A Martial Arts of Submission

‘Sheathing the sword without hurting anyone is the future of Aikido’ – Shoji Nishio.

‘Help your partner live and thrive’ – Seishiro Endo.

‘What use is it to just copy my technique?’ – Morihei Ueshiba, O-Sensei.


Where does martial arts practice start for practitioners of the second decade of the twenty first century? Does it begin in fear – the fear of death, the fear of being out of control, the fear of powerlessness? Does it begin in wonder – wonder at the brilliance of screen legends like Bruce Lee, Jet Li, and Jackie Chan, wonder at the apparently miraculous power of the martial artist who performs seemingly unnatural feats of blended grace and brutality? Does it begin even by chance – the chance which makes the curious bystander pick Jujutsu class instead of aerobics at the gym, the chance which allows the evening jogger to stop in a Karate class while out on a run, the chance which introduces a friend of a friend to a teacher? All of these and many more are ways in which students can be introduced to the martial arts, I only pick such examples because I know of them in my own life and amongst my friends and acquaintances. I do not believe any of these are enough to count as starting points for the practice of martial arts proper, that is: a grasping of what it means to be a martial arts practitioner and what the martial arts themselves represent. Anyone can come into class and doggedly repeat movements and there is certainly skill and value to this (I have even said before that I take great pleasure in watching kata [forms] championships in Karate because of the uncanny precision and dexterity of the performances, and who doesn’t marvel at the obscene feats of control the Shaolin monks can bring to bear on themselves?). Nevertheless, doggedness and dogma do not the martial artist make. It is easy to hop on the mat and rattle off copy-paste techniques, but in doing so, one may never access the essence of martial arts itself. In what follows, I wish to demonstrate that, far from the desire for a perfect self-defence (fear), the allure and grandeur of the miracle-working sage master (wonder), or the joyous happenstance of turning up and having a great time (chance), what makes martial arts practice what it is, what defines the practice as technically, philosophically, and practically coherent and sound, is a martial arts which begins with what I shall call submission.

It should be noted that in previous work, I have discussed and advocated the idea of a forgiving martial arts, one which is based upon the idea of forgiveness as irrevocable power and unlimited mercy. This was an idea espoused by the late Shoji Nishio, who was known to have held dan ranks in not only Aikido, but Iaido, Karate, and Judo as well, and in my formulation, encouraged a forgiving martial arts (yurusu budo) which held the potential for the practitioner to strike down their opponent at any time, yet always refrained from doing so. I no longer find this formulation of martial arts adequate. While I believe that this concept may yet be useful in the martial arts, I wish to move away from it for the inconsistencies it produces between the technical, philosophic, and practical sides of the martial arts, which I will begin to explain my view on in due course. Unlike sport or fitness (which is not to say that sports and other forms of exercise cannot also be practised in a martial way or be just as valuable), martial arts are concerned with ‘do’ – the notoriously difficult-to-translate-effectively suffix which usually denotes ‘the way’. The use of this term (Ju-do, Aiki-do, Karate-do, Ken-do, Bu-do) as opposed to the older jutsu (Ju-jutsu, Aiki-Jutsu, Ken-jutsu, Bu-jutsu) denotes the transformation of martial artistry from pure technique and use of technique in combat (jutsu) to the development and cultivation of lifestyle. Many martial arts were reorganised and renamed into ‘do’ rather than ‘jutsu’ structures in the period after the second-world-war in order to reflect the peace-oriented attitude of the time and to move away from the conservative and militaristic connotations the old martial arts schools had held, and in some cases even openly endorsed. In this way, it is my understanding that to practice the martial arts must be more than the idle, or even the meticulous or fervent learning of movements for fighting and killing; it should just as much be the investigation of the purpose of those movements, the circumstances of their proper use, and the place of those skills in their historical context. As a side note, it is easy to see how these attributes can apply to any physical activity, or any activity at all, which is why I say sports or fitness can be practised in a martial way – it is really only for want of a better term that I use ‘martial’ to denote this style of practice; I do not actually believe that sports or fitness are separate from the realm of the ‘martial’ insomuch as I believe that there is a difference between the quality of practice (of anything) as martially sincere and as only barely engaged.

It will not have escaped notice, either, that I have drawn only on Japanese or Japan-related martial arts in my discussion so far. I do not wish this to exist as a commentary only on the Japanese martial arts, and I equally do not wish to express the idea that the Japanese arts hold any kind of supremacy or priority over martial arts of other denominations, only that my personal history and experience is limited to those arts and it would be remiss of me to discuss other arts without proper investigation or authority. I do believe, however, that the principles under discussion apply to all martial arts and perhaps to all disciplines in general, with martial arts, particularly those of Japan, simply being my best lens through which to view them.

I should also take this opportunity to make clear some terminology I have been using. My use is not indicative of any wider use or standard but simply the way I am choosing to express myself given the lack of common nomenclature across the arts. I have spoken of the technical, philosophical, and practical aspects of the martial arts:

The technical refers to the study of the ideal and perfect form of any given movement. The practice of the technical is necessarily somewhat separate from its application in combat; it is the learning of technique, of the ‘how to’, in a safe environment where learning and experimentation are possible with some reduction of the risk of real injury.

The philosophical refers to the underlying ethical principles of the martial art at hand and how they are reflected in the technical and practical elements of the art. The practice of the philosophical is perhaps the most neglected of the practices of the martial arts. Most practitioners indeed never sit down to read about or write about the purpose or significance of what they study, or question the efficacy of the teachings handed down to them. The difficulty with the philosophical is that martial arts classes are not lectures, teaching is rarely in the form of oral discussion or debate, and rightly speaking, the technical aspects of the art are much better communicated through experiencing technique and exploring it rather than reading about or speaking about it. This leaves the philosophical element of martial arts as a more or less individual pursuit, unless the practitioner is blessed with like-minded friends, and thus this aspect ends up developing often in a vacuum and without the guidance of teachers or fora for the sharing of ideas. Nevertheless, it is a vital component to proper martial arts, to my mind, and the martial artist who never discusses or questions their technical and practical elements in conversation with others will be forever impoverished in their development.

The practical refers to the use of the technical in the emergence of an unscripted and unpredicted event calling for martial intervention. Few martial artists in history (if any) are able to translate the elements of their technical practice completely unchanged into the messy environment of unanticipated violence. There is therefore a disjunct between the technical (the ideal form) and the practical (how it manifests in combat). Battles bastardise forms, and make clumsy the smooth and practised machinery of technique. The practice of the practical is the exposure of the artist to a situation of genuine vulnerability where, unlike in technical practice, the risk of harm is pressing and urgent.

In the martial arts, the link between the practical and the technical is usually considered, I believe, to be the overwhelming majority of training. Indeed, most of the martial artist’s career can very well be spent reducing the separation between the two aspects; transforming your ‘O-goshi’ hip throw into nameless instinct, turning the ‘Tekki shodan’ form from awkward sideways shuffling into instantaneous solidity under pressure, realising your complex and laborious attempts at the wrist-lock ‘nikyo’ as a functional and immediate response to danger. This is the business of everyday training. The continuous examination, critique and re-evaluation of the student’s habits and movements in order to unpick and restitch them together, weaving the threads of technique into the tapestry of living.

The next most explored link is typically the one between the technical and the philosophical. Practitioners who attain a certain level of technical prowess, or who find themselves particularly invested in the minutiae of technique itself are those who most commonly investigate the implications of their techniques in a wider social, moral, ethical, or sometimes theological context. This will be familiar in the evolution of the teacher to the sage, a phenomenon common in older masters of almost any style of martial arts. Ueshiba O-sensei, Aikido’s founder, indeed became extremely esoteric and waxed lyrical about the Shinto gods constantly in his later career. Karate masters such as Kenji Ushiro have undergone ‘ki’ turns in later work, re-examining their techniques through the lens of intentional energy. Sensei such as Hirokazu Kanazawa focus their martial arts teaching on their global social impact and doing good for the Karate community around the world. Plenty of practitioners who begin the more philosophical exploration of martial arts also become founders of their own schools, usually because of decisive splits between their own beliefs about the art they practice and the beliefs of their teachers and governing institutions. This exploration of the logic which undergirds the techniques and methods that any given style chooses to teach is what really constitutes the link between the philosophical and technical aspects of martial arts. Whether these lines of questioning add up to cause division or union in the arts is a matter of individual taste and interpretation, but the process remains constant as a thorough investigation and interrogation of both the performed technical minutiae and the rhetorical justifications of the art as a whole.

The link which is least explored, to my mind, is the one which exists between the practical and the philosophical. While it is common to examine how technique can be practically used, it is not common to examine how the philosophy of martial arts is practically used. While it is common to look at how technique, the ideal form, embodies the philosophy, it is uncommon to look at how the uglier manifestations of technique and its effects in practicable situations embody the philosophy. Even amongst those with a great deal of martial arts pedigree, I feel there is little detailed scrutiny of how martial arts philosophy holds up or breaks down in the discordant event of hostilities. There is plenty of exploration of philosophy and practicality in what I call ‘ideal conditions’ (one on one, against an enemy who is presumed to be a similarly rational agent) or in ‘fantasised conditions’ (two on twenty, specifically with the odds stacked against the martial artists to demonstrate a particular point) and precious little else. Unfortunately, I run an unfair argument here: it is actually a sheer impossibility to begin with to examine the conjunction between philosophy and practicality without actually going and picking fights, and if the martial artist is picking fights to begin with, she is already influencing the conditions of the event, thus undermining the neutrality of their exploration to begin with. My critique here is not aimed against speculation about how to apply martial arts philosophy in trying situations in the first place, but rather designed to criticise the narrowness and repetitiveness of the speculation and experiments that exists currently. It is vitally important to speculate on how martial arts philosophy stands up outside of neat and tidy outcomes and ideal techniques, and there is nothing wrong with doing so, but it needs to go further than the tired-to-the-point-of-comatose question; ‘what if the guy is bigger than you?’.

Given then, that the idea of martial arts itself, as we have discussed, connotes the commitment to a ‘-do­’, a way, a coherent technique, philosophy, and practical application, my undertaking here will be as follows: I will look at my former interest in the idea of yurusu budo (forgiving martial arts) and demonstrate how it cannot sustain a suitable coherence between technique, practice, and philosophy. I will then look at how I have come to the idea of ‘submission’ as a productive alternative, building on the work of Nishio and Endo amongst others along with my own experience in various schools of martial arts. It will then become necessary to consider how ‘submission’ as the starting point of martial arts can manifest a coherent technique, philosophy, and practice and in addition, to consider how counterarguments may be put or problems arise from within this model itself. Finally, throughout this process I hope to speculate on how this principle can engage a martial arts that is no longer an isolated or separate realm from the concerns of contemporary society. In many ways, the martial arts act as escapism, as a power fantasy for the disenchanted to find themselves through, or as an environment where friends can be made and cares forgotten, in some cases, a field specifically encouraging an esoteric detachment from wordly concerns, or a way for human beings to believe themselves somehow exterior to – or worse – superior to other human beings. If martial arts is concerned with a ‘way’, that is, a ‘way of living’ then it must engage with the entirety of the lives of its practitioners and cannot seclude itself within the hallowed halls of the dojo or end when you bow off the mat. Just as the warriors of the sword and staff once fell to the shame of irrelevance in the face of the musket and Gatling gun, martial arts in contemporary society is itself, becoming irrelevant in the face of the more sensational and more dynamic combat sports like MMA (Mixed-Martial-Arts), yet even MMA is hardly a cultural phenomenon, barely touching the lives of massive proportions of society and dwarfed by the more well-developed sports industries. If the age of the warrior died with the birth of the gun, martial artistry has been slowly withering and receding from worldwide life ever since (aside from sporadic revitalisations in line with phenomenal personalities like Bruce Lee, The Karate Kid, and the more recent Ip Man movies which sparked a brief yet passionate renaissance for Chinese arts like Wing Chun). Martial arts needs to adapt itself too to the contemporary imagination and contemporary life. In order to avoid falling to irrelevance it requires a paradigm shift. I am not suggesting that my efforts here will define that shift, but I hope that they can perhaps offer something which may stimulate, if only through their refutation, the building of something new within this most dignified of traditions.






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