Karate Organizations: A Theoretical Approach


Morgan Duchesney



This essay offers an examination of Canadian Karate organizations through the lenses of various organizational theories. In spite of the ancient, feudal origins of the organizational structure of modern Karate organizations, these modern theories are relevant and useful tools of description, comparison and analysis. Some of these organizations also represent other Japanese martial arts but they all have a very strong Karate membership. I will use the ideas of various organizational theorists in my treatment of the various organizations. My main goal is to identify strengths and weaknesses in these organizations.

The work of Elliot Jacques from the “Modern” Structural Organization School will assist me in dealing with the hierarchical nature of Japanese feudal military organizations and Karate organizations in Canada. Of special interest are his hierarchical charts, which are remarkably similar to the organization arrangements of traditional Japanese organizations. I will use his ideas mainly in my discussion of the historical origins of Japanese Karate organizations that have their roots in feudal Japan. Also from this school is Henry Mintzberg’s theory of the five basic parts of the organization, which will assist me in my description, analysis and comparison of the various Canadian Karate organizations. It is a useful tool to apply to organizations that are all quite similar; ostensibly organized for similar purposes but differentiated by strong competing factions and personalities. Lastly, I also plan to employ Edgar H. Schein’s artifact concept from the Organizational Culture and Sense Making School to describe the role and significance of various artifacts in the Karate world.

It is this dynamic of strong competing factions and political struggle between personalities which interests me the most and I will use theorists from the Power and Politics School as my main analytical and comparative tools. They include John R .P. French Jr. and Bertram Raven’s five bases of social power (reward, coercive, legitimate, referent and expert) and Max Weber’s ideas on traditional, charismatic and legal rational authority. It is ironic that organizations, whose original goal was to preserve and propagate a martial art that was originally intended to polish the character, have been plagued by ego and power struggles. Much of the blame for this situation may be the excessive commercialization of Karate, which has served to corrupt the moral foundations of many instructors.

CHAPTER ONE: A Comparative Analysis of a Japanese Feudal Organization (The Okudaira Samurai Clan) and a Modern Bujutsu Organization Through the Lens of Elliot Jaques’ Corporate Organizational Structure

The history of organization in Japan reflects the requirements of a highly militarized and stratified society. As early as 710 AD, the Japanese adopted a bureaucratic model based on the Chinese system. This marked the beginning of a long and tumultuous relationship between the two countries. The martial history of the two nations is also intertwined, with military skills and training methods flowing in a reciprocal manner between the two countries. Of primary concern to me is the Edo, or Takugawa, Period, which lasted from 1660 to 1867. During this period, the Shoguns or warlords gained power and the Code of Bushido was authored by Yamaga Soko, a dominant Samurai scholar. This harsh code was to become the moral and social code of the Samurai warrior class. It still exists today in the Karate world, albeit in a milder form. Traditional Bushido indicated that any warrior who surrendered to the enemy was considered unworthy and thus was subjected to the cruelest tortures and execution. Today’s version of the Code of Bushido is more civilized as a result of the cultural changes that occurred at the end of the Tokugawa Period during the Meiji Restoration. I will deal with this in greater detail later in the paper. Of key importance in understanding the parallels between Feudal Japanese military organizations and modern Karate organizations is the concept of giri to ninjo. It is eloquently described by Canadian Karate founder Masami Tsuruoka writes in the introduction to Andrew Bowerbank’s Spirit of Karate-do:

Gigi to ninjo is a statement that encompasses all concepts of loyalty, dedication, respect etc., through enforcing a sense of obligation. This obligation (giri) becomes a binding ideal dedicated to the betterment of humanity (ninjo) whatever the cost to the individual…. The Bushido Code that defined the conduct of Japan’s samurai class was bound by the concept of giri to nonjo. Obligation and commitment to the lord of the clan (Daimyo) took precedence over all other concerns…. A true sensei is bound by giri to ninjo, thus committing totally to the positive development of his/her students. Students are subsequently bound by giri to ninjo, offering themselves completely… (Tsuruoka in Bowerbank, 1997, Introduction).

What Tsuoruka wrote in 1997 could have easily have been written by a Tokugawa Samurai in describing his relationships with his superiors and subordinates. This type of reciprocity is generally foreign to Western thinking and requires a leap of faith on the part of Westerners who place themselves under the guidance of a traditional teacher (sensei) like Tsuruoka. Perhaps the primary difference between traditional and contemporary relationships is the fact that modern Karate students are not required to kill in the service of their sensei. Things were much harsher during the Tokugawa Period and the lives of most Japanese were cheap; Samurai were allowed to kill commoners with impunity for the slightly offense against their rigid code of conduct. At this time Japanese society was sharply divided and stratified, with the military class occupying what Mintzberg would call the strategic apex. Also, Mintzberg’s middle line could be compared to the Tokugawa imperial court and nobles. Again, I emphasize that the military class is most relevant to the structural development of Karate organizations.

It is easy to see the structural similarity between the modern bujutsu (Japanese martial arts, including Karate) organization and a Feudal Samurai clan like the Okudaira clan. Both are roughly divided in two with senior and junior categories and they are connected by the concept of giri or mutual obligation. A modern bujutsu organization is run along lines similar to a feudal Japanese Samurai clan but the ostensible purposes are martial fraternity, sport, profit or a combination of theses three motives. The Okudaira clan organized for survival and military dominance.

The Karate hanshi is the budo equivalent of the corporate CEO. Both the hanshi and CEO set the tone for the organization and provide overall leadership. The kyoshi ranks are the budo equivalent of the corporate executive vice presidents and presidents. The renshi ranks are the budo equivalent of the general managers. Missing from the budo chart is the sempai class of third, second and first degree black belts who play the unit manager or front line manager role in the budo organization. It is of supreme importance to note that these ranks and classifications are relative to the size of the organization, the variety of black belt members and the organization’s degree of adherence to budo tradition.

As previously stated, the primarily purpose of a Samurai Clan was military dominance and survival. These priorities necessitated a harsh code of behavior, which made few allowances for mistakes or personal failings. Of specific relevance is the unquestioning loyalty shown by individual Samurai to his Dyamo or Shogun. Things are different in most modern Karate organizations but there are some instances of modern Karate masters behaving in this traditional way. The case of Canadian Karate founder Masami Tsuruoka and his sensei Chitose is a good example of this. When Tsuruoka refused to raise money for Chitose’s headquarters in Japan, Chitose gave Tsuruoka’s title of chief of the Canadian Chito Ryu Karate Association to Tsuruoka’s senior student Shane Higashi. Chitose, the founder of the Chito Ryu style of Karate and a pioneer in teaching U.S. servicemen on Okinawa, offered no explanation. Tsuruoka’s handling of this disagreeable and seemingly treacherous turn of events was sublime and more typical of a Feudal Samurai than a modern man.

He immediately telephoned Japan and asked Dr. Chitose for an explanation but was given none…. Kept independent by his strong beliefs – and in spite of the recent differences with Dr. Chitose – he would say, “I have only one sensei and I will live and die with only one.” Political conflicts can never alter budo ethics in Tsuruoka Sensei’s eyes. This attitude worked to further enhance his image as many karatekas from different styles came to respect and promote his ideals (Bowerbank, 1997, p. 134).

This is how a Samurai would handle orders or a decision from his superiors. Very few modern western people possess the inner calm and confidence to deal with such a rejection, especially when no explanation is offered. Our individualistic culture does not encourage us to diminish our egos and look to the greatest common good.

CHAPTER TWO: The Genesis of Karate

Karate as we recognize it did not come into existence until about 1900. It developed on the Japanese island of Okinawa and was initially a disorganized collection of various versions of what the natives called Te. Each village or region had its own version of the indigenous Te. These were no uniforms or organizations and until the Meiji Restoration in 1868. It was practiced in secret due to a Japanese government prohibition. Okinawan Te was different from the mainland martial arts of Japan because it had evolved among a people long under the domination of Chinese and Japanese Samurai conquerors who had forbidden the peasantry’s possession of weapons. Thus developed among the fierce and independent island people a powerful fighting art of devastating strikes and weapons derived from modified farm tools. A good example of these weapons is the nunchaku, made famous by Bruce Lee in his movie Enter the Dragon. A nunchaku consists of two pieces of oak joined in the centre by a short chain. Originally, the nunchaku was a rice flail used by Okinawan farmers although it is not unique to Okinawa.

In 1913, an Okinawan school teacher and martial artist named Funakoshi Gichin was invited to give a martial arts performance before the Crown Prince of Japan at Shuri castle in the Okinawa Prefecture. Funakoshi had worked for many years under his teachers Itosu and Azato to modernize and harmonize the various Okinawan versions of Te. He called this resulting style Karatedo or Karate and combined his pen name Shoto with the Japanese kan or club to name his ‘new’ system. His dojo or school in Tokyo thus was the club of Shoto, or Shotokan. Incidentally, Funakoshi was instrumental in the ‘Japanization’ of Okinawan Karate. It was widely felt in Okinawa that the mainland Japanese maintained a condescending attitude toward Okinawa and Okinawan culture. To pay homage to the mainland Japanese who welcomed him as a Karate teacher, Funakoshi set about creating a new name for Okinawan Te that would suit the Japanese sensibilities. He dropped the jutsu suffix and replaced it with the more Japanese do, which meant path or spiritual way. Kara meant China and it also meant empty. In this way he credited the Chinese influence and also emphasized the concept of empty hand and empty (at peace) mind. Japanese martial arts practitioners believe that technique originates in the void. To simplify this rather mystical notion I interpret it as technique, polished and internalized over decades of severe training, occurring spontaneously in response to a threat or attack. Thus the concept of empty mind and empty hand.

The Japanese Prince was so amazed by Funakoshi’s demonstration that he invited Funakoshi to teach his Karate in Japan. This was the beginning of the Japanization of Karate. In the eyes of Okinawan traditionalists, Karate would never be the same. As martial arts scholar Hanshi Patrick McCarthy writes in Bubishi: The Bible of Karate:
…Itosu Anko established a campaign to introduce the discipline into the island’s school system as a form of physical exercise…. Removing much of what was then considered too dangerous for school children, the emphasis shifted from self- defense to physical fitness…. By not teaching the hidden self-defense moves, the actual intentions (i.e., to disable, maim or even kill by traumatizing anatomically vulnerable areas if necessary) of the kata became so obscured that a new tradition developed (McCarthy, 1995, pp. 53-54).

The ‘Japanization’ of Karate that McCarthy refers to was also influenced by the tendency of the mainland Japanese to impose homogeneity on their cultural possessions. As McCarthy writes, “When compared to Kendo or Judo, the humble origins of Ryukyu Kempo Karate-jutsu remained, by Japanese standards, uncultivated and without suitable organization or ‘oneness’” (Ibid., p. 54). Kendo and Judo had their origins in the aristocratic Samurai arts of Ju Jutsu and Kenjutsu and thus were considered culturally superior to an art developed by Okinawan peasants.

CHAPTER THREE: How Karate came to the West and Particularly to Canada

For a brief time following the end of World War II, all martial arts practice was forbidden on Okinawa and the Japanese mainland. By 1949, however, this changed and many Okinawan Karate experts began teaching this mysterious art to U.S. servicemen. Eventually, some of these soldiers would return to the U.S. and open schools of their own. Often, they would also ally themselves with their Okinawan master who would visit the U.S. for testing and high level training of senior students.

One of the many notable Okinawan Karate experts who were to have a great influence in the West was Dr. Chitose Tsuyoshi. This medical doctor and former officer in the Imperial Japanese Army was one of the top teachers of U.S. military personnel on Okinawa during the 1950s, 1960s ands 1970s. Chitose died in 1983 and in the Samurai tradition, his son is now the Soke or chief of the style. He was trained by Okinawa’s finest Karate and Kobujutsu ( ancient weapons) masters and he was the founder of his own style of Karate, which he called Chito Ryu. This style has a relatively sfollowing in Japan but is one of the dominant styles in Canada. One of his top students on the Japanese mainland was Masami Tsuruoka, the future founder of Karate in Canada.

CHAPTER FOUR: The Further Development of Karate in Canada

When Tsuruoka opened his first dojo in Toronto in 1958, there were no other known Karate schools in Canada. The Armed Forces, RCMP and various police forces had long been aquainted with Ju Jutsu and Judo, but Karate was unknown and thus Tsuruoka experienced great difficulties in establishing himself as a Karate sensei. His diminutive size, five feet two inches and 125 pounds, belied his seemingly superhuman skill and power generation. It is a truism that Karate feats of power and agility are seemingly superhuman. In reality, leaping six feet in the air to kick an opponent or crushing a stack of concrete blocks with one blow is merely the dramatic result of years of intense, relentless mental and technical training. Most Karate training seems like boring, uncomfortable drudgery and requires a high degree of dedication. Tsuruoka was forced to resort to a demonstration of his skills to attract his first students. A gym full of burly body-builders was amazed at Tsuruoka’s Karate skill and in this way he recruited his first group of students.

It was not until 1972 that another major Japanese Karate organization would bring its art to Canada. The Shotokan of America, under the leadership of Tsutomu Oshima, opened a branch club in Toronto during that year. Oshima was an uchi deshi of Shotokan founder Funakoshi Gichin. After Tsuruoka’s split with his Sensei Chitose, Shotokan was the Karate style that interested him the most because it was more linear than the complex Chito Ryu techniques. He felt Shotokan techniques would be easier to teach to Canadians. At this time Tsuruoka began networking with master instructors from all over the world. As Andrew Bowerbank writes of Tsuruoka “Friendships with great teachers such as Hietaka Nishiyama Sensei of the United States (Shotokan), Tatsuo Sensei of England (Wado Ryo), Stan Schmidt of South Africa (Shotokan) and Frank Hatashita of Canada (Judo) have kept O-Sensei’s concepts open to constant positive influence throughout his many years of study and teaching” (Bowerbank, 1997, p. 139).

CHAPTER FIVE: Karate Organizations in Canada

Tsuruoka believed that style politics was the greatest danger to the survival of Karate and as a result of this belief, he was instrumental in forming the National Karate Association (NKA) in 1964. “The NKA was set up to unite all traditional Karate styles under one governing body. Each independent style would be free to develop as its history, syllabus and ideas dictated, yet at the same time would have the support of a government-sanctioned organization to assist in national and global interaction” (Ibid., p. 136.). Tsuruoka is still the honorary figure and holds the title of founding president. Unfortunately, Tsuruoka’s influence is waning as younger, more aggressive personalities emerge as players on the national Karate scene.
Shortly after splitting from the Chito Kai, Tsuruoka founded his own organization, the Tsuruoka Karate Federation. With the help of key senior students, Tsuruoka’s innovative approach began to spread across Canada. There are now Tsuruoka Karate schools from coast to coast. The main headquarters is the Honbu Dojo in Toronto, which was built with generous donations from the students. The dojo was built around Tsuruoka as he is considered a priceless repository of Karate lore. As Bowerbank writes,

Over the years O-Sensei has come to embrace the roots of an art which now defines his every action. Students and instructors half his present age find his limitless energy and drive difficult if not impossible to keep up with on the dojo floor, and his innate understanding of kinetics and physiology have taken him to a level of mastery that would be difficult to match in the world today. (Ibid., p. 139).

While there are no official Tsuruoka Karate Federation schools in Ottawa, most of the Karate schools in the area can trace the lineage of the instructors back to Tsuruoka.

The Canada Chito Kai is the official governing body for Chito Ryu Karate in Canada. As mentioned earlier in the paper, it is run by Shane Higashi, Tsuruoka’s first black belt student. This organization is the Canadian branch of the international Chito Kai, which is headquartered in Kumamoto, Japan, on the island of Kyushu. The Canada Chito Kai, like many others, jealously guards what Edgar Schein would call their artifacts. In the late 1960s, they threatened legal action against the now-deceased Andre Langelier, who was using their crest at his Ottawa school. Langelier, one of Tsuruoka’s original students, founded the first Karate school in Ottawa in 1967, at the corner of Rideau Street and Sussex Drive where the Sante’s Restaurant currently operates. In the end, Langelier backed down and agreed to use a more generic crest. This dispute occurred after the split between Tsuruoka and Chitose and is typical of the type of territoriality, which currently infects the Karate world. The next chapter will analyze the workings of these organizations.

CHAPTER SIX: A Critical Analysis of Canadian Karate Organizations through the Ideas of the Following Organization Theory Schools and Selected Theorists

Modern Structural Organization Theory:
- Henry Mintzberg: Five Parts of the Organization

All three of the above Karate organizations operate with a structure similar to Mintzberg’s five basic parts of the organization. They all have a dominant leader/figurehead at the strategic apex. This person answers to those at the international level and is responsible for setting the overall tone of the organization as well as maintaining a uniformity of technical standards throughout the organization. Since the Chito Kai, the Tsuruoka Karate Federation and the NKA all operate in roughly the same way, I will concentrate on the NKA . The strategic apex of the NKA is the NKA executive, which is comprised of four people: the president, two vice-presidents, a treasurer and a secretary. These officers all serve in a voluntary capacity although they are reimbursed for travel and administrative expenses. The NKA National Council would serve as what Mintzberg refers to as the support staff and the various committees are the technostructure. Underlying this bureaucracy are the individual clubs, their instructors and students. Everyone pays dues to the organization but only a few people actually profit financially from Karate teaching. They are usually highly respected and experienced instructors, such as Tsuruoka, who receive a living allowance from their students. This is a very traditional arrangement; in Japan and Okinawa traditional martial arts teachers would usually accept food or clothing in lieu of monetary payment.

Organizational Culture and Sense Making
- Edgar Schein: Organizational Artifacts

The Karate world revolves around artifacts that denote style, rank, organizational affiliation and nationality. However, this was not always the case. In Karate’s formative period on Okinawa no uniforms were worn and the only purpose for the belt was to hold up the trousers. The legend of the black belt began in ancient times when the simple white cotton belt of the master would turn black from accumulated grime and sweat. It was never to be washed. In modern times the custom is different. The black belt is never to be washed and since it is white cotton on the inside, eventually it will fade and turn white. This process is also symbolic of the master’s return to innocence as all beginners in modern Karate wear white belts.

The variety of coloured belts and their meanings to different Karate styles is endless. It has been said by Tsurouka that, “Style could be the one factor to defeat karate” (Ibid., p. 138). This statement reflects the endless squabbling over things such as which belt colours to use to denote rank. Fortunately, most organizations agree on the colour coding for the junior ranks:

White: neophyte
Yellow: first promotion
Orange: second promotion
Green: third promotion
Blue: fourth promotion
Brown: fifth promotion
Basic Expert
Black: sixth promotion.

Some schools use a plain black belt to denote the higher degree or dan grades of black belt rank. Others use black belts with white or gold bars and some dojos even use red and white belts to denote the rank of sixth dan and above. It can be confusing and it is interesting to note that it was the Japanese who adopted the coloured belt system in 1935. It as also the Japanese who created the ippon, or point system, for competitive sparring. The Okinawans and the Chinese used no such distinctions although the Japanese rank system is common on Okinawa today.

As mentioned before in the case of Andre Langelier and the Canada Chito Kai organization, crests and badges are jealously guarded and, in the Chito Kai case, trademarked. However, no one may own a Karate style, although there are those who would pretend that it is possible. The Karate world abounds with competing egos.

Power and Politics:

John R.P.French / Bertram Raven: The Five Bases of Power

I will now apply French and Raven’s five bases of power to the example of Tsuruoka’s role in the Canada Chito Kai, The NKA and the Tsuoruoka Karate Federation. I refer specifically to his split with Chitose and his subsequent activities.

Ž Reward:
Chitose used his reward power to punish Tsuruoka for refusing to raise money for the main Chito Ryu headquarters in Japan. He rewarded Tsuruoka’s top student with the title of Chief of the Canada Chito Kai. Tsuruoka was rewarded with the tremendous loyalty of his students, some of whom eventually built a dojo in his honor so he could carry on teaching.

- Coercive:
Chitose used his coercive power to attempt to assert his authority over Tsuruoka and all Canadian Chito Ryu students who were part of the organization. His punitive treatment of Tsuruoka sent signals to all Canadian Chito Ryu students that he was the one wield the power and that even a Karate man od Tsuruoka’s stature could be disciplined. To his credit, Tsuruoka turned this situation to his advantage.

• Legitimate
Tsuruoka had used his legitimate power to establish a network of allies across Canada and the rest of the world. The noble manner in which he accepted Chitose’s sanction did a great deal to enhance his already excellent reputation. On the strength of this reputation, and to improve the state of affairs in the Canadian Karate scene, Tsuruoka founded the National Karate Association and allied it with international bodies. This desire to impose order and uniformity is a feature of Japanese martial arts and Japanese communal culture in general. It is a true conservatism, subjugating individual desires for the good of the larger group. This is not to say that uniformity is always good, because it can and does sometimes lead to stagnation.

• Referent
Most Karate masters are revered by their students but few are revered by their international colleagues. While Tsuruoka is widely recognized as a master, he is such a humble and genuine person that people feel comfortable in his presence. Since he leads by example rather that by fiat, he is easy to respect. To be revered is a heavy burden for the best of people and reverence can easily be abused and turned into a vehicle for self-aggrandizement.

• Expert
Karateka of Tsuruoka’s stature possess a level of expertise that transcends the merely physical. As I mentioned earlier, the truest expression of Karate technique comes from a mind of perfect calm or emptiness. In this state, technique is spontaneous and unconscious, but nevertheless hits the mark with the proper amount of force to neutralize the threat. It is a Karate truism that in order to master the softer, internal techniques, it is first essential to master the hard, external techniques. Karate and Tai Chi are aiming for the same goal: the effortless channeling of inner power or Ki in the right proportion at the right time. Karate is outside in and Tai Chi is inside out.

- Max Weber: Types of Authority

Weber’s ideas of traditional and legitimate power are intertwined as they apply to Tsuruoka and all the organizations he has been involved with. Tsuruoka’s power originally derived from being a highly expert practitioner and teacher of a well-organized and traditional martial art. He had legitimate power not only because he was the Canadian representative of Chitose, a Soke or founder of an original Karate style, but also because he observed the rigid code of conduct that governs those who aspire to rise upward in the ranks of a traditional Japanese martial arts organization. This power dynamic is well-understood by those involved in traditional Karate and thus, Tsuruoka’s rise to prominence is a good example of someone whose ascendancy has proceeded according to the highest ideals, rather than the convenience of the moment.


It is unlikely that public misconceptions about Karate being mainly a competitive sport; reinforced by the mainstream media, are likely to help the cause of traditional Karate that is mainly concerned with practical self-defence and character refinement. This public misconception is the result of the efforts of large and often dysfunctional Karate organizations. Karate organizations, like any other collective human effort are affected by the ambitions, motives and personal conduct everyone involved. To claim that an organization is not political seems the height of naivety when one considers that any gathering of two or more people has the potential to become political in tone and scope.

Perhaps the key is the voluntary sublimation of ego, a Karate tenet that is not valorized in Western culture. This might be facilitated by a balancing of organizational emphasis between competitive sport Karate and purely practical Karate. There is hope for this re-adjustment of priorities.

Progressive Karate scholars like Hanshi Patrick McCarthy and his International Ryukyu Karate Research Society have accomplished a great deal towards awakening interest in what he often calls, “Old School Karate”. This awakened interest in old-style karate is, of course, occurring mainly among Karateka. This phenomenon may some day clarify public perceptions about Karate as modern learners become propagating teachers aquainted with the true technical and metaphysical breadth of Karate. This familiarity will hopefully have a positive effect on organized Karate.

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