Unavoidably, this article will contain a few Broad Sweeping Generalisations (BSGs) but its hard not to do so when talking about a field as large as martial arts. Also, a reminder that Japanese has no plural, hence one dojo, two dojo.
Just to put things in context. There are approximately fifty martial arts, perhaps quadruple that number if we count schools separately to arts and to federations and to associations. Each main style can have about ten splinter groups on average. Off the top of my head, I can name about eight kinds of kung-fu or karate, and even within those schools there are different federations. Some of the weapons have their own dedicated art, while some arts span several weapons (such as Okinawan Goju Ryu and some styles of Kung-fu.)
No dojo is the same as another, and each art is like a person, with its different strengths, weaknesses and appearance. And like people, the different martial arts have as much in common as they don’t. The problem is, most people who have never done a martial art like to draw conclusions about all of them based on facile and incomplete evidence. Now I don’t consider my martial arts career nearly extensive enough to be a serious authority on the subject, but a brief rundown of my own training might explain why I might be better equipped to write a piece like this than many others.
I began training at the age of 11, doing Judo under Sensei Carlo and the Judo Federation of South Africa. I continued this until the middle of standard six, when I went to boarding school and discontinued my training. Since Shotokan was the only option at school, I stopped training until I went to university. At university, I was fortunate enough to be exposed to several arts and to study with different Sensei, some of which were visiting experts. To date, I have over five and half years of Goju Ryu and Aikido, just under four years of Judo, a year of Fanchento Kung-Fu and about ten hours of Tai-chi. I have trained with Sensei from the United States, England, Singapore, Japan, Italy and Guam. My different instructors have arranged seminars with Greco-Roman wrestlers, Jujitsu specialists, Iado budo-ka and instructors from other federations within the same art. I have also tried to watch as many documentaries on different arts as I can and have done what I can to immerse myself in the ever-changing world of martial arts. I hope that I can bring an informed opinion to the blogosphere.
I am also partially writing this because of the Bullshit! episode on martial arts. There is a lot they said that I agree with regards to false promises and McDojos, but there’s also some stuff they didn’t get around to. Most importantly, they didn’t put in a caveat that there are so many martial arts that it is unfair to generically say that they are bullshit. Yes, there are McDojos and con artists (and I will get to that later) but that doesn’t change the fact that there are a lot of very, very good things about martial arts that people tend to forget…and then lump under some convenient labels and misconceptions.
1: It’s Esoteric
I’m not sure whether to blame Hollywood or strange dojo for this one, but a lot of people think martial arts are a kind of religion, a special spirituality that necessitates barefootness and bowing.
Most of the things in martial arts are done for practical reasons as much as traditional. Yes, it is traditional to take one’s shoes off at the door, but it is also much more hygienic than socks and soles. The bowing is a way to thank one’s partners for their trust and time, but it also indicates that the nage (person performing technique) has finished their turn and it is time for uke (person receiving the technique) to take their turn. This is especially helpful with keeping juniors on the ball, since they often get so focused on doing the technique that they sometimes forget they’ve done ten ikkyo and its time to swap. A gentle nod or small bow is a better way of doing it than saying “my turn, idiot.” Asking the Sensei for permission to leave the mat is not some system of unnecessary hierarchy. It is so that the Sensei knows where everyone is, and if someone has been hurt. Occasionally someone new to the dojo will cut their foot doing something stupid (they always find a sharp edge somewhere) and doesn’t know there’s a first aid kit. By telling the Sensei, something constructive can be done.
Meditation is something I struggle with but it does have practical value. It’s a focusing tool, and that’s why it is often the first session in a long string thereof. We are living in a loud, busy world. I know that I am particularly scatter-brained because I am doing more than working, eating and sleeping. A few minutes of sitting quietly with my eyes closed lets the silence clear my brain out. I wish I could actually empty my mind properly and rebuild better thoughts, but it’s a start that I can at least be given a space to be quiet in. There’s nothing really esoteric about that, because meditation can be done while moving or sitting and isn’t forced on anyone. There’s no need for incense or chanting, and when that does happen it is always a bit out of place. It is not part of the art, but the Sensei’s idea from elsewhere.
I stress that there are always weird dojo, ones that do things that make the rest of us stay fairly clear of its students. But just because one dojo might have weird Buddhist chanting, it doesn’t mean we all do.
2: Ten lessons make you a ninja
I know two Aikido instructors who have been held at gunpoint. In broad daylight, in the street, despite the best precautions. There was no flurry that ended in attackers sprawled on the ground. Just a calm handing over of wallets and keys. They considered their safety and their families, and did the sensible thing.
No one can catch a bullet, and no serious martial artist chooses to get into fights. I know that I would likely lose a fight with a man my size or larger, because I am not entirely sure that I wouldn’t panic or do something stupid. Or he has a knife, or a gun. And I have done training with knives, and it is frightening how fast someone can flick out a knife and cut with it. Even with wooden tanto, it is quite clear that knives are a very serious weapon, made scarier by their unfettered availability. South Africa is one of two countries in the world, to my knowledge, where butterfly knives are legal. What society allows hidden blades to be carried around? They are sold at flea markets to kids. As well as those godawful cheap swords with the cheesy dragon motifs.
That aside, people think that a few classes of martial arts will save them. I’ve seen this so often in the self-defense courses I helped Clint-Sensei run. All these bright-eyed little things in tank tops and rugby shorts who think that six classes will make them safe. It only takes one fight on the ground with a senior for them to realise how severely outclassed they are. And its not like we go out of our way to destroy them; just weight and a few punches are enough to prove that it takes years and years of training to be able to fight on the ground with someone of equal size. I’ve been training longer than Graham in more arts, but he still outclasses me with sheer weight and strength. It doesn’t hurt that he is very, very good at spotting openings. Someone who regularly attacks people will be able to do the same. And no matter what Oprah or anyone might say, size does matter very much in some situations. On the ground weight matters much more than anyone cares to admit, and chances are a fight will go to the ground within seconds.
It’s an ugly truth, but no amount of weekly self-defense classes are going to help the average woman beat off more than one attacker, if even that. I will be the first to say that I can barely hold my own against people my size, never mind a beefy attacker. And most attackers have been in plenty of fights and have the desire to do harm. Not all of us have that, or want call upon that kind of terrible strength.
Moral of the story? Common sense goes a very long way to preventing fights, and martial arts takes very many years of constant training and muscle memory to be of reliable use in the streets. It is not so much a reflection on martial arts as the nature of bad people.
Besides, someone with true martial spirit isn’t going to pick fights. Just the same way that the Karate Kid would have lost that fight in two minutes flat in real life.
3: It is a sport
What really gets up my nose as a traditional martial artist is the influence that sporting has had on the arts. Few things deteriorate a good thing faster than money and advertising. I don’t mind martial arts becoming more mainstream, as more instructors means more ideas and more fine-tuning. It would have been sad if Aikido had stayed in the Hombu dojo in Tokyo rather than spreading across the world. After all, the Gutenberg didn’t destroy books, just as YouTube hasn’t destroyed movies. Making something more accessible isn’t a terrible thing.
But what competition has done is cheapen the techniques and mentality. Normally a true martial artist will keep training despite there being no monetary rewards or flashy outfits. What competition does is sideline that mentality for a shallower one. Look at tournament karate, for example. Punches are pulled, kicks become flashy and useless and wins can come down to how much attention the different refs were paying. This is not a fair reflection on the art. I went to a tournament earlier this year, because I thought I might have a chance in the kata division. I thought I should give the whole paradigm a chance to impress me.
Of course I know that it is in the nature of sport to have winners and losers, but it is not in the nature of martial arts to have such subjective and simplistic goals. This is why I hate watching tournament karate. There’s too much jumping and spinning and mind games going on. There’s nothing elegant or practical or cool about it. I am embarrassed that that was Graham’s first glimpse into my federation. Now I love my federation, and I understand that tournaments provide money that can feed instructors, but I still feel it chips away at what martial arts is. If karate becomes an Olympic sport, then it won’t be long before traditional, solid karate gets sidelined for this flashy, pointless shit. It happened to Judo and Taekwando, and I would hate to see it to happen to Karate as well.
Why? Because tournaments are a source of money for competitors, and being a karate champion sounds better on school and university applications than karate student. No one cares about concepts like Sempai or uchi-deshi, but for the same fucked up reasons why people like celebrities a champion will get undue credit and respect. This is not a good lookout for any dojo that wants to focus on the very complex systems within traditional karate, and I feel a lot of dojo will be forced into competition karate in order to meet with university or school standards. The other downside is that instructors who are not adequately versed in the right coaching will not offer as safe a training environment as a competition-focused instructor. We see this problem in schools with rugby and ill-equipped coaches and too many tragic head injuries. We see it in the States with copious cheerleader injuries because it is not adequately monitored.
There’s a reason why the word ‘art’ appears in the term, and it will fall away as long as any style gets treated like a sport. It’s a mentality, an activity that involves mind and body. It is not as brainless or short-term as rugby or soccer or hockey. It should not be placed in the same category as these activities because the only thing they have in common is encouraging a healthy body. (And while steroid abuse is part of many sports, it is a fairly pointless thing to do in martial arts.)
4: Anyone can do martial arts
Just because everyone can have a blog, it doesn’t mean they should write. And just because someone has a body and the time, it doesn’t mean they’ll be able to do martial arts. The drop-out rate for martial arts is astounding, and from my original Goju Ryu dojo, I am one of two still training in the same art. We were ten regulars, never mind the many that just passed through. And even that isn’t an accurate reflection. A better, though sadder example, is the difference between the junior classes and senior in my karate federation. There are hundreds of kids under twelve up to brown belt, but only 40-60 odd seniors from brown up. What happened? And why are there so few women in martial arts?
Without too much of a segue into feminism, I think the majority of women are groomed into being pretty and fragile. They are taught that nice ladies don’t punch, or play with boys. But martial arts is one of the few physical activities where all sexes train together and things can get emotionally and physically tough. I know there have been very many times where I have felt so weak and stupid and useless, like all the insults ever directed at women have been made true at one time in my head and body. That the reason I am not progressing as well as the others is because I’m a woman therefore inferior. It’s a horrible thing to say and sometimes believe, but it does feel that way sometimes. With not always being able to keep up despite the best of efforts, with periods making us feel tired and sore and delicate, with our time demanded in the home and dojo and workplace, sometimes it is pretty fucking hard to be a woman in this sphere.
But its still not an adequate excuse for why so many women start and don’t stay. You can’t tell me that nine out of ten women are too weak to stick it out. Women who have been through natural childbirth admire my strength and it doesn’t make sense to me. Sensei Mary is a powerful, dedicated and incredible martial artist, and even if she is one of too few female instructors, it is proof that this is not something out of my reach or that of any woman.
But its not just a female thing, because males drop out just as much. The two people I graded with for four years, the two people I trained the most with and who I looked to for their guidance and strength have both dropped out of training despite having all the right reasons to continue. Both of them are strong, smart and determined, things that lend themselves well to budo. But they’re gone, and I remain. I have always been the weakest of my senior group in terms of technique and strength. I am still terribly uncoordinated and can’t tell where my body parts are. My training makes my Sensei look an American Indian chief watching the devastation of their land, a single tear rolling down a stoic chin to splash upon well-worn moccasins. And yet, I remain.
That’s where the difference lies, that intangible difference, and its not to say that it makes me better than those who have moved on. Maybe it’s a special kind of idiocy to stick with something I am so very ill-equipped for, but that’s a topic for another day.
A lot of parents sign their kids up and make them go to class after class, and they hate it. I’ve tried working with disinterested kids, but it’s a lot like getting AB- out of a rock and I want to tell the parents that its okay that their kid is not the next Chuck Norris. It won’t fix any bullying problems, not by itself. If the kid is unresponsive to training, then they won’t develop a better mindset without it. And that’s fine, because we can’t all do the same things. Personally I think it is blithe idiocy to sign up for something as dangerous and pointless as skydiving, but that’s a different world that I have yet to experience. Its not for me. The same people who like to hurl themselves at the ground from a plane might struggle with being thrown at it by other people. I can’t explain exactly where the difference lies, but its there.
1: Its all the same
I cannot stress how multi-faceted martial arts can be. Some of them are exclusively about strikes, some about throws, some about grappling. Some allow no contact, some are purely weapons-based and there are those that are a form of mediation while others have been created purely for competition. Some federations are huge, some are tiny, some are traditional and some are not. Some styles are slow, others are fast, some are somewhere in the middle and each one has its own flavour.
There are McDojos that are money-spinners, with flashy outfits, expensive gradings, DVDs, special extra classes and spin doctors. There are con artists like Ashida Kim, who sends people their black belts and a DVD, promising martial arts supremacy in six weeks. Then there are little dojo that are struggling to get by because it is better to train properly than to cater to the whims of easily bored students. There are Sensei, who are the instructors that have influence beyond the mat. There are instructors that drive their students too hard and injuries abound. There are other instructors who have a cerebral approach, and many of them only focus on the physical. There are instructors of all religions, all creeds, many of which give up untold hours of their time to their students, teaching unpaid only for the reward of teaching.
There are incredible Sensei, I have been lucky to learn, who are dedicated to what they do. They get little or no compensation, they get little recognition and they work on lesson plans and extra classes while everyone is watching TV or reading Heat magazine. As someone who has remedial kata lessons, I know the value of a true Sensei. The word means teacher, but with different nuance than we are used to in the West. And there can be some really terrible instructors; the one of the evil dojo in the Karate Kid is, unfortunately, a reality in some dojo. And some students are thugs but that doesn’t make them martial artists, just as some instructors will never be Sensei.
But none of these negative aspects of the huge world that is martial arts can really cheapen what it means to me, and to so many others. There are thousands of us across the world in hundreds of dojo. We train on weekends, at nights, looking gross and feeling pain and chewing through frustration. When so many are going out or lazing around, we train. Our Sensei will be working on lesson plans or staying after class to help a student work through a technique. We try manage our weight and eat healthily, get enough sleep and work through injuries. And yes, they do happen but not as often as people think. Not nearly as much. We fight, sweat, bleed, curse, laugh, strive. We do it alone and together. It’s tough and beautiful, one of the best things in the world.
We do this because martial arts brings out the best in us. It has helped me grow, to approach my weaknesses and turn them into strengths. It has forged friendships that have remained longer than many others, and given me opportunities to teach and guide. It is the toughest challenge in my life, harder than not always having money or building my career or writing a book. It constantly refines and hones, revealing strength I never even thought I could have. I never saw myself as a strong person before, but now I can be proud of what I have learned. I have far to go and I should never forget that but I can at least appreciate is nearly six years of accomplishment. I know that the people in the dojo I am in might not see me as a friend, but they are still good people who make me feel welcome when I have been away for a week. I look to my Sensei for strength, because I want to make them proud, to prove to them that they have not wasted their precious time on me. These are positive, wonderful things that no amount of ignorance or hostility from outsiders can change. It is one of the most personal journeys in the world that can be so assisted by the right people. I don’t know where I’d be now without the training and the hundreds of hours invested in this particular combination of physical and mental challenge, but I do know that I am far richer for it.