What is a McDojo?

A few weeks ago, at another blog, I put up a post about karate training in which I made said I hoped that "even if the mall ninjas at the local McDojo didn’t quite live up to that [ideal of the martial arts], you’ve encountered some hints of the real thing." One commenter took issue with the term "McDojo", saying that he was part of an association that was "the prime target for McDojo jokes". He contrasted his training with what he called "full-contact, striking-and-grappling, free-sparring, no-punches-pulled nonsense" that invariably led to people getting seriously injured.

I am, for the record, against people getting injured.

Of course martial arts is a contact activity, and occasional bruises and scrapes are to be expected. And while we don't do full-contact sparring, given enough people training for enough time, there will be occasional more serious injuries -- a broken rib here, a concussion there. But over 29 years of training, I've injured myself more severely outside the dojo than in it. I don't think that a legitimate concern for safety makes for ersatz martial arts, having the same relation to the real thing as fast food does to real food -- in a word, a McDojo.

If I recall correctly I first saw the term "McDojo" in the early 90s in the USENET form rec.martial-arts. Like "McJob" or "McMansion", it seemed self-explanatory. But sometimes the term gets thrown around to mean "anyone using training method different than us", so perhaps some deeper analysis is in order.

What is it that distinguishes a bag of McDonalds from a real meal, a McJob from a real job, a McMansion from a real house?

(It occurs to me that some young students might not yet understand that what comes from McDonalds is not real food. Let me clarify that: it's not real food. Stop eating junk. Eat more vegetables.)

A McSomething is a triumph of style over substance, marketing over quality. It is meant to give the superficial appearance of something without filling deeper needs. It distracts you with a bright shiny clown to keep you from thinking about it too much. It's not just a bad product, but one sold under false pretenses.

A McDonalds "meal" gives the experience of eating something without providing actual nutrition. A McJob give the experience of going somewhere for "work" each day without providing a decent paycheck or a sense of accomplishment. A McMansion gives the experience of a big house without quality construction, community planning, or aesthetically pleasing architecture.

It's all about a facade: fake food, fake work, fake homes.

And usually the goal of this subterfuge is profit.

And a McDojo? You get to run around in a gi or taekwondo or kungfu uniform with a colorful belt or sash, and talk in a mysterious foreign language about stuff outsiders don't know about. That looks cool. You might even get some exercise out of it, though it does seem most McDojos have found that people pay more when you don't actually make them sweat.

So some of the external forms are there. What's missing is the insides, the serious confrontation with our own limits and with life-and-death that makes the martial arts a path for personal development.

Now, we can legitimately disagree about which training methods are necessary or best to bring us to that confrontation. In my humble opinion any dojo that never does any sort of sparring at all is missing a key piece of the thing. But that doesn't make it a McDojo, just like a restaurant with bland food isn't necessarily in the same category as McDonalds. The McDojo is not even making a serious effort to get you there.

Also what's missing are qualified instructors. McDojos are the martial arts equivalent of degree mills -- sometimes they're even called "belt mills". When a student gets a black belt in three years and opens up their own school under a franchise agreement, funneling profits back to the "grandmaster", you're almost certainly looking at a McDojo. And quite often that "grandmaster" received an airplane promotion: he got on the plane in Korea or Japan or wherever as a brown belt, and got off in America as a high-level black belt.

One more thing missing is the contents of your wallet. A McDojo is all about separating you from your cash. That's not to say that legitimate training is cheap -- sometimes it can be, if you're fortunate enough to find a teacher with income from other means who is able to keep overhead low. But there's nothing wrong with teachers making a living teaching. (In Japan in the old days, you might not pay your teacher -- but you did work for him, gave him "gifts", and supported him in other ways.) But a McDojo will try to lock you into long-term contracts, or sell you a special "black belt club" fast-track for an extra fee. It's not the cost but the dishonest sales job that makes a McDojo.

In summary, what makes a dojo a McDojo is a lack of sincerity. And as students of the "Way of Sincerity", we should be attuned to that. If other people ask us for advice about finding a place to train, or if someday we move to an area where there is no Seido program (I don't really get to do that, if I moved somewhere it's pretty much expected that I'd start a new program there!), that's what we should look for: an instructor and a community of students whose words come from the heart and align with their actions.

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