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There are many strong voices in the self-defense community criticizing so called traditional martial arts system, from a perspective of self defense. These traditional martial arts systems commonly include karate, kung fu, aikido, taekwondo, hapkido, ninjutsu, and many others. Many of these concepts are applied in our FREE Chinese martial arts course on knife defense. Download your copy here at no charge!

The reasons are legion, but often include claims that so called traditional martial arts systems have ceremonial elements that are unnecessary to the point of encumbrance, unrealistic and/or outdated techniques, ineffective training-methodology, as well as generally incompetent and ignorant instructors.

In short, the content is useless and the training is even more useless.

The support for these claims vary. Sometimes the support is considerable and the premises and arguments and conclusions are intelligent, objective and educated, but most of the time… more less than more so, to put it mildly.

There is much to be said about all of this. The whole idea of “traditional martial arts” vs the “modern martial arts” or “contemporary” systems can very much be problematized, as can the concepts of “ceremony” and “contemporary violence”, along with many popular ideas about the history of martial arts, the difference between the value of systems and movements vs the value of instructors and applications, and so on.

For a discussion on the last of those points, read the last section of this article.

Beyond this, every movement, every ceremony, every technique and every exercise can be thoroughly discussed, as can the overlaying methodologies, the factors looked at when determining the competence of an instructor, etcetera.

Now, in many of my articles and videos, I directly or indirectly promote aspects of training that are commonly associated with what is commonly thought of as “traditional martial arts” systems. The goal, however, is never to promote the systems themselves. Most instructors are, in my limited experience and to the best of my knowledge, absolute crap, from a self-defense perspective, completely regardless of what they try to teach, be it Shaolin Kung Fu or Muay thai, so I’m not a defender of any system in its entirety.

My goal with this is merely to adjust an attitude that can be satirically summed up as:

  • Good System= Small group, t-shirts, instant eye-gouging, ex-military instructor
  • Bad System= Uniforms, ceremony, striking in the air, elements of foreign language

In other words, my goal is to take the focus away from the form of the entire system, and direct it instead towards the function of its parts, and to make that focus objective and educated.


In this particular article, I will try to give some more or less educated perspective on one particular aspect of “traditional practice”: Ceremony.

The definitions are parts of themselves, but still give us an idea. A “ceremony” is a prescribed action or norm, within a specific context.

So according to naysayers of tradition… a good school of self-defense is one in which there are no norms in terms of behavior, appearance, and so on?

Let’s take a look at what in my experience are common norms even in the most scaled-down, backstreet, badass gyms, regardless of system:

  • You show up in clean clothes, that don’t have rivets, Velcro or anything else your partners can hurt themselves on, and that are appropriate in the senses that they are not too revealing, don’t carry any images or messages of exaggerated obscenity or hate, and that seem suitable, and aren’t, say, a bathrobe, cape, long dress or a tuxedo.
  • You greet your instructor and your fellow students in a friendly manner in the beginning of the training, and you say goodbye when you leave.
  • The instructor marks the beginning and the end of the training, somehow, be it something as simple as “ok, let’s start” and “and that’s all for today, see you tomorrow”, and the instructor marks also the transitions between different parts of the training, say for example a transition from warm-up to drilling to sparring.
  • You try to not hurt your partners excessively during training, and if you do by accident, you apologize.
  • You ask questions, but you don’t mouth off to or question your instructor or senior students, when they try to help you.
  • If you spar, you do so by agreement, as opposed to just suddenly jumping on someone from behind and start sparring on your own initiative.
  • When a sparring-match is agreed on, the participants acknowledge each other before attacking, be it by nodding, touching gloves, or some other gesture.
  • … the list could go on.

A Look At The Ceremonies Of Traditional Martial Arts

Formal ranks and titles

In systems with a perceived strong tie to Japan, people usually wear belts in different colors to mark their rank, some of those ranks come with titles, and some of those titles are used when addressing the person. Perhaps the most famous and widely used of these titles is “sensei”, the equivalence in systems perceived to be more strongly tied to China being “sifu”.


Many martial arts have uniforms, the most famous of which perhaps being the Japanese “Gi”, found prominently in for example Judo and Karate, but used also in for example Brazilian Ju Jutsu, with the addition of a “Hakama” in for example Aikido and Iaido, but there are uniforms also in many other arts.


In many martial arts, the language of what is perceived as the “home-country” of the system is often used to various ends, such as in Taekwondo (Korean), Karate, Aikido and Judo (Japanese), and Western Boxing (English). The languages are used often to name techniques, such as the “nikkyo”  of Aikido, the “kote mawashi” or “kake uke” of Karate, the “kani basami” of Judo, the “naeryeo chagi”  of Taekwondo and the “uppercut” of Boxing.

It is sometimes also used, as mentioned above, for titles, and sometimes to name exercises, forms, equipment, and even the different aspects of training (Karate often using Japanese to say things like “sparring”, “basics”, “footwork” and “drills”, for example).

The language can also be used to count, and to direct the students during the training with words like “turn”, “sit”, “stand”, “assume a guard” and to mark the beginning and the end of each exercise.


Famously, many Japanese martial arts implement bowing. Where, how much, how often and how rigid it is varies, but some examples are in the beginning of training, at the end of training, at the end of exercises, and before and after working with a partner.

Perhaps most attention has fallen on the ceremonies opening and ending lessons, where the students and the teacher often sit down and bow several times, to various things, often including the official founder of the style, the teacher, the school crest, and in some schools even the flag of the style’s perceived country of origin.

So… what is your point!?

The point is that the value of a system does not lie in whether you put on a t-shirt or a traditional uniform before going to it, or in whether you touch gloves or bow to each other before sparring, or whether you call your instructor “sensei” or “Shelly”, or in whether the boxers in Japan say “uppercut” when they could use the Japanese translation “age tsuki”, instead, or which language you count in, or anything else.

  • Awareness of hierarchy exists in all schools, belts or no belts.
  • Social codes exist in all schools, whether in the form of bowing or in the form of glove-touching.
  • Dress-codes exist in all schools, whether it’s in the form of a uniform or in the form of 10 guidelines for everyone to keep in mind when choosing their own clothes.

I could go on.

There is a thought behind every ceremony, the initial mediation bowing-ceremony for example, where students sit in Seiza and perform a series of bows, being an opportunity to shed some of the stress brought in from the outside world, so that more focus can be on the training from the start, and the same ritual at the end of the training being an opportunity to internally repeat what has been learned, so as to remember it better.

Is this absolutely necessary? No. But in the traditional karate-school I come from, the two ceremonies take in total about two minutes, and I believe it can be debated whether those couple of minutes would be better spent punching a pad a few more times.

Look critically at what is taught, but don’t get caught in “a school that does this is bad, and a school that does this is good”, because while there are things to look for, with an untrained, inexperienced eye, that attitude will lead to more wrong turns than right turns, and in the world of self-defense, right turns are rare as it is.

Instead look at every school you encounter with fresh, open eyes, because the same exercise, the same movement, the same application and the same ceremony can be brilliant or useless, depending on what the instructor does with it, and depending on what you yourself do with it.


John Bishop

Category Tactical

Type article

Duration 13 mins
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