Before you pick a fight, make sure you know what you're getting into. (Video copyright Peter Boylan 2020)
"How many westerners studied in Japan for a significant amount of time? Few. In fighting, culture means very little. Step into the ring and put your fists up. There is no east or west."
Someone posted this comment in a discussion I am involved in. It seems like a pretty straightforward idea. In combat arts all that matters is what happens when you step into the ring. Everything in a combat art can be decided by getting out there and facing off with someone.
However, stepping into a ring is not the same as a street fight or close quarters combat. The rules are completely different. The rules in the ring are about both people coming out with all of their teeth and no permanent damage. Outside a sporting ring there are still rules. The other people in the fight might not bother to tell you what the rules are, but they have them. What rules do you expect?
Fighting in a ring is dueling. It’s only 2 people, everyone gets the same equipment, and even when there is no referee, everyone including the spectators know if someone breaks the rules. Dueling is great for the ego. I love doing randori in Judo. One on one with someone trying to throw me, choke me, pin me or make me submit to an arm lock is just about as much fun as I can imagine. When the world is not threatened by a plague, I try to do it a couple of times a week for as long as my stamina holds out.
Japanese classical budo of the Tokugawa Period (1604-1868) could be brutal stuff. Ambush and surprise attacks were considered quite acceptable. It wasn’t about arranging a nice formal duel if someone besmirched your honor. It was a vendetta and very little was off limits. Many of the classical systems that have survived include teachings about setting up an ambush or a sneak attack. These aren’t friendly dueling arts. These are arts of killing without getting killed. Forcing someone from a very different cultural tradition to fight so you can “see who’s better” is a risky affair. You may think you’re having a friendly duel, and the other guy may break your fingers right off the mark because that’s accepted in the culture he comes from. He may not know about the rules you follow in a friendly duel. This is not something you want to find out the hard way.
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What I do in a judo dojo fighting with my friends is vastly different from what I’ve done the few times I’ve had to do anything in “the real world.” Sport dueling is fun, but it really only proves who’s better at dueling under those particular rules. Classical Japanese budo arts have long traditions of fighting that aren’t about dueling in a *fair* environment. They assume that nothing is going to be fair and that everyone will use whatever is available to ensure that they are the one(s) who walk away. People who train for this sort of encounter really aren’t prepared to fight by your rules. Their trained reactions and instincts are not to go for the submission by arm bar, or to win by throwing you cleanly on your back. Their reaction is to snap the elbow or wrist the instant they have it, or to throw you on your head so that you get a concussion and maybe a broken neck.
Every culture has different expectations. In war in Europe and North America there is the Geneva Convention, whereby if your unit is getting slaughtered, you can surrender and your enemy will take you prisoner, treat you decently and eventually trade you back to your side in exchange for prisoners your side has captured. Disregarding the Convention leaves a warring nation open to charges of international war crimes, when the conflict inevitably ends. European and North American rules of engagement are assumed to be followed everywhere.
Except that, historically, they have not been. Japan has a long tradition across a thousand years, not of taking prisoners, but of taking heads. Soldiers were rewarded based on how many heads they took and rank of the people who lost those heads. Surrendering and being taken prisoner was not an honorable thing to do. If you tried, you’d be so looked down upon for lacking the courage to fight to the last or take your own life that you would be tortured before they took your head from your shoulders.
These different ideas of what was honorable in battle didn’t clash significantly until 1941 when Japan began invading south east Asia and wresting control of European colonies from the British, Dutch, French and Americans. The Japanese had no tradition of capturing prisoners. They didn’t know what to do with all European and American P.O.W.s they suddenly had to deal with. They treated them with all the respect their centuries of tradition taught them a prisoner of war was entitled to: none at all.
On the other side, the Japanese were exhorted to uphold tradition and die an honorable death rather than be taken prisoner and abused by the enemy. Japanese soldiers who were captured were often shocked to be treated according to the western customs of the Allies.
In sports, there are still a lot of classical judoka in Japan who feel that having weight classes in judo competition is a sign of weakness, not a matter of fairness. For them, the best judoka is the one who wins against everyone. I’m really not prepared to fight in an open division with the heavyweights and super-heavyweights. For decades in Japan this was the only way competition was done. In sumo, for example, though there are many rules and traditions of competition, there are no weight classes, only rankings according to where competitors stand in regard to their opponents.
If you’re going to fight, make sure you know the local rules. When I first moved to Japan I had a hard time understanding the local judo rules. I’d done judo for 4 years by that time and had fought in many competitions under International Judo Federation rules. I’m thick and slow. It took me a while to get it through my head that people in Japan don’t automatically use the IJF rules to run local shiai. “Local rules” is a real thing. If you’re getting ready to fight, make sure you know the local rules. Fighting, like most things we humans do, is a cultural activity, and if you don’t know the culture, watch out. What you don’t know can hurt you.
Special thanks to Deborah Klens-BIgman for editorial support.