to judge, because the organization focuses on marketing and in the creation of an illusion of true value. They know how to sell their product and attract students. They know more about this methods than about Shotokan. Therefore, the numbers of revenue streams, the demeanor of the instructors work as good indicators, and how much it adapts to the market. Some questions to investigate are:

  • Does the organization exploit every option to make money?
  • Are some sources of income off-limits?
  • Does the instructor criticizes students or does he/she only praise?
  • Is the instructor willing to put some pressure on the students?
  • How many times has the organization changed rules in the last five years?
  • What are the reasons for the rules in general and the changes in particular?


If one or more of these questions show an indication that justify suspicion, one should ask further questions or considering to move to another dojo. In some countries, organizations can also apply for a non-profit status. This status comes with specific guidelines and a regular evaluation. For instance, human service providers in the United States must be accredited by the Council of Accreditation (COA). To become accredited they need to comply to certain non-profit standards. In Germany, organizations can apply for the status of common public interest. That means that they also have to comply to certain rules about founding, management, and revenue streams. To watch out for such accreditation can also be a good indicator to not end up in a McDojo.

While money will always cause struggles in the field of Shotokan it does not have to be the end in itself. It can work as a means in order to reach the end of Do.