Martial arts were forced to change or disappear

Asian martial arts were mostly unknown in the West until after the second world war. In Japan, one of the first things MacArthur's occupation authority did was to effect a near-total disarmament. Anything that smacked of militarism was summarily banned.

Before the war, Japanese/Okinawan martial arts were serious fighting systems; they served an equivalent purpose to Krav Maga or other military self-defense/fighting systems today.

During the occupation, a few Japanese folks with a vested interest in the survival of a martial art - the con-men/salesmen who are known today as the masters - needed to change. To avoid having their fighting clubs proscribed by the authorities, they were forced to align their fighting systems somewhere along two lines: either hype the mystical aspects of the martial art and turn it into (what would be to MacArthur) yet-another incomprehensible Asian religion, or turn it into a sport. Heck, it couldn't hurt to mix and match so you end up with a bit of both.

Consequently, Karate was changed from a (literally) deadly fighting system, the foremost proponent of which was rumored to have perfected his techniques by beating to death an unknown number of Chinese prisoners, to a system of no-contact point fighting and mostly meaningless kata, the original purposes of which are no longer clear and whose original applications are, except in obvious cases, lost. Jiu-Jitsu virtually disappeared, kept alive in private by a small number of devotees. Aikido practicioners either migrated to Judo, a sport in the truest sense of the word, or turned into cult-like reactionaries who changed their (extremely dangerous) fighting system into a nearly impenetrable philosophy which, ironically, claims to emphasize non-violence. The various styles of japanese fencing were absorbed into the sport called Kendo and the other Japanese weapons disciplines disappeared, only to be replaced in modern times by Chinese weapons techniques, renamed and appropriated by Japanese instructors. I refer mostly to staff and flexible weapons training which was mostly a curiosity before the war but has become a significant part of the curriculum of some modern martial arts schools.

The spread of martial arts around the world

During the occupation, Westerners thought of Japanese martial arts as exotic and somewhat comical, but not particularly dangerous. The Hardy Boys got themselves out of a lot of scrapes by employing Jiu-Jitsu, The Green Hornet and his sidekick were supposed to be Aikido experts (although the moves were Chinese in origin). Later, even the peace-loving Doctor Who was an expert in 'Venusian Aikido' (at least in the early episodes).

In the early sixties, Japanese martial arts organizations sent instructors to the West to open martial arts schools (and, some would say, bilk the gullible Westerners out of their money). They were embraced by soldiers who had been in Japan, and by beatniks. The juxtaposed, yin-yang tinged peace, love and understanding mantra that was mixed with undertones of barely-restrained violence that then grew up around the martial arts seems silly today, but was effective at the time. They usually tried to affiliate themselves with universities and to this day there are many large martial arts clubs providing instruction on college campuses.

The martial arts identity crisis

This was all very well and good for the hippies. They had loads of fun acting like cult members and wearing oversized pajamas and parroting phrases in a language they didn't understand. But for people who got into martial arts because of the fighting hype - that it didn't matter what size you were as long as you trained martial arts, or that women could defend themselves with the 'secrets from the orient', or that you could chop through a board with your pinky finger - there was a major problem: the martial arts no longer worked. Gone were the days when the martial arts were practiced seriously, with violent intent. People would find themselves easily beaten by a boxer, or a wrestler, or even by the local neighborhood tough-guy. Despite devoting years of their life and thousands of dollars to training, they could be easily murdered by a thirteen year old kid with a two-dollar knife. All of a sudden, folks who had been involved in martial arts for a significant period of time began to question their goals and their reasons for doing what they did. Grown men and women who devoted a large part of their free time to practicing violence were looked at askance by the mainstream.

Instructors did their best to discourage their students from worrying about it. Platitudes like, "you don't train to fight, you train to not fight" were coined. Claims were made that "training is for a lifetime" and that "the purpose of martial arts is personal growth". Ultimately, students were told, "don't think, just do".

Anyone can teach martial arts

In the mid-sixties, Judo became an Olympic sport and was no longer under the thumb of the bureaucratic Japanese associations that still controlled the other martial arts. Unfortunately, the other Japanese martial arts associations kept an iron grip on their respective organizations. By the early seventies, the non-Japanese students with the most tenure had been training longer, and in a lot of cases had a greater level of skill, than those original Japanese martial arts instructors who went on the mission to spread the martial arts to America and other Western countries. To their chagrin, they were held down in the organization, not granted higher ranks, and if they agitated about it many of them found themselves kicked out of the (tax-exempt, non-profit) organization which they had paid dues to for a good part of their life.

Eventually, various disaffected non-Japanese martial artists started egalitarian organizations that promoted people on the basis of merit, did away with a lot of the cult-like aspects of their previous schools, were financially accountable, embraced rather than stifled diverse opinions, and most importantly, were open to new training ideas. Also, the author turned movie-star Bruce Lee came along and showed the world that the Japanese didn't have an exclusive claim to martial arts. More importantly, he showed that science and rational thought could exist hand-in-hand with a world-class level of accomplishment in martial arts. People wanted to be like him. Bruce Lee's habit of taking the useful parts of a martial art and disregarding the humiliating mysticism and other silliness resulted in a new generation of people being introduced to martial arts training. Ironically, after his death he became an icon and the cult of personality that surrounded him grew to the same outlandish extremes that he originally tried to clear away from other martial arts during his life. His detractors did their best to strike down his ideas while his supporters hit back just as vehemently in the debate about who can rightfully claim to be a martial arts expert.

It showed that there was still a sense that 'traditional' martial arts were the ideal, and the others were just pretenders. Nobody was willing to admit that his or her chosen discipline was inferior to, or even the equal of another. The debate raged on and on and it was universally recognized that what was needed was a tournament that would pit martial artists against one another. This was the dream of every testosterone-filled martial arts zealot.

Mine is better than yours (or is it?)

In the late-eighties, the Jean-Claude Van Damme movie, Bloodsport was released to the accolades of every martial arts zealot on the planet. It depicted a secret martial arts tournament where fighters of different styles came together in an anything-goes contest to decide whose martial art was the most effective. In the movie, the different styles were realistically portrayed, and martial artists concluded that this was the closest they'd get to their dream of witnessing the real thing.

It wasn't until 1993 that fantasy became reality. During the height of the pay-per-view craze, the Ultimate Fighting Championship was held. A little-known Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu cabal organized this tournament, which was billed as the closest thing to a street-fight as you would ever see. It pitted eight fighters, among them a sumo-wrestler, some kickboxers, a Tae Kwon Do fighter, a shootfighter submission fighter, a highly-ranked boxer, some karate fighters, and a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu expert, against each other in a fight to submission where the rules prohibited only eye-gouging and biting. The fighters were locked in an octoganal cage with chain-link walls and a padded floor (the perfect environment for a Jiu-Jitsu fighter, pundits would complain). The tournament was a single-elimination affair with bouts decided by tap-out (the beaten contestant signaling his submission) or KO.

Predictably, it was a bloody affair. The sumo wrestler was thrashed by a Savate expert half his size, and one of his teeth was kicked out of his head and nearly hit the announcers. The boxer tapped out in humiliation after being completely overwhelmed by the Jiu-Jitsu black-belt. A Karate fighter was choked out cleanly and efficiently without even getting a punch off. Blood flowed aplenty and, finally, hard-core martial arts zealots were getting what they craved. The audience's bloodlust was palpable. Their frustration was evident too, since several of the fights ended in strange submission holds - chokes and joint-locks. These were techniques that most people had never taken seriously. The same things that G.I.s snickered at in the mid-forties were suddenly, in the mid-nineties, being used again to do what they were designed for. Eventually the Jiu-Jitsu expert came away victorious. In one night, peoples' worlds were turned upside down. The strikers - karate players, boxers and kickboxers - wondered what happened.

Sure enough, the worldwide martial arts community found itself shaken by the most important thing to come along since Judo and Tae Kwon Do became an Olympic sport. No longer could proponents of a style claim their super-secret stuff was too dangerous to use in a tournament. The Ultimate Fighting Championship, which was originally conceived to be the tournament to end all tournaments, quickly became a franchise and spawned a host of imitators around the world. In order to survive, people with a vested interest in the traditional martial arts are reverting to the same claims they used during the occupation of Japan, i.e. that the things they teach are peaceful paths to self-enlightenment and/or non-contact sports. The "fighting" martial arts - those that are interested in teaching their students to fight and win - are irreversably changed from their roots that were re-developed in the seventies. These days, anyone who wants to fight has to familiarize him or herself with a host of different techniques and styles. She must be a competent boxer, a knowledgable kicker, and an able submission wrestler. What is now known as mixed martial arts (MMA) is the collected body of knowledge honed by more than a decade of UFC and Pride fighting competitions. MMA has given legitimacy to professional fighters who use only the techniques and training methods that work, and who are finally able to discard the outlandish trappings of the traditional martial art cultists.

Let me clarify that I will only be discussing the martial traditions of the Japanese. Certainly many countries throughout classical and modern history have formulated, used, and subsequently lost valid forms of martial arts. Unfortunately, the breadth of such activities escape me as a mere mortal and I must invariably only node what I know.

Koryu is the term used in the Japanese language to describe a classical tradition. This is an all-inclusive term, referring as much to the martial arts as to Noh drama, the tea ceremony (chado), and ikebana, the art of flower arrangement. Though there are a few variations and exceptions to this guideline, in the martial world, an art is classified as koryu if its origin dates from the pre-Meiji era, circa 1868. The two largest and most reputable organizations used to formally recognize koryu bugei are the Nihon Kobudo Shinkokai and the Nihon Kobudo Kyokai

As the title of this node suggests, an author should take note to node a progression from a rise to a fall rather than one or the other. This rise, by definition, happened far earlier than World War II or any American involvement.

The Rise


Most koryu bugei do not originate from earlier than the late Muromachi era, with a majority being founded during the pax Tokugawa regime. To understand their rise, we must understand their nature.

The world used to describe each school or style, in Japanese, is ryu-ha. Each ryu-ha is a tradition that is passed on from master to disciple, with lineages varying from those of family (often including adopted family), to those of maximum comprehension or strength. The character for 'ryu' itself is an indication of both this transmission and the nature of the style, as it may be alternately translated as the verb 'to flow.' Let me explain. What was being passed from generation to generation was not a collection of techniques. It was a general principle; of movement, martial theory, or of life. Principles, being such difficult things to grasp, cannot simply be handed over. Rather, it must (pay attention) flow from one to another, a progession not unlike the tides; a little here, a little there, but slowly, steadily, and certainly not all at once.

The ryu-ha phenomenon has been called, by those wiser than myself, an 'umvelt,' a German word to describe a world view or perception. One does not realize the essence of the ryu-ha through conscious thought, but rather, the ryu is the ideas on aforementioned movement or theory that tints his perception and moves him unconsciously. An individual's success or failure could more likely be seen as his inability to truly grasp this underlying view than on the validity of such a view. If one has lived long enough to understand the deepest of secrets of his ryu-ha and he has also lived to pass it on, there is an inherent validity. Budo is about living, not dying.

In many ways, it makes sense that the koryu bugei would not have formed in the manner of the ryu-ha any earlier than the late Muromachi period. Before the rise of Oda Nobunaga, Tomotomi Hideyoshi, and Tokugawa Ieyasu there was only constant warfare. There was no time for the successful and meaningful (read: slow and careful) transmission of an art from one man to another. There was only time for following orders and death. However, as peace came to be a real possibility, those who had known only struggle and a life of the sword, were left with only their knowledge of a way that would never be seen again. The rise of the classical arts as we understand them today lie as much in a forced peace as they do in the trials and tribulations of men on a battlefield. With time on their hands, the masters of old gave rise to a new tradition.

The Fall


Let it first be known that our knowledge of the koryu bugei comes from a far greater source than history; it comes from the koryu themselves. The classical arts may have fallen, but they are not quite dead. While there were once thousands to schools, there are only a few hundred extant traditions today. Not so few, however, that one cannot find tuition with one or more and come to understand what the bushi of old had come to know.

Going hand in hand with the ryu-ha's nature of direct transmission, the school is often considered the sole propriety of an individual or family. It is certainly not a democracy and often leaves only the taste of dictatorship in one's mouth. This is how it has been and this is how it will be. Modern societies, Japan included, though mostly spearheaded by the West, have a strong dislike for dictatorship. Though there have not been, in my knowledge, any witch hunts conducted only on the basis of antiquated leadership methods, the members of society as a whole have been turning their backs on institutions that can be considered unjust. In light of such situations, many organizations such as the koryu bugei have lost membership and, in some cases, ceased to be because of it.

It is also said that many of the great masters had to "steal" their current knowledge from their teacher before them. There was no discussion, no lecture followed by questions and answers. There was only the way, to be followed, not considered. This, too, has found itself as an antiquated teaching method. If the teaching methods have become modern, can the lessons still be considered classical? In some cases, yes, but other cases have again led to the fall of a once proud and very old school tradition.

Lastly, we have become a global society of people caring only about practicality and efficiency. Are the koryu bugei applicable today? Certainly. Will any of us find ourselves donning yoroi, wielding a yari, and marching on Osaka castle? Hardly. The largest factor in the fall of the koryu bugei is disinterest. Why would you learn a method of fighting that was dying at the very same time the ryu-ha was created? Why not practice a modern art, or a semi-classical art taught in a much easier, modern way? Some say tradition, others say practicality doesn't matter. Fortunately, these are the people who keep the few extant ryu-ha exactly what they are. Unfortunately, these people are as few and far between as the ryu-ha themselves. Maybe it's because the practictioners are the ryu-ha. Umvelt, world view, a flow of unconscious thought, remember?

Others just don't care.

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