Traditional Martial Arts
by Jim Barry

The word "traditional" means many things to many different people when it comes to the martial arts. To the martial arts historian, traditional would only apply to battlefield weapons techniques using a spear, long, short sword, bow, and more. Some believe that relatively new arts - some less than one hundred years old - are traditional. Which is it?

It depends on the individual’s perception of how long it takes to establish a tradition, thereby all that is subsequent to that is in the traditional category. Additionally, it depends upon how the particular art has been preserved over time. Although an individual can trace his martial arts lineage back several hundred years, this does not mean that the art is still practiced in the same way today. Are the training methods utilized or the actual physical techniques themselves what validates a martial art's claim of traditionalism? With so much obvious question as to which arts are traditional, which are hybrid, and what is legitimate in general, we must understand how ALL of these systems we started.

Originally, all martial arts systems were the culmination of practical battlefield techniques used by soldiers.


Because actual combat is the best test of a martial arts effectiveness, anything that did not work  was discarded. Inversely, techniques and training methods discovered outside of any particular system that were found to have real combat value and application were added. This was a matter of life and death to these soldiers, their families, and masters. Because the techniques practiced were by necessity as realistic as possible, only techniques that could actually be used for their specific combat situations were retained. An example of this would be a soldier wearing battlefield armor which would diminish or eliminate the value of certain types of techniques such as striking to the body, kicking to the head, etc. Tactics of practical value in combat would take into consideration many factors, such as the type of terrain on which the battle would be fought, the types of weapons that would likely be used, and of course, the armor and dress of each warrior. No consideration was shown for what a system was called and/or where the techniques came from - the only relevant thing was whether or not it worked!

Throughout history these martial systems evolved and adapted to suit ever changing combat scenarios. It was (and remains today) imperative that a system of combat be applicable to the specific situations that are likely to be encountered, and due to the great variation in terrain, climate, weapons, etc. many different options were put into practice - eventually leading to more changes that in turn led to countless diverse styles.

In time, the sporting aspect of the martial arts came to prominence. This element of the martial arts is very popular today and according to some, is largely responsible for the demise of practical defensive tactics. The question is often raised, "How can you possibly have reality in your martial arts if everything you practice must be safe enough for competition?" A competition in which techniques deemed too dangerous are prohibited for the safety of the opponents is no longer martial arts, but mere martial sport. Warriors have for thousands of years sought to dominate their enemy by removing his will and/or ability to wage war - which means the enemy must either be injured to the point that they cannot continue, or they must be killed. In light of this, it seems fairly obvious that techniques that are not dangerous (i.e. those that do not injure or kill) will not stop an attacker.

As in the past, if one of the main goals of martial arts training is to be able to effectively stop an aggressor, then the training system must be conducive to defending against modern day attacks.

Wielding the katana in forms competition is useless when it comes to protecting yourself or others from a mugger or street thug - after all, who carries a sword with tem? yes, many of the movements and skills learned in properly using the sword can be applied to empty handed combat, but if true street self defense is the goal, why take such an indirect path? By the same token, although an individual is able to win trophies in empty handed competition, this does not necessarily equate to that person's practical self-defense ability. There is nothing wrong with practicing the martial arts to preserve tradition, just as there is nothing wrong with sport competitions -¬† but if the tactics applied are not practical in today’s society, they are not self defense!

It is extremely common today to find individuals bickering over what is legitimate, or what is traditional, or what is practical for self-defense etc. Every instructor in the martial arts has their own beliefs as to what really works and what does not. Unfortunately, most of these opinions are from individuals that do not have any real experience or evidence pertaining to the effectiveness of what they teach (especially to modern threats). The highest degree of caution is advised when studying any martial art that cannot prove its effectiveness in real combat, if indeed self defense is your goal. Too many instructors use the tired explanation that says, “Our techniques are too deadly to really practice!” Unfortunately students of these schools have based their self-defense abilities and indeed, their lives (if ever attacked) on techniques that they BELIEVE are valid but they have never really practiced. Furthermore, no one in their dojo has ever used any of these said techniques for real, including the head instructors.

Do the techniques practiced in your school work in the 21st century? If they work in the 21st century, does that mean they are not traditional, since they probably differ from what was commonly practiced 200 years ago?

Whether these techniques worked hundreds or even thousands of years ago is irrelevant to your survival in today’s society.

Contrary to what many people might think, it is my belief that if you practice your art with modern day threats in mind, and practicing realistic techniques to neutralize these threats, this IS in the true sprit and tradition of the martial arts. Traditionally, martial arts were practiced because they allowed the individual to survive a physical confrontation based on the combat methods of the day - if we wish to do the same in the 21st century, what has really changed?

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