This is a very difficult question for me to answer; just look at the name of my club: Leeds Traditional Martial Arts. I regard traditional values in very high esteem; having had experience in teaching more commercialised martial arts, I get a great deal of pleasure in going back to my traditional roots with my small community of students.
What exactly do I mean by ‘traditional’? For me, the word traditional was first and foremost a way to distinguish the brand of Ju Jitsu in which I earned my dan grades. There are now so many styles of Ju Jitsu that the tag has become necessary to tell people what we do; to list but a few: Foundation JuJitsu (or ‘Jitsu’), Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, Gracie Jiu Jitsu, Ju Jutsu, and so on. The main major difference is the part of the world the style originated from; Ju Jitsu is from Japan and is largely considered to be the mother of martial arts as many other styles such as Judo and Aikido were derived from it. Jiu Jitsu was developed much later and comes from South America.
In my search for an answer I asked my partner the same question; bearing in mind that he didn’t grow up with Ju Jitsu as I did and his dan grade is in Muay Thai, his answer was astonishingly similar to mine: Martial Arts (specifically Ju Jitsu) should retain enough of its traditional elements for it to remain, in effect, a Martial Art instead of merely becoming a sport or fighting method. However, for it to remain in date and effective it should remain flexible and adaptable enough to move with the times and adopt new ideas and influences.
Does that make Ju Jitsu more of a mixed martial art than a traditional martial art? If a dingy takes on an extra passenger does it become a cruise ship? The answer to both questions is no. To me, Ju Jitsu is the embodiment of flexibility and adaptability; it was designed to allow the practitioner to beat a stronger / bigger / taller / armed opponent through the use of manipulation and intelligence. I put it to you that if we failed to allow our Ju Jitsu to adapt then we wouldn’t be holding true to the foundation this ancient martial art was built on. Let me give you an example; a Samurai warrior would never have had to defend himself against a duelling pistol - not that I’m advocating trying to use an empty hand defence technique against a gun! As our potential opponents and adversaries evolve – so must we.
On the other side of the penny, a modern day mugger is extremely unlikely to attack you by aggressively grabbing your belt but I still like to teach the techniques that go hand in hand with attacks like these as they still have a lot of applicable merit if adjusted correctly. They also tend to be great at helping students to learn the basic principles of Ju Jitsu such as balance, leverage, the manipulation of momentum and so on.
Although our particular brand of Ju Jitsu is traditional in style, we remain open minded about what we teach simply because techniques are constantly being invented, reinvented, rediscovered and modified. And let’s be fair, I would be immensely sceptical if someone stepped forward and claimed to know every martial arts move ever invented. I’m not so arrogant as to pretend I’m some sort of Ju Jitsu oracle; I learn new things all the time. This is one of the many reasons why I love traditional Ju Jitsu, it is a font of knowledge that never dries up.
One of the main things that differentiates LTMA from many other Ju Jitsu clubs is our decision to use Thai style striking instead of the more traditional style of striking from the waist, although there are many more traditional strikes such as palm strikes that we still utilise. The main reasons for this are: 1) In a real attack situation Thai style striking is much more effective; and 2) If your hands are by your waist you’re going to get punched in the face because it’s mathematically impossible to get your hands up fast enough to block a punch that you aren’t expecting.
Unfortunately, one of the uglier sides of traditionalism is the God Complex that a lot of teachers and school owners tend to have. Back in my earlier days I knew a very fine man who was learning Thai Boxing and he did a lesson at our Ju Jitsu class and got reamed by his Thai instructor for doing so, having failed to request permission to take part in someone else’s class. He was consequently banned from training with us again.
Yet another close acquaintance of mine, after relocating to a different city, got in touch with a local gym as he wished to attend the classes. After inquiring about his history and learning that he had already obtained a black belt elsewhere, he was told to board a train and go back to his home Dojo because he wasn’t welcome – and the language they used wasn’t anywhere near as civil as that.
Your Instructor has no right to prevent you from doing other styles of martial arts or to exclude you because you’ve trained elsewhere. I got, and still get, a lot of benefit from trying out and taking part in different styles myself so why would I want to limit my students’ experience? The fact is, a lot of Martial Arts teachers seem to be massively insecure. I’ve witnessed the nicest of teachers and mentors attempting to knife their students and junior Instructors in the back as soon as they gain any kind of independence. Honestly, why bother becoming a teacher in the first place? This Cobra Kai attitude needs to be stamped out.
I’m also very much entertained by the paranoia that seems to sweep through gyms. I’ve known instructors put the ‘phone down on new students enquiring about classes because they suspected the enquirer to be someone ‘from another gym’ fishing for information because they asked intelligent questions. Let’s be fair, all the class information is already on the website; if they want to know what my big secret to success is then I’d be delighted to go into detail about our student care policy and carefully developed teaching style.
Thankfully this is not an affliction suffered by my own club or my home club in Lancashire. If you’re training at a gym that is genuinely looking out for your best interests and not their own – do me a favour, say thank you to your instructor, and help fan the flames of progress.
Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention traditional manners and practices. This is my last horror story of the day, I promise, otherwise I’ll start sounding like Grandpa Simpson. I remember a mate of mine who’d done Karate for years telling me about his home Dojo and explaining that students who were late were required to enter the Dojo on their knees and ask for forgiveness from the teacher. Although I agree that this is certainly a traditional approach I personally consider it to be overkill.
While I don’t ask late comers to crawl in and grovel, I do require students and teachers alike to demonstrate a mutual respect as a lot of things we do have a strong foundation in trust. Students are expected to bow to each other before beginning drills and they line up and bow at the beginning and end of each class. This is not an optional practice. However, I would like to point out that bowing is always a two way practice, between students and between student and instructor. For us, bowing is a gesture of mutual respect, not superiority.
Our syllabus and classes are also laced with the Japanese language in the form of commands, phrases, verbal exchanges and the names of techniques. Where this may be considered unnecessary by some (after all, we are in England...), I consider it to be an important part of the culture behind the martial art, a sign of respect for techniques that have been around for centuries and a valuable tradition. I don’t expect my students to be fluent in the language but to gradually pick up the practical Japanese of the Dojo as they go along so that when they reach a dan grade and are ready to share their knowledge, they have a working knowledge to pass on.
So what about traditional practices such as hot sand, Makiwara striking and breaking boards? I think a lot of this comes down to the personal preference of the Instructor – although the practice of plunging the fists into burning hot sand to toughen and condition them is, to the best of my knowledge, not practiced in the UK at all. Makiwara come in several forms but the most common is a small, slightly padded board which students can punch or kick; although I did occasionally use one as a teenager I don’t provide one for my students as it’s easy to get it wrong and damage the hands.
I do give some credence to board breaking as I feel it can give students a lot of confidence and encouragement, it also helps students to develop their nerve and strike through a target; however, I believe board breaking should be done as an optional activity, not a mandatory one. I also believe that wooden boards should not be used – padded and non-padded reusable boards with various degrees of difficulty are a safer alternative. With any traditional practices, such as the ones I’ve mentioned here, the safety and welfare of the students should be an Instructor’s first priority.
And finally, to Bushido. Bushido was originally a set of rules that the Samurai lived by, it was a code of conduct but also a sort of ancient self help manual; many of these instructions are not applicable to modern day martial arts practitioners but we still require ‘good Bushido’ from our students. As I graded through my Kyu grades as a youngster I was actually scored on my ongoing Bushido on each test. I do include Bushido on my students’ test papers but I don’t give a score, I simply give feedback. To me, Bushido represents conduct, attitude, respect, discipline, enthusiasm and so on; all essential attributes when learning a martial art.
Ju Jitsu is a practical, useful and applicable martial art. It should remain fresh and evolve along with the world around it whilst holding true to the ideals it was built on. Ju Jitsu is nothing so crass as simply learning to fight, there is so much more to it. Although Ju Jitsu is an amazingly versatile marital art, we’re not so closed minded as to believe that other martial arts styles have nothing of value to offer and, where possible, these variations should be embraced and assimilated. In conclusion, Ju Jitsu can remain traditional but it also can, and should, evolve.
For more information on the roots and particulars of Japanese Ju Jitsu you can check out the What Is Ju Jitsu? page on the LTMA website.
Leeds Traditional Martial Arts