Journal of Theatrical
Combatives May 2005
What Makes a Martial Activity an Art?
By Paul Turse
Paul Turse attended Teachers College
at Columbia University, where he earned his doctorate in theatre arts.
While in the Army, he was stationed in Japan, where he studied Japanese
theatre and martial arts. His experience led to his dissertation
topic: Shakespeare: Kabuki-style, which presented guidelines for
performing Shakespeare via the Kabuki production mode and by utilizing
martial arts to create fight choreography.
Turse is a former
writer/editor for Raiderdrive.com and Bay Area Sports digest, but
occasionally still contributes his Oakland Raiderette interviews, many
of which are still archived and can be accessed at
A 6th dan in both judo and jujutsu, Turse is an auxiliary
staff member of the Spirit of the Eagle International Judo Camp, held
at Bluffton College, in Bluffton, Ohio (http://www.judocamp.org/).
is also available for instructional clinics through the United States
Judo Association's program (http://usja-judo.org/).
Paul Turse can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“Man injured by attacker using martial arts”—the headlines of a daily
paper read. The story goes: “Witnesses reported seeing an
unidentified man leap high in the air and, using a flying karate kick,
strike the victim in the head, causing a severe concussion...”
The contradiction in the above headlines should be apparent to some
martial artists who believe that their art forms should not be confused
with reality. If a person is purposely injured with a judo or
technique in a mugging, then the scenario is neither art nor even
sport. Indeed, if an unskilled individual uses nunchaku in an
unskilled manner to dispatch an adversary, would that person be
considered a martial artist and would the technique be a martial arts
technique? More than likely, it would not.
Furthermore, if an individual picked up a lead pipe, twirled it with
all the aplomb of a pro twirler, and then deliberately injured an
innocent person, there is a good chance the headlines reporting the
incident would read: “Lead-pipe wielding attacker injures hapless
victim”—without any references to the martial arts.
Finally, just because the above-attacker in the first instance flew
through the air with a flying kick does not make the technique
necessarily karate. In fact, it could have been the old pro
drop kick, a technique that might not necessarily qualify as martial
It is not just writers and reporters who do not understand the full
ramifications of what actually constitutes martial art, but also some
practitioners and teachers as well. This does not mean that all
artists, martial or otherwise, must understand what art is to be able
to create it, no more than a seagull needs to understand aerodynamics
to fly. However, in most cases, theorists who attempt to
standard graphic, pictorial, and dramatic art forms generally have some
formal and valid basis for determining what constitutes artistic
behavior, even if only on an unconscious, or intuitive, level. It
follows, then, that the practitioners of the Asian fighting techniques
should have some basis for determining when their activities constitute
an art form.
The question which now arises is this: What formal, valid basis
practitioners of martial activities have for referring to karate or
judo, for example, as an art? Certainly, karate and judo do not
necessarily become art forms because one chooses to give them such a
label. The purpose of this essay is 1) to provide one formal
(based on behavioral psychology) in support of the contention that
karate and judo behavior can become art. The following discussion
limited primarily to karate and judo, yet this Western aesthetic
rationale presented can readily be applied to any martial activity, and
perhaps help all practitioners and teachers gain greater insight into
the form and spirit of their martial activity and 2) help them to more
clearly define their approach to teaching, performing, or
An understanding of this artistic basis will also aid the layperson to
gain a proper perspective concerning the true nature of the martial
arts and to understand the difference between fighting techniques and
Driving off his right leg, a martial artist in a black cotton uniform
flies feet first, high into the air, above a sandy beach.
body to the right, he sails forward as his right leg tucks under his
body, and his left leg thrusts straight out. His body parallel
the horizon for one moment—silhouetted by the setting sun—he appears
transfixed in space, suspended by some master magician. Then, as
lightly as a butterfly lands on a flower petal, he glides to the sand,
poised for his next move as the waves clap their approval upon the
deserted beach. Where are the practitioner's opponents,
and fans? They are non-existent, for this solo karate performer
practicing kata, one aspect of martial arts training, in which a
pattern of basic principles is formalized into a dance-like series of
movements. This lone figure on the beach becomes an artist
karateka seeks only the perfection of self through the perfection of
technique; thus, the martial behavior of this practitioner becomes an
art form because emphasis is placed not upon the effectiveness or end
result of a technique, but upon its process or aesthetic
The prime purpose of martial art is the creation of beautiful movements
that will enhance the physical, mental, and spiritual growth of the
practitioner, and not the destruction of another human being. Art
creative, not destructive. The beauty of the technique,
the sole criterion for the artistic evaluation of the martial arts
movement, and not the successful end result that may be achieved.
only opponent for the martial artist is himself or herself.
In The Psychology of Art, R.
M. Ogden presents a view of art, based on
the theories of behavioral psychology, which appears highly relevant to
the martial arts. According to this view, inherent in all art
is this basic behavior pattern: the fulfilling of a need, or the
seeking of an end. Although all behavior appears to have a basic
orientation, not all behavior is necessarily art. Behavior
art, according to this theory, when, during the action of fulfilling a
need or seeking an end, the action of fulfilling or seeking becomes
more important than the actual fulfillment of the need or the
completion of the end. In other words, behavior becomes art when
means becomes more important than the end. The perfection of the
as formal excellence is a partial behavior pattern that begins the
cultivation of an art; when partial patterns arise from a need to seek
an end and continue to help achieve that need, they function as
The development of the theatre as a viable art form is a prime example
of this theory at work. In primitive times, theatrical behavior
as its prime purpose, a utilitarian function: to alter or
natural phenomena or to appease supernatural and divine forces.
order to cause rain and thus ensure good crops, primitive man created
rhythmic dances and songs designed to bring about the necessary
atmospheric conditions that are conducive to rain, or which would make
the rain god happy so that he would come down to visit his
Later, in the Greek period, at the festivals to worship Dionysus, the
god of wine and fertility, it became clear that the great enduring
tragic dramas of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides were enjoyed and
developed for their own sakes, not necessarily for the dismembered and
resurrected Dionysus, great inspiration that he might have been.
After theatre died in the 7th century, conditions parallel
to the Greek
period did not occur until the Catholic Church presented the Passion
play in the 11th century to celebrate the death, suffering,
resurrection of Christ, who, like Dionysus, had attempted to bring a
new religion to the world. Whether these performances did much to
the growth of Christianity is uncertain, but what is relevant is that
the theatre tradition was reborn.
Although the theatre today has, essentially, become devoid of its
religious end, the original need or impulse that gave rise to the drama
is retained in those plays that present a seriousness of purpose, such
as tragedy. This need is the desire on the part of the playwright
audience to clarify the nature of humanity's existence and its
relationship to the “gods”— divine, social, or natural. Those
that are most enduring and most satisfying are those that deal most
intimately with the protagonists' physical destruction and their
struggle to spiritually overcome and transcend all the forces that work
to destroy them. It was no accident, perhaps, that the rebirth of
theatre was intimately connected with the suffering, death, and
resurrection of Christ.
Let us now examine karate in terms of behavioral psychology. In
times, karate forms began as elementary and fundamental patterns of
utilitarian behavior arising from a very practical need:
self-preservation in a life and death situation. Today, however,
forms of modern weaponry have diluted the efficacy of karate, and
relatively few experts have the need to flaunt their skills in a
relatively peaceful society. Why then do the martial arts
grow in popularity when they have essentially lost much of their
utility? The reason lies, perhaps, in the very fact that Asian
activities have become divorced from their utility—at least as far as
practice is concerned. The end of martial behavior has become
separated from its means.
In all martial arts behavior—full contact activities excluded—the
rhythm and movement of the body is essential to the proper performance
of each technique. In the practice of karate, this movement or
becomes more important to the practitioner than the actual result, or
effect, of the technique. In the two basic forms of practice,
jiyu kumite, this striving for formal excellence is pronounced.
kata training, since there is no opponent against whom to test one's
skill, the only proof of mastery and excellence is the creation of new
techniques—or the re-creation of classical movements—and their
perfection. In non-contact jiyu kumite (free sparring), since
contact is not made between the opponents and since the practitioners
pull their punches and kicks (in theory anyway), the true test of the
practitioners' ability is to be in the proper position to deal what
could be a potentially effective technique. The ultimate behavior
pattern of karate—to kill or main—cannot be realized; otherwise, a
master would run out of training partners. Thus, the partial
pattern has become of primary importance in the martial art of
Since the form has been removed from the context of killing, it becomes
dominant and thus capable of being polished and refined into art.
other words, the beauty of a technique becomes more important than its
utility, and karate becomes a creative force, rather than a destructive
one, and creation becomes the essence of the art. This concept
not mean that art is useless, nor does it rule out other important,
though somewhat incidental, values that occur in the study of the
martial arts, such as the development of learning skills,
concentration, and character building. Nor does it rule out the
efficacy of any art or kata.
Not all Japanese art forms, for example, have lost their utility
completely. Certainly, the function of the tea ceremony, after
ceremonial aspects are completed, is to drink and enjoy the tea.
However, the point is that the emphasis is not on the drinking but
rather on the preparing.
The same is true in the martial arts. Along with the development
the aforesaid aspects of self-development, kata has embedded, in its
forms, many of the building blocks, so to speak, to fundamentally sound
performances in either contest or self-defense application. The
emphasis, however, is on the beautiful creative aspects.
The creative aspects of karate are manifest in the symbolic meaning of
the Chinese ideographs that make up the word, and in the spontaneity of
the infinite number of inspired, life-giving moves generated by the
artist in reaction to an opponent's attack. Karate was originally
written with characters that translate as “Chinese hand.” It is
more commonly translated as “empty hand.” Most individuals
empty hand to mean simply “bare-handed” or “weaponless.” However,
in-depth analysis of the ideograph kara may render a new and viable
interpretation for the term karate. Kara may also be pronounced
and translated as the “sky” or “heaven.” The concept of emptiness
is implied here is one of infinite creativity: the divine or
hand. To totally comprehend the Asian concept of emptiness in
to the martial arts and life in general, one must comprehend the
meaning of emptiness in the Zen concept of mushin (no-mindedness) and
mushin no shin (a mind unconscious of itself).2
After observing a student's careless mistake, caused by a temporary
mental lapse, a karate teacher often chides the student by saying,
“Karate means ‘empty hand,’ not ‘empty head.’” The irony of this
may be that karate does mean “empty head,” not in a literal sense but
in a spiritual sense. Mushin literally translated means “empty
or “senselessness.” However, the concept of emptiness that
Zen is not emptiness in a concrete sense, but rather in an abstract
sense. To have an empty head in Zen means to be able to relate to
phenomena as they occur in nature without any preconceived notion or
reaction. A true martial arts reaction is a spontaneous one,
purely as a reaction to each movement of an attacker. Since each
action of an attacker is a new and different action, a martial arts
movement cannot be created until the proper stimulus is provided.
martial arts movement is creative because it is a spontaneous product
of the unconscious and preserves the artist's life and perhaps that of
the attacker, since the artist did not have a preconceived lethal
technique in mind. The possibility thus exists to merely control
momentarily disable the attacker, rather than destroy the attacker.
One's thinking and feeling (because shin also means “heart “or
“emotion”) are not subject to or restricted by conventional and
orthodox modes of expression. Each society predetermines for its
members the appropriate response to classic life situations. In
Western world, the phenomenon of death is supposed to evoke feelings
and thoughts, ranging from despair and fear to the extremes of horror
and terror. Fear, however, can be an ally if it guides one to
proper course of action. Yet, fear can be a devastating
it paralyzes a martial artist during an encounter. Fear and its
concomitant adrenalin rush need to be controlled and channeled into
correct action. In a fear-provoking situation, many martial
have noted that they had responded to the attack coolly and calmly, but
then trembled with fear after the situation was over.
An untrained person might become afraid first and thus may not be able
to fight, and perhaps remains transfixed in the same way that a deer
freezes on a highway after being blinded by the oncoming headlights of
an approaching vehicle—with the same disastrous results.
However, to be able to transcend the fact of death, to be able to stand
detached from the life and death situation, and to respond correctly
and expediently to save one’s life, or that of a loved one, would be
the ultimate martial arts reaction and perhaps exemplify the state of
mushin. Furthermore, the highest level of detachment would be to
respond aesthetically in such a situation by noting the beauty of the
opponent’s technique at the time of the attack, just before eliminating
The Japanese custom of writing a jisei (a last poem) before death
represents the quintessence of this attitude. Some samurai were
to have written deathbed poems as they lay dying, mortally wounded by
an opponent in battle or by their own hand in a ceremonial act of
seppuku (ritual suicide, also called hara kiri). This
response demonstrated not only the warrior's defiance of death but also
his ability to perceive a sense of beauty and worth in all of life's
rhythms, even death. It was this ability to detach themselves
reality of a situation (especially in a life and death encounter) that
made the samurai the fierce and efficient warriors that they were.
All martial arts activity is an imitation of a primal battle—the
original life and death struggle between two combatants. Since
object of a karate or judo match, for example, is the creation of
movements that will symbolically “kill” an opponent, the original
impulse of survival is retained. Nevertheless, the end of the
behavior pattern—kill or be killed in a life and death struggle—is
transcended through the symbolic and ritualistic nature of the art
This very same rhythm is the essence of the Passion play. This
Easter-time performance is a symbolic re-enactment of Christ's death
and resurrection. Actors and audience members identify with the
struggle and project their own suffering into the tragic and heroic
figure of the Redeemer. The personal tension and fears that they
on an unconscious level are transferred to the suffering hero.
emotional and psychological crosses borne by the audience members are
symbolically lifted and carried up Calvary by the Savior. In that
moment, the human burden is transferred to the Divine Figure, and the
weight of human suffering is relieved, momentarily at least.3
Moreover, the promise of life eternal is fulfilled in the demise of the
Redeemer. When Christ finally gives up his human spirit, there is
moment of repose and tranquility, for the audience releases through
empathy all the tension that Christ has endured, and they share in a
momentary heaven, the tensionless state caused by the cathartic effect
of the art form. Christ dies, but the participants in the ritual
free to go on and perhaps bear their own crosses in life with a bit
more resolve and courage.
When martial artists and dramatic artists concentrate on the
ritualistic and formal aspects of their respective art forms, they
become unmindful of the result. Thus, the artists (and their
spectators) learn to overcome the fear of death. Both tragic
art and martial art represent what Freud might call a rehearsal of
man's final achievement: death.4
While the solo kata performer in the example offered earlier is content
to perform on the beach in isolation, art is eventually revealed as it
defines itself in the “eye of the beholder,” and the aesthetic attitude
carries over into those who view the art form or the kata.
prime example of the aesthetic attitude is when the spectators who have
cultivated that approach to art and life see a statue with an
outstretched arm. In this instance, they are not inclined to put
own hand out to the statue, but feel as if they, too, are stretching
out an arm.5
Ogden explains that in the appreciation of any art form, the behavior
of the observer parallels that of the artist. This phenomenon of
empathy causes the observer to respond, not to the practical end of the
art but rather to its form. "The technical name for this attitude
empathy, a translation of the German word Einfuhlung, which means
feeling oneself in a situation rather than feeling…against it."6
This writer must admit that while totally involved at the Terminator 2
exhibit at Universal Studios in Orlando, Florida, he lost his aesthetic
attitude when he attempted to block the shooting fist of one of the
robot’s illusionary arms, which had appeared to shoot out into the
audience and into the writer’s face via the 3-D effect.
However, when it comes to the martial arts, the aesthetic attitude is
pronounced when watching a beautiful karate kata; the trained observer
does not cringe nor move to defend when the karateka moves toward the
spectator while throwing punches. The observer is, rather,
of the end of the striking technique (death or destruction) and
empathizes only with the form, or the means. The observer
with the strength and rhythm that flow through the karateka's
The same impulse and need—strength, flexibility, and repose in the life
and death struggle—are reproduced in the observer and satisfied through
the beauty of the kata. Art, then, according to Ogden, becomes
beautiful when it defines itself in the eye of the spectator as a
completed form.7 Following this line
of reasoning, one might say that
completed ends are not necessarily aesthetic, for ends are never fully
achieved in art because an end is complete, and not subject to
Karate, as kata, becomes beautiful because the impulse leads to the
suggestion of an end. This suggestion or means is never
Therefore, it is always subject to improvement. Thus, mere play
martial-sport activities, such as boxing and full-contact karate (with
or without protective gear), do not appear to be in line with the
aesthetic basis presented herein. Boxing and full-contact karate
concerned with the destructiveness of a technique, and not with its
This is not to say that some sporting events cannot have aesthetic
moments or create a change in the subject-object relationship (or the
spectator-game relationship). Langfeld clarifies this point:
A football game is not generally
considered an object of beauty, yet it
is quite conceivable that an expert may be so thrilled by the
smoothness of the play and by the exact execution of the well-drilled
attack that for the moment even the thought of victory will have no
place in his consciousness. The exclamation “Beautiful!” which
his lips will have been used in a sense as legitimate as the most
critical purist can desire.8
It should be noted here that the exclamation “beautiful!” might occur
even when the reaction is to a play by the opposing team. An
appreciation of art can develop in sport when the spectators are able
unconsciously to comprehend a certain game play aesthetically rather
than realistically, causing them to momentarily forget the personal
ramifications of that particular play. Of course, not just a few
sensei, while outwardly showing disappointment, will admit to secretly
coveting a thrill upon seeing a beautiful throw accomplished, even if
to the detriment of his own student and team.
Ogden notes that playing, too, can verge on art:
We have, instead, indicated that play
is an activity in which a means
to some end has itself become an end. This new emphasis, leading
the perfection of a means, is the origin of art. However, it can
lead to mere playfulness, which enjoys but does not perfect the
means... It is not the mere employment of means apart from their
ends, but the effortful refinement and perfection of these means, that
results in a work of art. 9
Detachment and psychical distance are terms that refer to those moments
when individuals do not allow their personal feelings, or involvement,
to block the aesthetic aspects.10
Indeed, an actor identifying too
closely with a character in a play could cause serious injury during a
fight sequence. And, of course, should a martial artist think a
is a life and death encounter, serious injury might occur.
In fact, martial artists react better in a combat situation when they
remove themselves emotionally from the conflict; when they are able to,
in a sense, move outside their bodies and feel as though they are
actually observers rather than participants in the struggle. They
could even feel as though there is no opponent and that they are merely
performing a kata.
Even though there may be no opponent during a kata, karate artists must
make the ki flow continuously through their bodies and strike with
power, be it a punch, kick, or block. This energy flow is a
significant aspect of most Japanese arts, even in painting and
calligraphy. Bowie explains this concept:
A distinguishing feature in Japanese
painting is the strength of the
brush stoke, technically called fude no chikara or fude no ikioi.
representing an object suggesting strength, such, for instance, as a
rocky cliff, the beak or the talons of a bird, the tiger's claws, or
the limbs and branches of a tree, the moment the brush is applied the
sentiment of strength must be invoked and felt throughout the artist's
system and imparted through his arm and hand to the brush, and so
transmitted into the object painted; and this nervous current must be
continuous and of equal intensity while the work proceeds. 11
When scribing ideographs in the Rei Sho style, the above principle is
followed, notes Bowie: “The characters must be executed with the
feeling of their being carved on stone or engraved on steel-such must
be the force transmitted through the arm and hand to the brush.
executed the writings seem imbued with living strength.”
In the above quotes, the word sword could be substituted for
Even though in sword kata, the practitioner does not strike an
opponent, but slices the air, the actual power to do so still generates
through the body of the practitioner—through the back, arms and hands,
into the tip of the sword, and, perhaps, through an imaginary opponent.
While the kata of karate is normally practiced solo, all of the kata in
judo are performed with a partner, with this fundamental goal:
harmonization of tori, (the performer of the technique) with uke (the
receiver of the technique).
Judo, like karate, developed from a purposeful pattern of
the preservation of life in the primitive struggle for survival, in the
form of jujutsu. However, in order to learn to kill an opponent,
practitioner must concentrate upon polishing the means to that end
rather than the end itself during practice. Jigoro Kano, the
of judo, refined the earlier styles of jujutsu by eliminating those
techniques that depended upon attacking vital organs and joints for
successful application, thus making the activity a viable sport, as
well as self-defense form.
These original jujutsu techniques must be practiced with extreme
caution, or else serious injury can occur and, as pointed out earlier,
a master will soon run out of training partners. Thus, the
practitioners could not practice the end of the techniques to their
fullest. In order to derive the maximum from training and to
the safety of the practitioners, the combatants must adhere to certain
agreed-upon conventions. For example, an ukemi (falling
symbolizes a defeat. And when one combatant gives up by tapping
opponent, the action constitutes defeat and symbolizes death. It
the perfection of these conventions and the concentration on the
techniques apart from their end results that mark the beginning of a
sport and eventually an art form. The evolution into an art form
exemplified in ju-no-kata, where the techniques have become so stylized
that they are primarily appreciated for their beauty rather than for
their effectiveness, which is the goal of combat judo, or jujutsu.
In the combat style, tori might, in a variation of ippon seoinage
(one-arm shoulder throw), manipulate an opponent's arm so that
impetus of the throw comes from a locking action on the elbow, causing
injury or dislocation, to effect the throw, and not just the skillful
twisting of the body (see picture #1, below). In sport judo, tori
clamps uke's arm between the elbow and the armpit; and then utilizing
the controlling lock, tori creates leverage from the skillful twisting
of his or her body to effect the throw (see picture #2, below).
sport judo is somewhat removed from the reality of the life and death
situation, seoinage is still designed to be practical and to bring
about a contest victory. In a shiai (competition), seoinage, for
example, is carried through so that one dashes an opponent to the
If, in order to complete the technique, it is necessary for the
attacker to drop to one knee or to roll on his side (makikomi), it is
permissible to do so and is good contest judo (see picture #3).
other words, in a contest, where winning is the sole objective, the
thrower improvises any way necessary to make the technique as effective
as possible without regard to the formal requirements of seoinage; if
the thrower is a skillful wrestler, a move or takedown that may
remotely resemble the shoulder throw is as good as a pure seoinage and
serves the same utilitarian purpose, a chance for victory, and not
necessarily the creation of art.
#1: A Jujutsu Version (seoinage)
In this version of seoinage, the left
arm of uke (Shawn Wentworth,
black belt) is twisted so that the elbow joint is pressed against the
shoulder of tori (Rachelle Hulette, purple belt); thus, the impetus for
throw will be effected as much from the painful lock on uke's elbow as
from the leverage created by tori's twisting body.
#2: Sport Ippon-Seoinage
Rachelle Hulette demonstrates
the clamping action in the sport version
of ippon-seoinage. Note there is no pressure on the elbow joint
uke, Shawn Chiatto, who is free to fall without fear of injury to his
elbow. Of course, all judoka must be trained in ukemi
order to practice judo to it fullest and to do so as safely as possible.
Picture #3 Makikomi (rolling to
Brown belt Robert G. Martinez, Jr.,
drops to one knee to affect a sport
judo ippon-seoinage on his dad and black belt sensei, Robert G.
Martinez, Sr., black belt. To gain more impact on his throw,
Jr. could follow through by rolling to his right side and
"crash-landing" on his dad. However, Dad taught his son not only
judo but also respect for his elders; thus, Robert Jr. maintained
control and completed his fine throw on one knee.
While Kano envisioned judo as a form of sport and physical education,
he did not intend the removal of the aesthetic and formal
That Kano still regarded judo as an art is evidenced by his creation of
kata forms, an integral part of judo that many judoka have virtually
eliminated from their study and training. Thus, the de-emphasis
kata in training and practice might be one important reason that has
led many trainees, and even sensei, to consider judo to be a sport
only, and not a martial art.
The quintessence of art in judo and a prime example of the behavioral
psychology approach presented herein is exemplified in the ju-no-kata
(forms of gentleness), a kind of martial ballet in which various judo
fighting principles are displayed, not in a realistic sense but rather
in a conventional or near symbolic
In the shoulder throw technique (kata mawashi) of ju-no-kata, tori must
lift uke in a very formal fashion that is not subject to
improvisation. Then after tori has lifted uke, tori poses as if
performing a ballet support for uke, who arches his or her body
somewhat in the manner of a prima ballerina (see picture #4). The
technique is not followed to its logical conclusion: the dashing
uke to the mat. In that poised moment, form stands isolated from
martial situation. The end is not realized in actuality but in
minds of the spectators and performers. In fact, spectators are
to forget that they are watching fighting forms. In kata, harmony
gentleness take precedence over strength and victory. The
two bodies mutually in accord with each other and the universe interact
with no thought of victory or defeat. This interaction is the
of all kata and the art of ju-no-kata.
Picture #4: Kata Mawashi (ju-no-kata)
After posing in this "tableau "
moment, tori (Shawn Chiatto) and uke (Rachelle Hulette) return to their
original positions to be ready to
demonstrate the next technique in the series. There is no throw,
dashing of uke to the mat, as there is in sport or combat judo.
no thought of victory or defeat; there is only the union of two bodies
harmonizing in the rhythm of judo.
Thus, it appears that ju-no-kata meets the requirement of art in terms
of behavioral psychology in these three ways: 1) the form of a
technique takes precedence over its effectiveness; 2) the form of a
technique is conventionalized so that it departs from realistic
considerations; and 3) the end is often left for final definition and
realization in the minds of the spectators and performers.
It has already been pointed out that partial behavior patterns become
art when they arise from a need to seek an end, continue to strive
toward the fulfillment of that need, and can be perfected.
the behavioral psychology line of reasoning, it should follow that when
partial behavior patterns are enjoyed without any effort to perfect
them, they become diversions; and when partial behavior patterns are
cut off from the original need that gave rise to them, they become
The martial arts, then, become diversions when they are regarded
as an exercise activity or as a night away from one's spouse.
become perversions when they are practiced solely as a means of winning
trophies, purses, or prestige in contests. Moreover, when they
a way to destroy another human being who has committed a minor
transgression, they cease to be creative but become destructive.
all of these contexts, the original impulse and need are lost, and so
is the essential quality in art behavior: the regard for formal
perfection. The socializer seeks ego gratification, the
seeks fame and fortune, and the street fighter seeks an anti-social
outlet for aggression. None of them want to seek perfection for
The martial arts are ends in themselves. A throw in judo, for
is its own end, regardless of its effectiveness. A judo artist
strive his or her entire life to discover and perfect only one throw
which he or she will be able to execute effortlessly against all
opponents—large or small—at any given moment, even when completely
exhausted. The judoka may have at his or her disposal many other
polished techniques that can be used at will. But the judoka has
identified with one technique that, in a sense, becomes his or her
“totem.” Even if the throw may be impractical in a standard
self-defense situation, the judoka strives to perfect it. The
perfection of this move is synonymous with the perfection of the
judoka, a lifetime goal. Ideally, the throw that the judoka has
embodies the most basic and comprehensive of judo principles, the
perfection of which leads the development of all other related
techniques, as well as to the perfection of self. It was no
that some samurai often identified with their swords, which were
considered to be their souls. A rusted or tarnished sword meant a
tarnished or rusted soul. Through the art of swordsmanship, the
warrior polished his blade and body by hours of rigorous training in
order to prepare for death and to die leaving no regrets (isagi yoku).
For many individuals, the fact of death may cause a radical change in
their daily routines. In order to determine the degree of
developed by his adult students, this writer would ask them this
thought-provoking question: “If you knew that tomorrow would be
last on earth, would you still come to judo practice?” If judo
been practiced as an art for its own intrinsic value, the ideal answer
to this question will be “yes.” However, the fighter has nothing
gain from practice, since honor or ego will no longer need to be
defended. The socializer has nothing to gain from practice, since
training does not gain instant social gratification. However,
any martial art practiced for its own sake, is its own reward.
judo artist, one last practice would be one last chance to experience
the thrill of the big throw that has been so important thus far.
fact of death does not alter the true judo artist's perception of
When asked what they would do instead of practicing judo on their last
day, several male students provided the following four responses:
would go out and get smashed.” “I would go out and find a hot
“I would sit down and write something.” “I would want to tell my
how much I love her.” The first response comes from the
For him judo has been only a diversion. Thus, on his last night,
seeks the ultimate escape: inebriation. The second response
from another type of socializer. Judo for him has become a way to
enhance his macho image and to attract women. The third response
from the fame finder. Judo has been a potential means of
success and gaining prestige. Thus, on his last night, he would
gain immortality by writing a literary masterpiece. The fourth
response comes from another type of ego-gratification seeker. He
been practicing perhaps to gain the respect and admiration of his
wife. The first two responses, as reprehensible as they may
drunk and get sex—are not as serious as the latter responses, for these
diversions simply reflect an immature attitude toward the martial arts
and life in general. These students will be happy to escape any
However, the latter responses, which represent perversions, are serious
because the practitioners still have some great need to be understood
or fulfilled. At the time of death, they still have
regrets. It is
unfortunate that the would-be-writer cannot write Hamlet overnight and
that he could not have written his innermost thoughts before. It
tragic, perhaps, that the husband has not told his wife before this
last day how he feels about her. This is not to say that a dying
husband should not tell his wife that he loves her. The point
been hyperbolized by the examples above is that the true martial
artist, in theory at least, practices for purely intrinsic
or she strives for the perfection of self, knowing full well that
perfection is unattainable. So, on that last day, the martial
transcends death by still focusing on his or her art, and by seeking
that elusive phantom, perfection.
While the last example may seem to be the ideal, there have been cases
of terminally ill martial arts practitioners who have trained right up
until the last days before death defeated them. Lilly is a prime
example of this enduring desire to seek perfection. Diagnosed
cancer and undergoing therapy, Lilly continued to train right up until
shortly before she died, knowing full well that she did not have many
days left. Although she looked debilitated and worn, and was
in pain, when Lilly performed her kata, a seemingly miraculous
transformation would occur, and the power of her form seemed to elevate
her beyond the confines of her physical limitations.
Lilly never won any tournaments or any trophies, and her name will
never go down in the annals of martial arts, but she, in her own quiet
way, personified the essence and spirit of the “art” in the martial
arts. Although death may have defeated her body, it never
In conclusion, activities such as judo and karate may be said to be art
forms when 1) they conform to the requirements of behavioral psychology
by emphasizing the process rather than the end result of their
techniques, 2) the training procedures called kata have become removed
from the context of a practical martial situation and become creative
rather than destructive, and 3) the perfection of the techniques are
coincidental with the perfection of the artist.
Ultimately, if a practitioner willingly injures or kills an adversary
with some type of martial activity that resembles karate or judo, for
example, the actions have thus been removed from the realm of art and
relegated to that of reality. In those instances, it might be
accurate to refer to those activities as Asian fighting techniques, and
Note: The author wishes to thank both Sensei Robert Martinez and
Sensei Joan Martinez, along with their students from the St. Jude's
Judo & Isshinryu Karate Academy, for their help in making the
following photos possible.
1 Robert Morris Ogden, The Psychology of Art (New
Scribner's Sons, 1938), pp. 9-16. The behavioral psychology
on art are Ogden's, but the application of these theories to the
martial arts is my own interpretation.
2 All Zen terms defined in this essay are taken from
this source. Daisetzu T. Suzuki,
Zen and Japanese Culture (New York: Pantheon Books, 1959).
3 This Freudian interpretation of audience response is
discussed by Roy
Morrell in “The Psychology of Tragic Pleasure,” in Tragedy: Vision and
Form, 2nd edition, ed. Robert W. Corrigan (New York: Harper & Row
Co., 1981), pp. 176-185. The application of this transference
principle to the passion play is my own interpretation.
4 The Freudian release of tension and the overcoming of
are implied in the commentary by Morrell. The application of
theories to the martial arts is my own interpretation.
5 Langfeld, pp. 64-65.
6 Ogden, pp. 18-19.
7 Ogden, p. 260.
8 Langfeld, p. 40.
9 Ogden, p.14.
10 Langfeld, pp. 58-59.
11 Henry P. Bowie, On the Laws of Japanese Painting,
as quoted in
Quoted in Herbert Sydney Langfeld in The Aesthetic Attitude (New
Harcourt Brace and Howe, 1920), p. 129-130.
12 The diversion/perversion theory is a loose
interpretation of Ogden’s
discussion of sentimental, abnormal, and perverse behavior patterns,
Bowie, Henry P. “On the Laws of Japanese Painting,” in Herbert
Langfeld in The Aesthetic Attitude (New York: Harcourt Brace and
1920), p. 129-130.
Langfeld, Herbert Sydney. The Aesthetic Attitude (New York:
Harcourt Brace and Howe, 1920).
Morrell, Roy. “The Psychology of Tragic Pleasure,” in Tragedy:
and Form, 2nd edition, ed. Robert W. Corrigan (New York: Harper &
Row Co., 1981), pp. 176-185.
Ogden, Robert Morris. The Psychology of Art (New York:
Charles Scribner's Sons, 1938).
Suzuki, Daisetzu T. Zen and Japanese Culture (New York:
Pantheon Books, 1959).