This weekend, I will be in DC for Katsucon! I’ll be presenting a host of panels as part of the Japanese Cultural Institute, on topics from the Japanese-American Internment Camps in World War II to two introductory classes to martial arts (one for all ages and one geared more towards kids).
Preparing for those classes, I’ve been reminded of a longstanding and problematic point of contention in the martial arts, namely “why do you study [insert derided style du jour]?”. This question is always asked after the revelation that a person studies an unpopular or denounced style. In a post-UFC world, Tae Kwon Do and some traditional Karate styles are the usual candidates. For me, it’s usually when I say that I study Iaido (a slightly obscure art, often connected to Aikido, studying the drawing of the katana). People, especially those involved in armored combat, immediately remark with disdain and surprise.
In this day and age, a martial art’s effectiveness is pretty much determined by its practitioners’ performance in the octagon (namely, the Ultimate Fighting Championship). Now, that’s honestly not a particularly bad way of judging a martial art, but it does leave a lot to be desired. What if we judge a martial art just by sheer enjoyment? And why can’t we? You don’t see basketball players deriding golfers, and I enjoy Iaido for many of the same reasons as golfers. So why should someone like me, an Iaido practitioner, catch flak from the MMA community.
There are a lot of ways to judge a martial art, yet many in the community seem to adhere to some dogmatic belief that there is only one metric for a martial art’s viability and only the best martial art (or maybe the top two or three) have any point in event existing.
This is known as a meritocracy, the holding of power by those selected on the basis of their ability. In other words, only the best matter.
Now this is problematic for many reasons (never mind that it is inherently fascist), the single biggest being that it establishes a single measure (or at best, a handful) against which all martial arts are judged. But more than a few martial arts exist specifically to address weaknesses found in other arts. Krav Maga might work great for a 20-something male in great shape, but what about a fifty-something grandmother? What about martial arts that fall between the cracks or are okay at several things, but not truly outstanding at anything in particular? Wing Chun’s kicks are nothing to write home about when compared to Muay Thai or Tae Kwon Do. Does that mean, at least as far as kicking goes, Wing Chun simply shouldn’t exist? Tai Chi Chuan has a very unique grappling component unlike just about anything else in the martial arts, yet just about any Tai Chi practitioner will get owned in a wrestling match. Does that mean Tai Chi loses out?
This myth that there is only room for the best is just that, a myth. A martial art does not have to justify its existence or the existence of its techniques to anyone except its practitioners. Yes, if a Krav Maga school runs its mouth about how great it is at everything, it best be ready to back it up. But an Iaido system that is simply exploring movement with a sword owes no such justification, has no onus to prove its battlefield effectiveness to anyone.
The individual techniques within a martial art, likewise, do not need to justify their existence. As an armchair practitioner of Wing Chun, I’ll be the first to state that most Wing Chun movements and techniques are useless ‘in a fight’ (why that’s in quotes momentarily). The Bong Sau block is pretty useless in all but the most specific of techniques. So then why train it? Because it teaches fundamentals that Wing Chun considers important, like body position, connecting the hips and shoulders during a twisting movement, etc. Just because you won’t use a Bong Sau ‘in a fight’ doesn’t mean it isn’t worth training. You’ll never do push-ups in a fight either.
‘In a fight’, ‘on the street’, and similar boogeymen in martial arts are very problematic. At 36 years old, I’ve been in thankfully few fights, but my experience with fights have been overwhelmingly that they were less matches out of the UFC and more akin to jump-scares in poor horror movies. It was less about athletics and techniques, and pretty much purely a test of reaction speed. Probably most notably, however, was a total lack of homogeneity. Every fight I’ve been in were radically different. There was almost nothing – tactically or technically – to link them to a commonality.
And yet many in the martial arts community seem to judge many martial arts by this amorphous standard. Does this technique or martial art work in a fight? The answer for absolutely every technique and absolutely every martial in the world is…maybe? Sometimes? Tae Kwon Do practitioners have broken the bones of muggers and Brazilian Jiu-jitsu guys have gotten their asses handed to them in a barroom brawl. No technique has a monopoly on supremacy, just as no martial art has any claim approaching invincibility. And yet many argue that only effective martial arts should exist. If Tae Kwon Do has a 10% chance to help you in a ‘real fight’ and Brazilian Jiu-jitsu has a 20% chance to help you (and I’m making these numbers up randomly just to illustrate my point), that seems awfully callous to say Tae Kwon Do is so useless as to not exist.
Some would (quite reasonably) assert that martial arts, having ‘martial’ in the name, are judged based on combat. Martial, deriving from Mars the Roman god of war, is meant to suggest fighting and warfare after all, right? Perhaps, but there’s a lot of room for interpreting the ‘art’ part. Bodybuilding shares many of the same techniques and methods as power-lifting and strongman work, yet it’s goal is decidedly different. There’s even carryover between their audiences as well as some of their practitioners. If we were to hold bodybuilding to the same standard, most people would be forbidden from entering the gym unless they could prove their worth with a specific set of barbell lifts. But then, wouldn’t those power-lifters be in for a shock when they ran into a gymnast? Martial arts are no different. Many martial arts focus less on the martial and more on the art, and that’s fine. They view their actions and training, their techniques and practices, as a dialogue: a dialogue between themselves and their tools, between themselves and their partner, or just themselves and, well, themselves. There’s a lot to discover in that realm.
In my view, it isn’t the techniques that make a martial art effective in a given situation but the manner in which they are trained. This, along with using techniques to build fundamentals rather than as actual tactical movements, is why I am personally preferring the term ‘method’ to martial art, as in ‘the Wing Chun method’. To me, that connotes what I am learning is meant to teach me an approach to movement and tactics, as opposed to some sort of rote collection of technical executions. It also personalizes what I am learning to me, so that I am applying this method, not using this martial art.
The martial arts are a varied and wonderful place, with room for absolutely everyone. The judge of a martial arts’ value should not be some arbitrary goal applied equally across the whole spectrum of styles. The judge should be the individual practitioner. Do you enjoy the style and is it effective? I say effective not in meaning ‘in a street fight’ or ‘in the octagon’, but in its own goals (of course, if its stated meaning is effectiveness in a street fight, then of course that metric should be applied). If you answer yes to both of those, the martial art is wonderful and successful. Judging it against another style, another practitioner’s, standards would be akin to judging a fish by the standards of a bird.
If you’re going to be in DC this weekend, check out Katsucon. And if you’re at Katsu, come check out one of my panels! My schedule is…
Language Hacking: Japanese – 3pm
Japanese Transformers: differences between the Japanese and American series – 4:30pm
Intro to Martial Arts – 8:30pm
Tale of Genji: the World’s First Novel – 10pm
Legendary Swords of Japan – 11:30am
Intro to Martial Arts (for kids!) – 1pm
Miyamoto Musashi: Japan’s Most Famous Badass – 4pm
Japanese-American Internment Camps in World War II – 10pm
See you there!!!