Friday, 12 February 2016

Reflections on Martial Arts Strategy

"Your work is to discover your work and then with all your heart to give yourself to it." – Buddha

One of my students and I sat the other day and discussed martial arts strategy.  “It is important to understand the strengths and weaknesses of our martial arts” I explained.  As much as we’d like to believe, no martial art is all encompassing.  As martial artists we tend to favor and prefer the art that we have dedicated our lives towards.  Sometimes our passion towards these blinds us to the obvious.  The reason for this is often that a lot of hard work, blood, sweat, tears, financial resources and time have all been invested into these.  This is why many of us feel committed to what we do.  None of us want to admit that perhaps we have wasted these precious assets on something that was folly.

Benjamin Franklin once said, “if passion drives you, let reason hold the reins”.  It is unreasonable to believe that any martial art is capable of being all things to all men.  Each martial art was after all designed with a specific goal in mind.  Let’s take Aiki-based martial arts as an example.

Toshishiro Obata suggests that Aiki-jujutsu was originally designed to deal with matters relating to castle law and correct etiquette between senior samurai officers in conflict scenarios.  Let’s consider Suwari Waza.  The samurai were not meant to stand above their feudal lords, nor spill blood in front of them.  Doing so was deemed bad manners and could carry grave punishments, including seppuku (ritual suicide).  This is one of the reasons way it is thought that Suwari Waza was originally created, i.e. to sub-due a colleague, without standing and drawing blood.  Likewise, why is it that many Aiki-based techniques begin from wrist grabs?  Some would argue that it was because the wrists of samurai warriors, in full armor, were poorly protected.

All of this makes sense within the correct historical context.  From a martial arts strategy point of view, the goal of these techniques were logical.  It also makes sense why Karate would not work in the same scenario.  The martial arts strategy of Karate is considered by some to be, strike an aggressor, over power him and render him incapable of further violence.  Originally designed by farmers to defeat wayward samurai (i.e. a samurai misbehaving, rather than on the battlefield), these techniques were performed standing and often resulted in great physical damage to the opponent.  There were no Suwari Waza and soft techniques which did not draw blood.  Karate’s martial arts strategy was therefore unsuitable for castle etiquette, which should appear obvious given the context.

The context of a martial art is important to practitioners.  We have become accustomed to espousing the virtues of UFC and MMA, as an example.  However, let us not forget that their martial arts strategy is often one of hand to hand combat which takes place 1 on 1 within the confines of the ring environment with a referee to hand should the fight get out of control.  These techniques, whilst highly effective within such situations, are not always conducive or practical for group combat and police restraining type scenarios. 


Every martial art has its own strengths and weaknesses and it is important for all students of these to understand their martial arts strategy.  It is important to be mindful about our passions and to consider them rationally.  This should allow each and every one of us to act more professionally whilst avoiding making claims about our arts, which to the educated may at first seem unsustainable thereby degrading the value of that art and the professionalism of that teacher to the wider audience.

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