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June 6, 2013

The Art of Killing

Category: The Martial Way — Marc Trudel-Bélisle @ 10:04 AM

I think many practitioners of Japanese martial arts – either traditional, or modern ones – have a tendency to forget the fact that their practice is centered on the act of killing.

To be honest, there seems to be some variations depending on the practice: for instance, I would expect that practitioners of Taihojutsu (a method develop developed in the 50′s and 60′s for arresting people) are not practicing a killing art. Judo, for the most part, is also designed to be mostly non-lethal.

Those methods – almost all developed from the middle of the 20th century, and therefore classified as modern budo or gendai budo (現代武道) – are relatively few in numbers, even though they tend to have a considerably larger number of practitioner both in Japan and internationally. All those method claim heritage in older traditions; for instance, Aikido claim a greater part of its roots from Daito-ryu Jujutsu, and Judo from Kito Ryu and Tenshin Shin’yo Ryu. I will not debate here whether those forms should be considered “true” martial methods or not, but I will only note at this point that many of those arts have for the large part renounce the heritage of – if not killing – seriously mending your opponent in order to incapacitate him.

It is important to notice that this trend appears to be nowhere near new: Japan, with its 265 years or so of artificial peace (artificial in the sense where that peace was held through politics of isolation combined with interior policies even the highest level of government on a short leash), had very practical uses for martial skills. This led many head of schools – generally hereditary, and receiving much of their revenues from running the organization around the school – to slowly change the teaching techniques, and sometimes the technique themselves. Some became more sport oriented while others, focusing on the ideal of beauty which can be found in budo, made aesthetic the prime element of their practice. In any case, this transformation to sport or art shaped a new way of thinking about budo, more concerned about some romantic image of a warrior than about potential for technical and practical efficiency.

Some practitioner may have heard of the term musha shuugyou (武者修行 if I am not mistaken). Even the academia seems to have a hard time to find a proper translation for the term – let alone agree on one – but it is generally accepted that it conveys the idea of betterment through asceticism. Ooyama sensei (the founder of Kyokushin karate) going in the mountain for a year of training to Yamaoka Tesshu sensei (renowned martial artist and political figure of the Meiji period) claims of doing as many as 10,000 tsuki (forward thrust with the sword) are both very good example of what would fit this definition of musha shuugyou.

Recently, I have been watching a series of documentary about the different special operation groups within military forces around the world, from U.S. Navy SEALs to British SAS. What struck me is how they all seemed to, at a certain point, touch on the death of the romantic image of the warrior. From the recruiting process, made to filter out those who lack the drive to go on their own, to recounts of battle stories where people realized the horror of war and their own vulnerability.

Most ancient martial methods claim ancestral roots going back to a period where war was omnipresent, and where the martial skill of a family could make them or break them for generations to come. In that context, I think it should be safe to assume that they had very little concern about beauty, or physical wellness (outside of being fit for combat). It is also what drove many practitioners to extreme level of practice and discipline in order to maintain a level the level of alertness and readiness which was required by their era.

This state of alertness and readiness, in my opinion, should be at the very heart of any martial practice. Not that most of us actually will need to mend or kill someone in their lifetime (luckily enough, most of us live in safe areas far away from wars); we can all, however, benefit of practicing as if we were in a state of of war and such readiness and technical proficiency was not only a requirement, but a necessity. It is your life, or your opponent’s life.

Of course, this is an abstract idea which can be applied to any form of practice. So is martial arts a better way to get there, than, say, ikebana or nihon buyou?

The answer: it probably isn’t. But it works well for me. And I enjoy it.

” But you yourself have told me often enough that archery is not a pastime, not a purposeless game, but a matter of life and death! “
” I stand by that. We master archers say: one shot ̇one life! [...]“
Zen in the Art of Archery, Eugen Herrigel

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