Friday 25 March 2011

karate - is it about fighting or self-defence?

I recently wrote a post on my Countdown to Shodan blog about solo training and in my opening sentence I suggested that martial arts were essentially about learning self-defence. I was surprised, therefore, when I received a comment from Charles James (a person whose opinions and advice I respect) in which he said: “A martial art is not about learning self-defence. Martial arts are about fighting. Fighting is not self-defence.”

I can’t help thinking that Charles and I are actually of the same opinion of what martial arts are about but have slightly differing definitions or interpretations of the words ‘fighting’ and ‘self-defence’ and therefore appear to be at cross purposes when in fact we aren’t.

In the interests of clarity I have researched a bit deeper into the meanings of these words and how they apply to martial arts, particularly karate.

The words fight and fighting have been defined as (respectively), 1.“To attempt to harm or gain power over an adversary by blows or with weapons”, and 2. “…a purposeful violent conflict meant to establish dominance over the opposition.”

Self-defence is defined as: 1. ”the act of defending one's person when physically attacked, as by countering blows or overcoming an assailant.”

Another definition is: 2. “Physical self defence is the use of physical force to counter an immediate threat of violence. Such force can be either armed or unarmed. In either case, the chances of success depend on a large number of parameters, related to the severity of the threat on one hand, but also on the mental and physical preparedness of the defender.”

In some ways these definitions of fighting and self-defence seem very distinct from each other but in other ways they overlap. Fighting may be about ‘gaining power or dominance’ over another person but so might be self-defence. The best way to defend ones-self may be to dominate and control the other person.

However they differ greatly in the intentions or motivations of the people involved. The aim of the fighter is to win and will continue attacking their victim to that aim. The aim of a person being attacked is to survive and get away. This difference is crucial to understanding what martial arts are teaching you.

On the recent Iain Abernethy course that I attended he touched on this very subject. He said (paraphrasing) that a fight required two (or more) people having the mindset of wanting to hurt the other person and ‘win’ the fight. In other words a fight is consensual. Rivals fight e.g rival football supporters or rival street gangs. He then said that in self-defence only the attacker was consenting to the ‘fight’ and the defender was ‘fighting’ against their will. In this situation the altercation is non-consensual.

This now gives a clearer distinction between fighting and self-defence. In karate are we training people to hurt others and win an altercation? Not in my club. Surely the emphasis should be on training people to survive an attack, using only sufficient force necessary to stop the attacker and get away.

However, we do fight in martial arts as well – it’s called sport and it has many rules to make it safe. Fighting is an appropriate term to use in this context because a sparring/wrestling/boxing/MMA fight is consensual and the aim of each competitor is to win.

I think the introduction of sport into karate has blurred the distinction between learning techniques for fighting and learning them for self-defence. A punch is a punch and a kick is a kick whether you use it to attack someone or to defend yourself. However, the difference in intent is huge!

I think that instructors have a responsibility to clearly distinguish to their students, particularly children and teenagers, what it is they are learning to do at that particular time. They need to know that in martial arts terms, fighting is a rule bound sport that takes place in a controlled environment and is not something they should participate in outside the dojo in street/playground environments i.e. they never consent to or lead an altercation.

Students also need to know when they are participating in ‘classical’ karate which is about self defence. As part of self-defence training they should also be taught the importance of avoidance, awareness and conflict resolution. These are not necessary for ‘fighting’ but are essential for self-defence. Students need to be aware that sports karate and classical karate have different objectives even if they appear to use similar techniques.

Two or more people fighting in a public place, causing alarm to other members of the public is called an affray and is a public order offence in most countries. To be an affray the fighting has to be mutual. If one person unlawfully attacks another who tries to defend himself it does not amount to affray. Here the first person is guilty of assault. The defender is guilty of nothing.

So, is karate about fighting or self-defence? Well, by the definitions I have given it is both. Sports karate is fighting because it is consensual and the aim is to win. Classical karate is about self-defence and the aim is to do the minimum necessary to disable the opponent and escape. The opponents have different objectives – for the defender it’s about survival, not winning.

So what do you think – is martial arts about fighting or self-defence?

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Felicia said...

Self-defense, definitely - in a "street" (real/live) application and fighting in a sport/tournament situation.

All of our katas - where the basics of the system are sort of stored" begin with defensive moves (blocks, deflections/parries, etc). So I am of Funikoshi's adage that Katate ni sente nashi (In karate, there is no first strike). I'll go into that fight kicking and screaming, using it only if I cannot get away or distract/de-escalate.

On the other hand, fighting like that in a tournament will net you no points, which is the name of the game.

Six in one, half-dozen in another...

Journeyman said...

I also read the comment on Countdown. I also suspect that you and Mr. James are likely using different terminology for similar ideas.

I think you've pretty much nailed it when you discuss intent as being the factor which differentiates the two. The original intent and the motivation for the actions are what separates fighting from self defense. Actually, really you're talking about assaulting vs self defense since, as you say, fighting often involves consent and sometimes rules.

I don't want to speak for Mr. James, but when I read his comment, it made me think about how many schools of 'self defense' refuse the acknowledge that the defense may have to be aggressive and injurious in nature. Self defense can suggest passiveness in some schools. Effective self defense is anything but. It can be quite brutal if all other avenues have been exhausted.

Enjoyed the post and the discussion.

p.s. I now get comments on my blog emailed to me. Thanks for the tip.


I think karate or any martial art is about learning how to fight but failing a sporting contest of some sort - one should use karate only in self defense.

There is also an argument to be made for an art, conditioning, and self-esteem and such. These are ancillary benefits to me.

If people used karate at the drop of a hat to bully others, they would be common thugs in my opinion.

John Vesia said...

You would be very hard pressed to find a karate instructor anywhere to say something like, "A martial art is not about learning self-defense." It's all semantics. Words mean little; it's about the actual practice, and especially, the intent behind that practice.

Here's an example of what I mean. After the Second World War, the US changed the name of one of its Cabinet members from 'Secretary of War' to 'Secretary of Defense.' Did the job description change in any way, shape or form? No. (Of course the US's military role in the world is another matter. Maybe the former title is more appropriate.)

Martial arts -- modern martial arts and ways as our culture define them are indeed systems of self-defense. If you're learning fighting arts/martial arts with the intention to protect yourself, well, that's self-defense.

martial-arts-training said...

Martial arts, to me at least, is about staying healthy.

Bob M said...

An interesting perspective from a female boxing coach is that amateur boxers aren't fighting because they aren't angry at each other; they're boxing.

Another perspective: perhaps the most important self-defense interest I had when I took up martial arts was defending myself against encroaching poor health.

Thanks for the interesting question, Sue.

Sue C said...

Felicia, I agree - all the katas start with a defensive move, this tells us a lot about what the mindset of a karate-ka should be.

Journeyman, I'm sure that self-defensive action could get very aggresive in certain situations. This appears to be a very grey area in law - what constitutes reasonable force? UK law doesn't seem to be very clear on this. People in this country are never quite sure what they can and cannot do to defend life and property - is it any clearer over there?

John Z, if people are taught that martial arts is about learning how to fight how easy is it for them to adopt a 'self-defence only' mindset when faced with a situation in the street? I agree with you about the health/fitness benefits of training though.

John V, In a sense it is all just semantics and the intention of most martial arts instructors is to teach self-defence even if they call it fighting. However, when words have ambiguous meanings then some people will interpret them in the most negative way and others in a positive way - 'fighting' is such a word in my opinion. I think that removing ambiguity from such emotive words as 'fighting' is important. I'm a pedant, I know!

Bob, Interesting perspectives - not sure I agree with the first one but I certainly agree with the second!

Mathieu said...

How you train is how it will express itself when needed.

So, are you fighting? or learning self-defense?


Sue C said...

Mathieu, I'm sure that's right but that is why we need to be clear about what it is we are learning to do.

John Zimmer said...

Hi Sue,


if people are taught that martial arts is about learning how to fight how easy is it for them to adopt a 'self-defence only' mindset when faced with a situation in the street?

Let me preface this by saying that every kata, technique, drills, sparring and conditioning exercise are all about fighting (sorry but I like that word) in the end. Even the karate kid learning how to wax a car (you now wax on-wax off) was about fighting moves. learning a way that could be transitioned to self defense if ever needed.

I learned how to use elbows from techniques as an orange belt in the mid-seventies way before I ever knew it existed in muay thai. I was not allowed to use elbows in sparring.

Here is the US fighting is mostly used in the sporting sense. There are not too many senseless fight clubs where people just go at it for not reason. I don't hang out in bars so the word fighting to me is just the mechanics of how one would defend oneself.

There is no negative connotation. So maybe this is just semantics.

Restating this a bit - karate is about learning how to punch, kick, knee, elbow, eye-gouge, stomp, and any other way of striking an opponent in a self defense scenario.

Boxing and MMA has no such cautions culturally but are limited by common sense and yes of course the local laws governing such behavior.

I totally agree with the spirit of you post. Karate should be about self restraint.

Thanks for another very insightful post Sue!

Sue C said...

Hi John, I agree: "karate is about learning how to punch, kick, knee, elbow, eye-gouge, stomp, and any other way of striking an opponent in a self defense scenario."

I think we are all on the same wavelength really, even if we express it slightly differently. Thanks for coming back to comment again :-)

The Barefoot Lawyer said...

Martial arts is about learning how to wage peace.

Sue C said...

Tracey, "wage peace", I like it :-)

Anonymous said...

The origin of a martial art is likely fighting and killing: in modern times the focus changed to a vehicle for physical and mental growth and self defense in exceptional cases, with mandatory moderation except in the most extreme situations. Yet for an art to remain effective fighting should be the main focus (including the vicious, fight winning techniques), with the understanding violence should only be employed when morally and legally justified. I don't believe in arts that advertise themselves as purely defensive: how can you learn effective defense if you don't learn offense also, how can you escape a tight situation if you're only trained to wait and react? Offense & defense are the two sides of the same coin and should always go together. The real difference in practical application is the initiation of force (attacking unprovoked or not) and the presence or absence of moderation (the least amount of damage vs the maximum).

Sue C said...

Anonymous, a true MARTIAL art i.e. a military based art was certainly developed to be a fighting art but karate is a civilian based art developed for defensive purposes. However, that said, sometimes the best form of defence is attack and karate allows for this with the idea of pre-emptive striking. I still think there is a philosophical difference between fighting and self-defence, at least in my mind, that affects the way you train and the strategy you adopt for dealing with a situation.
I agree with you that offence and defence are just opposite sides of the same coin - many of the same techniques can be used in offensive or defensive situations,like you said it depends on initiation of attack and proportionality of response. Thanks for your comment.

Ninjutsu Schools said...

Personally, I've always seen it more as a sport. I think there'd be very minimal real-life reasons to use it out "in the world."

Sue C said...

Ninja, sport is an important part of martial arts these days and has become the main focus of training for many people. I don't have a problem with that - there's room for everyone. However, I'm too old for the sports side so the self-defence side of martial arts is a more important issue for me. Fortunately my club caters for both types of martial artist.

John Coles said...

Love your approach Sue. Socrates said 'the beginning of wisdom is with the definition of terms'. So, its not all semantics. Words reflect and influence behaviour. Its interesting when you study the use of metaphors. In one study, it was shown that America uses the war metaphor more than any other country. They declare a war on terrorism, drugs, cancer, poverty, etc. The war on drugs is interesting, and one that was referred to. In a war you have the enemy and a lot more lenency to deal with the enemy. You attack the enemy and destroy the enemy. This influences law enforcement policy. Also, you garnish more resources if its a war, and anyone who speaks out against the use of these resources or the way in which they are employed are traitors. Self-defence and fighting - how you define what you do influences what you do. A chapter I'm writing refers to the definitions of aggression - a word that most martial arts would say they are designed to resist but never use. But this authority refers to offensive and defensive aggression. The latter can cause harm but only in order to avoid having harm inflicted upon oneself. 'The beginninf of wisdom is with the definition of terms'. Keep defining.

Sue C said...

Hi John,"how you define what you do influences what you do" I couldn't agree more. I don't cope well with ambiguity, I like to know exactly what it is I'm supposed to be learning or doing so precise definitions are important to me.

Anonymous said...

Very good post!!! I Think Martial arts are for self defense are taught as self defense, but there are many people that gives malicious misuse of this discipline....
Go To College

Sue C said...

Anon. I don't suppose we'll ever completely irradicate those who choose to misuse their skills from the world of martial arts. Thanks for commenting.

SenseiMattKlein said...

Thought provoking post Sue. I strongly believe we learn to fight in the martial arts so that we may not have to fight. Indeed, I have been much less likely to get into it since I started my training 25 years ago. Maybe part of it is mellowing as I get older, but a big part is knowing what damage a trained martial artist can do. We teach our most vicious street-fighting Kenpo techniques only to our black belts, who we have had years to vet. Not only does this avoid teaching potentially lethal moves to those without the maturity to handle it, it also protects our reputation as we don't want to be known as a school that produces an "army of thugs".

I will say that Bruce Lee refined his fighting skills by taking part in challenge matches that were for real. There is some value in putting your skills on the line.

Sue C said...

Hi Matt, sorry for the late reply - just got back from holiday. I agree that there is some value in 'putting your skills on the line' to test them out. I think the real skill in doing this is ensuring that you don't turn from being the defender to being the aggressor - I'm sure that can feel like a fine line to tread sometimes. Clearly one partner needs to 'play' the role of aggressor so that the other can defend but I think both partners need to be clear in their minds which role they are playing in a particular bout of 'fighting'. I think that adopting the right psychology when embarking in combat ensures you remain clear about what role you are playing in a particular 'fight' situation.

Kamil said...

Just wanted to submit my two cents. My sensei says that karate is about how to fight, that is, the tools and techniques of unarmed combat and karate-do is about how not to fight, that is, how to stop violence before it escalates out of hand, how to carry yourself in a morally upright manner, how to respond to violence without being swept up by anger, and how to defend yourself, spiritually and physically, from the aggression of others. Many people who learn karate (ie how to punch) will never ever touch upon karate-do (ie whether to punch, when to punch -- or run!!! :-)

BTW, love the blog, Sue - you are such an inspiration.

Sue C said...

Kamil, I like you're distinction between karate and karate-do - a very useful way of looking at it. Thanks for your kind words about my blog - just visited yours, very interesting so I've added it to my blog list.

Anonymous said...

I'm not a black-belt, but here's how I look at it. Moreover, I think all the commentators have touched on what I'm going to say.

The applied goal of traditional karate is self-defense. The secondary goal or working object then becomes we have to be able to defeat our opponent in a physical confrontation.

In other words, fighting. the amount of fighting that's required depends on the intensity & severity of the attack.

There is no discord between sparring competition and self defense action because the applied traditional karate goal is the same--to prevail in a physical confrontation.

The process of traditional karate is becoming enabled to physically fight on a highly effective level.
You, the karateka, set your working objectives on what's needed (communication, techniques, degree of force) to achieve the desired outcome.

The MMA audience confuses this all the time also when talking about karate in MMA. In a full contact MMA match, the goal is to physically disable the opponent. By definition, I, as a karate stylist / MMA competitor, have to defend myself.

The practical application of karate is fighting for self defense. How I actually do that is up to me given the circumstances I face.


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