Strategy, Philosophy, and TV Shows

I think it’s safe to say that any modern-day student of martial arts has at watched at least one episode of Human Weapon on the History Channel. I freely admit that I TiVo the show regularly, and watch episodes while working out or on the bus commuting to and from work. While I find aspects of the show more amusing than anything (the equations that appear when they’re explaining how a particular move works crack me up–they might as well put “knee + chin = ow!), I do find myself very interested in the different techniques and strategies these different martial arts employ.

One of the things that I have noticed is how many of the movements are similar across all of these martial arts. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen a shoulder lock that is almost identical to how we study ikkyo, or a wrist pin that, for all intents and purposes is kotegaeshi. The similarities continue into the conceptual realm as well. For example, I remember watching the episode on Krav Maga, where the instructor discussed a concept he called “bursting.” The gist of his statements was that, rather than separating a block and a retaliating strike into two separate movements, they must be combined, so that you have an explosive and immediate response to an attack. While we don’t use the same terms in Kokikai, the idea of total movement, of combining the deflection of an attack with the movement that takes your attacker off balance, follows the same logic.

I have to admit when I began noticing all of these similarities I felt a little bit of satisfaction. How often have aikido students had to listen to other so-called martial artists berate or belittle our studies as being “ineffective?” Watching Human Weapon, I feel a certain sense of vindication in thinking that those who hold this opinion of aikido clearly are not paying attention. Even the ever-popular MMA crowd uses many of the same techniques found in aikido; it is abundantly clear that the techniques studied in an aikido dojo are effective, and devastatingly so, if for no other reason than the fact that these same techniques appear in so many other martial arts.

But given that there are so many physical similarities between martial arts, what is it that truly differentiates one from the other? I think the answer lies in the philosophy that underpins the art itself. Watching Human Weapon, the emphasis (whether intentional or created through clever editing) is always on causing damage to the other person. The focus is on the force of the strike, the stress on the arm lock, the power of the body slam. In some art forms, I certainly see why this is the case. Returning to the example of Krav Maga: here is a fighting style that assumes that you are literally on the battlefield, and often against an armed opponent. In such a situations, absolute dominance is essential–protection of the attacker is no longer a concern. But for the average person, such a response is rarely, if ever necessary. And, in fact, such a response can have unintended consequences. As one senior instructor of Kokikai has told me: “Imagine that, any time you’re in a fight, the cameras are rolling.” The implications are clear: we live in a very litigious society; having a kill-or-be-killed mentality is rarely the best solution.

So it is here that I start to understand why aikido is often referred to as “modern” self-defense. It’s innovation lies in the realization that the destruction of an opponent during a conflict is no longer the best option available. Instead, we focus on using our techniques and movements–the same movements that are echoed in other arts–not to destroy, but to reduce our attacker’s power to zero. This philosophy is what makes the art much more applicable to the modern age. Sadly, it is also this philosophy that forms the basis of many of the criticisms levied against aikido in general. The fact that we use terms like “gentleness” or “caring” or the dreaded mis-translation: “Aikido–the Way of Love and Harmony” rings false with many. And well it should! These concepts, misapplied, are what lead many schools of martial arts to look more like dance than actual self-defense, or to focus so much on the theoretical that any practical application is lost on all but the most discerning students. Yet if we throw away these overused terms and catchphrases, a very potent idea is revealed: Strength requires structure. Without structure, there is no strength. When I explain aikido to other martial artists in these terms, it is clear they have a better understanding of why we study as we do, and how effective aikido truly can be.

The human body only has but so many positions that it can move into. It’s no wonder, then, that many martial arts share similar techniques. The question, then, when it comes to studying a martial art of any sort, is whether the art fulfills these three requirements: (1)it teaches these techniques effectively, (2) it supports these techniques with a solid and understandable strategy, and (3) it has a philosophy that fits with your own outlook and lifestyle.

It is this last point that has recently come to the forefront of my attention. You can study any art you want–but if its fundamental philosophy does not match up with your own, you will always be hesitate to employ the art. As a result, your effectiveness with that art will always be substandard. In Kokikai, we study proven techniques with a philosophy that encourages us to focus on defeating our opponents through the use of balance and positioning. For some, this is not a philosophy that works for them, and there is nothing wrong with that in the least. But for many, for the people whose distaste for “fighting” is outmatched only by their distaste for being vulnerable to those who do fight, Kokikai really is one of the most potent martial arts available.

5 thoughts on “Strategy, Philosophy, and TV Shows

  1. Hiya Dave!

    Yep, you caught me. I’ watched all of season one and will start downloading er… uh… I mean watching season two a soon as Fuji Terebi airs it. Where did they find those two goofs?

    You’re point that the human body can only move in a limited number of ways is well taken. Since creators of fighting techniques throughout history have been working against the same template, it should not be a surprise that some the locks, holds and such share some commonality. That said, I think that the really distinguishing feature of Aikido is the whole Aiki thing. Whether you you are a believer in Ki as a mystical energy or see it as a way of handling the kinetic/potential energy of a human body it does not matter. There are few other arts where Aiki is used as it is in Aikido.

    Ki or aiki is also one of the more difficult (IMHO) things to learn and so the time Aikidoka spend on that is viewed pretty negatively by many in the rest of the martial arts world that don’t use it. Though these are folks who probably have never experienced the enlightening floor contact induced by irimi nage.

    BTW, it’s always nice to see that you’ve put up a new post.

    Take care,

  2. Eric,

    I couldn’t agree more. The concept of “ki” can be so alien, so foreign, that I find I spend a lot of my time trying to find other ways to explain it. In Kokikai, we often use the phrase “mind/body coordination” as a substitute. But the truth is, I don’t think the concept of ki is really that difficult to understand; but it is a radical concept, in that it is something that runs counter to the notion that physical strength and speed are what makes you strong.

    Always glad you like my posts. Now if only you’d answer my e-mails! Heh.


  3. Great post. I, too, have seen every episode of Human Weapon, and its inferior knock-off on Discovery Channel, Fight Quest. Ki is an amazing force, no doubt. But many arts address it, whether it be called Chi, Prana, or spirit. I think Aikido’s key differentiator is that it is not a competition style. All other styles (krav maga may be the exception, but there was still an episode on it) pit one fighter against another in some sort of structured fight. Aikido is not only non-competitive; it is expected/required that the uke and the nage work in harmony for each other’s benefit. Maybe that aspect of cooperation is what makes Aikido the modern style (though I totally agree that being aware of one’s response in a litigious society is a great asset). Keep these coming!

  4. There’s another season of HW on?! ¡Ay, caramba! Where’s the remote? As goofy as those two can be I really enjoyed the show and the respect they showed to the arts they “studied”. I think you’re right to peg aikido philosophy as the key difference. My karate and tae kwon do teachers talked about things like walking away from fights, etc., but when you come down to it the strategies espoused by striking arts are total domination. Why do 99% of the arts seek this? Because it’s perfectly human to want to “win” conflict. It takes a great deal of conditioning to be able to step back and view conflict differently, to take the long view, to question what it is you’re really trying to win. To really try to understand your opponent’s intentions and outwit, not out punch. To not overextend yourself in a bid for vengeance. That can still lead to total domination 🙂 (wringing hands in glee). Seriously, the philosophy is what we need to learn and embed in ourselves while training. It doesn’t come naturally to most of us.

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