U.S. Karate Master Holds Practices at ‘Cyberdojo’

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Robert Knott, a master karate instructor, demonstrates a basic technique, or kata, in front of a television monitor and a camera at his dojo in Hikone, Shiga Prefecture.(Picture images have been partly altered.)

HIKONE, Shiga — “Look, and punch,” sounded the voice of shihan (master instructor) Robert Knott, 49, who holds a 7th dan black belt in karate, at his dojo inside a renovated building in Hikone, Shiga Prefecture.

After demonstrating a kata, or technique, for tsuki (punch) in front of 10 students, he moved to look at a television monitor to check the forms of seven other students who appeared on the screen. His wife, Chie, 48, added in Japanese such comments as, “Thrust your hands upside down.”

Black Belt English is an English-language karate dojo. Knott not only gives in-person karate lessons but also trains students at his “cyber-dojo” using the online conference system Zoom, in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

“Be it in-person or online, the purpose is the same: to enhance and evolve oneself,” Knott said.

Knott was raised in the United States and began practicing karate when he was 6 years old. At the age of 12, he got into a fight with an older boy who was picking on him and was able to pin him down. This gave him confidence and made him more motivated to learn karate.

He met Chie in Hikone in 1997 when he was assigned a new job as an English conversation instructor. The following year, he went back to the United States and married Chie, and for about the next 10 years, he gave martial arts lessons to policemen and students at a university in the United States.

In March 2009, after returning to Japan, he finally realized his dream of having his own dojo. In a detached building of Chie’s parents’ home, he started giving martial arts lessons in karate, taekwondo and judo, while Chie translated. As a result of their enthusiastic teaching style, the school began to draw attention. The dojo started with only three students but has now grown to have about 100, ranging from 4 to 58 years old.

Then, the coronavirus began to spread within the country, and on April 7, 2020, a state of emergency was declared for Tokyo, Osaka and five other prefectures. Although the dojo should only hold in-person practices, Knott thought: “With the situation being what it is, I have no choice but to close my dojo. If I stick to the way I teach my students, we’ll lose sight of our purpose.”

Five days later, he posted videos on YouTube explaining and showing various techniques. In June, he began using Zoom to teach his students and was able to look at each student’s form and give them advice.

While Knott contemplated the content of the lessons that students can practice at their homes, which are usually smaller than the dojo, his wife sent advice and encouragement to them every evening via the text messaging app LINE.

The couple explained that without a partner to practice with, it can be mentally difficult for the students, and said they have to make sure students are supported so they can stay motivated.

They resumed in-person practices in July, but about 10 students continued with the Zoom lessons.

“I can see the shihan’s form and movement more clearly in the cyber-dojo,” a 46-year-old man from Hikone said.

Having received positive feedback, Knott plans to set up a course that is exclusively for online practices in April.

The couple hope they will be able to meet new people living farther away, like Tokyo and Hokkaido.

Knott plans to show his form and movement and give detailed explanations in the online practices, even for basic techniques.

When confronted with the coronavirus crisis, Knott said he realized that since “we don’t know what will happen in the future, continuing with routine practices will help a person remain mentally stable and allow them to move forward.”