Articles & Interviews

David Stainko 8th Dan

Martial Arts in the 21st Century

Between The Traditional and The Modern

By David Stainko 8th Dan

We are all aware of various forms of tradition, but when this phrase needs to be defined, it can become confusing. Namely, a rule that repeats itself from generation to generation is called tradition. Tradition is something that doesn’t bend the rules, something that repeats itself for many years, from generation to generation, in a continuum, without any changes.

The term “tradition” (lat. tradere = to transfer, a transferral) is defined as a memory of or preservation of stories and customs from the past. They are transferred from generation to generation, honouring the procedures which are sometimes not even written, but are transferred from mouth to mouth. If we say that someone is traditional, it means that he or she is conventional, common and predictable. He or she strictly follows customs and rules that were made a long time ago by an agreement.

It can simply be said that the term “traditional” or “conventional” can refer to someone who behaves according to some old rules and norms, not wanting to impose some new customs because this set of rules was already established. This kind of a person doesn’t seek something that needs to be necessarily new or modern. Today, when we say that someone is “modern”, it means that he or she is in accordance with the times, whereas the person who is not is somewhat lagging behind.

In today’s times, taking up martial arts comes in two variables- as a warrior-martial art or as a sports discipline. In accordance with that, there are two basic ways in which martial arts can be dealt with. The first one is training, i.e. the traditional way where a person perfects certain techniques and the warrior-martial skill as a whole. The second one is taking up martial arts as a modern sports discipline. Training martial arts in a traditional way includes a much larger aspect of philosophical thinking and following a certain code of honour. In sports, this aspect is not necessary and, therefore, neglected.

So, we can ask ourselves should martial arts be solely traditional or can we strive towards certain changes and new ways of thinking? Also, should we accept everything that is modern by living according to those new principles and by cultivating this new set of rules which can sometimes be distorted? Or should tradition help us find the original and forgotten rules that serve life?

In martial arts we can often hear how certain “styles” are “traditional” while some other styles are thought to be modern. But which of these styles are truly “modern”? Modern is something that is happening right now. In Latin, it literally means “modo” – right now, and that which preceded it became post modern. This means that many of these newer, i.e. “more modern” styles after some time become post modern, i.e. they are simply not in trend any longer. Because of their inefficiency, certain styles become neglected or even forgotten.

Solely those styles that have proved themselves to be the best and most efficient, thanks to their techniques as well as principles and rules, gradually became traditional. Often, for this kind of style or way of training a martial art, the term “old school” is used. Each new period brings certain changes. Because of this, when certain martial arts masters introduce improvements in various, so to speak, traditional styles, this doesn’t mean that the style has been changed in any significant way. To improve a style, make it more contemporary and modernise it doesn’t mean that it will be changed from traditional to some new version because, at its core, it will remain unchanged. All important techniques, rules and customs of that style as well as its code of honour will be unaltered.

Changes in a certain style start when some instructors want to create a new, more contemporary style for themselves. By doing this, they change the basic techniques. In other words, the changes start when those instructors start to distort some of the basic techniques, the rules and the customs of the “older” style, i.e. by altering most of the basic techniques, rules and customs of the traditional style. Some of these instructors have even made certain damages and have ruined the traditional style because they thought that the changes were essential and necessary. By doing so, they have created a newer, different and, according to their opinion, a better and “more modern” style.

But is this new style truly better and more efficient in comparison with the older one? It is certainly different. Perhaps it, in some ways, follows today’s way of thinking as well as trends. Maybe it is even more popular now, but that still doesn’t mean that it is necessarily better or more efficient. For certain techniques, most of these changes and changes to the rules and customs have proved to be unnecessary and, what is key – inefficient. However, from time to time, some true martial arts masters appeared and made certain “important” changes to a style as well as in martial arts in general.

These kinds of changes took place in martial arts during Bodhidharma’s life and his introduction of the Luohan 18 hands in 520 AD. Other martial arts masters have made important changes as well, for example, the new techniques in nito-ryu sword fighting introduced by the famous swordsman Miyamoto Musashi (1584-1645). Changes also happened in the West, i.e. in 1867 the Marquess of Queensberry published the first systemic rules for boxing. In 1899, changes were introduced by Edward Barton-Wright by opening a club in London where many Western and Eastern martial arts could be trained, e.g. boxing, wrestling, savate, fencing, judo and ju jitsu.

Changing tradition in martial arts has continued later on, for example, introducing the rule to wear a white kimono and a black belt was introduced by the master Jigoro Kano (1860 – 1938). The changes occurred when the masters from Okinawa decided to break the family teaching tradition and show their skill to the rest of the Japanese nation. This is when they have come up with the idea that it would be better if the national skill would be called karate (an empty hand or a hand of emptiness), rather than to call it by its original name – Chinese hand. This transition in meaning was easily made because the word “kara” can hold a different meaning, depending on the way it is written. This act or renaming the skill is usually attributed to Funakoshi Gichin, the founder of the Shotokan style although the change was suggested by the master Chomo Hanashiro. The word itself was introduced in 1936 as the new name.

From this moment forward, the development of karate, as well as some other martial arts, turned to a different direction – a sport emerges. The changes also started with ranking according to the colour of the belt, introduced by a judo master, Mikonosuke Kawaishi (1899 – 1969). Larger changes were also made by the master Yip Man (1893 – 1972) once he came up with a practicing device, the wooden dummy. Changes were established in teaching martial arts as well in a way that, teaching of those martial arts which were previously traditionally “forbidden” for foreigners, started to become accessible to everyone, no matter their race or gender. We can also mention numerous demonstrations of different martial arts and showing of their previously “secret” techniques to people in the West. Some of these demonstrations were started by Bruce Lee (1940 – 1973) as well as some other changes which are, in today’s martial arts, common and have become traditional because of that.

Many of today’s sports trainers as well as some martial arts instructors have been neglecting traditional and old methods of teaching and learning how to practice. They defend this by saying that those old methods are outdated in today’s times. They think of them as inefficient, especially in some today’s “modern” martial arts. The real truth is somewhat different. Namely, many of today’s instructors and, even more so, sports trainers never really knew everything about traditional training methods so they couldn’t entirely reap their benefits. This is why they prefer to stick to newer and more familiar methods of training which they have gone over themselves. New generations bring new methods and, consequently, new rules in training which are, allegedly, scientifically-based. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that they are better.

Some old systems of training could be funny or totally incomprehensible for today’s trainees, i.e. sportsmen. We will name just a few examples of different modes of training between old martial arts masters and today’s instructors. For example, if a student can even be accepted to a certain school, he needs to come into class several days in a row, sometimes even longer. The master, supposedly, didn’t have the time to admit him right away. And so new students would come and wait in front of the hall (dojo) for the master to take them in. Those who wouldn’t be patient enough and persevere would give up at the very beginning.

At the time, it was normal for the students to stay and clean the dojo after practice. If today’s instructors would mention such a thing, most students would see that as a joke. Old martial arts teachers would sometimes throw a student out if they would notice a flaw in his character (boasting, uncontrollable aggressiveness, lying, stinginess or greediness) which the student could have corrected if he wanted to. If today’s instructor singled out a student because of some flaw they have, that student will probably change their instructor or move to a different club sooner than work on their character, their habits and opinions. Before, a student couldn’t enter the dojo without bowing to their teacher first. Today, this custom is avoided and oftentimes neglected in certain schools and classes. This is why the traditional salute (bow) to the opponent while training or during competitions is often forgotten. Similar changes are happening in certain fencing clubs where trainees tend to omit the traditional salute with the fencing sword before they start the duel.

Before, the master cared about their student and served as a sort of a role model. Today, a regular sportsman has the following people looking out for them: instructor, assistant instructor, fitness coach, doctor or physiotherapist, nutritionist and a sports psychologist and his role model is usually an imaginary (oftentimes with false values), currently popular and famous actor or some other sportsperson. Before, martial arts masters taught their students about the need for meditation, zen philosophy or Taoism. Today, no one cares about that and sports psychologists know very little about a certain martial art or sport.

In the past, alongside a prolonged training session, special notice was given to mental training and strengthening one’s concentration. This type of training is usually skipped today and is considered to be unnecessary. Before, trainees used to lean on their skills, whereas today their focus is their fitness level (physical strength, endurance etc.). During Winter months, old masters would send their students to waterfalls in order to train their concentration and meditate for 30 minutes in 15 degrees Celsius. Today’s trainees are sometimes immersed into cold baths so they could “strengthen” their bodies and improve their blood flow, but this is usually done with no prior psychological preparation (meditation).

Before, old masters knew how to use the attacking skill that affected acupuncture points on the human body (Chinese dim-mak, Japanese kyusho, atemi), while today’s instructors (trainers) can only speculate about it. Some old masters’ skills are totally forgotten today. A lot of their knowledge and many skills are thought of as figments of one’s imagination or a certain legend about a martial arts master and so they are not believed in. Some of the forgotten techniques haven’t been seen for many years. Here are some examples of forgotten skills developed by old martial arts masters which, in today’s setting, sound unreal and fabricated.

Among many incredible skills, we can take note of bullfights that were held on the mountainous island of Crete (between Greece and Egypt) around 2000 to 1400 B.C. This skill can be seen on the fresco which is located in a palace in Knossos.

The bullfighting style of the African American fighter Bill Pickett, who fought around the year 1890, can also be mentioned here. He would bite the bull’s lower lip and topple him down to the ground. The famous karate master Masutatsu Oyama also needs to be mentioned. He was famous for his fights with bulls during the 1960’s where he would break their horns or even kill them during the duel.

The shooting skill where the target is a small coin held between the assistant’s two fingers (usually the thumb and the forefinger) sounds unbelievable today. The skill was developed as a circus attraction in the time of Annie Oakley, around 1890. The technique called miang-chang (cotton or steel palm) which includes hand punches is also quite incredulous in today’s terms. It was demonstrated by the master K. Chung in China around 1928. The technique was never fully revealed to the public. We can also mention the crashing technique – tameshiwari, which is usually used by the Kyokushinkai style masters. It uses hand punches and there are supposedly 3 known methods although they are also not entirely believed in.

For today’s terms, the performance of jumping leg kicks on the height of up to 3.5 metres also sounds amazing. These high jumps were performed by old masters from China and Korea. A similar technique was seen in the United States around 1977 by the master Joo Bang Lee who, in front of witnesses, jumped as high as 3 meters and 66 centimetres. We should also mention the knife throwing technique on big distances (around 10 meters) that are usually targeted towards balloons held by a partner’s hands or between legs spinning on a wheel. Such a skill was part of a circus attraction performed around 1935 (a similar act was seen in the James Bond movie Octopussy in 1983).

The technique of performing remote punches by using one’s inner bioenergy (by knowing the inner Chi energy) also seems unbelievable. Moreover, this bioenergy was never fully researched or explained. The technique was mentioned in the chronicles of the Japanese swordsman M. Musashi, and it was seen by witnesses (Michael Minick) for the last time in San Francisco and Hong Kong in 1970 and 1973, respectively. Many of these aforementioned techniques sound unreal to today’s martial arts instructors (trainers) and especially martial arts sportsmen. They are even described as fake and a product of one’s imagination.

Some sportsmen sometimes even make fun of these, according to their opinion, “imaginary” skills. However, the fact that, even in today’s time some “old school” martial arts masters, along with the knowledge of meditation and deep concentration, can force their bodies to make substantial efforts, some of them unimaginable to many contemporary sportsmen. They, in turn, observe them with great awe and respect.

It should definitely be pointed out that, if you want to achieve a certain sports result, a lot of sacrifice needs to be made. Sport as well as sports accomplishments have their rigorous rules which a sportsperson needs to abide by if he/she wants to succeed. A martial arts trainee’s (traditional) or sportsman’s practice can greatly differ. It is a common opinion that sportsmen train harder and more seriously, while “old school” trainees usually just use it as recreation. Such an opinion is total nonsense because it is known that some excellent “old school” martial arts masters used to turn themselves to extremely difficult and long trainings and the longevity of their practices used to be as much as 2/3/4 or sometimes even more hours.

The great majority of these martial arts masters used to compete in the past, although this might not be the case for all of them. This rigorous training style can sometimes border with fanaticism, i.e. a total devotion to training and perfecting a martial art. Also, it is a common opinion that “old school” martial arts trainees mostly just train technique that are in modern sports and according to the rules of sports fighting deemed as illegal. This is not true. These martial arts trainees usually study, train and experience a certain martial art in a much more complex and versatile way and their knowledge of the skill is much fuller and rounded in comparison with that of sportsmen. For example, performing kata (forms) that sportsmen do not execute, just to train the skill or to know the technique (bunkai), but to perform it in order to impress the audience, the judges and to win trophies.

You can oftentimes become a professional sportsman without really knowing the techniques, i.e. the sport that you have chosen has a very narrow choice of techniques. You can know just a couple of techniques, in comparison to the vast and numerous spectrum of a certain martial arts’ techniques. For example, among 30 different kicks that are present in tae kwon do, the sportsmen – competitors usually perform only 5 – 6 different kicks. In karate, among 30 famous and acknowledged kata, the competitors usually use only 6 – 7 different ones. Many judo techniques have been excluded from judo – sport, e.g. techniques that used foot throws etc. A similar situation happened in other martial arts. However, all martial arts sports and their sportsmen were limited by sports rules and hence their choice of applicable techniques has been restricted. Because of that, many of today’s judo and karate trainees (sports coaches) forget the fact that, in traditional judo technique, kick and punches exist and, in the karate technique, throws and locks are frequently used.

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The magazine has been published since November 1984. Because it is a very specialised and Traditional magazine we only publish each quarter (March - June - September - December) . We do pride ourselves on featuring the most senior and famous Shotokan Senseis in the world in the magazine and it is totally non-political, we feature everyone from all the various organisations.