Death of the Bujinkan
Something that’s concerning me recently is the rise in the amount of Bujinkan Dojos that are struggling with student numbers at the moment. It seems like more and more dojos are downsizing and slowly closing their doors or moving to training in private with a small dedicated number of students.
The Bujinkan is an incredible art with a vast amount of knowledge in the curriculum but i think the current issues dojos are experiencing are happening for a number of reasons.
My dojo is going strong personally but we have had to adapt so much from the old ways of doing things in the Bujinkan so I will attempt to outline some of the changes made in this post.
To start with i think there is a mindset problem in the Bujinkan which has been perpetuated from the very top for longer than anyone can remember. The mentality within the Bujinkan is often that the nail that sticks out gets hammered and there is a rhetoric about not making money from teaching Budo (Martial Arts).
This means that very few of the emerging instructors have had any training in how to actually run a dojo and the experienced ones who have lasted tend to have fairly small dojos filled with high ranking students who primarily train with them for their advancement through the grades to 15th Dan. On the odd occasion you will get fairly successful Bujinkan instructors that will travel the world but they are few and far between.
This somewhat works internally within the Bujinkan keeping the organisation quite insular but it has stunted the instructors progression as businessmen. Yes i mentioned business and it’s not a dirty word in martial arts! I’ve heard all of the excuses about having to maintain the lineage of the art and instructors would prefer to fade away and stop teaching than change how they do things but at the end that is exactly what will happen. If you don’t change you’ll fade into obscurity!
If you want to run a successful dojo you have to play the long game and adapt with the times. The fact is running a martial arts school is a business and you need money to provide a decent service to your students regardless of your moral standpoint. There is no shame in charging a fair price for the time you spend teaching in the dojo which naturally leads to offering monthly lesson subscriptions, private lessons, blocks of lessons, courses, seminars, workshops and everything that comes with it. You need money to offer all of these things and it’s simply not possible to do it properly as a hobby without significant personal investment.
You need to realise your running a business when you run a martial arts school and if that isn’t part of your mindset your doomed to fail from the start. Balance your books, make sure you have enough money coming in to cover your costs and invest in your dojo financially and emotionally as it will provide a far better service for your students which will make them more inclined to stick with you.
As i said this is a big issue in the Bujinkan in the UK the mindset from the Shihan is often poisonous towards anyone seen to be stepping outside the lines of what’s acceptable within the organisation which extends to making money from teaching. It’s absolute bollocks and just prevents anyone from learning how to run a proper dojo and modernising the art.
Do you think the Ninja of old just abstained from moving with the times and said “No this is the way we’ve always done things, we don’t need to add anymore skills to our art!”? Of course they didn’t! Our entire art is a collection of techniques and skills adopted over time from various groups of warriors!
In Ninjutsu we have an entire section of study dedicated to disguise (Hensojutsu) which includes assuming various roles within your community (Shichi Hō De" 七方出). A ninja had to appear either as a Priest, Samurai, Merchant, Craftsman, Performer, Academic or Farmer. Notice the “Merchant” part in there! It’s literally one of the skills that you have to be knowledgeable enough to pass as an accomplished businessman!
You get my point the argument that business has no place in the Bujinkan is ridiculous as it’s literally part of one of the skills of the Ninja (Ninja Juhakkei)! It’s massively hypocritical to say one thing and then do the exact opposite at the top of the organisation.
So we have established that your mindset needs to change to start with especially if you’ve been indoctrinated by the old guard of the Bujinkan to think you should keep your head down and stay in your lane. You have to persevere and adapt with the times which is perfectly acceptable within the guidelines of Ninjutsu it’s quite literally what the arts about.
You have to allow yourself to explore different avenues when running your dojo without the fear of judgement from others within the organisation. Quite often this stems from fear and/or jealousy as the other instructors haven’t done it themselves so it’s better for you to stick with your decisions and see it through to the end as that is how you’ll be successful. You’ve got to change your relationship with failure, you can’t always succeed first time around but if you keep moving forwards and adapting what you do bit by bit eventually you’ll figure out a system which works for you and leads to you succeeding. If you FAIL it’s just a First Attempt In Learning!
Overall you need to forget these outdated ideals as Soke has a sword collection worth 10 million dollars so he can’t really say you shouldn’t make money from teaching.
When you first start running a dojo say hosting one lesson a week then obviously you won’t be making much but if you’re good at what you do then you’ll quickly find yourself needing to host lessons more regularly which means more overheads, which means you need more money from the students for lessons. It really doesn’t matter how you look at it running a dojo is a business and you’re deluding yourself if you think otherwise.
Why should you be shamed for making the most out of your skill set? You invested time and money into learning your martial art and becoming an instructor yourself to then have people messaging you on social media saying you can’t do that because someone is better than you or some other senseless nonsense when they don’t even run a dojo themselves! Just ignore it martial artists all have opinions but you have to do whats best for you and your family.
Unfortunately Soke doesn’t pay your bills in the dojo (although he did kind of provide the means), that’s down to you so move out of your own way and run your dojo your way!
I’m not saying that making money is the primary focus of running a martial arts school but it is an important aspect of growing your school and providing a better service to your students.
I was always taught that your out of business as soon as your bank balance hits £0.00 so it’s just a fact of life that you can’t make money without money. Change your mindset first or you’ll get nowhere!
2. Perceived Image
From what I’ve seen in the wider martial arts industry I think the Bujinkan currently has an image problem.
Things have changed a lot since the 1980’s and 1990’s where the information coming from Japan was limited and training in Ninjutsu was like being part of some secret society of deadly martial artists.
Potential students are more informed than ever with videos on YouTube and some Shihan in the Bujinkan have done a particularly good job at making the art look like a laughing stock by grabbing the blades of swords and doing techniques that would definitely get you killed.
Even some of the instructors at the top of the Bujinkan poorly demonstrate techniques in videos with magical flying Uke and they make it up as they go along.
Most new students are aware of BJJ, Judo, Boxing and Muay Thai Kickboxing down to UFC and other combat sports so your art needs to be living and work against a resisting opponent as that’s what they expect to see in the dojo.
I’m not saying change your art to emulate the ones outlined above but your approach has to be different when teaching the Bujinkan nowadays with the focus being on practical application of the techniques rather than maintaining the lineage and still doing things the same way they have been done since the 1970’s.
Modern students have to be eased into the traditional aspects of the art in my experience. If you lead with rolls and complex kata the new student will often check out as they believe it’s not relevant unless they are punching, kicking, throwing or choking somebody. You should lead with Hoken Juroppo (Sixteen Fighting Fists) and Keri Waza (Kicks) and the more practical techniques.
You should also allocate time during the lessons for sparring. The excuse that what we do in Ninjutsu is too dangerous to be used during sparring is a total cop out by instructors that don’t want their positions challenged. Lead by example, spar with the students and help them learn. This is particularly important as potential students are looking to see if what you are teaching works in reality.
Another point to consider is whether potential new students actually know what the Bujinkan is. I can guarantee 90% of people have no idea about the Bujinkan or Ninjutsu, To this day most of the parents in the dojo think we teach Karate despite us telling them repeatedly that we teach Ninjutsu which is the art of the Ninja. This is primarily why i changed the name of the dojo to Seal Martial Arts as people just didn’t understand what we were advertising when we were the Bujinkan Rugby Dojo!
You have to appeal to Larry on the street who has never done a days martial arts training in his life! If you lead with complex Japanese terms it’s off putting to new students and only really serves the purpose of stroking your ego by showing how knowledgeable you are. This was one of the first things that Tony Pillage ever taught me when he was alive as he was an extremely experienced martial artist and still didn’t understand what i was on about sometimes. He told me to lead with the English with students and then introduce the Japanese as what it sounds like to new students is something like this “Hi guys, Today we are going to be looking at onotegraku a kihonmhappou followed by rysuiikinagare” which is just gibberish to a new student although i know what I’m on about. It’s better to be like “Right guys today we are going to do an outside wrist lock, followed by the fundamental eight techniques and a group of sacrificial throws which roughly translates as to move like flowing water” makes far more sense right? Then i can teach them the Japanese terms as they train in preparation for gradings.
Our kids syllabus has been translated entirely to lead with the English terms with the Japanese terms included secondarily. It makes it far easier for kids to engage with your art if they know what is expected of them during the lessons and speaking another language just confuses them.
3. Business Model
The business model of most Bujinkan Dojos is defective at it's core with the focus being on funnelling money to Japan. This is why they say you shouldn’t make money from teaching Budo as all that money YOU earn is supposed to be invested into further grades and training in Japan.
While they say that if you want to make a small fortune teaching martial arts then you have to start with a large one I don’t believe that’s the case.
You have to remember you provide a service to your students and at the end of the day its a contractual agreement between a customer and service provider. You can’t limit yourself purely to tradition and expect normal people to understand it and want to participate.
What they see is people imitating power rangers or at least thats what the kids sometimes taunt each other with. New students don’t understand that the techniques are illustrating specific concepts or footwork (Taisabaki) so you have to ease them into training and showcase the practical techniques first.
The reality is a new student doesn’t want to know about 1100 years of tradition and all of the previous Soke. Instead they want to learn how to kick some arse and look cool while doing it, It’s just a fact.
The times of Ninjas being revered in popular culture like in the 80’s is gone, Times have moved on and as such the art has to evolve.
Your business model needs to be easily replicated with systems in place to automate as much as possible in your dojo. Most big martial arts schools have a system in place to funnel students from leads, to trials, to sign up and further support during training.
You can cover 90% of the information about your dojo in a welcome pack for example that outlines your products and services, core values, pricing, rank structure, membership forms and contracts.
Get a decent website for your dojo and keep it simple. You want your first page to give the student all the information about your current members offer and what they need to do to come into the dojo for a trail.
You HAVE to do sponsored advertising its just a fact of life in modern times! Someone once told me that paying for marketing is like putting petrol in your engine to get you where you want to go. No petrol then you’re going nowhere and the same applies to your business so pay for advertising. Sponsored Facebook ads are great if you do them through the business suite and target the right demographics. I tend to target martial artists, parents, action games/movies, education, hobbies, etc with about a £50-£100 spend on an ad.
From that with a decently constructed ad with a call to action i could potentially get 10 students through the door of the dojo. You have to be smart about it though and show the students having fun in the advert. Check out my Facebook ads on the Seal Martial Arts page if you want an example.
You also want to be able to train new instructors relatively quickly in your art. Most huge franchises have an automated route to becoming an instructor. It generally goes something like this:
- The figurehead of the organisation will promote themselves online in the martial arts community and offer people the opportunity to change their lives.
- People will sign up to a website which provides them with all the information they need to understand the fundamentals of what would be expected of them as a martial arts instructor and how to sign up for instructor training courses.
- Instructor training is often done over 3-6 months with online support for a fee of course. Normally about £1500+.
- Once the instructor training course is completed you help the new instructors set up their dojos and provide advice and guidance. You also help them market their dojos locally.
- Once established you either take a percentage of the takings say 8% for association with your organisation and also provide all of the uniforms and merchandise needed for new students.
- You have to provide further training for the instructors say mandatory quarterly instructor training seminars to maintain the standards of your martial arts organisation. Obviously you charge for these events as well.
You see the business model is simple for these massive franchises and is easily replicated.
I’m not saying you should McDojo your dojo, not at all, More saying that you can implement what you want to and run it your way nobody has ownership over your dojo except you.
If you want to make your own clothing go on YouTube and learn about making T-shirts.
If you want to provide a tuck shop go to a wholesalers and buy a ton of drinks and haribo.
If you want to do Nerf wars or birthday parties then do it!
The only limit to what you can do in your dojo are the ones you impose on yourself in reality.
Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do something just because they haven’t done it! If your nervous about doing something it’s normally a good sign that your moving in the right direction.
So change your business model for your dojo, your not just some fruity little club or cabal of Ninjas but a martial arts school providing a service to customers who are interested in self defence.
Give your students a solid foundation by starting them with a bit of basic boxing and some dynamic kicks, maybe show them some cool stuff with a weapon you train with, don’t get them doing rolls and a tons of fitness training right from the start unless they specifically signed up for a HIT session.
Talking complex Japanese is also a massive turn off for new students lead with the English and then explain that we call this technique Shi Sai for example.
Just a few simple changes can make a big difference to how your dojo operates and if you’d like to discuss it further or learn more about instructor training please don’t hesitate to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org