How Important Is Discipline In Martial Arts?

This post was actually stimulated by a conversation with one of my former instructors, Sensei Graham Mead, a man from whom I learnt a great deal and who I hold in very high regard. Unfortunately Sensei Mead no longer teaches due to health issues, but an older tiger is still a tiger!

Since I started teaching regularly in 2012, Sensei Mead has honoured me with a few visits to my Dojo to see how my school is getting on. During the recent conversation, discussing the deeper meanings of martial arts philosophy over a few beers (as one does) it became apparent that he was happy with the standards of my school and with what I was teaching; the only thing he had some doubt about was that he felt that the discipline was not strict enough.

This got me thinking, as any such comment from Sensei Mead should be taken seriously.

So here are my thoughts which I’ll share with you:

Many Japanese and Korean martial arts have a quite regimented approach and are often taught with an almost militaristic approach. The instructor barks out instructions and students jump at his/her command. Straight lines, uniforms, rank order, standing to attention (Yoi), etc. Chinese martial arts (upon which most Japanese/Korean arts are largely based) are generally taught in a much more relaxed manner! So why do the Chinese and Japanese/Koreans teach differently, when their arts are all interrelated?

Well first of all, forgive me Korean stylists, but the Koreans learnt much of their martial arts from the Japanese and copied the Japanese teaching approach. Korean martial arts where banned during the Japanese occupation and any Koreans wanting to learn martial arts had to learn Japanese arts. Yes, they’ve developed their arts in different directions since gaining independence, but the underlying teaching style borrows heavily from the Japanese.

So why did the Japanese adopt this militaristic approach that is largely absent from Chinese martial arts?

During the early 20th century, Japan had only just come out of being literally a feudal society and despite rapidly acquiring the then modern weapons of war, it’s government and military services still had a feudal mindset. Japan had already started invading Korea and China, and had obvious ambitions to take it further. As such, they had military conscription. Funakoshi wrote that it was noted that young men with Karate training generally had better physiques and performed better in military service than those without Karate training! As such, Itosu (one of Funakoshi’s masters), was instrumental in introducing Karate training into the Okinawan School system so that all young men could benefit before their conscription.

Classes therefore went from very small intimate group of master and a few students, to larger classes of master and a whole class full of adolescent teenagers. So I would assume that the nature of these classes would need to be significantly more tightly on controlled. Also, (and this is just my hypothesis, I have no evidence), I would imagine that if part of their aim was to prepare children for military conscription, they would have trained them in a semi-militaristic fashion, with the master barking orders in similar way to an officer and the children being taught to respond in a similar way to the soldiers.

When Funakoshi moved to Tokyo in 1922 to teach Karate, he taught primarily in Universities. This helped gain respectability as only the children from the Japanese upper classes would go to university. But also, we’re back to targeting young men pre military conscription.

I can’t really comment on the approach of other Japanese martial arts at that time, but I’d imagine that they were similar.

So this is my personal hypothesis of where the militaristic approach come from. Assuming that I’m right, would it be necessary to have the same level of militaristic discipline today in a country where we do not have conscription and are not preparing for war?

I think not. Most Chinese martial arts have a more relaxed approach. I have little first hand experience, but I don’t believe that most modern martial arts (Krav Maga, MMA, etc) take a such a strict approach either, yet they function quite adequately without it. So I’d say that the old school traditional militaristic approach is not required to the same extent as it was originally taught.

I’ve also heard many stories from years ago of instructors doing things like kicking away a the students legs from under them if their stances were wrong or not deep enough, which to my mind is unnecessarily violent and stupid. Now I’m going to say that I’ve never experienced that or trained in Dojo’s that operated that way, but there were many stories of such behaviours years ago!

I also talked to a lady recently who used to do Aikido. She once attended a seminar and got there a little bit late. She was unaware of the correct etiquette for joining a class late and ended up getting a real telling of in front of everybody. Is it necessary to for high grade man to humiliate and intimidate a lady of a low grade that way, rather than simply explaining to her the correct way so that she knows better next time.

In Karate if we enter a class late, we’re supposed to kneel at the edge of the classes until the Sensei notices us and gives permission to join in. One arrogant Japanese Master was renowned for making people wait up to half an hour (in kneeling position) before letting them join in. Then he’d gesture them on with a wave of his hand without even looking at them. They’d have trouble walking then, never mind kicking and this is damaging to joints. This teaches nothing. I’m sure somebody will be thinking, “it’ll teach them to be on time next time”, but things always come up that can’t always be planned for and we are civilians who are not preparing for war. And yes, I have known a senior Japanese Sensei to be late for a class he was teaching too! Yet the god-complex arrogance has been copied by many Westerners who ape their Eastern Masters.

Such an approach will exclude many people. I have people training with me in their 70’s who would probably not have lasted long in such a culture and don’t believe that the benefits of martial arts should only be for the young and fit! It was never the Okinawan way, it only become like that in Japan!

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that all instructors were like that, going around kicking out your legs out and giving public bollockings (British slang for severe reprimand) for petty breaches of etiquette. But there were and still are a significant number of them.

So having argued against a strict militaristic approach, lets look at what is in it’s favour. Well we are practising a martial art, methods to hurt, maim or possibly kill an opponent. This can’t be practised in an environment where people are messing about and playing the fool or injuries might occur. So some formality and discipline is necessary for safety. Some modern styles mock the etiquette of the traditional styles, but etiquette has it’s place. For example, in pre-arranged drills, high grade martial artists come in full sped and powerfully with no holding back. The bow is a signal that we are preparing. As we step into a stance, we know that an attack is imminent so our mental focus intensifies. When the attack comes we should be ready physically and mentally!

Some may argue that, “it doesn’t happen like that on the streets”. They’re right. But people get hurt, knocked out, crippled on even killed on the streets. We can’t have that in Dojo, simply to, “make it more real”.

The stricter discipline does also tend to add a certain sense of urgency to the training. People that trained that way, usually have a certain intensity about them, which is good for their training and they will always put their all into their training.

So there you have it. I hope I haven’t offended anybody though I’m happy if I’ve challenged your beliefs enough to at least make you go and think about it! I also hope Sensei Mead won’t give me a bollocking next time I see him! 🙂

But I would like your thoughts and feedback below please.

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