Recently, a discussion about traditional martial arts (TMA) and self defense (SD) kept rubbing me the wrong way. A couple of people, one who's an Air Marshal were saying, that TMA is not even close to SD training. My hackles went up, but part of me was willing to agree with him. With such a mixed resonnse, it was time to take a step back and look at this subject from a fresh perspective.
The first step was to compare martial arts training past and present. This led to the realization that what we today call a traditional martial artist is not the same animal as a martial artist who trained over 150 years ago. Examining the history of the MA made it obvious there is a difference between what we now call traditional martial arts, and martial arts training in centuries past. So I'm going to venture that what we now call traditional martial arts training and classical martial arts training from the past are not the same. A note from a Sanshou practitioner only highlighted this fact.
Looking at it from this perspective, what many call traditional martial arts are in fact, not as traditional as people would like to think. Even in the traditional martial arts, there are many things missing when compared to the training from over 150 years ago. That's why we decided to use the phrases traditional and classical.
Traditional martial arts as practiced today teach fighting skills to individuals in a highly structured and ritualistic manner. Teachers of traditional martial arts talk about using them as a path to improve yourself, to learn about yourself, to become a better person, and to defend yourself. What most people don't realize, is that the structure that you see in traditional martial arts schools today, was only put in place in the 1900's. Since the Okinawan and Japanese martial arts are the ones I'm most familiar with, I'll use those as an example.
Judo is the precursor for what we call traditional martial arts today. It was developed by removing many techniques from jujitsu that would make it safer to teach in school system and use for competition. Whereas ,training prior to this development was more individualistic, structured classroom training was initiated in order to make it judo acceptable to the school system. Since it was being altered to function as a method for physical development and character development, many aspects of the classical martial arts training were left out. Judo was accepted in the Japanese school system shortly after the turn of the century, and its popularization lead to other martial artists seeking the same acceptance for their teachings.
Fast forward 40 to 50 years, and the same type of alterations were being made to karate so it could be introduced into the school system. Add a large influx of American military students who did not understand the culture, with few having any grasp of the language, and a uniform teaching system was even more important.
In the process of changing these martial arts from a jutsu- or discipline, to a do- or path, other aspects of martial arts training were dropped. Training focused on principles, techniques, attitude, personal development, and harmonious living. All of these are good things, but subjects considered crucial when the martial arts were a jutsu were dropped. These factors that were left out, created a separation between martial arts and self-defense.
So that being said, what are the things that make up the classical martial arts that are missing from traditional martial arts schools? Part of the answer can be found by reading old texts like Sun Tzu's Art of War and Musashi's Book of Five Rings. Rather than looking at these just for the content, look at them in regards to subjects these men studied. What you will find, is these author's studied many other topics as part of developing their fighting skills. Many of these areas of study are applicable to self-defense.
For their day, their understanding of strategy, tactics, individual human psychology, group psychology, and what we would call today adrenal stress were quite well developed. Not only this, their studies and others of this era discussed social responsibility, personal responsibility, and dealing with the repercussions of their actions.
Many of these men not only used their martial arts on the battlefield, but in Okinawa, martial artists were often in law enforcement because of their abilities. Because of this, an understanding of criminal psychology, fear response, and their day's version of defensive tactics were considered important subjects.
In addition, situational awareness was taught, but from a different approach. Students were taught that part of their training was to learn how to avoid encounters that would require use of their skills. This even included those engaged in law-enforcement. The highest achievement of your training was to actually avoid a confrontation, or to resolve it without resorting to physical force.
If force had to be employed, you did not fight by the Marquis of Queensbury rules (or an oriental equivalent) as your opponent was out to seriously injure or even kill you. There are many stories of individuals when faced with an unavoidable future conflict, would do whatever they could to stack the deck in their favor. Showing up early so they could have the sun behind their back ( good tactic when you can't buy Oakley's), scouting out the terrain and locating weapons of opportunity, using tricks to instill doubt in their adversaries were all considered manifestations of correct training.
This synopsis should give you an idea as to why I think there is a difference between traditional and classical martial arts training. I also realized why I was struggling with the statement that martial arts and self-defense are two totally separate issues as this is not true in classical training.
Sensei Walker was blessed to have an instructor who approached the martial arts from the classical perspective and who taught his students the martial arts were not just about kicking and punching. Topics like avoiding trouble areas, choosing where to walk, drive, or park were brought up. Understanding the psychology of someone trying to attack you, and how it was different depending on the reason for the attack were discussed. Situational awareness, avoidance, escape, were touched on throughout the training process. The idea of dealing with aggression, pain, injury, panic, hostility and other factors were talk about while practicing techniques.
Strategy and tactics were considered important subjects. Not just as they relate to a fight, but also how they could be applied to avoid getting in a situation where you'd have to use your skills. The ideas of social responsibility, appropriate use of force, responsibility for using what you knew appropriately, and the idea of your training being used for defense only were stressed. Things like turnaround laws were taught to students.
The other major difference in a classical and traditional martial art deals with how the techniques are taught. Instead of expecting everyone to be a carbon copy of each other and use the exact same techniques, after a certain point the techniques and applications are tailored to to fit each individuals physical and mental makeup. Training does not focus on winning a fight. Rather training focuses on making a means of escape or ending things quickly. The idea of going toe to toe in an even fight is completely foreign to defending yourself.
In addition you will find sparring is more structured as it is no longer a game of tag to gain a point. The opponents are actually trying to knock each other down. This is a level of sparring seldom, if ever seen in a traditional martial arts school and does not start until green belt. Even in this type of sparring the idea is to make your technique work and end it quickly. We've seen the techniques of many traditionally trained martial artists fall apart under this type of sparring, even with what we call jyu ippon, or free one step, where only one attack is made at a time. With these differences in mind, we are a classical (koryu) school, not a traditional school.