Martial arts, self-defense and all that

Bujutsu versus budo

In Japanese, there are two words that tend to cause confusion. These are bujutsu or war arts and budo or the way of war. War arts are those things directly related to warfare. In the modern day this would mean, for instance, the training a tank crew would get in how to drive, load or fire. In times past it might include loading a musket or using a sword.

War ways implies something dervied from war arts, but adapted for civilian use. Any martial art this is not in direct usage by an army – which is pretty much all of them at last count – is budo. In a modern army, hand to hand combat is not normally part of actual combat training, and would indicate a severe breakdown of military command structure or in short a disaster ("where was that airstrike?!"). It used to be that they taught pugil stick training (these are sticks with padding at both ends, like Q-tips on steroids) which comes from antiquated quarter-staff training. This was never billed as being practical but was done to instill aggression and tenacity. Moreover, unlike self-defense systems a major goal of the training is to keep you engaged on command against your own best interests. You are not permitted to retreat unless specifically ordered to do so. Now there is confusion since pugil stick work has been replaced with Brazillian jiu jitsu (BJJ). The adoption of BJJ by the military is the basis for the claim that it is a 'combat.' system. No.

While there are some parts of the military, such as special ops, that do hand to hand training, their techniques are not a complete martial art, but a tool. Oh, and for what it's worth, there is a certain ilk of instructor that claims to have secretly tutored special forces. That does not wash, since the military forbids public disclosure of such training. I would take any such claims with a good deal of salt. (Only Paul Vunak can get away with this, because he was one of the first, before the non-disclosure agreement became standard. For his advertising he was fired from instruction.)

I guess I should fess up here as to why I have such a hard-nosed attitude to martial arts and self-defense. I used to date a woman, whom I will call X. She studied a martial art which is derived from Aikido and broadcasts that it had realistic sparring to make it street-effective. A couple of years before I met her, she was assaulted, tried to control the attacker, just like in class, and was brutally raped and beaten. (Bureau of Justice statistics show that 80% or women are beaten after the rape, by the way.) When I met X, she was having lots and I do mean lots of personal problems still. The aftermath of the assault haunted her literally every waking minute for the years since: Serious trust issues, anxiety, unpredicted mood swings, you name it. I lost track of her not because I did not like her, but because she was too emotionally unstable to have a relationship with anyone. Lord knows she tried, but it just wouldn't work and she fled from friendships both casual and intimate regularly. I really have no idea what happened to her. This is why I take self-defense schools so severely to task. If her teacher had told her to extract herself rather than making her think she should have controlled the situation the whole tragic affair could have been avioded.

Martial arts in a civilian context

So now we come to the big question and that is this: shouldn't I find some system that is used by the military and learn that for self-defense? Isn't a combat (and I do mean combat) tested system the way to go? Well, no.

Let me explain this. You do not live in a combat zone. Combat systems are not designed to anything more than kill, and real ones are very good at it. On a battlefield, there are no issues with legal ramifications, applicability, morality or ethics. If someone is wearing the wrong uniform, you kill them. It is often that simple. In a civilian setting this will get you sent to prison without a doubt. Since most people can sort out the issues better when sidearms are used, think of this this way. If you had an automatic assault rifle as your only protection would you be safer? In a society of law there are very few times indeed that level of force could be deployed reasonably. How could you justify using that against a slightly drunk co-worker at the office Christmas party? Of course, most such purported systems are simply brutal rather than realistic. I've seen very few of such "combat" systems I can take seriously on any level. The so-called "combat sports" movement is a particularly grievous example of this, where we are to believe that hodge-podge of brutal techniques modified for a commercial sporting event is to be our guide to protecting ourselves. The sport modifications for safety precisely rob the techniques of their original utility.

Combat techniques as a basis for self-defense

Adapting military techniques to a civilian environment is not an easy task. Only having some ultimate kill 'em all and let God sort 'em out technique certainly sounds like you can control the situation, but that is an illusion. Part of this is that real combat-oriented training is mission-oriented. Your job in the armed services is the mission first and your safety second. As such many real combat systems don't teach you to defend yourself. In the armed services, retreat unless explicitly ordered is not an option. Part of this training is teaching recruits to stay in the fight no matter what the cost. That won't sail if you've got a couple of kids you are trying to protect from harm, for example.

Moreover, when do you apply such training? To the wino that won't take no for an answer? To the burly driver who swears you took his parking place? Having a limited range of lethal techniques puts you in the position of either being unarmed (can't use it) or a murderer. People who shrug off discussions of the morality of using a technique are sometimes sociopaths, but mostly clueless, so that when actually confronted by a living breathing opponent, they simply lock-up. If they follow through, they are setting themselves up for serious post-traumatic stress issues that might plague them for decades. If this last statement does not impress you, you simply do not understand the situation and definitely are at high-risk for such issues. If you gravitate towards such systems, you should do some soul-searching as to why you feel the need to learn such a thing, since I think you are probably reacting to some set of insecurities rather than a bona fide threat.

Now you ought to be aware that no martial art is applicable for self-defense. It is ludicrous to assume that some 400 year-old system's techniques conform to all state and local laws on the judicious use of force, or that the mindset of the system is close to your own. While a lot of people get off on an overly romanticized nostalgia for 'the good old days' when samurai ruled, the truth of the matter is that the shogun was the military dictator of Japan and the samurai themselves could and frequently did practice cutting civilians down just for the fun of it. A lot of authentic jujutsu combat techniques end with pinning the person to the ground in such a way that your hands are free to cut off the armor and decapitate him. A severed was proof that the deed was done and would be worth payment. Indeed, in Japan there was a very specific severed head ceremony at the end of a battle. Is this how you plan to deal with that bag lady? Think about it. Martial arts exist to organize body dynamics and retain training methodologies. Martial arts are the reference books of self-defense. Any claim to the contrary should be greeted with enormous skepticism.

Sport-based martial arts as a basis for self-defense

There are other issues as well. The fundamental approach of sport-based martial arts is parity between opponents. On the street, your attacker will only choose you if he has an unquestioned advantage, be it weapons, size or friends. Sport-based martial arts place and almost sacred faith in sparring as a way to test one's mettle. This does not cut it, because it teaches you to engage rather than make yourself safe (ponder that). Such engagements blind you to multiple opponents, teach you to ignore certain movements that should make you go to full red alert – such as a hand going out of site to draw a weapon and teach you that nobody ever will make a full-throttle assault. You can't just repeatedly do one or two techniques in a sparring match because your opponent will eventually adjust and stymie them, hence you come to ignore what is the safe bet and work on marginal techniques or fancy it up with feints and such. I've known a few martial artists that got decked by Bubba while they were feinting. Seems his lack of understanding of their system was his problem. Moreover, too much sparring desensitized you to common attacks. When was the last time you saw someone do a finger choke or throw a sloppy haymaker? Sure there are a million simple defenses to these, but these usually succeed on the street because the bad guy will position himself first and ambush. When sparring, that type of distancing is impossible to get and every single attack is a frontal assault from a limited set of approved techniques.  (OK, for a tour of the dark side, how would you attack someone who you absolutely wanted to be sure was taken out of action immediately? I'll bet it doesn't involve squaring off against him to give him a reasonable chance to defend himself does it? This is what sparring reinforces.)

That said, if kept in context, sparring can be very, very helpful. It can allow for a lot of practice in a chaotic situation and promotes speed, balance and some awareness of what the opponent is doing with his body (not situational or environmental awareness, which is what will get you killed in a self-defense scenario). War games are just really far removed from war. Even brutal war games. Keep sparring in its place as a game and invest it with no specious higher meaning.

Thought for the day: Sport assumes parity, self-defense assume disparity of opponents.

One other personal gripe with a lot self-defense systems is that they are predicated on punishing the attacker. No, no, no and did I say NO?! The goal as a instructor is to give good advice so that your students get home safely. It sends me straight through the roof when I see some self-defense program teaching women or children to defend themselves by rushing the bad guy like a 300 lb. linebacker. A good laugh is those schools that teach floor fighting for 'real' self-defense. A size disparity nullifies about 99% of floor-fighting techniques. Teaching women that they should do a takedown and try to grapple on the floor is a tragedy in the making. Teach them to escape at all costs. There is a reason that most traditional jujutsu systems don't have a huge floor-fighting component. That is properly part of judo, which with a few strikes was similarly hyped decades ago as the ultimate fighting art of 'combat judo.' Another source of amusement is where some schools put on protective gear for an attacker, who makes a half-hearted move so that the defender can practice standing there and slugging them. This raises unrealistic expectations of what will happen in such a situation. There are excellent training programs for adrenaline based scenario training, but these are expensive and traumatic. You don't want to casually sign up for one of these, but a lot of their outward manifestations have been co-opted.

Many self-defense schools are based on the fact that the instructors are in great shape and can physically overpower most assailants. A top-notch athlete doesn't need a martial art, both because they have good enough body sense and strength to inflict damage and because they are often so physically intimidating that nobody would want to mess with them anyway. They are much less likely on this account to have to use their tools than their students. (Not to mention that if you are really conditioned and tough you can afford to be stupid in your training.)  The  idea with a lot of more recent modern self-defense systems was to replace martial arts techniques that took 20 years to master with simpler, more effective things. That is laudable, but many times they replace them with seriously brutal conditioning that is extremely time consuming and strenuous; be prepared to train 2 - 4 hours daily and get bashed on a lot.  This has the peculiar effect of rendering a lot of these more recent self-defense systems elitist – more so than the traditional systems they intend to replace. 

Why I like hakko denshin ryu

For reference, I like the way that hakko denshin ryu approaches this. The principles are cleanly delineated and nicely abstract. There are no direct claims to applicability and finding the applications is the duty of the student. This automatically forces you to investigate legal issues and has peer review built in to it – if you think a technique is applicable to your needs, you get to run it by everyone who are obliged to help you evaluate it. In many martial arts systems the techniques themselves are handed down and considered as received knowledge. This often petrifies into a rigid snapshot of the system at a given instant and limits it to being an historical curiosity. In HDR there is a lot of variety from school to school and one may prefer to do techniques simply as physical culture, somewhat akin to aikido where another might be run by a police officer and specializes in professional uses of force, with absolutely no-nonsense takedowns and pins. Yet another might specialize into civilian self-defense only. They all share a common technical basis and are therefore considered within the system. Rather than being simply a mixed martial art (while there are some world class people who do it, this all to often just means mixed-up) HDR is spectacularly cosmopolitan.