It’s all Goju to me

After the first few months in Jaime Acosta’s Chi-I-Do dojo in Santurce I began to get a proper perspective about the evolution of my old Ochoa group through the different Goju schools (Toguchi―Kimo―Kayo) which I heretofore was oblivious. I never fully grasped the differences, to the point of not even remembering the different insignias. It was basically, as I’ve said before, a Shoreikan style of Goju marked by Toguchi’s particular syllabus and training format.

I learned that most of the karatecas I knew were now in the Chi-I-Do organization, with the exception of Dionisio Pérez who was still practicing in Kimo Wall’s Kodokan school close by. Yet even most of his students had migrated to Chi-I-Do, primarily in the main Chi-I-Do dojo in Las Cumbres. It was all very confusing. On the floor it was all the same to me, give and take a few kumites, give and take a few katas.

The dojo had an extremely small student body stretching from five to twenty. It was precarious financially; you could neither grow because of the space nor pay the rent to the dance school with so few paying students. It forced the Sensei to give class to children and adults together, which is not always wise. The Sensei took the plunge and moved to yet another dance school recently opened that was closer to my house. I had never been a walking distance from a dojo and it was short-lived. But while we were in Santurce we did receive visitors from Las Cumbres and among them I saw familiar faces from the Ochoa years. The move to the new dance school facilities did not bring along with it the desired hike in registration. It had a lot of space but horrible parking options. We were forced to return to Santurce where I finally got my brown and black belt.

The school became better, tighter, more disciplined, but it was made up of old students that found their way back to the dojo now in their 30’s and 40’s. Young students were scarce. The few that came were forced by parents and these stayed but a short time before they got “bored” and dropped out. The computer game raised generations did not have the patience for traditional karate. Raised in the fast and furious pace and logic of electronic gaming, they had more short term obsessions than discipline. The only two young people, in their late teens, were Pablo, a black belt (whose mother was also a black belt) and Brian who took the black belt with me and my sister Rosa. These two would years later eventually drop out. Pablo, whose mother owned a small supermarket, left for studies and eventually ended up in his mother’s business. It was during this time that I met Ángel Santana, a senior black belt from the Ochoa years that practiced out of Las Cumbres. I hadn’t met him then because he practiced in the University dojo in those years. I realized that if I had remained in karate I would be where he was, although not technically perhaps (he is really good).

Circumstance finally forced Jaime Acosta to merge his small dojo with La Cumbres, which was, for me, way out in the sticks. The first day there Jaime Sensei sat us in a circle with the Las Cumbres instructors and black belts. They looked at us with disdain, amusement, and curiosity. I finally went back into a full-scale dojo with history, a history I had no part of, with its own anecdotes, players, myths, and “secrets.” All of a sudden I felt old; I shivered less with anticipation than with anxiety. I felt out of it before I began.


Hanky Panky in the Dojo

When I started in Goju in the 70’s there was a great influx of females trying out the martial arts. This tapered off in time although women in the dojo were a reality that was here to stay. Dojos are not gyms. There isn’t really all that much time to chat and a dogi is not a leotard. Plus, the martial arts are a learning process requiring concentration and a lot of commitment. There are no juice bars in traditional dojos. Nonetheless, it is a social environment and is not exempt from the realities of the world. In Ochoa, where I began, there was a strict code of respect between the sexes. But that did not mean that eye and mind did not stray. Not all social contact that could arise from the dojo experience can be or should be monitored. But a strict code of dojo ethics should prevail or the inherent trust needed for the learning process can be fractured. As in the military, rank in the dojo brings with it a host of responsibilities and among them is the avoidance of an abuse of rank. This applies in any scenario where there is a hierarchy of authority and power. A sensei cannot control what his or her students do outside the dojo, but he or she sure as hell can inside the dojo.

I was well into my forties in the 90’ when I ran into my first personal case of this. Beforehand, I mostly went to the dojo alone. The third time around I went with a very young wife who looked even younger. The kindest thing you could say was that I could be her uncle. She was offered rides back home, invited privately for “outside-the-dojo” karate seminars, was the victim of very tight hugs in the name of camaraderie, and lingering kisses to the cheek, etc. My wife dealt with it pretty well but it completely shattered all I told her about what it meant to practice karate. In my case, I was by turns incensed, embarrassed, and humiliated. All this took place under the “neutral” eye of the sensei and senior instructors who knew full well that she was my wife and nonetheless allowed it. So, two issues arose, the lack of respect for her and lack of respect for me. I respected my sensei in all points but this. Respect is a fragile thing, most often misunderstood and misapplied. Beforehand I had looked away, not being directly affected kept me from having to make judgments beyond the usual abstract “do-gooder” shit one spews.

Then the dojo received a “long term” visiting black belt from New York. He seemed to be a good guy, very disciplined. The sensei hated his guts. He had basically come to the dojo for kobudo which the sensei refused to teach him. He had come sent by the head honcho of the organization. But he had also come to give me grief. At every chance he would take my wife aside for private before session practice, adjust her dogi and belt, touch her hair, all in front of my nose. Sensei did nothing, other black belts I knew did nothing. Nobody did anything. I was a lowly green belt.

I could go on and tell how it all played out, but this is irrelevant.

Trust is a big part of any martial arts practice, without it there is no growth and learning. You have to trust what you do and who teaches it to you. You have to trust whom you practice with. Trust is based on respect. It has to go in all directions. It has to permeate one’s every move and gesture. Any departure from this leads to either war or humiliation.

My third time around.