There is a saying: Do a job you love and never work a day in your life.
When Robert Knott and his wife Chie left their jobs as college administrators in the US, to move to Japan it must have been accompanied by the typical concerns of all sea-changers. Leaving behind stressful 24 hour on-call college administration jobs, the Knotts had a plan, an aim to live by the axiom even if they had to go up against surprising opposition.
“I knew I always wanted to teach karate. ” Robert explained at our first meeting. I had contacted them for an interview, intrigued by the idea of an English taught karate school. In person he is different from the serious man in the website’s photos, laughs more easily, talks in a steady, story-teller’s voice.
He tells me about their school, Black Belt English, now in its third year. Classes are held most afternoons in a renovated building alongside Chie’s family home. Instructions for falls and flying side kicks are all in English, subsequently translated by Chie. “Not all students come for a language lesson. ” Robert explains. For some students, children and adults, a class completely in English would be terrifying, but many have gained confidence from the supported amounts they are exposed to in karate class. Some will later sign up for BBE’s English lessons, though these too come with a twist.
Robert has a long association with karate, being somewhat involuntarily signed up as a 6 year old. Moving often with his father’s work, he practiced in several different schools, many involving students in tournaments and competitions, until a crisis in his early teens almost ended his participation in karate.
During a fight at school, his body reacted instinctively to the attack. “My friends thought it was cool. ” He admitted glumly, “Though I knew I was acting in as greater panic as the other boy, without any sense of calmness. I felt out of control. ”
With a maturity this blogger is sure she never had at 13, Robert struggled with the implications of the fight, almost deciding to abandon the sport, until his mother suggested a different teacher, one who would introduce him to the philosophical aspects of karate, and promote self-improvement and competing with one’s self, rather than against other people.
20 years later, Black Belt English is based on the same principles.
Chie Knott, a native of Hikone, is gregarious and funny, and puts people quickly at ease, especially the young and new students in their classes. She came to martial arts through Robert, but it is the way that she has acquired her perfect, American flavoured English that is the basis to BBE’s main theme of learning a language in relevant situations.
On arriving in America, Chie studied through an English language school, only to drop out to work at a Beauty School. “I don’t learn well with traditional methods. ” She said, going on to recount the time she was too nervous to order a hamburger in English. ” I thought, I bet if I worked there, I could order a burger. ” She said laughing, showing with her hands the dimensions of the massive cups of soda she once roller-bladed out to customers while working at Sonic. She can definitely order a burger now, all thanks, she says, to experiencing English used in the real world.
Though she has reached purple belt, the rank prior to black in Black Belt English’s system, Chie admits her interests run more strongly towards the administration of the school. Business was her university major, and she attends frequent workshops as receiving advice from a consultant on matters of webpage design and advertising material. Karate is still important though. ” I know the students look to me as a teacher. I don’t want to teach them something I have no experience in. I feel that I have grown with the school as it has grown. ”
BBE offers free class trials or viewings, so I joined the Sunday adult beginners group. Lining up with the other students, one of the juniors recited, to our echo, the school’s values. We broke out the mats quickly, and began practicing how to fall properly and how to break out of choke holds. After an eight year absence from martial arts, I fought through the initial disorientation (left? which side is left?!) salvaging what remained of my muscle memory. We moved onto kicks and working through an increasingly complicated set of karate techniques, each explained first by Robert, and translated efficiently by Chie. Then onto some sparring practice, all under the watchful eyes of Master and Missus Knott, working through with each student ready to demonstrate a move or slow the occasional, over-excited round-kick.
It was a karate class, similar to the tae kwon do I had practiced before and a whole lot of fun. Even after only 60 minutes I felt more competent at the exercises, and had enjoyed being part of a closely interacting group again. ” Some people think this is a gimmick. That it’s a different way to teach English, but it’s not. It’s karate. ” As I bowed to the departing students, Robert mentioned that my partner for the lesson, a tall, shorn-haircut, tough-looking banker, was initially very nervous of interactions with foreigners, including Robert. Despite being there for the karate, he has become more comfortable from the regular interaction with an American and hearing English.
There are pure English lessons however, and these are described as, ” The most experimental part of our program. ”
Visiting one afternoon, I watched the students pack up lesson detritus, their table littered with D&D figurines and other board game paraphernalia. Robert plays Magic the Gathering with one advanced pupil. ” The boys are teaching me Yu-gi-Oh.” He laughs.
Robert has a background in creative writing, and enjoys board-gaming. The idea, however, originated from frustration teaching unmotivated, clock watching students, rather than merging work with a different hobby. Both have taught in English conversation schools, with textbooks and bored kids. As Chie said, “It’s painful to teach that way. ”
The concept of using sword and sorcery props and card games to engage the student’s interest initially seems strange, but then again, story-telling is a natural instinct, especially for children.
“It works really well with young boys, who are often bored with typical textbook lessons. Adults with a high level of competency enjoy it too, getting to use their English in a real setting. Little girls haven’t quite got the hang of it yet and mothers who watch the lessons often ask where the textbooks are. Sometimes other English teachers come and watch the lessons. They always ask me afterwards, “Is that always how you teach?””
In defiance of comments like these, Black Belt English is steadily increasing student membership. Now in its third year, 75 students attend the English and karate classes, requiring plans to increase the car-park’s size. The greatest difficulty for the Knotts presented itself before the school had yet become a reality, and from a surprising source.
When asked about the greatest difficulty in setting up the school, Robert sighed and said, “The overwhelming negativity. From friends, family and even strangers, including the renovator of the school. He lectured us on all the reasons it wouldn’t work, that you can’t teach karate in English. ” Even after opening, it took a while for the tide of doubt to recede, with comments like, “How many students do you have, nine?” ”
There were also a few isolated incidents of students who viewed karate more competitively than the philosophical underpinnings of Black Belt English allowed. Robert recalled one student who had just wanted one on one, beating on each other. Sometimes these differences can be talked out, and sometimes, students and school must separate, though without hostility.
“It’s a shame. We really liked him. But once I started teaching him some of the traditional moves, he got bored and moved on. ”
Overall, the experience has been a positive one. Instead of drowning in the negativity, much coming from people without any experience in what they were dismissing, the Knotts received support and advice from Robert’s old karate master, a man who had moved from Korea to start a school in America and who would eventually be the teacher to help a conflicted boy regain his confidence and love of karate.
What one takes away from any interaction with Robert and Chie, is their genuine interest in other people, and how much they love what they are doing. Running a business like Black Belt English hasn’t been easy, but for Robert and Chie Knott, it seems a lot less like work too.