Sparring: Traditional martial arts, kata, jujitsu, and their relationships to actual combat.

15 years sounds like a long time, but in the thick of it, it’s just a drop in the bucket of time.

I was a traditional US-based Japanese jujitsu practitioner for over 15 years. It took me 7 years (normally 10 in the style I studied) to get my black belt. I achieved this by training every single day nonstop. My brothers and I built a small dojo and a makiwara (a rope wrapped punching post) in our backyard, so we could train on our days off (we all worked in construction at the time and collected the scrapped lumber used in building this mini dojo).

One of the more important parts of our training was full-contact sparring. This wasn’t just randori (freestyle sparring) that is typical in many US-based styles of traditional martial arts, which I wouldn’t necessarily consider true sparring. I don’t say this disparagingly or out of disrespect, because I do have a love for many specifics of traditional martial arts; particularly with regard to the focus on honor, discipline, conditioning, and other character building aspects. However, randori is almost completely rule-based. Meaning, it is limited to the confines of that particular style and not in self-defense in general. Many of these styles limit themselves to reactions to specific types of attack, when this isn’t realistic. Now, this approach isn’t a bad thing for beginners and is a good starting point for introducing the unaccustomed to things, like stepping off the line of attack, parrying, deflecting, intercepting, or other reactionary techniques to an attack, but this practice will rarely prepare the uninitiated for a real fight.

The lack of true sparring is prevalent in many traditional martial arts, including in the style I studied. The difference between our dojo and our cousins in the same style was we actively sparred in every class. If you, the reader, are wondering what the reason for the lack of sparring is, it’s typically for insurance/liability reasons. To join our dojo, it required an acknowledgment of understanding that this was a full-contact dojo and a waiver of liability from the student/participant or parent/guardian.

Our dojo was very old fashioned in that it wasn’t a profit-based style. It was very affordable by any standard. Not because we weren’t business savvy, but because it was about the art form and true self-defense. Not to mention the full-contact aspect was its own detractor. The official classes were typically 3 hours long/3 days a week. Each student was responsible for their own warmup stretching and personal protection (in other words, no one was going to remind you to wear protection or ask you if you were wearing any before a sparring session). The first half hour was all physical conditioning. The next hour was all kata based for belt requirements. The following half hour was full-contact jujitsu/judo randori, which included wooden or hard rubber weapons. The final hour was full-contact free sparring and freestyle grappling (a hybrid version of judo newaza/bjj). This definition of ‘free sparring’ basically means the match parameters were the set by the sensei(s) or the participants (e.g., striking or no striking allowed, takedown to submission only, MMA rules, and no rules (which includes small joint and nerve manipulation, pinching, etc.)). The only protection we used were groin cups, mouth guards and gloves, if necessary. Sparring sessions were both, gi and no gi.

In this type of environment, it is very important to have the right attitude, because injuries (including one’s ego) are not uncommon and should be expected. Bruises and bloody noses are a guarantee. The only techniques practiced at half speed or less is during the kata section. Having the right attitude is paramount. As we would often relay, “this is the place to lose or perform poorly.”

For example: in the randori section using knife attack/defense techniques, the uke (receiver/attacker) will be actively trying to stab the tori (performer/defender). The practice knives we used were wooden. We had hard rubber knives, but they eventually break after a few months, so we preferred to use the wooden versions. Though these knives are dull and have rounded edges, the tips are still pointed enough to scratch and abrade skin, not to mention cause bruising. The reason for such a violent approach to these techniques is because we teach our students that they’d better be mentally prepared to be cut or stabbed in a knife fight. We would also enforce the idea that a knife is far scarier than a gun, because a gun only has one dangerous end and a knife has multiple. Granted, at a distance, a gun is the far more dangerous, and our gun training is to only defend against it if you are sure it’s worth risking death, like in a rape scenario or there’s a certainty that the attacker is going to pull the trigger. Which is also why we also train in these scenarios how to play the victim if you do intend to act. And of course, the most important condition in gun defense: proximity and situational awareness of what’s around you (i.e., assessment of potential victims or multiple attackers). Sometimes the best survival defense is compliance.

How does sparring prepare you in a knife attack situation? Well, as with hand-to-hand combat and professional fighting, timing is key. Sparring prepares and enables you to feel the rhythm and pace of a fight, thus sensing the timing of an attack and the reaction it takes to employ the proper technique more instantly attainable in the moment. This is why I believe kata has its place in martial arts, because it develops muscle memory through repetition. Just as sparring develops control, reaction time, spontaneity, and sensing fight rhythm.

How we approach the kata mindset. In our dojo, kata was simply a means to present a proper technique and to build muscle memory, that’s it. Our kata sessions also included body conditioning using the boken, and bo and jo staffs when doing blocking katas, among other body conditioning exercises that increased muscle memory (we went home with many bruises during those days). Advice: never choose the octagonal staffs when doing blocking exercises.

This was the ‘old way’ of traditional martial arts training that was lost when it was westernized and commercialized. We regularly had local MMA fighters and BJJ competitors come train with us, because our style of jujitsu was practical. And it was practical because of the full contact sparring. We knew, individually, what techniques would work for us in specific circumstances, and which didn’t. In this context, sparring helps to hone and master one’s current skill set.

Some history: I should point out that the reason traditional jujitsu was overlooked and even criticized by people, like Jigoro Kano (Kodokan judo founder), was because of its lack of consistency. In other words, one school may have had a specific judo throw or jujitsu technique that was completely different from another school’s technique that shared the same name. This was the fluid and flexible nature of jujitsu. Kata was just a base form for that technique, but you adapted it to your way of fighting. If you couldn’t adapt it to work for you, then you dropped it from your repertoire (though still practicing the kata; this is also why katas would change or be watered down into “flowery” forms over time). Sure, it was also to continue the tradition of the art’s legacy, but it had no practical purpose beyond these things. Katas were also meant as a means to hide the technique from competitors, but that’s another story, which I couldn’t find a lot of corroborated stories on.

I found more stories regarding katas/forms as a means of hiding technique in Chinese martial arts history than jujitsu specifically, but I came to my current opinion through a compilation of related articles. This also includes the origin of jujitsu, which was first known as, yawara. This term has no definition or translation in Japanese and from what I’ve found, in what little research there is on the subject, it is simply described as, “a ruffians sport.” One article I read stated that it was brought to the Pacific Asian regions from India by the Bodhidharm, who took the Indian arts and combined them with the hand/joint grappling techniques that is the basis of Kung Fu and brought this amalgamation to Japan. The Japanese later added their own techniques and eventually invented leg submissions to the mix. Apparently, leg submissions don’t exist in any other historical context until this time. So, by deduction, one can objectively conclude that the ideologies of concealing technique through forms would also be passed down. Especially considering that during these times the cultures in question were warring by nature, therefore concealing military techniques would be considered to be a prudent practice.

The history of jujitsu within Japan is also an interesting story. A few of the Japanese based articles state that a certain imperial general saw how the most elite soldiers in his charge all had one thing in common, they “practiced” or partook in yawara as a pastime. He recognized the practical value of it and began to learn it. He then adapted it into all the other military forms of combat, such as weapons. At this point jujitsu was an all-encompassing martial art. As an imperial general, he was also very intelligent and pragmatic, and he realized that he could not let an all-encompassing martial art be freely given to all in power. After all, Japan was a warring culture that was in constant state of civil war in some form or another. So, though he wanted to have an unrivaled military power, he knew that it was also a recipe for disaster that would threaten an already unstable Empire. So, in his wisdom, he formed jujitsu as a base. It became a weaponless, hand-to-hand combat form. The weapon forms would be compartmentalized and divided up between the different daimyo’s (feudal lords/families/landowners). In this way, no daimyo would have a technical advantage over another and the Empire would be the only one holding all the cards, so to speak.

Now, I know it may seem like I’m digressing from the topic of sparring, but in the context of historical accounts, it is apparent that sparring in the form of yawara led directly to these individuals becoming the elite among the rank and file.

Important fact: Jigoro Kano, like Morihei Ueshiba (founder of aikido) were both accomplished jujitsu masters before they formed their own styles. Judo techniques also existed in jujitsu prior to Kano’s influence, they just weren’t consistent as previously stated. Kano standardized those techniques into a sport friendly form as a way to continue the martial practice, since jujitsu and other military arts were banned during Japan’s early era of westernization. This is the reason I think jujitsu never truly recovered as the preeminent Japanese martial art, and why judo and aikido never became as powerful of an art. Judo dove deep into the sports world and became too entrenched in its standardization. Whereas aikido simply left behind the hard and violent roots of its origin. I highly respect Ueshiba, so I want to be careful in how I word this next statement. My belief, as to why no aikidoka has ever reached the pinnacle height of O-Sensei, is because they lacked the abilities O-Sensei gained from his mastery of jujitsu as well as the experience, insight, and knowledge he gained from the field of battle.

BJJ also gets its direct roots from Japanese jujitsu/judo. The Gracie’s teacher, Mitsuyo Maeda, was a traditional jujitsu and judo master. This is why you will find BJJ techniques with a direct correlative base to judo newaza techniques. This isn’t just to basic techniques, like sweeps, takedowns, or arm and leg submissions, but to more complex techniques, like the omoplata (sankaku garami in judo newaza). The reason BJJ has advanced so quickly as a sport and self-defense is primarily due to the safer nature of grappling. You can grapple/spar, in relative safety with someone, at a harder and higher pace than with the striking styles or even traditional jujitsu.

Traditional jujitsu is a true martial art by any definition. Meaning the techniques were developed and meant to effectively and efficiently stop your opponent(s) in actual combat. Therefore, you cannot safely practice at any realistic level without causing serious or severe injuries, as well as death. When reviewing historical jujitsu and even early judo matches, several of these matches would end in death. Some of these deaths would be exacerbated by exhaustion because the matches would last hours or even days, and of course because some were too proud to lose or would win by any means necessary. You could, by western standards, consider these “death matches” as akin to a pistol duel. Just like the katana (steel sword) and boken (wooden sword) duels, many of which also ended in death. Just read about Miyamoto Musashi’s exploits. These techniques were practical in its historical usage, but when it was resurrected and commercialized for profit, the hard edge of the ancestral techniques were dulled and the current iterations, especially in the US, are mere shadows of themselves. And with the removal of hard sparring, traditional martial arts become nothing more than showpieces.

Final note: there’s nothing wrong with traditional martial arts per se, as long as you are not under the illusion that you’re going to be able to successfully defend yourself without any realistic practice. A martial art where people respectfully throw or submit themselves is no different than pro wrestling. Sure, they’re both athletic, a great workout, and you learn how to take a proper fall, but neither are preparing you for a real fight.

In closing, if anyone is looking for a traditional martial art to study, because they want to learn a practical self-defensive art, keep the above lecture in mind. If these schools aren’t committed to full contact sparring, then you’re not really going to learn how to react in a real fight. Even full contact sparring isn’t going to completely prepare you for the realities of an actual fight, but it will desensitize you to a performative level. If you can’t find a full contact dojo, then your best bet would be to join an MMA gym.

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