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McDojo is a pejorative term (in the same vein as “McMansion” and "McChurch") referring to martial arts academies (generally located in the Western world) which, rather than being honestly committed to teaching students, are instead concerned primarily with amassing a profit. The McDojo phenomenon began in the 1970s as a result of the West’s collective enamouration with Bruce Lee and Hong Kong martial arts films and comic book characters such as Iron Fist, Master of Kung Fu, and Sons of the Tiger. During the '80s and '90s, media such as G.I. Joe, The Karate Kid, Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers, Street Fighter, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and Dragon Ball Z gave it legs, while in the modern day, the rise of the sport of mixed martial arts (or MMA) has created a market of people who want to learn how to fight like Georges St. Pierre or Ronda Rousey.
The proprietors, targets and products of McDojos are often mall ninjas.
How they work
McDojos largely prey on insecure "alpha male" types, the kids of soccer moms, and others who want to learn how to "kick some ass". They generally operate using a 50/50 blend of broscience and orientalist woo, the better to produce the ideal mall ninja. They pander to Westerners’ stereotypes of martial arts and teach a form thereof which, while perhaps visually impressive, is watered-down, impractical, and quick & easy to acquire a “Black Belt” in. These schools are effectively diploma mills for martial arts, with unearned Black Belts taking the place of unearned Ph.D.s; unsurprisingly, they are sometimes referred to as "belt mills".
Despite the fact that most modern martial arts are either primarily practiced as sports (such as taekwondo and judo, both Olympic events) or for physical fitness (such as tai chi), McDojos often teach these arts under the pretense that they are practical and yet potentially deadly self-defense systems. McDojos that are more broscience-oriented either teach made-up martial arts (such as ninjutsu or Dim Mak), bowdlerized forms of martial arts that have appeared in action movies (such as karate or kung fu), or the owner's "personal variant" of a well-known military/law enforcement self-defense system like Krav Maga, Brazilian jiu-jitsu, or CQB. Either way, the all-but-functionally-useless fighting methodology taught may be dubbed Bullshido.
A part of the problem stems from the fact that there are very few accrediting bodies, national or international, for martial arts schools. As is the case with any number of alternative medical practices, effectively anyone, anywhere, can claim to be a grandmaster of some magical 5,000 year old art which, in reality, they just pulled out of their ass and set up a “school” that “teaches” it without any auditing, wherein the uninformed, not knowing anything about martial arts beyond what they’ve seen in the movies, will uncritically swallow their claims. Ranks and Belts in martial arts are not awarded according to any universally-accepted set of standards, but according to each individual teacher's subjective whims, in which case often all that is needed to get a teacher to fork over a Black Belt is for the student to pay them a large sum of money.
In perhaps one of the worst McDojo scenarios, the "master" may incorporate bullying into their teaching style, often demanding deference while exerting their power for their own personal gain. They may intentionally hurt their students during a demonstration, humiliate them, or posture themselves to make their students more obedient and afraid of making small mistakes, be it socially or technical (as in the execution of technique). Such teachers may also try to make their students feel guilty when questioning the "master", and also impose penalties for disobedience. In such scenarios, the teacher uses their hierarchical power instead of actual skill to "convince" students that the martial art works.
McDojos are not merely scandalous by virtue of conning students out of their money. The consequences of graduating one of them can be physically dangerous. The great majority of both teachers and students at McDojos have never been in a real fight in their lives, and probably never will be in one, meaning that they don’t have any idea as to what it’s actually like. If, by chance, they do get into a fight, their training may very likely have rendered them vastly overconfident about their abilities, which are in fact non-existent or even made worse by the faulty training.
Warning signs of McDojos
- An over emphasis on the "practical applications" of the martial art being taught, to the exclusion of the art itself.
- An overly stereotypical atmosphere - i.e.; talk about a “code of honor,” an insistence on the wearing of karate gi at all times, an insistence on calling the teacher “master” or “sensei”, shōji walls, etc. If the stereotypes don't match the supposed origin of the art, e.g. Chinese or Japanese characters in Krav Maga, then it's a major flag.
- An overemphasis on breaking wooden boards with various strikes. This might look cool, but is not usually as hard as it is made out to be.
- The presence of several adolescents or teenagers with black belts. While there are genuinely excellent young martial artists out there, the presence of multiple people who cannot legally drive holding black belts warrants skepticism.
- Gi fetishism. Martial artists should respect their kit, but not to the point of worship.
- Gratuitous use of Japanese/Korean/Chinese terminology. Addressing your instructor as Sensei or counting to ten in Japanese is normal, and the names of the techniques are usually not translated. Going much further than that is not. However, see above note on not matching the supposed origin of the art.
- An insistence that students sign long-term contracts.
- Use of a colored belt system, especially when the art being taught is Chinese, such as Kung Fu.
- If the school has too many belts, or made-up ones like camo, tiger, or dragon belts. (Martial arts such as Taekwon-Do, which originally had a large number of belts, will be accepted, but if a school adds more belts like the American Taekwondo Association did it's a definite flag)
- Claims on the part of the teacher that they possess an extremely high rank.
- Expensive monthly dues. If you're pushing $150 a month, you're probably paying too much.
- Sensationalist advertising, such as claims about the art being thousands of years old or "the best in the world", or pictures of ninjas sheathed in black cloth flying through the air cracking blocks of ice in half with a kick.
- Claims to have former special forces personnel on the staff. Granted, some special forces veterans do actually teach martial arts, but the more loudly the claim is made, the less likely it is to be true. Guys who have actually killed people on top-secret missions generally don't brag about it. (This is true outside martial arts as well; posing as an ex-member of the Navy SEALs, Spetsnaz, Force Recon et hoc genus omne is common among mall ninjas of all stripes.)
- Using the title Sensei for a non-Japanese art. This shows total disregard for the easiest fundamentals.
- Pre-adolescent children with adult Dan (4th-9th for TKD) black belts. This is probably the most glaring warning sign there is. A ten-year-old boy is simply not physically or mentally capable of acquiring a legitimate Black Belt. It takes years. On the flip-side, junior blacks exist but if they are not distinguishable from the adults, you're best to question legitimacy.
- Guarantees that one will receive a Black Belt within a certain (usually very brief, less than two years) amount of time. A martial arts school cannot "guarantee" that you will receive a Black Belt any more than a medical school can guarantee that you will receive an M.D. You either pass the tests and earn it on your own merits, or you don't.
- Any claim that you can disarm a gun user. A real martial artist will give you the best advice in this scenario: Don't. Just give up your wallet and/or quickly run away! Even in Krav Maga, a style built around dealing with armed attackers, it is always advised that if there is nothing stopping you from escaping, you should, rather than engaging. The only people who might be able to teach this are Navy SEAL instructors, and as we have already discussed, there probably aren't any of them teaching at the local strip mall dojo. Even if there were, they wouldn't bother teaching that sort of thing to hyperactive children or overweight office workers.
- Claims that the art being taught is the teacher's "personal variant" on a real martial arts system. This is a warning that not even the teacher recognizes what he or she is teaching as legitimate, and is covering up his or her own inadequacies by claiming that they're "innovations".
- Excessively frequent promotions, such as a new Belt every month. This keeps students on board by creating the illusion that they are making progress.
- A refusal on the part of the teacher to demonstrate their abilities on the grounds that they are "too dangerous" or "too deadly".
- Claims that the school’s training program is “so intense” that it allows children to acquire high-level Black Belts (See second bullet), and adults to acquire them within a very short period of time. There is no training program in the world that can turn a child into an elite martial artist.
- On the subject of belts, if the instructor is under 40 years old and proclaims to have a 9-10th (or even further) Dan black belt or be a 'grandmaster' recognized by an official independent body.
- Lack of sparring in a contact heavy art. If you have no idea how to use your techniques on an opponent who is trying to avoid them, or you pull your punches, you're not going to know how to use them in an actual fight. In an actual fight, whoever you're fighting is not going to stand there and wait for you to do your move! It is the equivalent of a dance school that doesn't teach students how to build a dance routine with the moves they learned, or a foreign language class that doesn't require students to carry on conversations or deliver presentations in that language.
- On that note, if full-contact sparring is part of the regimen but you cannot find body armor or padding anywhere, odds are you're just going to excessively hurt yourself.
- Any mention of a “touch of death” or “exploding heart technique”. There is no such fucking thing! You cannot kill a person by poking or tapping them with a fingertip!
- Any implication that the dojo's program can make female students assault-proof. This is dangerous bullshit calculated to pander to fear of rape.
How to avoid one
Make sure to "shop around". A few minor flags and you should be fine, just find the school that fits best with your interests and abilities, and ask questions on anything you find strange. Wearing the karate gi in karate may be unnecessary, but for some styles (like Judo) it might be an absolute requirement. Most reputable schools allow for free trials (of maybe a week or so, five or six classes) so you can decide for yourself if it's for you, but if they tell you to sign up for a year before even trying it, go elsewhere.
The government of the People's Republic of China, having turned to Chinese nationalism in the 21st century, has embraced and eagerly promoted the country's traditional martial arts, particularly tai chi, as part of the "great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation". In Fujian province, for instance, mastery of 24 tai chi moves became a prerequisite for high school graduation in 2018. Naturally, this has led to a proliferation of fake martial arts "masters" in order to meet the demand, which has understandably irked actual martial artists in China. One, a Beijing-based MMA fighter and vlogger named Xu Xiaodong who is considered one of the founders of MMA in China, became a minor celebrity for regularly challenging many of these "masters" to fights and easily beating them, despite him describing himself as a mediocre fighter.
- Bullshido, a website in which legitimate martial arts practitioners attempt to identify phony schools & instructors and call them out on it.
- This guy, featured in the above video, who has "McDojo" written all over him.
- This other guy, and his wonderfully informative website, with a very comprehensive guide on how to spot and avoid McDojos, expanding on the above talking points.
- This would definitely qualify as a McDojang/McDojo. The guy in the front is supposed to be a ninth Dan
- Cezary Jan Strusiewicz, Jason Iannone, Dallas Mann, Terrence Chen. "Stink Is A Weapon: 5 Realities of MMA Fighting (Not Seen On TV)." (#3: Cheap, Fraudulent Dojos Are Everywhere.) Cracked.com, 28 September 2015.
- Some countries, such as Japan, do have accrediting bodies such as judo's Kodokan, and many large organizations provide accreditation for their instructors, but the quality of this accreditation varies widely.
- Again, some styles do have criteria that go above the individual instructor's head.
- Here is a man recounting his experience with a McDojo. He reached "third-degree black belt" until a friend who attended the same school, thinking he was a skilled martial artist, got seriously injured in a fight not knowing how unprepared he actually was.
- Rist, Curtis. "The Physics of... Karate." Discover, 1 May 2000.
- An example of such nonsense
- "Chinese students required to master Tai chi to graduate high school." CGTN, 30 October 2018 (recovered 4 October 2019).
- Teixeira, Lauren. "He Never Intended To Become A Political Dissident, But Then He Started Beating Up Tai Chi Masters." Deadspin, 3 October 2019 (recovered 4 October 2019).