Real nature of martial arts and their benefits, by Stanley Pranin

An editorial by Stanley Pranin, founder of Aikido Journal, written in 2007

Martial arts began enjoying popularity in western cultures starting in the 1960s. Japanese, and later Chinese films, depicting heroic warriors caught the fancy of many in the west and fueled the boom by providing the young with a new model of heroism and strength that had broad cross-cultural appeal. The epic films of directors such as Akira Kurosawa and the dashing figure of action star Toshiro Mifune achieved a cult following and were emblematic of this phenomenon. Westerners by the droves began studying Japanese, Chinese and Korean martial arts, as schools sprang up everywhere.

For a time, success begat success and martial arts and martial experts became household words and the darlings of the media. Today, after several decades in the limelight, martial arts have become institutionalized and lost much of their early allure leading some to conclude that they have entered a period of decline.

What art is the strongest?

In deliberating the relevancy of martial arts in modern society, it seems that the discussion eventually comes around to a debate on the superiority of one martial art over another. Martial arts magazines and Internet forums are filled with articles and discussions about what martial art would come out on top in a hypothetical match-up. I submit that such comparisons are an exercise in futility since all scenarios dreamed up to test whether one martial art will best another are highly artificial and usually take the form of competitive matches.

The only comparisons that can be attempted with any degree of safety are between empty-handed opponents. Yet even in the case of unarmed competitors, the differences among fighters of vastly different size and body weight require the introduction of weight categories and rules to level the playing field. This can be seen in judo, boxing, wrestling and various mixed martial arts competitions such as the UFC. It is obvious that the larger opponent, at least statistically speaking, has a clear advantage over a smaller person.

The minute weapons are introduced into the equation, the risk of serious injury or even death between competitors escalates even more. In the case of fencing or kendo, protective gear and even more restrictive rules become necessary to safeguard competitors. This in turn adds yet another layer of artificiality to the already contrived nature of martial sports.

My view is that an attempt to test one’s martial ability in a match increases the risk of serious injury and therefore defeats the purpose of martial arts training entirely. Why learn to defend yourself against bodily harm by studying a martial art and then willingly subject yourself to a situation where you run a high risk of injury?

Historical nature of “budo”

To delve deeper into the concept of “martial arts,” perhaps it would be instructive to first consider their origin and function in a historical context. I will limit the discussion here to the Japanese culture with which I am most familiar. The general notion of “martial arts” popularized in the west is a translation of the Japanese term “budo.” In Japanese history, the military arts were the exclusive domain of the samurai or warrior class that arose during the Muromachi period (1336-1573). This was an era of intense warfare and political strife. The samurai formed the military caste that served clan rulers and gradually rose in social standing to become a privileged class.

Later, during the Edo period (1603-1868), an era characterized by peace and social stability, the samurai’s social role underwent a transformation as more and more of the former soldier-warriors became civil servants filling the ranks of the huge government bureaucracy that developed. The samurai’s martial skills began to wane as they entered new professions outside of military-related functions.

As Japan adopted the models of European nations to build a modern army and navy, the samurai class began to disintegrate altogether with many finding themselves unemployed by the mid-19th century. They were eventually stripped of their privilege to wear swords in public and cut down commoners who failed to show them respect. Many low-ranking samurai found themselves unemployed and were forced to adopt other occupations.

This was the historical context in which the “budo” schools, the forerunners of today’s Japanese martial arts, were born. The term “budo” itself consists of the characters “bu” meaning “martial” or “warfare,” and “do” (also “michi”) referring to a “way” or “path.” These arts fell in line with the Neo-Confucianistic philosophy that was in vogue in Japan at that time that encouraged the development of arts.

Why martial arts are not “martial”

The budo forms that appeared in the 19th century were actually disciplines consisting of formalized curricula taught to members of the civilian population even though many claimed to faithfully preserve the warrior clan martial traditions of an earlier age. Some were practiced in aristocratic circles as self-development and leisure pursuits. Other forms were taught by disenfranchised lower-level samural who saw a chance to supplement their incomes. They taught martial arts in neighborhood dojos or from their homes to commoners who belonged to the emerging middle class. The various styles of jujutsu and kenjutsu that have survived fall into this category. All of these budo arts were thus far removed from the martial systems developed by the samurai of an earlier era having been devised in a peaceful age.

The point of this historical discussion is simply to illustrate that, in a Japanese social context, the budo forms taught during the last half of the 19th century were irrelevant in terms of martial application. They were not disciplines used to train soldiers to fight on battlefields, nor did they represent the cutting edge of military science or technical sophistication. These so-called “martial” arts were nothing of the sort. They were martial in name only and mere caricatures of the warrior arts of an earlier age.

Their form and purpose was in line with the new social structure that had transformed the role of the samurai from soldiers to civil servants. The Edo budo were vehicles for physical and mental training designed as leisure activities. In that sense, these predecessors of today’s martial arts served a purpose similar to their function today as exercise and self-improvement activities. If you understand this fact, then the question of the effectiveness of this or that martial art in today’s world takes on an almost absurd dimension.

Think about it for a moment. The term “bu” (martial) as used to refer to these early budo schools is a complete misnomer. This is so because they purported to teach fighting skills from an age that had been technologically eclipsed. They were not martial in the sense that military science is always evolving and adapting to advances in weaponry and strategy. These budo forms were part of a panoply of cultural arts that the Japanese have always been fond of creating.

Why study a martial art?

Jim Alvarez with his shinken (live blade)

If martial arts are not really “martial” at all, and if comparisons of one to another are destined to fail, what useful purpose can they serve in modern society? How does one decide what martial art to study and, perhaps more fundamentally, why even study one at all?

Why would a person spend a lot of time, money, and risk bodily injury to learn a skill whose effectiveness cannot readily be measured and which, having provided a false sense of security, might fail him or her in a time of need?

Why not purchase a firearm—the weapon of choice of our modern age—and learn how to use it safely and effectively? Let it be the “equalizer” that allows you to survive a dangerous situation against someone bent on causing you harm. Becoming competent in the use of a powerful weapon should make it possible to bypass years of sweat and hard training in a martial art, and achieve results similar to a practitioner who has spent decades learning his discipline. Is this not something to consider?

Martial arts today

Despite the sobering perspective that an understanding of the historical role of budo provides, there must be some compelling reasons why people choose to practice martial arts today since they are taught everywhere. In a modern context, martial arts have been largely absorbed under the broad umbrella of sports. Most martial arts have been “sportified” or have a sport component that makes participation in competitions a major training goal. In some countries, for example, in the U.S., martial arts also occupy a role as physical education activities, especially for youngsters, and many martial arts schools function as after-school day care and exercise centers.

It is important to realize that today’s budo practiced as sports and exercise activities fall squarely within the realm of commercialism. Given an emphasis on the profit motive, traditional approaches to training favoring vigorous practice and stern discipline must compete with slick commercial packages that cater to the whims and egos of customers. Inevitably, the latter approach wins out in the marketplace. Moreover, today’s martial arts are the domain of the younger generation and are not usually thought of as lifelong pursuits by the average person who is unaware of their historical rationale.

The original budo forms of Edo Japan were not yet contaminated by the twin evils of sport and commercialism that plague their modern counterparts. As such, their role as self-improvement disciplines suggests several good reasons for studying a martial art today. Among the obvious benefits that to come to mind are physical fitness, discipline, self-confidence and self-defense. (Keep in perspective that the self-defense skills that one may acquire may be of limited use against multiple armed attackers.) These benefits are often overlooked by the younger generation who seek to develop flashy skills they can display in competitions. In any event, these goals are certainly positive reasons for taking up a martial art and probably the most cited by serious adults who practice. However, I would argue that there are much more significant benefits to be derived from budo training if we take the time to look beneath the surface.

Real benefits of martial arts training

The extent to which a martial art practitioner may undergo a fundamental life change as a result of dedicated training goes largely unacknowledged.

For example, empty-handed martial arts such as aikido and jujutsu—arts that involve joint manipulation and grappling usually classified as “soft” (ju) forms—offer opportunities to master other skills that are difficult to describe in words.

Consider that the constant repetition of forms that simulate physical attacks develops an intimate familiarity with body movement, human anatomy, and spatial relationships. The great amount of tactile stimulation experienced during training produces a deep change in how one perceives and reacts to rapidly changing body relationships and movements. A martial artist skilled in a soft, grappling form or striking art becomes capable of sensing the nature and timing of an attack at the moment of contact with an opponent. This will be followed by an immediate and intuitive response. The founder of aikido, Morihei Ueshiba, coined the term “Takemusu Aiki” to refer to this ideal of the highest level of martial mastery where one spontaneously executes perfectly timed techniques appropriate to any situation.

Budo training almost always includes practice scenarios involving multiple attackers. Obviously, this can increase the stress factor since the order of difficulty in handling multiple adversaries greatly increases. Here again, there are hidden benefits to be gained from this type of training. For instance, practitioners learn how to use one attacker as a shield to protect themselves and hinder other opponents’ ability to maneuver. Another faculty developed is a more highly developed peripheral vision as one must be mindful of potential attacks from the side or rear in situations involving more than one adversary.

Multiple attacker randori training

Though the fear factor of a violent confrontation is not present in the relative safety of a dojo, martial arts practice still familiarizes practitioners with the dynamics of attack scenarios and trains them to maintain their composure while under stress. In more concrete terms, they learn to understand the concept of “maai,” that is, combative spacing. They learn how widening and closing the distance between two adversaries changes one’s vulnerability to attack. In addition, martial arts practitioners become more sensitive to an opponent’s intent by picking up on hints conveyed through body language, facial expression, voice tone, weight shifts, and other subtle factors. This enables a suitable response to be made at progressively earlier stages. This, in turn, improves one’s chances of successfully extricating himself from dangerous situations.

It should be immediately evident that the enhanced abilities resulting from serious martial arts training can be of great use in contributing to the well-being and safety of the individual. The developing of heightened levels of sensitivity naturally spills over into one’s daily life. Practitioners learn to become more alert to their surroundings and potential threats to their safety before physical confrontation occurs. Think of how applicable these skills might be in driving a car or negotiating a crowded area, two scenarios involving potential danger that most of us face in our daily lives.

The times are changing rapidly largely due to the explosive growth of technology. The kinds of attacks people are exposed to are becoming more and more sophisticated and can be carried out remotely. This type of threat and the ever-changing societal landscape require a heightened alertness, the ability to discern subtle threats and, above all, adaptability.

I sincerely believe that the real value of a martial art in our modern world lies not in the specifics of techniques taught in a particular school. These will vary greatly from style to style. Their importance as life tools lies rather in their usefulness in developing calm, fit, and alert people, keenly aware of their surroundings and capable of adapting to the presence of threats to their health and well-being.

Jonathan Swift, Bruce Bookman, and Thomas Segen

Authored by Stanley Pranin in Las Vegas. on June 5, 2007

Josh Gold

Executive Editor of Aikido Journal, CEO of Budo Accelerator, and co-founder of Ikazuchi Dojo.


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