Saturday, July 8, 2017

Sportification of Martial Arts

I'm reading Kendo: Culture of the Sword by Alexander C. Bennett. I started reading it to better understand the history of Kendo, which I've mentioned a bit here. As you might imagine, Kendo started as a battlefield practice. It was one manifestation of the combat art employed by sword-wielding Japanese warriors.

Over time, as the leaders of Japan sought to reduce bloodshed, sword combat became less common. Swords were used in warfare, but as Japan became more peaceful, the numbers of "sword battle veterans" diminished. Various parties sough to continue to infuse the spirit of sword fighting in certain elements of the citizenry, leading to the development of Kendo and its sport elements.

I'm currently reading the part of the book that deals with the re-militarization of Kendo, due to the wars Japan fought in the first half of the twentieth century. This is a fascinating phenomenon which I have not encountered (yet) with other martial arts. Following World War II, however, Kendo (as I will soon read), was "sportified" again, as the population swerved away from militarism.

I find "sportification" to be a fascinating topic because those of us who practice Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu are witnessing similar transitions. BJJ grew out of a sport art, judo, then became "streetified" via the Gracie street brawls and challenge matches. For the last few decades, some BJJ schools have focused on the sport aspects, rather than the self defense elements. Leaders like Rickson Gracie and Pedro Sauer and many others are trying to preserve and promote the self defense characteristics of BJJ, fearing that sportification will deny a key element of BJJ to current and future practitioners.

A similar dynamic seems to be happening in my other main art, Krav Maga. Krav Maga was also born out of combat, in the fight against fascism in Europe in the 1930s-1940s. Krav Maga then became the Israeli Defense Force's hand-to-hand system in the 1950s and beyond. There are no Krav Maga "competitions" that garner any attention, as far as I know. However, the system has effectively adopted a more civilian flavor due to the nature of its demographics -- civilians in mainly industrialized countries. Certainly plenty of soldiers (the IDF of course) and police train Krav Maga, but the majority do not expect to use their training on a regular basis in conflict zones.

Last, I think there are lessons to be learned from arts with longer histories, such as Karate and Kung Fu. I hope to find other books which address how these arts transformed from their origins into the versions we see today.

How do you see the sportification of martial arts?

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