One of the main criticisms levied at “traditional” martial arts (I put the term in quotes because, from what I can tell, “traditional” typically means anything that is NOT mixed martial arts or brazilian jiu-jitsu) is that many of the techniques that these arts teach are not combat-specific. The implication is that only arts that focus solely on combat are worth studying. In fact, going further, there’s a snarky undertone that implies that those who study traditional arts are deluding themselves by practicing techniques that fall outside the realm of “combat only.”
In Kokikai, as I think I have written before, we openly acknowledge that not all of our techniques fall into the realm of “self-defense.” Some techniques–perhaps most of them–are instead principle studies. The idea is not that the technqiue is street effective, but rather that it provides some fundamental skill that can apply to street situations. Tsuki kotegaeshi, for example, is a classic technique studied in many aikido dojos. But it is a technique that operates off of a straight punch, and one that has a great deal of thrust behind it, which prevents the attacker from quickly re-chambering their fist. This technique probably was used to great effect during the days in which swords and knives were more prevalent, but clearly has less relevance when dealing with the jabs and body blows that are the apparent staple of most modern-day fights. Yet, we continue to practice it–not out of some sort of delusion that the technique on its own is all we need to understand, but because the principles we learn from the technique–balance, timing, wrist manipulation–are essential for self-defense.
The current analogy that has been going through my mind when I think about self-defense techniques versus principle techniques, is one of cooking. (Perhaps I’m just hungry, but I think the comparison holds.) Most of us, with very little effort, can become basic cooks. That is to say, we can take a basic set of ingredients which on their own are indedible or perhaps dangerous to eat, and turn them into something that provides the nourishment our bodies need. It may not taste good, it may not look good, but it feeds us and keeps us going. Those of us who like cooking (or who have very picky five-year-olds), start realizing that there is more to cooking that the basics, so we start to pursue them. We learn more about different ways of cooking, and how to make things more nourishing, more tasteful, and more effective. As a result, not only does our undersanding of food deepen, but our ability to cook “the basics” also improves dramatically. (Alas, the five-year-old may still be unsatisfied, until you finally make them the grilled cheese they originally asked for. But that’s another story.) The knowledge of how to cook more complicated dishes could easily be dismissed as “frivolous.” After all, you don’t need to eat anything but gruel and a couple of vitamins, right? As long as the basic nutritional needs are met, why bother with anything more?
This metaphor applies directly to the study of martial arts. Absolutely, we could study only the basics; reducing the techniques we study to a core set of 10 or 20 techniques. But not only is doing so boring, it narrows our focus and mindset in the same way that a diet consisting of gruel limits our palate. So we study more complicated techniques, in an effort to broaden our horizons and lend variety to our training. The result? Not only are we constantly challenged, but we also increase our understanding of the basics, the essential movements that can help keep us safe when attacked.
The parallel between martial arts and food continues, however, into a negative extreme if you’re not careful. We’ve all met die-hard “foodies” who scorn at a bottles of wine that aren’t from a specific year, or who get so wrapped up in the intricacies of a dish that they forget it’s primary purpose–to feed you. So it is with martial arts. There are schools, students, and instructors who get so wrapped up in working on wild and fantastic techniques that they forget the first purpose of martial training: to protect yourself! This is, perhaps, why Sensei always says that the most important thing is to be able to take balance; everything else is secondary. It’s just like cooking: we can study all the culinary tricks we want, but the most important thing is that we have to be able to eat.