Americanization of the Martial Arts

On guard position

On guard position

It is no secret that Asian martial arts are incredibly popular in the United States. Any given town may have two or three Korean Tae Kwon Do schools, a few Okinawan karate schools, a Chinese kung fu school or two, and a handful of Judo, Aikido, Jiu Jitsu, and other schools scattered about. The prospective martial arts student can pick and choose which style appeals to him or her most and is even free to combine elements from multiple styles. Such was not the case in the founding days of the martial arts, when arts were passed on from student to teacher in a direct lineage. It was not always easy to find a teacher, and the student had to spend a lifetime mastering the art. There was no “picking and choosing”, no shopping for styles and masters. So how have the martial arts integrated into western consumer culture? Quite well, actually. The freedom to pick and choose has allowed the blending of styles that have been separated for centuries. In the end, we are seeing the emergence of a truly American class of fighting styles. This conglomeration of fighting arts is a melting pot, much as America itself is.

It should be pointed out early on that this article makes many sweeping generalizations that are not true of many particular martial arts schools and styles. Some schools proved to be adaptable to local influences almost immediately, while others have retained their traditional characteristics for decades. This article is not intended to say that one way is better than another. It is just an observation of how the martial arts scene, overall, in America is changing.

The first wave of the martial arts boom in the United States occurred in the years directly following World War II. American servicemen stationed in the east discovered the strange, effective fighting arts of Japan while based in the region as part of the post war occupational force. The primary martial art that was introduced at this time was Judo, which was popular in mainland Japan, along with some forms of empty hand martial arts from the island of Okinawa. These Okinawan arts are collectively known by their Japanese name–the words “kara” meaning “empty” and “te” meaning “hand” combine to form the now common word “karate” or “empty hand.” The second wave was an interest in Chinese forms of martial arts (kung fu), largely popularized by the demonstrations and movie and TV roles of Bruce Lee in the nineteen-sixties. The martial arts enthusiasts of generation X can largely trace their martial arts influences to the Karate Kid movies.

Yet, through all of the decades of martial arts practice in America, martial arts remained firmly rooted in its oriental culture and tradition. Classes began with salutations in Japanese or Chinese, and the same languages were used to count out punches and kicks during drills. The more closely the American martial arts schools held to the traditions of their forbearers, the more the art was respected. Schools that integrated oriental martial arts with American boxing and wrestling were often viewed as having somehow “watered down” the traditional nature of their art.

Those views have been slowly changing over time, and mixed martial arts (MMA), which combines striking arts with wrestling and grappling arts, has become an accepted class of martial arts in its own right. This has been particularly highlighted by the success of the Ultimate Fighting circuit, which is as close to no holds barred fighting as you’ll find in modern sports. The early Ultimate Fighting Championships featured competitors who were essentially one dimensional. Someone might be a boxer, a grappler, a karate practitioner, or something else, but rarely did you see true mixed martial artists. However, the one dimensional fighters soon found themselves outmatched by the more versatile MMA competitors. This was most stunningly highlighted recently when Royce Gracie, Jiu Jitsu master and the winner of three of the first four Ultimate Fighting Championships, was defeated soundly in his return match by Matt Hughes, a modern MMA fighter.

Does this mean that traditional martial arts have been supplanted by the new breed of MMA styles? Absolutely not. Rather, it just goes to show that, even in the martial arts, there is not one size that fits all. Clearly, if you are fighting three five minute rounds in a chain link octagon, then MMA might be the way to go. However, who can say what would work best in a real world confrontation? Besides, as any true martial arts practitioner knows, the true value of studying the martial arts comes not in finding ways to beat your opponent–rather, the real challenge is to face down your own failings and become the best person you can be.

Guest Writer bio: Gary Russell is a freelance writer, martial arts practitioner, and software engineer. He is the founder of TopSearch Consulting, a full service web content and keyword article provider.

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Yes, you too could be a guest writer on my blog. Email me your article idea and we’ll talk. I’ve used guest writers for my monthly newsletter years ago and I’ll do it again.

First anniversary of my blog

Golden Leopard Kempo logoToday I have written in this blog for a complete year. It is a milestone in of itself. Last year, I hoped I could maintain the momentum of writing a few times every week. Before I started, I padded my quiver with several articles that I either updated from previous publication in the Leopard Pause, or wrote but never published.

The first six months went well, but then real life intruded. There are about two separate months where I never made it back to post an article — like last month. Oops. Anyway, I’d like to review some of the plans and how well I did against them.

Goals I was able to meet

  • I’m still writing in the blog. Woohoo!
  • I got a lot of article ideas turned into actual articles.
  • Attracted a few of my friends to follow this blog.

Goals that I failed to meet

  • I really wanted to have a single post weekly, ideally every other day except weekends. Close but no cigar.
  • I wanted to remain active on various martial arts forums and blogs. But that is a lot of work. I couldn’t keep it up and still teach and parent.
  • I wanted to post more news items and special events. Like above, I just didn’t have the time.
  • The mysterious cash prize contest.

Ideas that I hoped would happen

  • I hoped my blog would become the pride and joy of the independent Shaolin Kempo community. Yeah, that’s dreaming big but if you don’t dream big then why did you do all the work?
  • I also hoped my blog would be spotted by Hollywood (or even Bollywood — I’m not picky) and they loved me so much they hired me to star in my own movie. Now this is a bit silly but it could happen in some alternate universe of good luck.

Things that did happen

  • I finally got on Twitter (@bagnas) but without a Twitter capable phone and service, it didn’t work out so well. Besides, I have a hard time thinking of things to tweet. You’d never guess that by how much I talk in person.
  • I created a Facebook fan page. That attracted a lot of people I don’t know. Either I’m secretly famous somewhere or they just liked the logo and became a fan.

I’m still interested in getting ideas for topics or concepts you’d like me to discuss. Also, if you have any videos or articles you’d like to share, send them to me. I’d be happy to review them or take on a guest blogger for a day or two. I’ll even post Kempo art and G-rated photos of other martial artists.

See you next year.

The Hawaiian Blessing and Other Customs

In traditional Karazenpo go Shinjutsu  (KGS), you bring your new belt and new uniform to the ocean. Soak them in the ocean water. Let the water saturate the belt and uniform. This blesses them with the spirit of the ocean and provides you with the strength of the seas. This is called the Hawaiian Blessing. It’s a wonderful custom that was forgotten by many schools and instructors.

Black belt takes time

Black belt takes time

Another custom of KGS is twisting the belt. Twisting of the newly awarded belt takes some of the newness out of it. Usually, they come out of the wrapper and into the hands of the recently advanced student. The belts are stiff and nearly untieable. The twisting or breaking-in of the belt signifies the efforts you put into training. It also represents the fact that you are not new even though you have a new rank.

During Black Belt ceremonies, there is a custom of breathing into belts. Breathing into the belt transmits the spirit of the Testing Board into the new belt. The master or grandmaster put a bit of their knowledge into your belt. The belt (also known as obi) represents your knowledge of the art and loyalty to the school. This custom links you spiritually to the lineage of your ancestral teachers.

Black Belts also have another custom issued by the master. Getting hit by the belt signifies the combat element of the art. It demonstrates you can take punishment and hardship. The ceremonial hit also symbolically tempers the spirit, forging your perseverance and reminding you of humility.

Finally, newly ranked Black Belts drink a shot of saki when the Testing Board presents it. This ceremonial drink represents camaraderie–sharing a drink with your fellow students. You are now a member of the Yudansha, the Black Belts of the school. You have earned the right to represent the school because of your diligence in training and skill in techniques.

These are some of the more interesting customs found in Karazenpo go Shinjutsu. There are undoubtedly more. Does your school have a custom? Tell us about it in the comments.

Kempo in Action 5

Here is a real life example of how one of my students actually used a technique in an actual bully situation. “James” vs. the BB Gun.

Several weeks ago, one of my junior students (a nine-year old Brown Belt) said he performed a variant on Gun #7 on a neighbor. His opponent had a BB gun — not a real gun. According to him, that kind of gun still hurts and his friend was
Shoot the other kids on the block.

James said he zigzagged up to the guy, quickly disarmed the gun, backed up and aimed the gun at the guy. The kid said he was sorry to everyone.

James said “Sifu, it really works!” His mom (also a Brown Belt) was proud of him.

I thought to myself, “You shouldn’t be doing gun defenses in real life.” But ended up telling him, “Good job. Keep calm in those situations and train hard. By the way, beware of real guns, please.”

Our little student here, James was able to stop a confrontation without breaking bones or causing blood to spurt out of a nose. He disarmed and cooled the situation down. Hope this inspires you to train.

Do you have any stories about a marital art move that really worked as taught? Post it here in the comments.

Kempo in Action 4

Here is a real life example of how one of my students actually used a technique in an actual mugging attempt. “David” a man waiting for his car, approached by two assailants. The names are changed but the story is true.

David was waiting at a dealership for his car to be repaired. He paced the block on the main street of the area. This apparently attracted the attention of two thugs. They approached David quickly. He noticed one fellow taking off his headband and wrapping around his fist. So David took his hands out of his pockets.

They came up to him and started yelling. “Stop seeing my girlfriend. She’s mine. I’ll beat you up if you don’t stop.”

David replied in a calm voice, “I don’t know your girlfriend.”

The main ruffian stepped closer to get in David’s face while the other tried to get behind him. “Yes you do. I saw you with her the other day.”

David stepped in and to the side to keep the second thug away from his back. He stayed close to the primary thug, even inching a bit closer. This showed that he wasn’t intimidated. David also kept his cool and began to slow his speech down in a calming manner. “You are mistaken. I don’t know who she is or where she lives.”

The primary thug, feeling a bit to close to David backed up slightly. “She lives right over there on that street.” He pointed over at the other block.

David looked over at the second ruffian calmly then back to the first. “Look, I’m here to get my car fixed. I don’t know who your girlfriend is. I don’t know where she lives. I’m sure she is very pretty and you are a lucky guy. I have my own girlfriend and I don’t want someone else’s.”

The primary thug got flustered and stepped back a few steps. His friend stopped checking his bandana-covered fist. “Alright, just don’t come around here anymore or I’ll kick your butt. Stay away from my girlfriend. You understand?”

David replied, “Yes, I will stay away from her. However, I may need to fix my car again so I will come back here.”

The two thugs walked back the way they came. David continued to scan the area for more trouble until his car was fixed. What David did was diffuse a potentially dangerous situation. He assessed the men were out to start a fight, perhaps mug him. They began the confrontation with trumped up story to “justify” the fight they wanted to start.

Instead of being a victim, David showed courage without feeding into the hysteria of bravado talk. He calmly addressed their issue (whether fake or real) and stood his ground. He neither egged them on nor submitted to their intimidation. David didn’t feed their anger, which they were using to get the courage to attack him. So instead, they gave him a warning (to save face) and walked away.

Good self-defense doesn’t make it to a fistfight. Use the strategies and techniques to avoid fighting or to diffuse tense situations. This doesn’t always work but it does usually. You’ll know the difference because it’ll go from contact to actually physical contact right away. When fights start with verbal intimidation, you have a chance to use these tactics.

Do you have a self-defense story to share? Put it in the comments.

Kempo in Action 3

Here is a real life example of how one of my students actually used a technique in an actual robbery attempt. The names are changed but the story is true.

Natasha, a restaurant manager on the graveyard shift, used verbal and mental self-defense moves I taught at workshops and in class. She used her Mom-justu to keep the vagrants and vagabonds in check. Often in the late night hours, a drifter would come into the restaurant and demand money or food yelling and screaming with fists in the air.

Using a calm demeanor, Natasha told them sternly to get out of the restaurant. “That behavior is not welcomed or tolerated here.” she said. Natasha never backed up or gave up ground. Her confidence and tone broke the will of the opponent and they left.

Only on two occasions did they resort to striking her. Each time she blocked with a strong left arm and wagged her finger at them. “That behavior is definitely not allowed. I’m now calling the police.” Again, her calm yet forceful demeanor never faltered. Again the vagrants left humbled by her defense.

Remember that self-defense happens well before the first strike is thrown. Keep yourself out of dangerous situations. Be prepared and calm. Use your mind and mouth to de-escalate the situation so there is no physical attack.

Have you ever taken a potentially violent situation to a none-event just by using your mind and mouth? Tell us your self-defense story.

Kempo in Action 2

Here is a real life example of how one of my students actually used a technique in a schoolyard bully situation. “Rebecca” in Third Grade. The names are changed but the story is true.

Rebecca started at a new school filled with students she didn’t know. It wasn’t long for the other students to single her out as different. The boys started to bully her and push her around, perhaps as a way to demonstrate their machismo and bravado to the other boys. Each time a boy grabbed her arm, Rebecca performed the windmill escape.

They tried again and she escaped quickly. They couldn’t keep their hands on her arm. Finally, they resorted to verbal abuse instead since physical violence was stopped. After a while, they just left her alone.

In situations where fighting can get you in trouble such as the schoolyard, there are still options. You can defend yourself with blocks and escapes without counter strikes. You are not fighting only defending. Rebecca remembered a simple technique we practiced in class…a lot. She used the technique and disengaged the opponent. Luckily, that solved her situation.

Real Kempo in a real situation, share one of your Kempo in Action stories.

BTW, I’ll be out of touch for the next four days so no posts until Monday. Train hard! Train smart!

Kempo in Action 1

Here is a real life example of how one of my students actually used a technique in an actual mugging attempt. The names are changed but the story is true.

Mary, a mother on vacation with her family, was attacked in a casino. A strange man approached and distracted her while his accomplice sucker punched Mary. The accomplice lady pulled on Mary’s shoulder and turned her around. Then struck with a right cross. The surprise punch landed square between the eyes.

Mary quickly performed one of Kempo punch techniques that had a leg hock and a three-punch follow up. This busted up the assailant’s face. The strange man stood there in shock. While this happened, a casino security guard watched and approached just as the action occurred. The security guard took Mary away from the scene and calmed her down. The guard saw the whole thing and said she was in the right.

An innocent conversation with someone in a business can turn ugly fast. Nice people usually don’t know a fight is happening until they get hit. Make sure you can take a punch and dish out a counter quick like Mary.