How & Why Traditional Martial Arts Got Dumbed Down

Many of the traditional martial arts that we train today have been dumbed down from the effective combat method that they originally used to be.  There are a number of social and political reasons.  The following is a broad generalisation as even within a given system, different masters would have taken various different paths.  This post is just an overview and is not intended to be exhaustive.

Japanese Martial Arts

Today, Japanese martial arts are generally seen as being sectioned into different categories.  Very broadly speaking, Karate is seen as being for striking, kicking, punching; Judo/Aikido for grappling; Kendo/Iaido for weapons and so on.  Yes there are some exceptions like Ju Jutsu.  However, the original Japanese martial arts were full combat systems for self protection or war, and as such they would all have included punches, kicks, strikes, throws, locks, take-downs, weapons . . . . . . the lot.

It helps to understand some of the history that brought about the changes.
Up until 1853, Japan was literally feudal in every sense of the word. They had isolated themselves from from the rest of the World and forbidden any contact with the outsiders. Then in 1853, a US fleet, frustrated by Japan’s refusal to trade, forced it’s way in to Tokyo and opened them up by force.
This was a humiliation to the ruling Shogan and led to civil war from 1868 to 69. The result was the Shogun lost and the Emperor came back to power.  The Emperor was keen to modernise very fast and opened up to the West, including (amongst other things) military technology and training.

They saw Samurai with maybe 40 years experience being taken out by young recruits with a few days training with rifles.
This resulted in a view that traditional martial arts were obsolete for combat. They were primarily considered to be of use for mental and physical development; to toughen up the body and the mind.  At a time when Japan had conscription, it was noticed that young men with martial arts training did better in military service than those who did not.  So traditional martial arts were largely used to prepare young men for military conscription by toughening them up and getting them used to a semi military approach.

So the Japanese Masters had to change their arts in order for them to survive in this new environment.

Jigoro Kano created Judo from Ju Jutsu.  He removed many of the nastier combat elements evolving it into a sport which focused more on throws, locks and hold-downs playing down the striking side.  As unarmed combat was beginning to be looked down on as lowly brawling, below the dignity of a gentleman; making it a sport ensured it’s survival.

Morihei Ueshiba founded Aikido which was derived from a number of other arts, mainly Daito Ryu Aiki Ju Jutsu.  Ueshiba’s intention was to create a method whereby his students could defend themselves whilst also not harming their attacker and developing the student spiritually.  Again this new philosophical approach was very different from the previous brutality of the Samurai.  At a time when martial arts were being seen more and more as being for physical and personal development, such an approach fitted better with this new environment.

Gichin Funakoshi took Karate from Okinawa to Japan in the 1920’s, less than 60 years after Japan being literally feudal. One of his main sponsors in Japan was Kano (see above). Out of respect for Kano (and his Judo), Funakoshi stopped teaching the throws and locks as much and focused more on the punching, striking, kicking side of the art.

The first move of each kata is usually an escape, or a lock, or means of putting the opponent into a prone position ready to receive a finishing blow. However, in this new environment it was better to make it sound more philosophically acceptable to say that each kata began with a “block” (ie, defending yourself from an attacker – they started it)!  So a lot of the original applications to many Karate movements (particularly what we call “blocks”) got dumbed down and simplified; or even lost!

With this then new approach the Japanese became more obsessed with form (what it looks like) than function (how to actually use it).  More and more the training would become about aiming for perfection of movement.  Whilst this in itself is not a bad thing, it was done at the expense of realistic application of these arts.  Many applications that were taught and practised relied on a compliant opponent, attacking in a prescribed manner and then standing still after the attack whilst the defender does their counter.  A lot of it simply wouldn’t work under pressure!

In the post war years during the American occupation, obviously the Americans were a bit dubious about the occupied population learning skills that could be used against them.  So the Japanese had to be creative in order to get permission to train.  Karate for example, dropped all the weapon and emphasised the fitness and health side over the combative.

Over time, the sport side of martial arts became more and more popular.  With a unified Japan without any clans to fight each other any more and an orderly low crime society there was little testing ground for the arts other than sport.  Competition became a way to measure success and bring kudos to the club/association.  Judo had already gone down that route.  Ken Jutsu (swordsmanship) became a sport as Kendo.  Whereas Ken Jutsu would aim for killing targets such as the arteries inside the arms and legs, Kendo would aim for “point scoring” targets such as the more accessible outside of the arms and legs.  Karate’s close range fighting method became more of a long range fighting method with higher kicks being introduced.  Where different kata had similar but subtly different movements which the Japanese had lost the meanings to, these movements were sometimes standardised across the kata losing in some cases the movement all together.

Japanese “Masters” who had perfected the movements (but did not know what many of the movements could be used for) would attempt to interpret movements in terms of long range (sport type) fighting, as that was all they knew.  Martial applications got even more lost and dumbed down!

Korean Martial Arts

As Korea had developed with the rest of the world rather than been isolated like Japan had been, most of the original Korean martial arts had long since disappeared as they became obsolete or evolved into sport.  Then during the Japanese occupation, Korean arts were banned and only Japanese arts were taught, so all the problems described above, were transferred into the Korean arts!

The Koreans also had other problems in the 50’s when Tae Kwon Do was founded.  Trying to promote a Japanese art in Korea, when memories of Japanese war atrocities were still fresh, was not good for marketing!  Also, trying to promote and a Korean version of a Japanese art overseas was problematic, as why go to Korea to learn a Japanese art.  Why not go to Japan and learn from source!

So the Koreans had to seriously reinvent themselves.  Many of the basic movements were altered.  They emphasised kicking more as some Koreans had also studied Northern Chinese martial arts and also they would try to link to the indigenous art of Taekkyeon (even though Taekyeon had by that time evolved into more of a sport).  Whilst Tang Soo Do kept the original Karate kata/patterns (albeit modified), Tae Kwon Do cast these kata aside and created an entirely new set of patterns.

Despite claims of making the changes to create a superior art to it Karate predecessor, I think its fair to say that it much more to do with creating a separate identity so as to have something “Korean” to market at home and abroad.

Many Tae Kwon Do Associations have also become very very sport oriented, even more so than the Japanese arts.

Chinese Martial Arts

These followed a different but parallel path.  When Bruce Lee started teaching Westerners, he upset the Chinese community who felt that Kung Fu should be kept secret and only taught to Chinese people.  Bruce Lee was famously challenged for teaching Westerners and was not the one.

I don’t know if it’s true, but I’ve heard that Ip Man would not teach Bruce Lee the more advanced levels of Wing Chun as Bruce’s mother was half Chinese half Western.

Of course in time the Chinese realised that they could make money teaching Westerners so it eventually opened up and they started teaching more.  But do you think they really taught us the complete system or do you think that they might have kept some things back?  It’s very easy to teach a lot of movements without teaching the deeper applications.

Separate to this, during the Chinese cultural revolution from about 1966 to 1976, martial arts were banned.  Many masters fled to Hong Kong, Taiwan or around the world.  Later, when Kung Fu become popular in the West, the Chinese realised that their martial arts were good for international prestige and making money.  So they opened up to martial arts again.

However, the state sponsored martial arts become very athletic and acrobatic.  Much of it was more for show than function.  Impressed Westerners flocked to it, not realising that it was not really the original method and was certainly less functional.  The Chinese athletes made it look wonderful and that was enough to take in people who did not know any better.  In fairness, some true masters flourished in Hong Kong and Taiwan, whilst some kept under the radar in China; so I’m not saying ALL Kung Fu is dumbed down.

It was also noticed by the authorities that Tai Chi was good for health.  So they decided to set up a simplified form of Tai Chi to teach to the masses as it would be a good way to keep costs down for the Chinese health service.  The simplified Tai Chi was nicknamed Beijing Tai Chi, and was the version that spread most quickly around the world.

2 thoughts on “How & Why Traditional Martial Arts Got Dumbed Down

  1. Hi Emmanuel
    There is a certain irony in the answer to that question.
    Traditionally, the Okinawans and Chinese would adapt their teaching and training to suit the environment of the student, along with the actual physique (physical capabilities and limitations) of the student. Adapting and changing, was the traditional way!
    The Japanese had a cultural need for lineage to give more credibility to their system, so they tended to formalise styles a bit more, especially after the Shogan was removed and the Emperor was reinstated in power. The Emperor wanted to modernise very fast and traditional martial arts were seen as obsolete for combat. They only wanted martial arts for toughening up physically and mentally, especially young boys/men for military conscription.
    As such, the different styles got more entrenched in a one-size-fits-all approach which we are more familiar with today.
    Chinese martial art followed a similar pattern when they opened up to teaching Westerners, it was good for marketing . . . . “the authentic style of the 31st Grand-Master of the such and such Shaolin Temple . . . . etc”.
    So to answer your question, there are a number of people updating their knowledge all the time with the latest street psychology and tactics; and incorporating this into their teaching. So yes, there are a number of people teaching the traditional way.
    Ironically, those that claim to hold true to a traditional style and reject change, are not teaching the traditional way.
    I hope this helps Emmanuel.

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