Despite everything “Kill Bill,” “Ninja Assassin” and the rest of Hollywood’s kung-fu films would have us believe, East Asian martial arts are not a frenetic mash-up of acrobatic wirework and computer-generated imagery wrapped up in thirsts for revenge and unsettled scores.
The modern-day schools, which represent some of Japan and Korea’s oldest cultural practices, focus not on unleashing inner fury, but on bringing the mind, body and spirit into a state of harmony and control.
Though the idea that these practices are forms of “art” is inherent in the name “martial arts,” the pursuit of perfect internal and external balance in the midst of an unbalanced world is what allows martial arts to transcend the realm of sports and become something else entirely.
“It’s not just a way of fighting,” said Rackham student Anthony King Jr. of the Shorin-Ryu Karate-do Club. “It’s a way of being, a way of thinking, a way of practicing and a way of interacting with other people that asks you to respect both the people you’re working with and the people that are fighting against you.”
Modern-day branches, ancient roots
Nearly every country in East and Southeast Asia possesses its individual form of martial arts. Many of the forms practiced by ‘U’ clubs — such as karate, kendo and godai ninpo — trace their roots back to ancient Japan, while others, like Taekwondo, are native to Korea.
Karate is one of the most well-known Japanese martial arts, and though countless different schools and styles have emerged since its humble beginnings in the Okinawa Prefecture, its followers recognize the overwhelming influence of history in shaping the art they practice today.
“The Japanese that were invading (Okinawa) had imposed a rule of no weapons,” King said. “So people learned to fight empty-handed. Karate is literally ‘The way of the empty hand.’ ”
Creating a system of self-defense without formal weapons was not a problem for the founders of karate, whose resourcefulness led to the complex modern-day system.
“We use traditional Okinawan weapons, which are basically farm implements or fishing implements, like the six-foot staff or the sai (three-pronged dagger). Those are traditional tools that you’d find around anywhere, and these people learned to use them very effectively.”
Other martial arts, like the sword-fighting art of kendo, are less familiar to Westerners. Though kendo, which translates to “way of the sword,” may not yet be a widely known name outside of Japan, its modern incarnation is no less intertwined with its deeply historical roots.
“(Kendo) has basis literally in the samurai of medieval Japan,” said Engineering senior Michael Sierant, a member of the Kendo Club. “They used what now is called kendo as a way to practice and train new people in the art and battle warrior techniques of samurai without using actual swords.”
Kendo allows students to engage in one-on-one sparring matches, in which points are only acquired for purposefully striking critical areas such as the head, neck, wrist or stomach. Their use of specialized, non-lethal bamboo swords evolved due to practical reasons.
“You can’t practice very long with a sword,” Sierant said. “If you make a mistake, then you start losing your warriors, and that’s not very good. They began to use slats of bamboo so that when you get hit, it might hurt a little bit, but it’s certainly not going to cause any permanent damage.”
Putting the “self” in self-defense
Though martial arts are often imagined in movies as aggressive systems of flamboyant swings and kicks, these fictional movements usually never exist outside of the silver screen. A true martial art invokes balance and composure: techniques even more difficult to perfect than a flurry of punches.
“You have to stop yourself,” Sierant said. “You can’t just get into a frenzy and hit them as much as you can. You have to hold yourself back and make sure that everything’s together, or you’ll just get blown apart.”
Many groups see utility as a crucial aspect of self-restraint. For ‘U’ clubs such as the Shorin-Ryu Karate-do Club and the Godai Ninpo Association, this utility is key. By focusing on using realistic actions applied to realistic scenarios, these groups give their practitioners the tools necessary to survive and improvise in any number of situations.
“We’re an extremely practical art,” King said. “If you’re doing real, traditional martial arts, you’re not doing it to be fancy like you see in the kung-fu flicks, and you’re not doing it with rules, which you see in things like MMA (Mixed Martial Arts).”
While karate provides students with a range of effective offensive and defensive moves, it also instills followers with a situational awareness that changes the way they think about their internal and external world.
“You only want to use as much force as is necessary to get out of a situation,” King said. “And that could be just walking away. One of the things that we teach people is this humility. You’re not out here to be the big guy or the tough guy.”
The University’s Godai Ninpo Club also emphasizes functionality over flare. Godai ninpo pulls techniques from many pre-existing ninjitsu styles, combining them into a utilitarian system of self-defense that aims to keep practitioners safe.
Additionally, godai ninpo uses an elemental system consisting of characteristics of earth, water, fire, wind and void to help practitioners visualize the systems of thought they must use when approaching every situation.
“Godai ninpo is all about perseverance and controlling your ego to better yourself so that you survive the situation,” said Andrew Gomes, a former member of the Godai Ninpo Club.
It’s a strict command and a thorough understanding of these elements of the self that allow students to truly progress in their study of martial arts.
“The most demanding part is being willing to put aside your ego in order to learn,” Gomes said. “Because it’s such an unconventional martial art from what we’re used to in Western culture. We’re used to a style of ‘stand-up, square-up’ to your opponent to see who can take the biggest beating.”
Godai ninpo focuses entirely on more practical scenarios its members may encounter in a collegiate setting. Though it’s inherently noncompetitive, this form elevates from a series of defensive strategies into a martial art through its holistic demand for mental, physical and emotional discipline.
“It helps shape the way you view the world,” Gomes said. “As you study godai ninpo you’ll generally strive for a balanced life that’s not convoluted by all the petty little things that pervade our culture.”
Forms, function and competition
Not all schools include competition in their repertoires, but many do feature some form of one-on-one sparring alongside their teaching of forms, which are sequences of techniques performed in a traditional order or style that students must master before advancing to the next belt. Though the ceremonial air of forms has a very different feel than the dynamic atmosphere of a live match, they are two halves of a whole — one cannot be learned without the other.
Kendo is another martial art that incorporates a strong competitive element into the fabric of its practice. While competitions may provide a sporting atmosphere for their participants, forms allow them to maintain the physically artistic aspects of their studies.
“Every form is one-on-one,” Sierant said. “You and a partner going through these pre-scripted, I would almost call it a dance, between the two of you. You try and put as much intensity and beauty into going through all of these forms, but they are also supposed to teach you something about actually doing kendo in a competition form.”
Still, many students enjoy one-on-one matches, which allow them to truly put their physical and mental discipline to the test.
“Unlike a lot of other martial arts, where actual competition and fighting is almost more of an honorific thing you do … (kendo) definitely has a strong competition aspect,” Sierant said.
“You’re going to hit as hard as you can and go as fast as you can, kind of like taekwondo. In taekwondo, competition is a very important aspect, and kendo also follows that,” he added.
Taekwondo is especially valued as a sport due to its strenuous physical demands. Its extensive use of footwork forces students of taekwondo to keep themselves in peak physical and mental condition.
It is also one of the most sports-oriented martial arts practiced at the University and in the world of martial arts. Taekwondo is the national sport of South Korea, where it was developed and refined from techniques that were hundreds of years old.
“Taekwondo is really fast-paced and involves really dynamic kicking,” said LSA senior and UM Taekwondo Club president Sadegh Arab. “You have to be in great shape, and you have to be very flexible in order to be able to do it.”
Though students routinely work on sparring during practices, the frequent competitions provide a highly athletic challenge to the club’s members. While members are not required to participate in competitions, they are encouraged to do so to enhance their practices.
“We’ve seen that people that compete end up taking practice more seriously, and they stay healthier, and they try harder,” Arab said. “So it’s kind of like a feedback mechanism. That’s why we encourage people to compete.”
Taekwondo may be popular as an athletic activity, but it still retains strong ties to the traditions of martial arts.
“Even though most of us in college are doing it as a sport, it has the respect and the discipline that comes from being a martial art. People don’t behave the same way in a taekwondo practice as in a soccer practice,” Arab said.
At its core, taekwondo is a dualistic martial art. Even the most ardent competitor must have a thorough knowledge of the forms that lay the groundwork for sparring, which many see as qualifying as a full-blown sport. Though not as spontaneous as a one-on-one match, the precise and measured moves of taekwondo’s forms give practitioners a disciplined quality of elegance.
“It’s a performance, you know, it’s like a dance,” Arab said. “You have to memorize a sequence of techniques, you have to perfect it and you have to make sure that every step you take is right.”
Mind, body and spirit
Though they may share common pasts, the countless martial arts schools, clubs and groups at the University and around the globe offer each of their participants different challenges, experiences and rewards.
“(Martial arts) is having to bring your body and your mind and all of your thoughts together to focus on doing one thing,” Sierant said. “It’s this simultaneousness, this coherence, that I think is certainly one of the most difficult parts. You have to have a clarity of coherence between what’s inside and what’s outside.”
The mental and physical balance fostered by students does not leave when a belt is untied or a uniform is removed. A true martial art empowers its students with the skills needed to face life inside and outside the practice studio.
“When you leave the basketball court, the skills you have on court don’t translate into real life or real-life situations, whereas with traditional martial arts, those skills can translate into real situations,” King said.
These skills are not only useful for situations in which a clear enemy must be overcome — students are able to use what they’ve learned to better understand family, friends and even themselves.
“(Martial arts have) certainly helped me in my discipline in school and with friends, but also in other circumstances where maybe I feel like I’m a little overwhelmed or I’m angry at someone,” Sierant said. “I’m able to better control myself after forcing myself to learn how to do that in kendo.”
Martial arts practitioners are asked to seek the most difficult control of all: control of oneself. But a combination of focus, dedication and a willingness to think openly can lead students of every discipline into a journey of rewarding self-discovery, allowing them to become living, breathing embodiments of the arts to which they dedicate themselves.