Why martial arts can never be standardized

by Victor Figueroa Jr. (From The Iaido Newsletter Volume 6 number 12 #52 DEC 1994)

As I see it, there are two reasons why the martial arts can never become standardized, regardless of the art. The first is simply - who can standardize the way people think? When one talks of standardizing technique or of instituting a standard combat system or even a standardized application of a well known technique, what one is doing is trying to standardize the human capacity for imagination and creativity. This is counter- productive, we need no thought police.

No one can limit the human capacity for adapting to, and overcoming a changing situation. To quote Musashi's Book of Five Rings, "The warrior must win in one-to-one combat or in battles involving large numbers... this is accomplished by the virtue of heiho."

What is Heiho (strategy)? This is a question that Musashi tried to answer throughout his book. Heiho is, in short, learning what you can from anyone who will show you, and applying it everywhere. Heiho is being aware of everything. Heiho is knowing the truth when it is spoken. Heiho is also knowing when and how to act. Heiho is many other things, I wish I could thoroughly explain it all, but I am still working on it.

The key is that the ability to adapt is most important. By removing this fluidity, and adaptiveness in training and application, what we do is turn out a generation of pseudo- martial artists. These are people who, in good faith, eventually turn the martial arts into martial dance or worse.

The second reason for the ineligibility of martial arts to be standardized is, that people, no matter how much they move or look or even think alike, can never be exactly alike. Since most of us reading this follow a stream (Ryu), we already know that micro-differences exist within the same stream or even variation (ha) and can identify with the student who is told by "X" Sensei that a certain way is the "correct way". This student is later told by "Y" Sensei that the method of "X" is incorrect. "Y" sensei's version is later found incorrect by "Z" Sensei

Differences in personal style are to blame, but before one begins to think of creating a "pure" or "universal" way, one must think of the nature of the martial arts. Most martial arts are the creation of one person or a small number of people. The techniques and concepts are like a pool of information. These "pools" are not just filled with martial technique, observations of body mechanics and the "secrets" of timing and power application, but also of the life experience, history, personal observations, philosophical concepts and personal style and flare of the originators. Regardless of stream or variation, there is a "pool" of information for every school. The "pools" may be very deep, filled with the life experiences of many masters, or shallower with the concepts of only one or two masters. All of them ultimately work out the same way.

Add to this, the student and his or her ability to receive, internalize and then transmit the lessons. All these factors, for good or bad, combine to create what we call the martial art. If it is all subject to the views, ideals, concepts and personal experience of the practitioners, is it any wonder that variations exist. With such being the case, would not "standardization" be nothing more than creating another new "pool" of information. The idea of a "universal" system has inherent in it, the idea of limiting how that information is to be used, taught and thought about by future students. Without limitation on expression, observation and application, eventually two people will perform the "standardized" art differently. This leads to the development of a variation and we are back to the Ryu-ha system. Given a few more years, and the system will lead to separate streams (Ryu).

I therefore suggest the term "standardized martial art" is nothing more than a contradiction in terms. As far as I am concerned, most people I've met who advocate standard technique, have their heart in the right place. They want students of swordsmanship to be taught "real sword technique" and not "chambara" (movie) sword technique. To accomplish this they call for an organization to teach, test and promote a "standardized system" (known to some of us Iaido old-timers as Seitei gata Iai).

To meet this same end, I propose another idea, let us create a confederation of Japanese sword schools and related arts. No one person should run it (to avoid factionalism) and no one system should be put above any other. Rank, if deemed important enough to be fussed over, should be awarded by years invested in the sword arts, and by ability. Believe me, a beginner looks like a beginner when under pressure. The stress of course is on ability, not time since anyone can waste time. As for judging other people's ability, one need not know the system they are practicing, it is said that a master can reveal himself by a simple flick of the wrist, and from what I have seen this is true.

What could an organization like this do? As I see it, promote Japanese swordsmanship, pool information and share it with members (through lending libraries by mail) and hold seminars, not to mention give demonstrations and publish information. I feel such an organization would weed out the bad information by supplying good, and create a base for students both old and new to draw inspiration, ideas and knowledge, while providing a sense of community and promote respect for individual differences.

Such an organization might succeed in bringing swordsmanship from the obscure martial art that it is in the West, to something greater. The only problem is that we must not argue over who the "leader" should be and simply all become "workers" for the greater good of swordsmanship. If something is not done, I predict Japanese swordsmanship in the West will eventually die out.