Some Differences Between Self-Defense and the Fighting Arts

Tomo dachi,

I am able to depict many comparative truths between those who train and are dedicated to pure self-defense (hereafter, “SD”), and those who train predominantly in the fighting arts (hereafter, “FA”).  Below are some of the salient training topics for students of both, SD and FA:

Definitions |

Aiki JuJutsuMartial art disciplines may simply and ultimately be measured by the amount of harm arising from their intended purpose, study and usage.  Three hirearchial  categories common to most are:  (1) gentle disciplines; (2) passive disciplines; and (3) aggressive disciplines.

The most basic definition of an aggressive martial art discipline, regardless of its use, is one in which physical, mental, and emotional harm are continually and repetitiously applied to an opponent such that they give up their free will to another.  Some individuals pursue this method until the death of an opponent occurs.  Aggressive disciplines are sought, learned, and used by students of SD and FA, and is a personal choice unless chosen as a lack of options, peer pressure, or mental conditioning from a respected parent, family member, or friend.

From the perspective of bu-do (武道), one could conclude that a student of an aggressive martial art who agrees to fight another, does so in order to help each other to fight the enemy within.

Passive, or soft disciplines allow for the harm of another, including justifiable permanent injury or death, but only as a last resort, and as a common man would deem necessary.  Do what you must, nothing more and nothing less.

The gentle arts, especially the traditional or orthodox disciplines require that no harm come to Uke during one’s defense.  Nage is taught to help cure Uke of their mental and/or spiritual discontentment without harm.

There are passive and gentle disciplines in the 21st century that provide safe platforms for competitions other than bloodsport, such as Judo tournaments, and vast others who perform highly beneficial technique and weapon kata demonstrations and competitions.  Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) and other martial art organizations based on aggressive disciplines provide bloodsport for those who choose that path.


Spiritual Training |

For those martial art students who believe in a creator, or nature — a thing greater than themselves — demonstrate how spiritual training and practice are critical to their success.  Many pray before a fight, and conclusively give thanks and recognize the greatness of the God or symbol of that faith following victory.  Leading a righteous life in all respects, and within the confines of one’s spiritual beliefs is of tremendous importance.

What goes through a person’s mind if they sinned on the day of a fight?  Would they be concerned if the unrepentant sin will cause the Creator to abandon them in their time of need?  Could their earlier sin have caused them to loose a fight?  Morals and values based upon spiritual beliefs are beneficial in guiding students in understanding, respecting, and choosing to obey the rules.

Students with a strong spiritual center will respect their opponents as fellow human beings, and  will do so regardless of the opponents spiritual faith.  Those without a spiritual center tend to demonstrate a greater sense of self-fulfillment, rather than benevolence and rectitude.

A righteous life can be the result of dedication to one’s spiritual beliefs, and is a possible threat to the student if they do not lead a righteous life.  If a fighter has in some way sinned on the day of a fight,


Nakamura Tempu Doing CalligraphyMental Training | 心身統一道

The concept of Unification of Mind and Body, while dynamic and complex as a subject, is yet perhaps the easiest launching pad for understanding the intricacies of the human brain, mind, and how they interact in harmony with the total body and its systems.  Nakamura Tempu is cited by some as the Japanese Yoga founder of the concept titled, Shinshin-tōitsu-dō (心身統一道?), the Way of Mind and Body Unification.  The first public Aikido curriculum approved by Morihei Ueshiba, continued by his son Kissomaru Ueshiba, was identified by many as Shinshin-Tōitsu Aikido.

The end result of Shinshin-toitsu, in a perfect world, is the student of SD or FA standing in front of Uke unafraid of pain, harm, or death; confident in their skills; and with their Creator or faith supporting them.  Accurate and adequate self-awareness is essential.  All five senses are working at peak performance, brain chemistry levels are surveyed and modified to match the situation, emotional and logical functions are working appropriately, virtue, rational-self interest (survival), morals, ethics … all working together in harmony with one’s personal code.


Physical Training |

Students of both SD and FA appear to utilize similar training techniques, methods, and tactics, however their goals and motivations bear nearly opposite intent.  Students of SD tend to focus on learning to virtuously defend themselves, their loved ones, their community, property, and freedom.  Love, benevolence, rectitude and virtue tend to be their driving force.

On a simple and averaged level, both types of students may begin training in order to learn offensive and defensive technique for protection, increased confidence, self-esteem, and mental and/or spiritual peace of mind.   Some students of FA are driven by lust for team or personal rewards such as peer recognition, increased social status, reasoned self-interest, meeting a coach or parent’s expectations, a plastic trophy, a steady paycheck, and the cruelest of fighters simply enjoy the opportunity to harm others.

At some point in a person’s future, one day and moment in time — the event — they may be faced with an attacker we call Uke.  They don’t know what day, what time, or even what Uke will look like, or how will they  behave.  Will they be man or woman?  Will they have a knife or gun?  Will they be after money, a car jacking, or simple violence towards another?

This lack of knowledge is truly what sets most students of self-defense apart from many or most of those who train for the fighting arts.  This assessment does not mean that a practitioner of the fighting arts will be unable to defend themselves in a real-life situation.  The problems society faces with its fighters is more of non-harm and self-control; their untrained when not to fight, and tend to not be afraid to back down virtuously once their fight or flight chemistry has been activated and habitually accelerated through conditioning.  Perhaps they have simply not been taught how to use gentle methods to resolve conflict.  Is this a choice, or a lack of training options?

This futuristic event is what we focus on when we train in self-defense.  Uke may know one of a dozen martial arts styles, or boxing, or wrestling, or even street fighting.  They may or may not have a weapon.  They may or may not be mentally ill: sociopathic, psychotic or schizophrenic.  As students of self-defense we train constantly, nearly a lifetime to prepare for that one moment of that one day when we are faced with Uke.  We study a variety of martial arts styles in addition to traditional fighting methods such as boxing and wrestling, anatomy & physiology, weaponry, an abundance of strategies such as Intondudo-Jutsu (the art of deception), and the mental disciplines of philosophy, psychology, sociology, and theology.  These areas of study are all required if we are to adequately prepare for and efficiently defend against an unknown aggressor.

The individuals who train in the fighting arts quite often know who their opponent will be.  I believe the word opponent is very relevant because in the ring, I believe it would be difficult to differentiate between who is Nage, and who is Uke.  Are they named after the fall?  Or perhaps those terms merely apply to the Japanese-based martial art disciplines of self-defense.

Students of the fighting arts often find themselves training to achieve personal goals.  Students of self-defense come together as dojo brothers and sisters (AKA, “tomo dachi“), helping each other to prepare for that event.  A fighter’s peers may become their opponent, and the competition may make it difficult for them to bond in the same way students of self-defense often do.  Students of self-defense are focused on defending against Uke, not each other.

Students of the fighting arts have the opportunity to watch and study the opponent’s bouts, training films, etc. in order to determine their weaknesses.   Their egos are also developed in a very different way.  Students of self-defense don’t usually have the same ego as a fighter because they are not performing; there is no trophy, social status, or financial purse to lose as with a fighter.  A self-defense practitioner may lose their life, become crippled, or have to endure the pain and suffering or death of a friend or loved one at Uke’s hands.  There is also the threat of prison if a self-defense practitioner is trained incorrectly and uses too much, or inappropriate force in their defense.

Rules & Regulations |

If a fighter becomes overwhelmed by their opponent, they have the option to claim “matte” and give in to Uke’s will without further harm.  The opposing fighter has no choice but to obey the referee.  This option is not available to a person who is defending themselves from Uke on the street.   With the exception of death matches, most if not all of today’s fighting matches have rules to help ensure that both fighters stay safe.

In the world of self-defense, Uke is presumed to have no rules or boundaries to restrict offensive technique.  Fighters have the benefit of a referee to ensure all of the rules are being followed.  Referee’s typically have authority to penalize a fighter for not following the rules, and they can ultimately stop the fight.  For the student of self-defense faced against Uke would require a law enforcement officer or on-looker to intervene.  Nage is presumed to be on their own.

So, all that being said, and if you agree, what is it that you want?  Do you want to learn self-defense, or do you want to learn the fighting arts?  It is very difficult to do both, especially if your self-defense goals are gentle in virtue.  Fighters must open their minds outside of their fight-training.  They must learn to expect and effectively deal with things that don’t appear on the fighter’s list of regulation-approved techniques, and do it without a referee to keep the peace.

Self-defense students must learn to be the referee, and find a way to resolve the situation peaceably.


Sensei | Aikijudo
April, 2010