“Judo isn’t really good for self-defense.”
“Traditional karate competitions that don’t have any contact aren’t very exciting.”
“Tai chi doesn’t do anything for aerobic fitness.”
“Taekwondo is just a sport.”
Comments like these are common in martial arts circles. Often, they come from those who imagine themselves much more experienced and competent than perhaps they are. When we hear such statements, we would do well to consider what is really being said. More importantly, when evaluating any aspect of a fighting art, we need to be very clear about understanding what that art is for.
by Dave Lowry
Most serious practitioners understand the distinction between a martial art and a fighting art. Martial arts are those disciplines that were practiced by a warrior class or that have evolved from those disciplines. Fighting arts are those that were developed for reasons other than use on the battlefield: self-defense, sport and so on. So judo is a martial art, descended from the grappling techniques used by the samurai. Kung fu is a fighting art, created for self-defense or for combat against bandits.
Furthermore, it’s important to understand exactly what an art was designed for. No combat art, martial or otherwise, is without boundaries. All have more or less specific aims. Sometimes these might be multifaceted, yet inevitably they have limits. They must be judged by these aims and not by the wants or needs of those who might wish to pursue them.
Classical Japanese martial arts — for example, bujutsu — do not have methods or strategies that directly deal with the threat posed by firearms. Guns, except those used in massed formations, played but a minor role during Japan’s feudal period. So it would be unrealistic to propose spending years in a dojo teaching 17th-century methods of fighting with a sword in order to learn how to defend oneself in an encounter with firearms.
That’s an obvious example. Here’s another, less obvious yet frequently expressed: “Karate’s no good once you go to the ground or begin to grapple.” This may be true or partially true or true with some caveats. What is undeniably true is that karate evolved primarily as a percussive art. Some of its techniques may be employed to effect grappling methods.
But the intent of karate is not about grappling or wrestling. (It’s worthwhile to note that Okinawa has its own indigenous grappling arts, ones with which most of the karateka of Okinawa during the period when karate developed would have been familiar.) The charge that “judo is no good for self-defense” should be met with an awareness of the context in which Jigoro Kano created the art. He included numerous self-defense training methods within the curriculum of judo, but his goal was not to create an art of self-defense. Rather, it was to generate and refine a physical, moral and social way of life centered around the practice of throwing and grappling techniques. What value may be taken from judo in combat encounters in daily life is a good topic for conversation, but don’t be confused — that isn’t judo’s primary purpose.
Practitioners of these arts should understand that these distinctions are not a criticism. “You’re saying taekwondo isn’t useful on the street, huh? Well, I saw a taekwondo guy knock a robber out cold with a spinning back kick to the head!” I don’t doubt such stories. The point isn’t that an art can’t be used for some other purpose than that for which it was designed. It can. A skilled surgeon might be able to use a fish-filleting knife as an emergency scalpel, but no one would argue that because of his success, we can conclude the main use of that knife is for surgery.
Practitioners of an art often fall prey to a kind of narrowly focused thinking. They see in their arts so many layers, such complexity, that they begin to understand that a study of the art is a lifetime commitment. From their perspective, it seems like the art is limitless. It begins to inform so many areas of their life outside the dojo. These are revelations that signify some real growth and maturation in an art. However, this also can result in an attitude that leads us mistakenly to believe that our art is simply all-encompassing, that it’s the answer no matter what the question. Tai chi has remarkable benefits. Among them is not aerobic fitness. It would be nearly impossible, no matter how one trains in tai chi, to raise the heart rate and keep it sufficiently high to affect one’s aerobic fitness levels. That is not the point or purpose of tai chi.
Non-contact karate tournaments may not be all that exciting if you’re uninformed about their intent — but if you know what to watch for, there’s plenty that is attractive and compelling. Again, it’s important to understand that when we isolate the primary rationale for an art, when we describe its normal boundaries (which is to say its limitations), we are not suggesting there are no alternative possibilities for it. Taekwondo owes most of its creation to the need for young men, displaced and discouraged by war in 20th-century Korea, to have an outlet for their energies. That’s not to say it has no other value. Knowing what your art is for, why it was created and the lines on which it developed is critical to understanding it and your place in it. It is an essential part of one’s martial education.
Dave Lowry has written Karate Way since 1986. For more information about his articles and books, visit blackbeltmag.com and type his name into the search box.
This article originally appeared in a 2022 edition of Black Belt Magazine