Martial Art Traditions and Customs

It was many years ago that I came to my Kung Fu class and sheepishly told the instructor that I had forgotten my uniform. I figured I wouldn’t be able to participate in the class. He told me, “Don’t worry about it, you’re not going to fight in your uniform anyway, right?”  I remember being struck by his sound logic. It started me thinking about why we observe certain martial art traditions. Why do we have to wear traditional clothes? Why do we observe certain etiquette? Why do we learn things in other languages? The big question the covers it all is: Why do we do what we do?

Examining the customs and traditions regarding martial arts can be tricky, as most practitioners feel very protective of them, but I think it is especially necessary to take a look anyway. It is important to know why you do the things you do, and to not just do things because you have always done them. I have picked some of the issues that come up for me often enough to consider them worth examining.

Why do We Have to Learn Things in Other Languages?

Martial Art Traditions

I always thought that it was crazy that Starbucks made me ask for a “grande” instead of a medium or a “venti” instead of a large. Why do I have to order coffee in Italian when both the customer and barista (there’s another one!) speak English?  In some styles of martial arts, you are expected to learn how to say the names of techniques and/or titles in another language. In Judo, for instance, you learn the names of everything in Japanese. This is tradition. The art is from Japan and the use of language helps you remember that.

I respect that fact, and I think it serves a purpose as well. If you go to Paris, Tokyo or Atlanta, any and every Judo practitioner is going to know what O-Goshi means. For this reason, there is a practicality to learning things in other languages. It may be frustrating at times, but keeping in mind the big picture, it does serve a purpose.

Why do We Have to Wear a Uniform?

Martial Art Traditions

What if there was a “casual” martial arts class, the way there are “Casual Fridays” at some jobs? I expect the reaction would probably be similar to the way Casual Fridays were received in the business community: Some people loved it and some hated it. The people that thought how you dressed mattered thought it was unbusinesslike to dress down.

Keeping in mind the rationale of my teacher in the opening paragraph, I would be tempted to say that there was no use for a uniform, but in some cases there is.There are some arts like Judo, Sambo and Jiu-Jitsu that require the use of the uniform in training and competition, so obviously the uniform matters some of the time. Although alternatively “No Gi” options for grappling arts are becoming more popular both in classes and competition.

There are many arts that don’t require any special clothing to practice them, and shedding a uniform probably wouldn’t change anything in terms of learning the art technically. How people feel about losing the uniform aesthetically though is another story. It would likely have the same effect as Casual Fridays. I lean towards the idea that if you don’t need a uniform for a technical reason, it may be time to make it optional.

Why do We Have to Use Titles?

Martial Art Traditions

What would happen if you just called the teacher “teacher” instead of Sensei or Sifu? What would happen if you called them by their first name? I had a teacher that I used to address by his first name when I started studying with him. After a while I felt uncomfortable though. I really liked and respected him, so I decided to start calling him Sifu though he never asked or required me to. In a way, because he never required me to call him by a title, I felt that he was even more deserving of my respect by addressing him more formally. I still do.

I have a friend whose students call him by his title and his name interchangeably. I don’t believe that they think any less of him, in fact, I think they respect him tremendously, but they feel a level of intimacy that is beyond the title. Like the example I gave before, most students started calling him by his name, and then after studying with him they started using the title more often. I think it says a lot about a teacher if they don’t have to demand respect, because they get it voluntarily from their students.

Is it Time to End Some Martial Art Traditions?

Martial Art Traditions

While following tradition is a way of preserving the past, it should be because the past is worth preserving, and not just because it is the way things have always been done. We mustn’t let tradition stand in the way of innovation, for example, or rejecting new ideas simply because they are new.  Knowing when to adhere to tradition and when to abandon it is the challenge. Every student and teacher will have to make their own choice.

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