japanese martial arts

The timeless wisdom of Japan's "Sword Saint"

He was an innovator, a maverick. The structured forms of the traditional martial arts bored him. Discarding their outmoded model, he became the creator of a new style based not on established techniques but on the realities of combat he knew so well. With it, he won more than 60 battles and became a legend before reaching middle age.

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What does a karateka need to know about the Japanese sword? Well, nothing really.

Karate's roots are not in feudal Japan, where the katana was ubiquitous. Yes, there were plenty of swords in old Okinawa, but as an art directed mostly at unarmed combat, karate emphasizes movements and strategies that are, in many ways, incompatible with those used to make the sword an effective weapon.

It's odd and sometimes unnerving to watch karate demonstrations given by sword "experts." Assuming that a person can use a sword just because he or she has experience in karate is like assuming that because your basketball skills are excellent, you'll be a good lacrosse player — they're both sports that use a ball, after all.

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A recently released study by Aikido Journal shows interest in the Japanese martial art to be in severe decline. Based on a survey of aikido practitioners done in 2019, as well as data from Google Trends, the study seems to indicate interest in aikido has declined 93% since 2004. These numbers may be in even steeper decline now, after the 2020 pandemic has curtailed the practice of all martial arts around the world.

Additionally, the aikido community seems to be "aging out" within the United States where only 2% of practitioners are under the age of 24 and only 4.8% under the age of 30. The study did show that around 16% of aikido practitioners in the U.S. are female, probably higher than in most other martial arts. But it also indicated a problem in attracting minority students to the art in America with only 3% of practitioners identifying as black while only 7.2% identified as being of Latin American origin.

An American Who Went to Japan and Discovered Himself

Ellis Amdur has a lot to say about the martial arts. The author of numerous internet essays, books, novels and even a dozen psychology manuals on how to deal with violence, he isn't shy about sharing his opinions, either. But unlike the majority of people who pontificate on martial arts, Amdur is someone you should definitely listen to.

A mental-health professional specializing in crisis intervention and a consultant for law-enforcement agencies, Amdur is one of the few Westerners who hold certificates of full mastery from two Japanese koryu systems. He's also one of the most iconoclastic martial artists you'll find, as comfortable banging away in a boxing gym as he is practicing traditional sword forms in a classical dojo or working on Chinese internal-strength exercises.

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