The Modern Martial Artist: What Does Bushido Look Like in the 21st Century?

Earning a black belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is a huge accomplishment, the result of many years of dedication and hard work. Some who have earned one feel like the black belt gives them the platform they need to really start learning. Some go on to be role models and serve their teammates, peers, and students. Some have been indicted on and convicted of charges of rape and child abuse, among other crimes.

I make this last observation not to be salacious; believe me when I say I wish it were not true. Rather, I offer it as context for questions I have been thinking about regarding our expectations for leaders in the jiu-jitsu community. Black belts in jiu-jitsu can be the targets of hero worship, where we sometimes assume that people who have a black belt and/or a successful competition record are also “good” people, as if these accomplishments magically confer some special capacity to be ethical and principled.

Our community is not alone, though. Some permutation of the following equation follows countless prominent sports, entertainment, and political figures:

Intrinsic Value of Famous and/or Talented People > Intrinsic Value of Other People

It is probably clear that there is some faulty math going on here. During a typical jiu-jitsu day, though, at the height of the excitement most of us who train feel about our training, it is not uncommon for people who are learning jiu-jitsu to believe their instructors walk on water due to their grappling ability. On the flip side, if we who are black belts and leaders hear it enough and are not vigilant, it can be tempting for us to believe the same of ourselves.

This tendency may have some longstanding roots. Central to the history of martial arts is the concept of “bushido,” the way of the warrior. This is the ethical code that ancient martial artists adhered to, which emphasized loyalty, honor, and duty. Notably, the definition reads: “(in feudal Japan) the code of the samurai, stressing unquestioning loyalty and obedience and valuing honor above life.”

Perhaps each of us can name some jiu-jitsu leaders who expect this kind of behavior from their students, as well as some students who expect it of themselves toward their instructors. At the same time, perhaps some of us are unsettled by the concept of “unquestioning loyalty and obedience,” as it is at odds with the American ideal of independence and individuality, not to mention with healthy relationships of any kind. Perhaps this topic takes on added significance in the current political climate. At any rate, laws and sensibilities have changed over time such that the feudal idea of blind, one-way fealty on the part of an apprentice toward a master is now untenable. Or should be.

As a community, we who train jiu-jitsu may be learning to have more realistic expectations about our leaders, which includes the reality that they are people, who are equally capable of acting with integrity or with deceit, depending on the choices they make. Even those of us who work hard to walk an ethical line are far from perfect, on the mat or otherwise. In the aftermath of some of the more recent accusations against higher-ups in our community, we in the community have had more conversations, individually and on a broader scale, raising questions about how we should be policing ourselves. This leads to the question I have been considering: What should bushido look like nowadays, and who has the right/responsibility to identify and enforce it?

A logical place to start looking is at some of the prominent organizations in our community. A quick search shows codes of conduct from two sources that few would deny are major influences on the jiu-jitsu world:

The IBJJF’s Professor’s (sic) Code of Conduct includes general admonitions about behavior as well as specific rules governing coach behavior and dress at IBJJF events. There is a short section about penalties for violating the code.

The Jiu-Jitsu Global Federation’s Code of Ethics provides expectations for members of the federation and a separate set of expectations for black belt members. (The link provided connects to the website of Leonardo Xavier’s academy, as I was unable to find the JJGF Code of Ethics on the JJGF website)

In addition to these larger organizations, many individual academies of all sizes have also articulated their own sets of expectations, and sometimes these are displayed on the wall in the mat space, as well as being made available online. Just two examples are listed below:

The Gracie Barra Code of Conduct emphasizes principles including brotherhood, discipline, and respect. The Gracie Barra website also features separate pages on its etiquette expectations and philosophy.

The Art of Jiu Jitsu Code of Conduct includes rules for mat behavior as well more general admonishments about humility and respect.

These codes of conduct only go so far, however. Questions remain about how broad and deep we should go in articulating and legislating “appropriate” behavior among community members, how codes of conduct such as those listed above are and should be disseminated and enforced, and how infractions are and should be handled. Perhaps my experience is skewed, but over the course of many years and visits to dozens of academies, I have been involved in few if any conversations about ethics and my ethical responsibilities. It was only when I and my circle of colleagues and teammates heard about some of the more recent incidents that we started to discuss ethics at all. I learned through osmosis what constituted appropriate behavior and added that to my desire to be generally law-abiding and principled which I arrived at independent of my participation in jiu-jitsu. I have signed many waivers, but those are intended to protect the academies.

So, how much discussion and awareness of bushido belongs in the day-to-day instruction at the typical academy, in the larger conversations among our community’s governing bodies, and among individual practitioners in their lives off the mat? We work very hard on how to move. How much attention should we be paying to how we act? Right now, I have more questions than answers, but I intend to investigate further.

About Valerie Worthington

Here, in no particular order, are some of the things that define me: parents who are psychologists, a childhood spent in the New Jersey suburbs except for a year my family spent in Germany, studying English literature and learning theory, always trying for the funny--not matter how self-deprecating, and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, a martial art I have been training for almost 20 years. I travel a lot and enjoy snacks just as much. I am reasonably intelligent, but this is undercut by my love of irreverence and childish humor. I am also the author of Training Wheels: How a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Road Trip Jump-Started My Search for a Fulfilling Life.