Monday, 2 March 2015

ISF Membership

For those of you in the know, you may be aware that this year marks 10 years of International Shinkendo Federation (ISF) membership for me.  Yes, thats 10 years of Shinkendo and Aikibujutsu with Sensei Obata.  

I started my martial arts career many years ago in Shotokan Karate, as part the Japanese Karate Association (JKA).   Later I trained Tomiki Aikido as part of the British Aikido Association (BAA).  Through my experiences I have come to realise, in contrast to the convention, that key membership to the mother body is of central importance.  I aim, this month, to attempt to put my thoughts on this matter to paper.

I will begin by offering a theoretical case study.  Let’s imagine that you’re in need of a doctor.  Who do you feel more comfortable with?

Option A)
-  A doctor who went to Harvard, studied full time and obtained a good quality medical degree
-  A doctor who learnt from, and studied with, the most well known doctors in his profession
-  A doctor who is currently certified and continues to be certified with an established medical association

Option B)
-  A doctor who went to University of Nowhere, studied part time and obtained a medical degree of some various quality
-  A doctor who learnt questionable practices, and studied with, people no one has ever heard of
-  A doctor who is currently certified and continues to be certified with a dubious association, perhaps one of his own creation

Let us remember firstly that doctor A and B may be just as good as each other.  A good university and trade association is not a guarantor of quality, but it sure as hell is a good start when installing consumer confidence in others. 

Considering then - a good trade association.  Being a member of a good association offers something tangible, i.e. they set your professional standards & behaviours, they accredit individuals to acceptable levels of professionalism and offer competency guidelines.  All this is done to promote confidence, to the public, of the practitioner in question and the trade that they practice.

Another thing associations do for its members is ensure that they carry out appropriate CPD (continual professional development).  This is done to ensure that the practitioners knowledge doesn’t become stagnant and out of date.  It likewise ensures that current practices are disseminated and past practices, that have fallen out of use, are no longer employed.  The quantity and quality of CPD is typically pre-set with a specified quantity required in order to renew licences at year end.

One of my students recently asked me, if I went to Japan what would the teachers over there think of me and the martial arts that I practice.  The reality is that they probably have a passing knowledge of Shinkendo and Aikibujutsu – nothing in-depth.  However, they all know and acknowledge the prowess of Sensei Obata.  Which brings me onto the second point, the fame and acclaim of the teachers you align with.

So what would they make of the student?  Well they’d probably be more than happy to accept them, as a guest, because they’re affiliated with Sensei Obata.  That is what affiliation with his name brings.  Contrast this with Sensei X, who no one knows.  The same result is unlikely to occur.  Rather in contrast, you’d probably be expected to don a white belt and start from scratch until you can prove otherwise.  That is after all expected given the constant rise of McDojos.

I have written in the past about my thoughts of the Shinkendo and Aikibujutsu schools of martial arts so I don't plan to rehash these arguments here.  Instead I will summarise my past thoughts by saying, I consider Sensei Obata’s schools to be of an ivy league standard.

You may now be questioning how all this fits in with martial arts, but to me there is a direct synergy.  For a start, martial arts practitioners offer a fully functioning, and healthy body (in some instances) to another to use and practice with.  That other person is then trusted not to damage or wreck that body.  Of course mistakes may occasionally happen, as they do with Harvard educated Medical Doctors, but the reality is that because a good foundation has been installed in them, at the start of their education, mistakes tend to occur considerably less than they otherwise would.  That is, after all, why so many are prepared to pay large sums of money for these doctors.  The quality of your starting school has a direct correlation to the levels of the competency and quality of practice that the practitioner may later demonstrate.  That is why students of ivy league schools are so well sought after.

Likewise, as with trade associations, martial arts associations set standards.  They accredit students to a pre-set level of competency.  Ability is acknowledged by students meeting a pre-set syllabus of requirements, which is set independently.  This is, itself, important given that a lot of what we do cannot be tested fully safely in the dojo and out of it.  These associations also offer points of escalation, i.e. if you find something difficult to deal with you can refer to the headquarters and request advice.  They also offer ways to deal with disputes between members, where these inevitably arise.

In martial arts, I have over the years found the trade to be a highly political environment.  Arguments and disputes are common practice with many leading to fall outs and break ups, which in some instances have led whole associations to split up.  In these instances points of escalation are vitally important to ensure vitality.

Being a member of a martial arts association offers the ability to train to a set standard of professionalism.  If you go anywhere in the world you should theoretically experience Shinkendo classes in the same fashion, with techniques being taught identically, e.g. Happogiri is the same the world over!  Likewise, should you wish to attend a branch organisation, who are appropriately affiliated, you would be offered direct access.  In terms of CPD (continual development), if you wanted to attend a seminar or training weekend with a foreign instructor, such as Obata Sensei, your membership and licences are your passport to this right.

A key feature of all of the above should now begins to stand out.  Like trade associations the point in question is, professionalism.  My career to date has made me feel that I fit into option A.   To explain:  I studied at a good school (the honbu), with a well-known teacher (Sensei Obata) and I belong to the International Shinkendo Federation (with over 100 branch dojos the world over, with dojos on every continent in the world).  I continue to get my annual CPD through constant practice with our association heads (Obata Sensei and Yukishiro Soke).  Because of this I feel that as a professional instructor I am doing all the right things.

At this time of year, when your annual memberships are due, I’d welcome you to reflect on this and think about my sentiments.  Like any good doctor, the day he decides he no longer wants to be accredited to the British Medical Association (their governing body) is the day he should cease to be a doctor (a current legal requirement coincidentally).  I am proud of my affiliated association, the ISF, and the teachers who teach as part of it.  Because of this should I ever see the day that I decide to resign my membership I pledge to act like any good doctor would and resign from martial arts full stop as a consequence of my decision.


  1. Interesting opinion Byron and I very much enjoyed reading the blog. Just one thing. What does the doctor do when Harvard lowers its standards of entry or qualification? Or when the medical association move the goal posts for promotion or set double standards for promotion? Surely we would all agree if our GP decided to leave the association and join a "breakaway" organisation that has equal standing in terms of qualification and experience of board members and was equally licensed in terms of insurance cover etc.
    I'm not too familiar with the way things are within aikido etc but in karate things have never been unified as far back as the mid 60s. We have british instructors that have more experience in terms of years and hold higher ranks than their japanese counterparts. Many of them have also spent the last 30/40 years honing their skills and working hard at their craft whilst the japanese equivalent is now overweight, has poor language skills and seems unable to remember the rules that he set his association by (all of this does of course work in the opposite direction too).
    Also with martial arts you are dealing with an incredibly wide field of interest that many governing bodies can not satisfy the needs of all practitioners. For instance, the WKF (world karate federation) and its EKF english arm seem primarily concerned with competition karate and its inclusion as an Olympic sport. This is a whole other debate but I don't feel that karate should be included and I feel that the karate performed by the athletes in these events is not a karate that I recognise. Me being a part of the WKF would be pointless just as it would be pointless for them to try and spread themselves so thin as to satisfy my needs from an organisation as well as pushing towards Olympic status. There must be similar going on in other arts (taekwondo for instance went through it a few years back and judo did many years back and has now lost most of its traditional elements in favour of its sporting side)
    Again I can not comment on aikido and other arts but within Shotokan karate many believe that the JKA is the home of karate and the mother body as you put it. The trouble is that Kanazawa is considered the worlds highest ranking instructor. He isn't in the JKA, he left about 25 years ago and set up SKIFF. Also the JKA that you were a member of all those years ago is most likely not the same organisation that it was. In recent years there have been political issues between organisations with instructors leaving and staking claim to the name or chief instructors dying and the two remaining senior ranks disputing claims over who should be in charge.

  2. Thanks Gareth.

    I did think long and hard about Karate and agree, it is difficult to determine (in relation to Karate) who the mother body is, and for that matter, which is the true art. However, as you say it is possible that Karate was never that pure to begin with. I certainly agree that the JKA is no longer the association it was once.

    Aikido's founders are firmly Takeda and Ueshiba, and so lineage is a lot easier to determine. For Toyama Ryu we're talking about Nakamura and for Shinkendo - Sensei Obata.