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Karate teaches us the obligations we have to others. COVID reinforced why that’s important

This column is an opinion by Doug Aoki, a retired academic and karate instructor. For more information about CBC’s Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

In February 2020, my spouse and I travelled to Okinawa, Japan, to continue our training in karate. It was our fifth trip since 2014. 

COVID-19 was starting to get increased attention, with the first case in Canada having been announced only a few weeks before. 

When Lucy and I returned, I developed a cough and contacted Alberta Health Services to get tested. It was so early in the pandemic that two technicians wearing what looked like hazmat suits were sent to our home to take a nasal swab. 

The test was negative — but it was a sign that the world had changed.

Two men and one woman smile as they pose for a photo wearing their white karate uniforms.
Aoki, left, and his wife, Lucy De Fabrizio, right, flank Hanshi Zenpō Shimabukuro in 2020 during their fifth trip to Okinawa to train in the birthplace of karate. (Submitted by Doug Aoki)

In March 2020, the province shut down all public schools. Our dojo has been at a local high school since 2011 so we lost our space. But we adapted, first by running classes online and later — when we emerged from winter and it became clearer that COVID transmission was greatly decreased outdoors — by training in a park. 

I was, and remain, a student and teacher of karate.

Over the next 2½ years of unfamiliar and shifting times, karate taught me how to deal with COVID. 

In turn, that gave me new and very old perspectives on being human.

Moving with purpose

The World Karate Federation says more than 130 million people across 200 countries do karate, and there are many different ideas about its aims and purposes. 

It debuted as an Olympic event in Tokyo, but I don’t pursue it as a sport. My practice of karate is very personal; I cannot speak for all karate in general or all of my own style, Seibukan. I try my best to follow the example of Hanshi Zenpō Shimabukuro.  (“Hanshi” is a title awarded to master teachers of karate.) The head of Seibukan karate worldwide, he teaches how to move with purpose both across the dojo floor and through life. 

Seibukan is very traditional and steeped in Okinawan culture. It seeks precision in technique, strength and grace in the body, effectiveness in self-defence, and elevation of the spirit. 

Karate prizes humility and it has a special gift for humbling its practitioners. It’s easy to be mediocre but it’s exceedingly difficult to be good. 

One thing is certain: you can’t become the next Bruce Lee by watching a YouTube video; it takes a good teacher, years of training and oceans of sweat.

A sweating Japanese man in a karate uniform in a fight pose.
Aoki says effort is needed to be better in karate or as a person. (Submitted by Doug Aoki)

I’m not an expert about COVID and I know that social media can’t make me one. The real experts are virologists, epidemiologists and infectious disease specialists. Dr. Anthony Fauci deserves the same level of respect that I have for Shimabukuro Sensei.

At the end of every class, we recite the dojo kun or Seibukan oath. “Makoto no michi wo mamoru koto,” we say in unison. Defend the paths of truth. 

Science is a great path to truth precisely because it, like a serious karateka, looks at itself with the strictest of eyes: it examines, tests and corrects itself. 

The testing of research in a lab — not on the internet — raises real science above conspiracy theories and rampant misinformation. A global health crisis should only magnify the necessity to uphold science, since so many lives are at stake.

Obligation to community

In our headquarters dojo in Okinawa, there hangs some beautiful Japanese calligraphy that translates to “Be hard on yourself; be gentle with others.” That is the Seibukan ethos. 

The imperative, particularly in the pandemic, should then be clear: do what is necessary to take care of others, even if it’s difficult. The obligation to community trumps individualistic rhetoric of freedom.

In concrete terms, that means following public health recommendations that have been determined by science. 

A group of karate students in a gym, all wearing medical masks.
Students at Edmonton’s Seibukan Karate Dojo during a training session. (Submitted by Doug Aoki)

In the dojo, we require up-to-date vaccinations. We screen participants before each class. We hold classes outside when we can. And we distance. 

Now that we can resume training indoors, we make N95 masks mandatory. We use two electronic air purifiers. We maximize ventilation and monitor CO2 levels, which never rise above 550 ppm. We track local COVID indicators like hospitalizations and wastewater signals, which show COVID is still here and still active.

To win requires facing reality

The WHO’s Maria Van Kerkhove recently talked about pandemic fatigue, on how many people just want the pandemic to be over. 

In a fight on the street, believing what you want to be true instead of facing reality could get you and others killed. 

The same is true for COVID.

Barefoot man in his karate uniform stands in the snow in an Edmonton park.
Karate in Edmonton poses some challenges that would be unfamiliar in subtropical Okinawa. (This Moment Photography)

Karate is structured by discipline, by doing what is necessary for as long as it’s necessary. 

Hanshi Shimabukuro has trained almost every day for 70 years; I’ve tried to do the same for almost 18. He says, “Finding an easy, convenient way to do things is not the karate way, and it’s not my way.” 

Genuine karate takes much more effort than wearing a mask.

For me, getting tired of doing what needs to be done after only 2½ years is unthinkable. In karate as in life, we only become better by staying true to our responsibilities to something greater than ourselves. Karate teaches how to fight, but that really means how to fight for a better world.

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