By: Dr. Alex Sternberg - 8th Dan JKA Shotokan
Jun 29, 2018

Dr Alex SternbergDuring the past 60 years, we have seen lots of changes affecting our karate community. The technical skill of todays champions is on a higher level than the early fighters, although most old timers would argue that fighters were tougher ‘back in the day.’

In the early sixties when I started to train, very few people ever heard of or knew what karate was. When I wanted to explain to someone what I was doing I used to ask if they ever heard of Judo. Then I would explain, karate is ”very similar, with the white gi and all, but we kick and punch and not throw.” Today, with the tremendous growth in the martial arts industry, everyone is familiar with what karate is. The hundreds of movies with karate trained heroes and villains, with ninja turtles and other popular karate themed shows having created a generation of children kicking and punching and doing karate. Millions have trained in some dojo or other as there are tens of thousands of local schools teaching karate throughout the USA. 

One thing, though, has not changed with all the evolution. We still have almost as many organizations as there are dojos. In fact, I defy anyone to come up with a new name for a karate association or group that hasn’t already been taken.

As karate training has flourished many students have become senseis, masters and grandmasters. Naturally, each grandmaster is entitled to start  his or her federation and add to the already crowded  field of “alphabet soup” groups.

And what’s wrong with this picture?

During the past few years, I have been conducting research into injuries associated with long term karate training. I began this project after hearing of so many of my friends, all great Shotokan practitioners, who had hip replacement surgery. For my research, I needed to cite some data about the karate industry. How many senseis and dojos are teaching karate? How many students are training at any one time? How many people have sustained injuries that occurred due to many years of training and not sustained in fighting in the dojo or at a tournament?

 I quickly found out, not surprisingly, that no such data exist!

As we have no one national regulatory body (we have hundreds who all claim this title) there is no reliable data on what’s really going on in our industry.

How does this lack of regulation impact all of us?

To begin, lack of regulation means lack of information on our daily activities. “That’s good” you may be thinking. But not so fast.

Think about it. You have trained for many years and have graded to a decent level of black belt. You have worked hard to accomplish your achievements. You are good. You open a dojo, work hard and begin to develop a bunch of great students.

Suddenly, a brand new dojo opens up in your community claiming all kinds of black belts in many different arts and disciplines. They are not really teaching any thing recognizable as karate but the sensei has money and he can outspend you in advertising. Soon your dojo slows and finally goes out of business.

Regulation would make sure that only certified black belts with recognizable instructors certificates can practice the art of “teaching karate.”

Regulation sets up ethics committees and ethical standards that we all have to work with. Think about the medical or legal profession as an example.

Regulation doesn’t interfere with any dojo or dictate what or how one should teach. But it does guarantee the public that each certified instructor has some basic knowledge in teaching his/her skills. It protects the public while at the same time giving certified instructors more respect and marketability. 

If you want to practice law, you must pass the bar exam. Period. Doesn’t matter which law school you attended or what they taught you. Naturally,  it behooves the law schools to prepare all their students for passing the bar. This is a benefit of regulation.

It's the same in medicine. After graduating medical school every new doctor must pass various board exams in order to get certified and practice medicine.

Are your children taught by certified teachers in school? What would you say if the teachers claimed all sorts of knowledge but could not produce one recognizable diploma.

Recognition means a diploma from from a certified school.

Have you ever wondered why we didn't set up our industry the same way? 

Lets go a little further. 

Have you ever tried to set up a karate class in your neighborhood at a high school or college, only to be told that you don’t have the necessary credentials - a teacher’s license? But you are a 6th degree Black belt from a legitimate organization headed by a well-known international Shihan. But the school doesn’t understand or recognize your Black Belt diploma, or your Renshi title or any of the internal honorifics that even many of us in the karate community haven’t figured out?  Can you blame them?

Try to get sponsorship from a national brand product for even the largest championships run by the biggest groups. How do you explain to Coca Cola how many viewers will tune in. What is the potential market? Presently, it’s all guess work. And do you know what is the biggest shame of it all? We are a large industry with millions of practitioners past or present. We really do have a growing market share. 

How often have you explained to a non karate person that the dojo they wanted to join (or were coming from) was run by a charlatan? “He doesn’t know any karate.”  “His rank was bought- he didn’t earn it.” “I certainly don’t recognize that rank and you will need to remove that belt and start all over again!”

What does this say to the layman who is just trying to enroll a child in karate classes? And if the other guy is a “phony” what does that say about you. How does he know you are “legitimate?”


We need to organize and regulate!

Look at other similar industries such as personal trainers.  They all have some independent certification attesting to at least a minimum of education in the inns and outs of fitness training. The organizations providing such training and certification are not part of the fitness studio and therefore they are independent and non-political. They have no “ax to grind.”

The industry validates the certification by recognizing its professionalism and competence by only hiring people with such certification. Is there just one group offering such certificates? No, of course not. There are several agencies offering courses  for a reasonable fee. The fitness industry, with a 20 billion dollar annual revenue, is smart enough to recognize the mutual benefit of certification and organization. The certifying agencies provide a needed service.

I realize the differences between us and other industries. We have styles that divide us. We carry the burdens of age-old Asian feuds that our senseis saddled us with that split the arts into numerous styles  and created this chaos.

So, after 60 years of development are we ready to really switch gears and move into the 21st century? 

If we establish a national karate teachers certificate program, we will take an important step toward self-regulating and policing our industry. And isn’t that better than having a government agency stepping in to regulate us? Such a certification would require all senseis to learn basic principals of fitness training. I believe that many are already learning these things. We would be only demonstrating our knowledge by passing such tests. And make no mistake about it: everyone would be able to pass these tests with a little bit of work.

Do we not learn new katas to pass dan certifications? How many of us have learned katas and principals from other styles to pass referee certifications? Why do we get nervous at the thought of “certification” or “regulation?”


I believe that we would all benefit from regulation. Let me be clear: I am not trying to license anyone! I am not interested in telling anyone what they should or should not do. I am advocating a concept that I feel should be set up all over the country that would bring greater professionalism to our industry. A national registry of certified instructors with background checks to advocate for our industry would go a long way. It could present a united force representing a growing industry. I am sure it would benefit us all.

Dr. Alex Sternberg

DrPH, ScD, MPH, Ms.Sc  8th Dan

About the Contributor

Founder and chief instructor of Shotokan Karate USA, is a 8th dan conferred upon him by leading senior senseis throughout the USA. He received his 7th Dan from the USA National Karate-do Federation (USA-NKF) member of the US Olympic Committee, as well as from the prestigious International Shotokan Research Society. He has also earned a 6th Dan from the Japan Karate Association (JKA) personally issued by Master Tetsuhiko Asai and from the World Karate Federation (WKF) member of the International Olympic Committee. He has been practicing Karate for 54 years.

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