Are traditional martial arts relevent in modern society?
I often see questions like this posted in martial arts forums. The street effectiveness of traditional arts with respect to modern fighting systems is constantly discussed. I often wonder if other art forms have similar discussions. Artists may have preference for different media but are they really likely to argue that one form is less beautiful than another? Violinists learn to play an instrument little changed in 500 years but what are their thoughts on the 80 year old electric guitar, which instrument produces the best sound? Which player is more skilled?
I study at the Daitokan dojo in Sydney, we are a study group who train in mainline Daito Ryu Aiki Jujutsu a Traditional Japanese martial art. Our Headmaster is Katsuyuki Kondo Sensei.
The techniques that are taught in Daito Ryu have a traditional context, it is an art which was forged in very different and truly martial times. Though it is primarily focused on unarmed combat, the techniques of Daito Ryu were designed by and for practitioners who would normally be armed and who were trained primarily for armed contact. These were Samurai, the primary close contact weapon of their time was the sword.
Techniques in Daito Ryu respect the origins of the art; the kamae of the ‘attacker’ is that of a sword-wielding Samurai. The defender attacks vulnerable points which in years gone by would have been exposed gaps in an opponent’s armor or indeed defends against specific attacks on their own armor.
At face value none of this would seem practical.
Touch is unbalance
Through the practice of these techniques and forms we tune and our body’s responses and reactions. We condition ourselves to react to a threat without hesitation, to unbalance an opponent both physically and mentally in an instant. And to always control the first touch. Our sensei and sempai will constantly repeat “Touch is unbalance”.
Through training, and exploration of the forms that Daito Ryu offers, over time, we become better able to determine the timing and application of our techniques so that we can affect our opponent’s balance. With further study we learn to control and maintain that unbalance until our opponent is incapacitated. We learn that there are minute phases to every attack. We come to see the moments during an attack when our opponent is strong and are taught to recognize the moment in every attack where they are compromised and vulnerable to counter attack.
It matters little if our opponent is wielding a sword or a baseball bat, what matters is that we do not hesitate when being attacked and that we can counter that attack at the right moment. A strike which is designed to attack the carotid artery is as effective whether or not your opponent is wearing Kabuto. A strike to the ribs below the armpit would be effective with or without surrounding armor.
Another core tenant of Daito Ryu Aikijujutsu is to resist the use of muscle power. Observing your opponents attack and blending with that attack rather than opposing it means that often you need not rely on muscle strength alone. As is common in other Koryū arts the student’s focus is on the perfection of technique rather on the result of the technique. Through strength alone a defender can control an attacker and force them to submission however we train with a view to expending the minimum amount of energy. Again tradition and the origin of this art comes to mind when exploring this. It is unlikely that I will be in a position where I am unhorsed on a battlefield with multiple attackers to contend with. But if we accept that this may well have been a real-life scenario for a heavily armored Samurai, it becomes more understandable that efficiency of movement could mean the difference between life and death.
When I started on my martial arts journey I was somewhat younger and injuries healed quickly. I enjoyed nothing more than proving myself against an opponent and exchanging blows with little thought as to what this was doing to my body in the long-term. Steel sharpens steel and one person sharpens another, I liked to read in my own interpretation to that saying and believed that I was somehow becoming stronger with each blow I landed. My focus certainly was in sharpening myself but it took a toll on my body and on my ability to separate technique and power. I was so intent on obtaining a result, a submission, a grade that I inadvertently came to focus on the martial and lost sight of the art. When push comes to shove we all have a brawler inside us somewhere waiting to jump out onto the mat. Some arts provide a safe and controlled release for this primal urge. However we should be mindful that we can condition both good and bad habits.
Since discovering Daito Ryu I am fitter and stronger than I ever was, my body is intact and what is more I have much more control over it. I am aware of how my body occupies space and how I move it through space in a way that I was never consciously aware before. And in relying less on power and more on the correct application of technique I have become more economical with my energy and better able to react appropriately to the needs of each situation.
When I look at the difference between what I have done in the past and what I do now it would simply be that what I do now affects how I live my life. It is a realization that the martial techniques that we learn are a tool not goal. We use them to focus our minds and to train our responses and that is their purpose. They have an added advantage in that they might one day serve to protect us but really that is not their purpose. And that is the key difference between “Martial arts” and “Budo”, Traditional martial arts could be viewed our modern times as being an historical exploration into secret self-defense techniques of ages long past, and that they may be. But, I rather think that they are a vehicle to self-betterment.
As Sensei says;
“Daito-ryu goes beyond mere self-defense, offering the way to temper one's body and spirit, with the aim of developing personal character and contributing to the greater social good.”
So, who would win in a fight between a practitioner of Traditional Martial Arts and modern Mixed Martial Arts? The answer is simple, the one who wants to win most, the one who is more determined to sacrifice that little part of themselves necessary to defeat another person. It doesn’t require any training at all to win a fight. I like to think that it is more the case that it requires a lifetimes worth of training to learn to avoid the fight in the first place.