Entrance to the Barn Dojo....

Wednesday, January 01, 2014

Why train martial arts?

Celebrating the New Year with
Matayoshi sensei and family.
I often find myself wondering why people train the martial arts, and the New Year is a good time, I suppose, to reflect on why we all train. We don't live in a particularly threatening environment, at least most of us. At least it's not like feudal times anyway. And most of the people I know who train karate aren't the type who go around looking for a fight. Most don't even frequent places where fights break out. So why train something that, by all appearances, seems so anachronistic?

I thought about this recently because I came across a discussion of the place of Gekisai kata in one's training (or Fukyu kata or the Pinan kata for that matter). The primary aim of these training subjects, as the evidence suggests, was to popularize karate and provide a healthy program of study for school-age children. While some of the techniques in these training subjects can be found in the classical katas of Goju-ryu--the double punch can be found both in Sanseiru and Suparinpei and the mawashi occurs repeatedly in Goju kata--techniques such as the jodan uke and the oi-tsuki or punch off the forward foot (with the possible exception of Sanchin) don't occur in the classical Goju katas. And in any case, even the front kick-elbow-punch sequence is not practiced quite the same in terms of bunkai as what occurs in Sanseiru. And yet, many dojos spend an inordinate amount of time training these subjects, even among senior students. And if not the training subjects themselves, then basics derived from these subjects. Throw in the two-person continuous bunkai for Gekisai Ichi, Gekisai Ni, Gekiha, and Kakuha developed by Toguchi sensei and most of your training time can be taken up with subjects that bear little resemblance either to the structure or the principles of the classical katas of Goju-ryu.

Matayoshi sensei at my dojo.
Which takes me back to my original question: Why do people train the martial arts? Is it for exercise or is it merely that they like the social aspect, working and moving together? Perhaps it's the spiritual nature of martial arts that comes with anything foreign or things Eastern. Perhaps for some it's the attraction of the strange rituals, the clothes, the language. Or perhaps it's just a form of exercise, though personally I think I'd rather go for a run around the block or a bike ride or buy a single scull and crew up and down the river.

Some, I'm sure, see martial arts training as a way to develop self confidence and even self defense. They may even believe that they have attained, along with a black belt, some level of menacing lethality or ability to defend themselves. They may even imagine a certain degree of invincibility, if not in terms of self defense, since most of us are less and less likely to face actual physical encounters outside the dojo, perhaps in terms of being able to face all of the difficulties that life throws at us. The problem is that those who spend so much time training Fukyu or Gekisai katas, and their attendant basic techniques, are not practicing a very lethal system of self defense. School-boy kata and bunkai were never meant to be lethal. And yet this is what most schools, at least the ones I have seen, tend to put their emphasis and time on. It's ironic that the more time you spend on martial arts, the less lethal you become as a martial artist--at least if what you're training is the Gekisai/Pinan kind of karate. Perhaps that's overstating the case...but I don't think so.

Yet the other side of the coin is just as curious. Why do we spend years practicing traditional/classical kata and bunkai--how to break someone's neck--in an age where this sort of confrontation, for most of us, is less and less likely? I'm reminded of a caption under a picture of Miyagi Chojun sensei that a friend of mine translated for me in Okinawa. It said something to the effect of "don't hit anyone, and don't get hit." Perhaps that should be the focus of our martial training. But why we train something that by all appearances seems so out-of-date is still a mystery to me...we just do it, I guess.


  1. Happy New Year, Giles Sensei.

    Probably as many reasons to train as there are people training? :)

    I know it's one of the few activities that has enough depth and breadth to keep one thinking and moving for a lifetime.

  2. And a Happy New Year to you too, Narda. Hope you can make it back to the barn once the weather warms up a bit. Giles

  3. When I try to explain that I don't follow sports but instead train martial arts, I cite a theory I heard about in some anthropology course at UMASS, that team sports are a replacement for tribal warfare and the act of hunting, and to me Karate is a more direct activity to "replace" these activities. I just remember watching videos of some Polynesian indigenous tribes meeting once a year to have then annual war dance and cricket game, so as to diffuse tensions and cheer for the tribe to win without having to go to war. Maybe training is our war dance on a more personal level, as a means to manage stress or physical attack, while actualizing our tribal-self-team, so we "don't hit anyone, or don't get hit by anyone".

    Happy New Year!

  4. Hey Mike,
    Thanks for sharing. I like that. Happy New Year to you and the family.

  5. Good thinking Mike, makes sense.

  6. Like this thought: "..martial arts training as a way to develop self confidence and even self defense."

    In martial arts, it's discipline and building character that matters.=)

    Martial Arts Brisbane

  7. 'Why train..' - one of the 'perennial questions. I enjoy this writer's blog and his musing on the topic:


  8. I've been training in goju ryu karate for just under a year, so I'm a newbie. For what it's worth, here's my own view.

    - It's a fascinating subject.
    - Fitness.
    - Discipline.
    - Self confidence.
    - Stress relief.
    - Meet people and make new friends.

    As for being out of date, I just don't see it that way at all.

  9. In my case is bizarre. One of my little brothers began to practice karate in junior school and I taked him to the class amd wait until it finished. One day the sensei said "why you are waiting sitting? Come on and practice" to my total surprise I found that I'm good at karate and I don't know why I did like so much from the very first day