Quick note preceding the article: It’s been a hell of a couple of months since my surgery. After 12 weeks of rehab and a new baby (woooo!) I’m back to training and working on getting back to writing. I’ve had finishing this series on my mind since January so it’s the first of many articles to come as I get back into a routine.
“Because of our traditions, we’ve kept our balance for many, many years. Here in Anatevka, we have traditions for everything… How to sleep, how to eat… how to work… how to wear clothes. For instance, we always keep our heads covered and always wear a little prayer shawl. This shows our constant devotion to God. You may ask, “How did this tradition get started?” I’ll tell you…
I don’t know. But it’s a tradition!”
–Joseph Stein, Fiddler on the Roof
I was never big on karate tournaments as a kid. I hated the rulesets for kumite. I hated having people stare at me as I did kata. I hated how I never seemed to win because I was wildly nonathletic and only peripherally interested in competing. For those reasons, I generally only participated in tournaments when my dojo hosted them, once a year in the spring. We invited other traditional Okinawan/Japanese karate dojo in the area, but one year a silver school bus showed up, with (name changed to protect a still extant school) Sensei Flashypants’ McDojo Karate stenciled on the side. They came out with silver, tapered bo and nunchaku with dragons painted on them. They wore bright red gi pants that were, in retrospect, really just track pants. Their students (90% kids under 10) performed with gusto, screaming like the little constipated warriors they were to accentuate every move in their kata. Their parents followed suit, screaming and stamping the floor of the bleachers every time someone from their school finished a kata or won a medal. They were rude. They were brash.
And they wiped the freaking floor with us.
I felt frustrated, as I often did after a poor showing in a tournament. I could see frustration etched into the faces of others at the tournament as well. The prevailing opinion at the post-mortem dinner that night was “Well, sure, they did well and they were athletic. But look how they behaved. They have no character. They have no tradition.”
On the one hand, they brought their boorish adult instructors and hockey-moms-turned-karate-moms to cheer on their screaming, sore-winner children, so character may have been lacking. But that lack of character still yielded lots of medals. I intend to discuss the myth that martial arts on their own are a vehicle for building character in a different article as it’s a tangential but very lengthy discussion on its own, so we’ll mostly leave that behind for now. That left me with tradition, and the question I’ve had as I’ve gotten older is what the hell good is tradition, anyways?
The answer cuts to the heart of changing mores regarding martial arts training as well as the overall future of martial arts. Although my primary background is Aikido, I’m going to broaden this article out to include all “Traditional Martial Arts”. When you go online to argue martial arts (a fine hobby for enthusiasts and sociopaths alike), you’re likely to see martial arts banded into two camps: TMA or “traditional martial arts” and MMA or “mixed/modern martial arts”. The former generally include arts like aikido, hapkido, Okinawan/Japanese karate, tai chi, etc. MMA generally include competitive arts that have found a home in amateur or professional Mixed Martial Arts competition: Judo, Sambo, Wrestling, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, Boxing, Kickboxing, and Muay Thai.
But here’s the thing. If you’re talking about Gendai Budo (post 1868), Judo is the most traditional of all. It’s also the wellspring from which almost all Japanese and Japanese-influenced martial arts “traditions” stem. Additionally, many of these arts are, in fact, older than “traditional” arts like Karate or Aikido. I’ll let you look that up yourself.
Moving on, there are a few things we all need to agree on, although we probably won’t:
1. “MMA” vs “TMA” is flawed, needlessly confrontational language.
While Matt Thornton prefers alive vs dead arts (and explains why, in my opinion, excellently), it’s also needlessly confrontational to call someone’s training “dead”. Yes, even if it is. If you want to have a discussion, and actually change minds rather than virtue signal to people who already agree with you, you need to approach someone’s differing viewpoints and experience with respect. For this reason, I prefer “Static” and “Dynamic” arts. I’ve trained, and train, both. BJJ is a wildly changing landscape, with new techniques and approaches emerging every year. Katori Shinto Ryu dates back to 1447 and, while I have no doubt it has changed over the centuries, is currently encased in amber like the mosquitoes in Jurassic Park. The kata are what they are, and no one is interested in my changes or improvements.
2. “Traditions” in Martial Arts are, if not complete bollocks, at least very badly understood and not as global as individual dojo or organizations assume they are.
Have you ever been told that you should never wash your belt because that’s where “all of your ki stays”? Or that the different colored belts represent different seasons and correspond accordingly to the students’ progress in their art? How about that “the Gi was originally underwear”? Or, to go along with the “stanky belt” line of tradition, that belts “originally started white, but since people trained outside once your belt was dirty enough that it turned black you were a black belt”?
I’ve heard all of those, and I can go on. Okay, one more: that because Gi were Japanese underwear (THEY WEREN’T), that’s why some Aikido organizations allow women to wear hakama from the beginning (rather than at black belt), to protect their modesty (a woman in pants ohmygoodness!!!!!111).
Except that some organizations don’t. And others only do this strange practice at 3rd kyu. I guess a woman’s modesty isn’t worth much until the testing dues clear.
Everything I’ve listed above is something I’ve been told by very well-meaning people who were playing a very long-running game of telephone. In The Dojo by Dave Lowry is an excellent, well researched book into the actual origins of a lot of martial arts traditions and he debunks these myths better than I can, so it’s a highly recommended read. Suffice it to say, a lot of these “traditions” were completely made up after the fact, and many more aren’t so traditional at all– less than 100 years old. This is important to consider as you, as a practitioner or student or instructor or whatever you are decide which traditions are worth keeping moving into the future.
3. Static Martial Arts are not as good of a training methodology for creating fighters as Dynamic, Alive training, and no amount of anecdotal evidence will change that.
This pain point is where well meaning idiots will smash their heads into keyboards on internet forums from now until eternity. And, as I’ve said in my previous articles, this does not mean that Static Martial Arts are dumb or bad or useless for self defense. They’re just sub-optimal for this one purpose, because their training methodology has not evolved to an evolving world. Let me use a personal example that’s far enough removed from most people that it hopefully won’t incite a riot:
I train Katori Shinto Ryu, and have since 2015. It is the oldest continually trained martial art in the world, dating back to 1447. It has a sterling reputation in the Koryu world, and has great, explosive partner practice.
But I have a feeling that if I were to go to a HEMA club, at least at first? I’d get my ass handed to me.
And that’s okay. I don’t train Katori so that I can win sword fights against trained, resisting opponents. I train Katori to be part of a centuries-long lineage and to drill proper movement, posture, and timing. I gain plenty of benefits from Katori training that are not at all related to my martial efficacy during a zombie apocalypse and/or Mad Max dystopia. I enjoy Katori for what it is, and that’s where I think a lot of Static Martial Arts are going to need to go if they’re going to remain relevant (or, being more dramatic, if they’re going to continue to exist) in the next hundred years.
I don’t bring this stuff up to reignite the never-ending “effectiveness” debate. I bring it up because we live in a world where these debates can be safely settled, and to most people, they have; there are hundreds of videos of fights in the dojo (and On Da StReEtZ), and with very few exceptions arts with alive training methods come out on top. The cognitive dissonance comes when someone trains earnestly in an art that they are told by an authority is one thing (an effective fighting art) and then, after years or decades of training come to realize that it is something else entirely. It happened to me with Aikido. I’ve seen it happen to others that I know personally with Japanese Jujutsu, Karate, Kung Fu, Hapkido, and more. Again, the takeaway is not that these Static Arts are meaningless or pointless or will teach you nothing about self defense. It’s just that they are based upon empirical and observational (actual fights/sparring contests) they are sub-optimal delivery systems. Those practitioners with enough of a sunk cost will deny this until their final breaths, and that’s their right, but there’s no particular romance in knowing that your style will die with you.
So what’s to be done? What is the value of a sub optimal delivery system? And what’s the point of all of these “traditions” that may not be so traditional?
Option one: Reinvent themselves as health practices:
If you go to almost any park, anywhere in the world, and sit on a bench in the morning, it’s likely you’ll eventually run into some people training tai chi. It’s a beautiful, and relaxing form of exercise that the Mayo Clinic recommends for osteoporosis and balance in seniors. I’ve trained a little bit of Tai Chi, and while I never got very far in it, I genuinely enjoyed the time I’ve spent training it. That said, I wouldn’t recommend it as a combat or self defense art. Neither would the people doing it in the park. But, if asked, I doubt most of them would care. That’s not why they’re there.
If we use seniors in particular as an example, a broken hip from poor gait and balance doubles all cause mortality– 20% of people over 65 who fall and break a hip will not survive a year. That’s not to mention the myriad cardiovascular benefits of even 150 minutes a week of moderate intensity exercise. If you enjoy Karate Kata, or breaking boards at Taekwondo, or wearing cool tabi socks at your Bujinkan class, by getting your heart rate up you are doing more to maintain your health than most of the population. A heart attack is more likely to kill you than a ninja jumping out from under your dinner table or street toughs surrounding you in the streets of Shanghai, so in this way any training is good training.
As always, Matt Thornton has an excellent essay about this topic as well. However, this will require a lot of practitioners to come to grips with the fact that their martial art is a suboptimal delivery system for combat skills. Market research would suggest that self-defense is less important than health/fitness for modern practitioners of martial arts, so this isn’t as big a leap as many school owners think, but after decades of training and deep-rooted belief regarding your fighting ability, it can be hard for the ego to let go. I’ve done so a number of times. Other people I know haven’t been able to and, with no evidence, cling to their beliefs that their training is not only “effective”, but “the most effective”. For evidence, I’ll submit without further comment the sign for a Hapkido school I used to drive past that advertised Hapkido: THE ULTIMATE MARTIAL ART.
Option Two: change their pedagogy to introduce “alive” training.
There was a time when my Aikido dojo didn’t have an organization. Wanting other people to train with, my instructor reached out to another school and we looked to join them. We started running our kyu ranks through their test curriculum, and doing things the “new way”. But here’s the problem.
The new way was bad. It was not grounded, in any way, in reality and was vastly different from what we taught. I fundamentally disagreed with the way they did things. So did my instructors. But we wanted people to train with, so we did it two ways: the old way (which was, in our minds, the right way) and the new way (which was, for testing, the “right” way). It confused our students, frustrated the instructors, and it was mutually decided that we would remain independent.
I bring this up because there are a lot of really cool things that Static Martial Arts do that aren’t necessarily optimal for learning hand-to-hand combat. In fact, I already named a few: “Karate Kata, or breaking boards at Taekwondo, or wearing cool tabi socks at your Bujinkan class”. All of these things are perfectly fine, and have their place as (yes) a tradition in their disciplines, but aren’t necessarily the best way to teach fighting. This doesn’t mean they’re pointless. Board breaking can be really cool and can teach you about your art and your abilities. A kata, executed perfectly, is an amazing feat of body control and biomechanics. Wearing cool tabi socks, well… let’s move on. There are value in these practices, and if they have value to you they shouldn’t be abandoned.
The problem is, there are only so many ways to optimally perform a technique. To quote Matt Thornton (again): “Let me give you another example: let’s use a hip throw. You can find the hip throw in Freestyle wrestling, Greco Wrestling, Judo, Jiu-Jitsu, Sambo, Mongolian Wrestling, Icelandic wrestling, swedish wrestling, and Chinese wrestling, just to name a few. However, the Delivery System for the hip throw, or ‘hip toss’ always remains the same. The mechanics of the move are, essentially, always the same; a back step, level change, hip bump, and toss. Why? There is a proper way to do it and every art that trains Alive in throwing, has found it.”
If your system does things that might not be considered “alive”, that’s not a dealbreaker if that’s not what you’re trying to do. However, the debate then becomes: do you sacrifice the artistic portion of the technique to try to make it more “effective”? Is it more important to do things the right way, or the old way? If, for instance, a karate school begins full-contact, alive sparring, and discovers that most of their curriculum cannot be applied in a fight situation, should they do as Bruce Lee says and “absorb what is useful, and discard the rest”? I tend to place more value on “the right way” these days, but art is art and your art, as well as well as the goals of your training, are up to you to decide. There can be value in passing on something that had value to you on to the next generation. There can also be value in modifying those traditions, or letting them die entirely if they are no longer relevant.
I don’t hate “traditional” martial arts. As I said, I think the whole distinction is both incorrect and needless. But when addressing tradition, and the spirit of “But we’ve always done it this way!” in your martial arts training, I think it’s important to remember a few things:
- Traditions, as we have shown, are not always as old (or as factually correct) as people think they are.
- Traditions can be a shield, blinding people and keeping them (and their art) from making progress.
- Traditions can have value at the school and organizational level, but it’s not safe to assume they apply across the entirety of your art (or all martial arts).
Traditions are helpful in passing along, if not a curriculum, a set of values associated with that curriculum. It can, along with other positive reinforcement, help to forge character and shared purpose. It can keep you from becoming the school I mentioned at the beginning of this article. But it won’t help you fight, it won’t help your art push its way into the future…
And it damn sure won’t help me win any medals for my kata, though I doubt anything ever will.