Are Traditional Martial Arts Useless For Self-Defense? Part 2

July 27, 2016



6 minutes read

Andrew Raynor Dover NH

In the previous part, I gave a quick background on the critique directed towards “traditional martial arts” for what is perceived as their excessive focus on ceremony. A quick discussion on the concept of “ceremony” followed, and in this article, we will begin by taking a look at what may be some of the most common non-fight-related elements of “traditional” training:

A Look At The Ceremonies Of Traditional Martial Arts

Formal ranks and titles

In systems with a perceived strong tie to Japan, people usually wear belts in different colors to mark their rank, some of those ranks come with titles, and some of those titles are used when addressing the person. Perhaps the most famous and widely used of these titles is “sensei”, the equivalence in systems perceived to be more strongly tied to China being “sifu”.


Many martial arts have uniforms, the most famous of which perhaps being the Japanese “Gi”, found prominently in for example Judo and Karate, but used also in for example Brazilian Ju Jutsu, with the addition of a “Hakama” in for example Aikido and Iaido, but there are uniforms also in many other arts.


In many martial arts, the language of what is perceived as the “home-country” of the system is often used to various ends, such as in Taekwondo (Korean), Karate, Aikido and Judo (Japanese), and Western Boxing (English). The languages are used often to name techniques, such as the “nikkyo”  of Aikido, the “kote mawashi” or “kake uke” of Karate, the “kani basami” of Judo, the “naeryeo chagi”  of Taekwondo and the “uppercut” of Boxing.

It is sometimes also used, as mentioned above, for titles, and sometimes to name exercises, forms, equipment, and even the different aspects of training (Karate often using Japanese to say things like “sparring”, “basics”, “footwork” and “drills”, for example).

The language can also be used to count, and to direct the students during the training with words like “turn”, “sit”, “stand”, “assume a guard” and to mark the beginning and the end of each exercise.


Famously, many Japanese martial arts implement bowing. Where, how much, how often and how rigid it is varies, but some examples are in the beginning of training, at the end of training, at the end of exercises, and before and after working with a partner.

Perhaps most attention has fallen on the ceremonies opening and ending lessons, where the students and the teacher often sit down and bow several times, to various things, often including the official founder of the style, the teacher, the school crest, and in some schools even the flag of the style’s perceived country of origin.

So… ?

The point is that the value of a system does not lie in whether you put on a t-shirt or a traditional uniform before going to it, or in whether you touch gloves or bow to each other before sparring, or whether you call your instructor “sensei” or “Shelly”, or in whether the boxers in Japan say “uppercut” when they could use the Japanese translation “age tsuki”, instead, or which language you count in, or anything else.

Awareness of hierarchy exists in all schools, belts or no belts.
Social codes exist in all schools, whether in the form of bowing or in the form of glove-touching.
Dress-codes exist in all schools, whether it’s in the form of a uniform or in the form of 10 guidelines for everyone to keep in mind when choosing their own clothes.
I could go on.

There is a thought behind every ceremony, the initial mediation bowing-ceremony for example, where students sit in Seiza and perform a series of bows, being an opportunity to shed some of the stress brought in from the outside world, so that more focus can be on the training from the start, and the same ritual at the end of the training being an opportunity to internally repeat what has been learned, so as to remember it better.

Is this absolutely necessary? No. But in the traditional karate-school I come from, the two ceremonies take in total about two minutes, and I believe it can be debated whether those couple of minutes would be better spent punching a pad a few more times.

Look critically at what is taught, but don’t get caught in “a school that does this is bad, and a school that does this is good”, because while there are things to look for, with an untrained, inexperienced eye, that attitude will lead to more wrong turns than right turns, and in the world of self-defense, right turns are rare as it is.

Instead look at every school you encounter with fresh, open eyes, because the same exercise, the same movement, the same application and the same ceremony can be brilliant or useless, depending on what the instructor does with it, and depending on what you yourself do with it.

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Andrew Raynor Dover NH

Andrew Raynor

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