A thread over on Bullshido.net brought this post to mind so I decided to resurrect it.
The following is an excellent article that I am re-posting with the express permission of the author.
Don Roley is a American living in Japan (edit: after 15 years of living in Japan, Don has moved back to the USA), and has been doing so for a number of years. Don is a practitioner of Bujinkan Budo Taijutsu, and practices that art in its homeland. While he may be modest enough to deny that he is an expert on the topics of; Japanese language, Japanese history and culture, Japanese martial arts history, the history of the Ninja and Bujinkan Budo Taijutsu; I feel confident in saying that any court in this country would have no problem declaring him an expert in those fields.
Possessing this knowledge puts Don in the position of being able to spot the many martial arts charlatans that claim expertise in Japanese Arts,Bujinkan/Ninjutsu frauds in particular, that are now using the internet to build their followings. Having weathered numerous battles with these people, and seeing some disturbing situations that are best left for him to describe if he chooses; Don has written this excellent guide on how to spot martial arts instructors that may be engaging in activity that could be as innocent as being misinformed to as dangerous as running a cult. This is great stuff, entertaining to read and educational.
Recognizing fraud in the martial arts
People have suggested that I should write something about how to recognize and deal with martial arts frauds. Living in Japan I have a better understanding of its martial arts and history and in the past I have helped poke holes in the stories of many frauds.
It is actually rather sad that I have to write this. I went onto the internet to get information about martial arts. I did find some online journals, web sites and other resources that were of help. But as soon as I wandered onto a message board I was confronted with frauds spreading complete rubbish. I soon found myself trying to counter the mistakes they were spreading in order to make themselves look good. I happen to like history and I was able to point out many mistakes in what they were trying to present. Soon I got the reputation as both a fraud buster and a history expert. I would just prefer to deal with normal conversations. But over the years I’ve been pulled into a lot of investigations and I have learned all of the tricks that they seem to use as well as a simple litmus test for determining if someone is 99 percent likely to be a fraud.
The key to figuring out if the teacher you are thinking of studying with or the guy you are communicating with is a fraud is simple, verify his claims regarding his personal experiences. Do not worry about the generations prior to him. He may not know how to confirm the story of his teacher. He may have been lied to, or made a mistake about something that happened to his teacher- but there is no excuse for not knowing and being able to prove what happened to him.
This is important for determining the honesty of the person. If someone wants to make claims in public to attract students, then it is their responsibility to back those claims up just as publicly. If they do not want to prove anything, they should not be talking about it in public.
I expect people to make mistakes about history, Japanese culture and things like that. People make mistakes. Even the most legitimate and advanced student of a martial art may not know beans about their arts history or related subjects. Some people just train and learn how to do their art, but know nothing about who is who, who did what and where the bodies are buried. They are not frauds for not knowing something like that.
But there is no excuse for them not knowing what happened to them. And that is what they have to prove.
If they claim to have trained with a teacher in a 500 year old art, then they have to prove that they trained under that teacher. Don’t worry about the 500 year old part if he can’t prove even the simple fact of whether if he ever had a teacher. If he claims to have been in a secret military unit that fought in Croatia then make him prove that he was in it and don’t get bogged down with conversations about the political situation in the former Yugoslavia. If they want to say they had hundreds of street fights, ask for documentation in the form of police reports, hospital records, legal bills and things like that.
Keep in mind that you want to be polite about this, but if he is saying you should train with him because they teacher is qualified in a certain way you have the right to ask for proof. You can’t expect people to provide personal information to you for just any reason. But if they mention being trained by a certain teacher or have it on their web site, then it becomes fair game if it relates to their qualifications. Just keep things in perspective. If I ever started teaching my art, I would be happy to point people to the office in Japan that administers my art. If I provided that, and they told you I was qualified to teach, I would probably feel justified in refusing to give the phone number of my teacher in Japan.
The concentrating on the personal history will also let you know if you are dealing with a fraud or someone who has been fooled by a fraud. I have run across many people who tried to defend their teachers. I have gotten a few of them to realize they were being lied to. The key was that everyone who was being fooled backed up what they experienced and where they heard things. If they claimed to have trained with a teacher who is a fraud, they will say where you can find them and confirm their story. The people that don’t do that are the frauds. Eventually you work your way up the ladder and find the point where someone says they were an assassin for the CIA and only give excuses when asked for some proof. You may have to check the story of not only the teacher, but the head of the organization as well. You can only go as far as the head of the art, and if he is a fraud then the instructors under him can’t teach you any better.
But be careful. Sometimes there are people who have so much invested in the status they get from a fraudulant leader that they end up helping with the deception themselves. It is not uncommon for the people at the top of the chain to be the ones who were around long enough to realize they were involved in a fraudulant art, maybe even a cult, but not drop out like everyone else when faced with the truth. Marc MacYoung gave the term “Bitch Squad” for these types in an article he wrote about martial arts cults. It is an apt name. The BS guys go out and engage in the worse attacks against anyone who criticizes the cult’s leader, make the most outlandish claims and run cover for the head of the art who keeps his reputation intact by not seeming to be involved in petty arguments. If some claim about the teacher the BS makes is found to be untrue, the head has a cut out and can say it was a mistake by his subordinates and not a lie by him. This is actually very common in the bigger cults that pass themselves off as martial arts. Imagine if you had joined a martial art at age 15 and after 20 years you were a full time instructor of the art. Your kids go to school and eat based on the art you teach. Considering just how much of your self image is based on being a teacher of a legitimate martial art and the utter lack of skill you would have for almost any other job, you can imagine why people would do anything, anything at all to defend that status quo.
You can usually tell an honest student from a BS member by the way they will back up what they say. An honest student will give his sources. If he is relying on the word of his teacher he will say so. He will admit it. He may argue that others have to prove that what his teacher claims is wrong or make bad arguments, but he will give his sources. The BS member will usually say they are privy to information that the rest of the world is not and they can’t back it up. They will say they traveled with their teacher to Japan, or found records of his military service, or talked with other members of his CIA unit. None of this will be something anyone else can do for various reasons.
At this point, some people ask why it matters if someone is lying about their experiences or not as long as the skills they teach are good. Even today I am still floored whenever I hear this question.
Central to the idea of martial arts is the concept of honor and integrity. Without that, there is nothing you can learn from someone that can’t be better learned elsewhere. The martial arts did not build up this idea for purely noble reasons. They did it because honestly dangerous arts know that teaching their skills to people of questionable morals is like giving a pistol to a convicted felon. Yet I have heard people say that they have been studying martial arts for 20 years and they don’t care if a particular person is lying through his teeth or not, as long as they get what they want. These people are lost forever to the true depths that the martial arts can give. They have built their experience on the wrong foundation and instead of a large, stable, structure they are left only with something that can collapse at any time. I have run into people like this, and they are as morally questionable and lacking in skill (to my eye) than the worst frauds. Some people do not believe that their teacher or the guy they know is a fraud. But it is the ones that ask, “who cares if he pads his resume” that show as much of a lack of honor as the fraud spreading the lie.
If someone was stealing, would you not care if they did so as long as they did not steal from you? Because in essence that is what those that excuse frauds are doing. If people attract students based on a lie, then they are selling false goods. I myself will not associate with such folks, nor those who claim to not care. I got into martial arts not only to defend myself, but to make the world a better place. Excusing fraud as long as you get what you want is not a way to leave the world a better place for our children.
On a more practical level, unless you have a lot of experience facing folks that want to kill you, enough to start recognizing patterns and build up a statistical base, you probably really can’t tell what will work in a live situation and what will only work inside the ring or on the training mat with a partner. That lack of knowledge is nothing to be ashamed of. But we have to be honest about it. We have to acknowledge that what we think as being a useful skill may not be. As long as we are honest, when better information comes along based on reality we can adopt it. But a fraud is not honest and when information contradicts what he saying, he will reject it.
So we really do not know what is good and what is not. We can tell if someone is better than us- but from that standpoint we can’t tell how they rate compared to real masters. And we can’t tell if by going down the path of someone better than us whether we will end up with the masters, or end up in the dead end that all the frauds I know end up in. It would be rather egotistical to say that you can judge the amount of skill of someone you acknowledge as being better than you. All you can say is that he seems to know more and you can’t say how he rates compared with others who have more skill than you.
Ego is rampant in the martial arts. And it is one of the biggest hurdles everyone has to overcome to improve. There is nothing wrong with taking pride in your accomplishments. But you need to recognize and accept your failings so that you can work on them and overcome them. Mistakes and failures are actually wonderful things for advancement. You need to push yourself until you fall flat on your face, dust yourself off and figure out why you faltered so you can overcome your present skill level. A teacher coming over and pointing out all of your many mistakes is helping you to see things you couldn’t on your own to work on and eliminate. If you live for the applause of others, it will be very difficult to admit those mistakes, even to yourself. The more importance you place on the adulation of others, the more a slave to your ego you become.
And people who lie to look better are total slaves to their ego.
This is why it is important to differentiate between those that are passing along information that may be false as honestly as they can and those that know they are not telling the truth. A person who was told that his teacher used a technique in real life will acknowledge that he can’t get the desired results from the technique and look to what he is doing wrong. He will work at the problem until he either finds a way to make it work, or think that he is missing something and gives up on the technique. But the person who made up the story has told people he made the technique work, so evidence that it does not work threatens that story. He will make excuses, even blame the students for their failing to make it work and anything other than re-examine the basic problems with how he had shown the technique. Thus ends their ability to learn more.
Make no mistake, every fraud I have run across is motivated by ego. Money is an added benefit, but if you have low morals and are willing to lie there are much more profitable scams than teaching martial arts. Some of the biggest frauds don’t get into teaching for money; they end up doing that because it makes their image a bigger part of their life. The people that try to pass themselves off as veterans of elite military units don’t do it for money, but they may do it so that people will respect them as macho studs. People who make false claims in martial arts do so for the same reason. But unlike the fake vet, you can make your means of support off of teaching and put it on their business cards. It looks strange if you tell a person you just met that you were in the green berets in Vietnam. If you try it will be obvious to all that you are trying to impress people. But if you live off of teaching you get to let people know your status as the last living grand- master of Whoflung-pu just as soon as the common question of, “what do you do for a living” comes up.
But just because someone is not making a living off of teaching, or even taking money, does not eliminate the chance that they are a fraud. Getting called master is often enough.
I have been a student of martial arts for over a quarter of a century, but never felt the desire to open up my own school. There is just so much out there to still learn from others and teaching people would take time away from that. Besides, I live in Japan and the idea of a caucasian teaching Japanese a Japanese martial art is pretty rare. But I have taken over a few times when my teacher could not make class and asked me. And I have been asked to show things when I travelled outside of Japan. I can tell you, it is very pleasing to the ego to be looked on as a teacher. People bow to you and call you fancy titles if you don’t stop them. You can see respect in their eyes as they talk to you and feel amazement when you show them some key to the problem they could not see. Oh yeah, I could get used to that real easily.
For some people, that type of thing is a drug. It becomes not just a nice experience in life, but rather a reason for living. You can see it in rock stars and olympic athletes. The money is good, but the fame- the respect- is what motivates them to put in the extra time to excel. It is difficult to fake ability in these types of things. Milli- Vinilli pulled it off in the world of music, and people do take steroids to improve sports performance. But in martial arts there rarely is a chance to demonstrate the skills you learn outside of a controlled situation. Even sparring can be controlled to play to certain strengths. But actual fights that may end up in death are not something that 99 percent of the students learning martial arts will ever face, let alone demonstrate to others.
So people seeking the quick, easy way to being treated as macho studs can lie about their past and teach martial arts. They build up their life, their image, their status in the community and among everyone that knows them based on a lie. The fact that they know they are lying is not important as long as people believe it. They are so much a slave to their ego that they give that much power to total strangers. To be exposed means losing everything- their status and self image primary among them. After building up everything on the base of being thought of as a master, the thought of losing that is worse than even dying. It is a form of dying. For them, their life is dependent on how others view them. To not be looked on in the same way voids their reason for existing, and thus their life.
Trust me, when these people face losing their purpose of their existence like that you don’t want to be anywhere near ground zero.
I have worked with a group of ex-students of a fraud. Through an internet message board I countered the points their teacher had tried to push and it was his inability to deal with simple questions of proof coupled with my ability to provide references to counter what he said that caused them to realize the truth and lead a large defection.
Then things got ugly for them.
People leaving the group told stories of criminal behavior, students being made pregnant by teachers, prison experience for the head and other horror stories that they had been willing to overlook at the time. They had all kept quiet and mainly thought that it was normal, or that they were the only ones that saw it. Once they started talking and comparing notes, it became quite clear that the group was a very dangerous criminal group and they told the world about what had happened to them. The leader of the group retaliated by any means he could. He tried to destroy any student who had left him if it was in his ability. He used frivolous lawsuits, turned family members against them with false stories and even physical intimidation. Some of them were honestly convinced that their lives were in danger.
That is the type of thing you may face if you get involved with someone willing to lie to make themselves look good. None of them saw the danger when they walked into the martial arts studio. Con men are rather charming when you first meet them. So are cult leaders. You catch more flies with honey than vinegar. And as long as things go their way, most frauds can seem to be the nicest people on the planet. But at the first sign of their house of cards falling and the truth being exposed, you see a whole new ugly side to them.
Consider the fact that these people already do things that decent people would never do, namely building their entire life around living a lie and deceiving even their closest loved ones. You threaten to bring down all they worked for, all that they really are. You threaten something that is their existence and they have been proven to not have a problem with behavior we would find repulsive. Just try to imagine how they will react even if you have no intent on exposing them. Even if all you do is ask innocent questions or find something somewhere that contradicts an element of their story, you can be a target. Martial arts con men have sent students to kill others. These cases are a legal fact and documented. You don’t want to risk it by looking the other way when honest concerns are first raised. It is best to just put as much distance between yourself and someone who won’t answer simple questions. There are always other teachers you can train under that are honest about what they do and are no risk to you.
Again, the simplest way to tell if someone is a liar is to concentrate on what they claim has happened to them. What happened to others is not easy to confirm sometimes and there may be an honest reason why someone can’t back up what they were told. But on important things, there is no excuse for not backing up personal experience.
Let me give you an example. I served in the military. According to my family, my great grandfather served in the Union Army in the war between the states. The only picture I have of him was taken decades later and I have little idea of how I would find out if he served, and with which unit. I never even met him. But if I wanted to prove that I served, I know exactly how to prove it. I have a mountain of proof. Other people and institutions can back up what I say about my military service. Even if the military lost each and every record they had on me, I could still provide dates and the names of people who served with me. They could be contacted and their relationship in the military could be confirmed.
It is the same way with martial arts. There is no excuse for someone who claims to have more than a couple of months of training to not be able to lay the proof down for others to check for themselves. If it was only a single weekend seminar, then maybe no one would remember them. But if they are claiming to teach an art, then they had to stick around for years and get certification. That type of person should be able to lay it out and let you talk to their teachers to answer your questions. Even if the teacher is dead, there should still be multiple sources that can confirm the story.
Checking with the teacher of a person you are planning on training with is a pretty good idea. Sometimes people can be associated with very decent, legitimate teachers and still fall into the fraud category because they inflate their experience. Many people spend a little time training in Japan, earn a yellow belt and by some form of magic gain a tenth level degree black belt on the airline flight home. I am aware of many people that have done that. If anyone balks at the idea of you contacting their teacher or their organization, your suspicions should be roused.
Worse, I am also aware of a few cases where people have studied martial arts and actually gotten very good at it. But their attraction to the martial arts seems to have been at least partially motivated by a desire for access to young children. When they are discovered molesting their charges, quite frequently they move to another state (after serving time in prison) and set themselves up as martial arts instructors again. Even if they are supervised and not allowed to run children’s classes, they still are a danger and you don’t want to be associated with them. If you were to contact their old teachers, they will be aware of the situation and they will warn you off. An unwillingness to let you contact their past teachers may be because of this. Some of us are not willing to take the chance even if they are skilled.
It is sad, but it is very easy today to gain something to show a person that will seem on a shallow level to back up their story. If you have any reason to suspect something, you need to look at it from the angle of how the evidence you see could have been made up. Putting something on an internet home page does not mean it happened. I have seen people claim too be members of actual organizations in Japan when I know they are not. Their web page to this day still lists the claim.
Unless you are really close to the subject matter, certificates on a wall or a web page are pretty much useless now. With photoshop and laser printers anyone can come up with something that looks good to the untrained eye. The writing on it may have come from the local Chinese restaurant. I have seen certificates that had Japanese written on them that made me fall off my seat laughing. But unless you read the language, you could not tell. The certificate that read that it was from the “Heavenly Dog Association” and had a different name on it than the guy claiming it as his own actually was pretty neat in terms of fonts and such. I suspect that a few things were taken from examples posted on the internet and the final version was what I saw. So beware anyone who says that a certificate is all you need and that they don’t want you contacting their teacher.
Beware of pictures being presented as some sort of proof. An exception to this might be pictures obviously taken over the course of a few decades that cover both training situations and social ones. Take a look at the pictures and ask if they could have been taken over the course of a single weekend seminar, or less. Beware of accepting the comments on what is going on in the photo. Ask yourself if there is another possible reason.
As an example, if you took a seminar with someone and at the end of it presented a certificate of appreciation to the teacher for visiting you, how would a photo of you passing it to him differ from a photo of him passing a tenth degree black belt certificate to you? Answer- not a bit. You can make a fake certificate that resembles the certificate you gave him and have it say whatever you want. There is an actual case prosecuted in Japan with the leader of a cult. During the trial it was revealed that this man had arranged a meeting with the Dalai Lama and presented him with a fancy ring that he also wore. The pictures of the two of them standing side by side wearing the same ring and of a ring being passed from one to the other were offered as proof to his flock that he had been made part of an elite, secret religious group by the Dalai Lama.
Many famous people let others take pictures with them. This is true in martial arts as well. Ninety nine percent of the time these photos are treasured by the recipients and remind them of the time they met with a man they admire. If I had a photo of me with the late Bruce Lee, I would frame it and put it on the wall. But they can also be used to try to convince people that these famous folks are either their teachers, or approve and support what they do. All the photos really prove is that they were in the same room together at some point. And with photoshop even this may not be true.
Photos of people are just photos of people. If the person who claims they were taught by the people in the photo is not even in the photo with them, then it could be anything. I know of cases where people have pictures of honest, respected martial artists on their web site and in their school with claims that these people are their teachers and I know that the two have never even met. I am also aware of a case where the leaders of that group I helped leave a cult came to Japan merely to take a lot of pictures of themselves. They put a photo of a man wearing the robe they used in their school up on their web site and claimed it was their mysterious teacher. A quick investigation by people in Japan found that it was a staff member at a Japanese theme park that had been asked to pose for a photo with the group. The thing that caused suspicion in the Japanese searchers was that the robe was worn over a polo- style shirt instead of being worn as a Japanese martial arts uniform normally is.
Be very wary of any resistance to a reasonable request to contact the person they claim to have taught them. And it is best to run, not walk, away if they even hint at there being a need for secrecy as the reason.
Let me get this straight, they have a school in the local strip mall where they will tell you they are a ninjutsu system, a web site visible to billions advertising themselves as a ninjutsu system and have books they write where they claim to be a ninjutsu system- and after all that publicity it is only when they are asked for simple proof that the leader actually had a real teacher of ninjutsu that the subject of secrecy comes up? Just how stupid do they think you are?
If someone is going to make a claim, it is not a secret. The more open the claim, the less the excuse of secrecy is valid. If you hear it before you are even a student, it can in no way be defended as being a secret.
I do know people that have secrets. We all have things we don’t want others to know, or at least only those that we can trust with the information. These things are not talked about in the open or to people you have not known for a good long time. Anything else, any talk that someone other than their best friends are privy to is an open claim and then has to be proven or treated as a lie. They may not be able to prove what they heard from their teachers, but they have to be able to prove what happened to them.
An even bigger danger sign is any talk at all of enemies being out to get them or of conspiracies. As silly as it sounds as you sit in front of your computer screen reading this, it is one of the most common tactics used by groups with dubious claims. Anyone who casts doubts on them are attacked on a personal level and said to be saying what they are due to some sort of agenda. If it is multiple sources casting doubt, then frequently the explanation is that they are working together. Believe it or not, I know of one case where a fraud claims that articles that expose him in sources as diverse as Soldier of Fortune Magazine (about as right wing as you can get) and the rather liberal L.A. Times are part of a plot by the CIA to destroy his reputation.
I do have to admit that sometimes accusations are motivated by an agenda and not the truth. In a custody battle in a bitter divorce case it is not uncommon for one parent to suddenly break their years of silence and accuse the other one of child molestation. These things happen and you should be aware that the frauds themselves frequently attack their critics to deflect their comments. But you should find it strange that everyone who is casting doubt on someone’s claims are out to get them. Take a look and see if these attackers are not rival schools, or ex- students/ lovers/ partners but rather objective sources like CNN and the L.A. Times. If someone points out that they can’t prove something, they don’t shut the critic up by proving it, but instead go on the attack of their character? Accusations should be met with proof, or demanding that the other side show proof- not in more attacks in kind. Whenever there is a case of possible motivation, it usually is pretty obvious. The reasons they could have for falsely accusing are as obvious as the child custody case. They can be proven to exist. It should not require possible motivations that need to be explained and can’t be proven. They can be proven to exist. Accusations of misdeeds by those that cast doubt should be proven if made.
Seriously, if talk of people being out to get the teacher are a major part of the defense, you are probably dealing with an out and out cult. You never want to get involved with a group that acts like this. Take a look at the famous cults in the past that cost a lot of innocent lives and you will probably find this type of tactic. The Japanese cult that gassed the subways earlier had kidnapped and murdered a lawyer and his family who had led the legal battle against them. In the course of the kidnap, a badge of one of the members was left behind and pointed to the cult’s involvement. The response by the cult that it was planted to make them look bad. They repeated the tactic when the first evidence of their involvement in the subway attack became public. Of course, they were found to be guilty. Other cults have used the tactic. It is a dangerous sign. And it is best to avoid anything that even hints of that type of reasoning.
Claims of secrecy and of conspiracies out to get them are not just signs of fraud, they are very real signs of potential danger. It is not worth the risk. People have died from groups that use this type of excuse to explain things away.
There are many lesser signals of possible concern. Not all of them are proof of fraud, but they should set off red flags. In most cases, you might not bother trying to check the claims of your teacher. But if you see some of these red flags, you should start to wonder.
– Selling a fantasy. Take a serious look at some internet sites and you will come away with the idea that they were written to cater to the fantasy of a 14 year old raised on bad kung fu movies and ones with explosions. Not all frauds do this, nor are all the people that do this frauds. But there is a high correlation between the two. I know of some folks who teach in a park and try to keep a low profile so as to not attract the attention of the police. But groups that have you sneak into a hidden location are just plain silly. If you see things in the hand outs or web site like sniper rifles, hooded ninja climbing walls and guys in military style uniforms, it may be a bad sign.
– Claims of military service, especially elite units and combat experience as part of the resume of the martial arts teacher. As I already wrote, martial arts frauds lie to make themselves look like macho studs. Being a combat veteran of an elite unit is one way you can be viewed in that light. Military service has very little to do with martial arts, so its inclusion in part of the studio literature about the teacher is a worrying sign.
Of course, there are people who have made names in the martial arts and served in respectable military units. I know several. One example is my friend Alain Burrese. He joined the military as a young man because the idea of jumping out of airplanes and blowing up buildings appeals to many men at that age. After training him as a paratrooper the army sent him to Korea. While there he received training in being a sniper. Korea is famous for its martial arts and for someone with as many wild oats to sow as Alain, it was a chance not to be missed and he was introduced to Hapkido. He even moved back to Korea after leaving the service to train. Today he is a fourth dan and practices law, teaching martial arts only in his spare time.
Many of the first teachers of karate were service men stationed in Okinawa after the war. Many of the folks I know who like martial arts also like guns, and many of the people who like guns served time in the military. There is a high percentage of mutual interest. But the legitimate folks I know like Alain just don’t think that their military experience has anything to do with their skill in the martial art and don’t think they should attract students with it. Frauds seem to try to link their martial arts experience with their military one by telling stories of having to use their knife defense techniques instead of the typical soldier solution of shooting the knifer. A key sign seems to be that many frauds not only say they were part of the military, but that they also saw combat. People like Alain who never claimed to have been in a shooting war are probably safe bets.
– Stories that sound too good to be true, probably are not true. It is strange to have to point this out, but the way some people pile on higher and deeper the stories about themselves should be a warning sign of it’s own. But in person they often are a lot more subtle and not all laid out at once. Just how many people in the world are the students of secret Apache wrestling techniques taught from a young age to only to a select few each generation AND a veteran of an elite unit involved in every conflict since the first gulf war AND an ex- assassin for Interpol AND a secret student of Bruce Lee AND a holy warrior monk under the command of the Dalai Lama?
Yes, objectively speaking it is strange to think that people would not be suspicious of so many claims. The problem I have seen in frauds that lie to make themselves look better is that there is a hole in their personality. They only live for the admiration of others. They can’t exist without occasionally getting people to look at them as they spin their stories. So they have to come up with new stories. It is rare to find someone lying about only one part of their life. Too many good things may be a sign that they have run out of stories in the past.
– Stories of learning from early childhood. This actually does happen in Asia within families. If the guy is not from Asia, then the chances of this are pretty much zero. People may start training at the local martial arts academy with all the other kids from age seven, or younger. But if the claim is of learning from a guy in their back yard or something it can be safely stowed with all the stories that can’t be confirmed. The person they said taught them one on one in the back yard can never be found, and if the parents are alive they are always unaware that their little boy was spending so much time with a man they never met. Unless they wanted their kid to be molested and end up with his throat cut and body dumped in a ditch, they probably were pretty aware of where he was most of the time. There is no way they could have missed that guy teaching their son from age 5 to 18.
I think this is so common because people want to make themselves sound as skilled as possible and pushing back the age gives them more time under training they can claim. Instead of 6 months of training at age 17 at the local Shaolin- Kenpo- karate & kung fu franchise on the corner, they can say they had 15 years of more by the time they are 20.
– Claims of high ranks in multiple martial arts or offering classes in them. Martial arts are very, very different from each other. It is very difficult to gain a real level of skill in disciplines as diverse as ballet is from football. It may seem that skill in one art carries over to another, but unless you are talking arts with very similar roots, this is just not the case. Internal Chinese arts are very, very different from hard style Japanese ones.
Many experienced martial artists have been exposed to a variety of arts. Taking a seminar in an art not only broadens your outlook, it might reveal an art that is better than the one you now do. But there is a difference between that and saying that you are skilled enough to teach those arts. Getting skilled enough to teach an art takes years of instruction on a regular basis with a qualified teacher. If you see people in the 20s or 30s claiming to teach five or more arts, it is time to get suspicious.
Today there are people that will essentially sell you a rank. They may even be legit teachers but have sold out for money. They may try to cover over this fact by calling what they do something like “long distance video learning courses” but in most cases it is pretty much assured you will get the rank after the check clears the bank. And the teachers will not be eager to point out how they got the rank. Your only hint may be in seeing that someone claims to have gotten a rank from someone thousands of miles away.
-Wall candy. This is the name for certificates that look pretty sitting on a wall, but don’t have much nutritional value. Today, anyone with a laser printer can design an impressive looking certificate. And as common as it is for people to do just that, there are also ways of getting wall candy from other sources that seem more real.
The first type is a soke board. A soke is a Japanese term for the person who owns the copyright for an arts name. If you want to teach it, you have to get his permission and follow his standards and directions. The term has been borrowed by many who can’t even tell a Japanese word from a Korean one to come to mean head teacher or something close. The lack of knowledge of the term (unlike “sushi”) allows them to both impress people with its exoticness and also give a definition they desire.
Soke boards don’t all use the term soke, but they do pretend to certify people as the heads of their own art. The whole idea of an outside organization being better able to certify you than your own teacher is just silly to serious martial artists. Speaking for myself, if my teacher won’t certify me, I can’t imagine why I should listen to a bunch of guys who get together for a dinner once a year, wear funny outfits and call each other master. If I am going to be independent and break with my teacher in the name of freedom and doing my own thing, then I don’t see why I should drop one set of chains for another. Either I stay with my system or teacher or I am not going to be bound by the judgment of people who have never seen me and may not know the first thing about what I do.
At its basic level, a soke board is nothing more than a group of people that get together to give each other legitimacy. Say, five guys get together and form an organization that claims to judge and certify martial arts ability. The organization then certifies all of them as masters. When asked why they are masters, they can point to the certification of the organization. When asked what makes the soke board fit to judge others, they can point to the large number of masters on its board. This is helped by the fact that there are several soke boards, so it is not quite as obvious as this. It takes quite a bit of digging to follow the trail around and back to the source. And members frequently trade high ranks with each other. A person might found an art, or claim to be certified in one. He gives rank to several people. They give him rank. If ever asked what qualified him to create his own art, he can point to the high rank he has from other masters as proof of his skill.
The image that soke boards try to present is one of a group of skilled people with high standards. So a shallow search by means of the internet will not set off alarms to the typical mother looking for a class for her kids. But rarely is there any checking of facts or qualifications. In one case, a soke board stated that it required the fee (of course), two pictures and a video tape of the person submitting an application for review. Some jokers on a mailing list sent in the application, fee, one photo of an Asian man, another of a caucasian female and a video tape of “Debbie Does Dallas” and received their certificate from the organization. The only thing they are certain was looked at was the check they sent in.
Another thing some soke boards do is give free membership to respected martial artists without them asking, and then add their photo to the membership lists on the internet. People like Chuck Norris, Steven Seagal and others do not need to associate with some of these groups and they never asked to be members. They are usually not given a chance to turn down membership either. But the typical karate mother thinks that because their photo is on a web site that the group is elite indeed. And she thinks others on the web site are in the same category when they are not.
The second type of wall candy are groups that pass themselves off as professional organizations. Understand that it would be quite legal for me to set up an organization called “The International Anti-Terrorist Training Association” and start charging people money to join. They would get a certificate of membership, their name listed on the web page and maybe access to an on- line forum and a slim newsletter sent by e-mail every few months. I do not have to actually have ever taught elite anti- terrorist units to do so, nor would any of the members. The same rules go for soke boards. So it is best to be careful of impressive- sounding organizations listed on the instructor’s resume.
– Any mention of a hall of fame. Black Belt Magazine came up with a hall of fame and that is pretty much respected. But there are hundreds, if not thousands of other martial arts halls of fames set up by soke boards. The main requirement to be named, “Knife fighting teacher of the year” is a check that clears the bank. This is one of the easiest things to find when talking about red flags.
-More Asian than Asia.
One big warning sign should be if things look almost like a parody of what you think life in the orient is like. Students who have to bow before talking to a teacher, use only certain terms to address them and maybe a studio that even has a gong are all things that would keep me away from it.
I live in Japan and have trained here for a long time. There is respect towards teachers and things that are expected of students, such as cleaning the dojo after class. But it is no where near the worship that I have seen go on in some American schools of questionable lineage. I would be wary of groups that use a lot of asian words where perfectly good English words already exist. If there is a board of advisors, call them that instead of “Karo”- a term not in use in Japan for over a hundred years. If the students are required to get the teacher coffee or other chores, you are probably dealing with a cult. It is best to stay away.
-Pictures of celebrities provided as some sort of legitimizer.
As I said, many famous martial artists have their picture taken with others when asked. These can be very valuable memories. But they should be treated in the same ways as pictures of friends and family that are also full of memories. If there is even a hint that all the respected people on the wall would support the teacher you should stay away. No one with any integrity would even try that. They may have a photo of their teachers to honor them- but never a gallery of photos that might lead others to assume that he associates and is approved by the best.
-Talk of being warriors, samurai, or ninja instead of just learning the art.
Today a lot of people throw out the word “warrior” to mean a lot of things other than someone who fights in a war. I feel it is used a little too freely. But it is probably not a bad thing overall. The problem I have seen is when schools try to lure students with the idea of being some sort of warrior. Unless you are joining the military or police, you don’t need to live a life dedicated towards war. You need to learn how to defend yourself from more realistic attackers like muggers or enraged motorists. Maybe you just want a hobby and a means of improving yourself in addition to self defense. You don’t need to be a warrior monk.
The samurai and ninja are dead, as dead as European knights. If people are using the idea of making you one, or use them as terms for ranks, it is a very scary red flag. These schools are not realistic representations of schools that teach samurai arts; they are cults that prey on the desire of some people to be more than a member of the mundane world. Certain schools seem to use the image of a samurai as part of their advertising, but are clear that they are teaching samurai arts like swordsmanship and not making you a samurai yourself. On the other hand, some very dangerous martial arts cults have the idea of making their members ninja or samurai central to their image and means of attracting impressionable young students. It works because people want a sense of adventure at a young age. They don’t want to be just a part time clerk as they go to community college; they want to be ninjas in training. The groups that attract these types and feed their fantasies are not what serious people want to deal with.
– A lot of talk of mysticism and super powers.
I have seen things I can’t explain. That does not mean there is no explanation somewhere. In a lot of cases, things I thought were real turned out to be parlor tricks. There are arts like Taiji and Aikido that believe there is a power that is yet understood by western science that they try to cultivate. However they do not make a big deal of it. It is like air to them. It’s something that they need- but not the purpose of training. They do not do exercises to build up their power so that they can toss people across the room without touching them. They do not try to say that “Ki lightning bolts” can save them in a fight. Instead of talk of these powers, beginners are told to concentrate on good posture and basic moving skills.
But people like the idea of mystic power available to them. And those that seek the admiration of people can cater to that. Just like the talk of being a warrior instead of a student in a mini mall studio, too much catering to the fantasies of youngsters about mystic power is a sign of possible trouble. Remember that there is a million dollar reward for anyone who can prove a form of mystic power under controlled conditions. If the people that really insist that they can do mystic powers and teach you to as well were able to do so, wouldn’t they like a million dollars instead of collecting the training fees they are now? If a school has exercises on how to read other people’s minds, they are moving away from a reality you want to be in.
If anything like these points come to your attention, it is best to check on the credentials of the teacher leading the class. It is very difficult for people who do not speak Japanese or know the differences between the Edo period and the Kamakura period to note the problems with the story of an art that supposedly came from Japan. But if the teacher claims to have lived in Japan they should be able to prove that. Stick with what you yourself can check and what the teacher himself experienced and do not be led astray by distractions if they get thrown in your way. If they are, that is only more reason to no do anything until the history of the teacher can be confirmed.
Checking on the teacher before you question his credentials in person might be a good idea. Even if you have no reason to suspect anything, a little knowledge is never a bad idea. And if it is a scam, you might avoid some trouble from some of the crazier frauds by just never going back. The internet can be your friend in this. But don’t just punch the name of the art and the teacher into a search engine. You will probably only get web sites run by them at the top of the search.
Instead, consider joining martial arts message boards like e-budo.com, Budoseek.net and Martialtalk.com. Registration for all three is free. Once you are on, you can use the search function to find the name of the art or the teacher. If there are any problems with the story, it has probably been talked about before. There are people on all three of those boards that live in Asian countries train in martial arts and read the language. If there is something fishy, they will be in a position to know.
Mind you, frauds and their followers can join these boards as well. But if there is a problem, the general tone of the members outside of a few will probably be pretty obvious. If there is any debate at all, you have reason to be suspicious. And then you have a right to ask for confirmation on your own. Take the time to know the general situation and check on the past threads of people joining the conversation. A person who posts on a variety of subjects and seems to be respected by others is probably not someone there just to tear down a rival teacher or defend a fraud.
The sad fact is that there are a lot of people involved in martial arts now with shady histories. People that get into martial arts to feed their ego have a need to get others to note them, so they are more active in promotion and you are more likely to become aware of them than the guys that keep a low profile and teach only a few others out of the love of the art. But even so, frauds are still only a minority in the martial arts. And in most cases, there probably is not a reason to bother checking the credentials of the teacher. If the web site you find deals with class descriptions instead of the resume of the teacher, you probably are not dealing with a fraud. If you are invited to sit down and watch a class and the teacher talks about the benefits of studying martial arts rather than its secret history, you are probably on safe ground. But if anything sets off even a little suspicion in you, it is always best to check things out. Lives have been ruined by frauds, on occasion people have died. There are plenty of good teachers out there so you don’t have to settle for a fraud.
Read Don Roley’s article at his myspace blog; where he plans to discuss Japanese history, culture, martial arts and self-defense.