Newsletter (07) – Martial Arts or Self Defence?

What is the Best Martial Art for Self-Defence?

This question has been running around the martial arts world for ages. One day I saw Wade Meyers reply to this question, and that started me thinking. You can read his reply here:

Now for me, I personally feel that asking “What is the best martial art for self-defence?”is like asking “what’s the best language for me to learn if I want to speak Japanese?” Just as if you want to speak Japanese you should learn Japanese, if you want self-defence you should learn self-defence.

And just as it would be easier to learn Japanese if you already know some other language, it might be easier to pick up specific self-defence moves if you have some training in martial arts. But if you are pressed for time and you have other priorities in life, you ought to learn what you want to learn, not spend time trying to learn all the various parts of the puzzle and piece them together yourself.

In other words, martial arts are not self-defence. Some may have more of the components of what you need to know for self-defence, but that does not make it self-defence. Two different languages may have similarities in grammar but that doesn’t make them the same language, right?

So what ARE martial arts?

Some martial arts are battle-field arts. For example, within the Bujinkan (what I am most familiar with) there are techniques and methods that are meant for the battle-field. They are meant for training soldiers in as short a time as possible and to be as deadly as possible. There are also modern day close-quarter combat arts available, arts that are developed and taught to people in the military.

If you want to use them for self-defence, please consider that:

1)      Soldiers are trained to operate in groups, so what you are taught may not be ideal if you are alone;

2)      Generals are willing to accept a certain causality rate amongst the troops, i.e. they are OK with sacrificing the lives of 100 soldiers if it results in the enemy losing 1,000 or more. So the techniques and tactics may not be that effective on keeping yourself safe while dealing with an opponent;

3)      The techniques and tactics tend to be crippling or lethal. While that may tickle the ego of insecure people with a fetish for violence, what if you need to deal with a situation without killing your adversaries? Or what if you are just an average civilian who has the usual qualms against taking a human life?

Some martial arts are sports-arts, such as Judo or Brazilian jujitsu. These arts will generally have controlled scenarios (everything takes place in a sports setting), number of opponents (only one person at a time), hidden weapons are not addressed, and they’ll emphasize more on physical fitness. Let’s face it, an average person will be more likely to face a heart attack than a knife attack, so the physical benefits of such arts are invaluable. But they are not self-defence.

Some martial arts are for personal development, such as Tai-Chi or some of the other Chinese internal arts. They are characterized by a lot of time required to get things right (Tai Chi practitioners often say they should train for 10 years before venturing out) and the ability to do really frightening things like cover huge stretches of distance with a step or deliver very powerful strikes effortlessly. Again, these are not self-defence, unless you live in a society where killing or seriously injuring people is seen as the norm.

And if you do live in such a dangerous society, the best self-defence tactic you can use is to move out!

So what IS self-defence then?

Self-defence ought to include:

1)      The Legal Aspect – Self-defence is a legal term, so you can never call anything self-defence unless you address the legalities. And it’s not just a question of what the law of the land says, it’s also what that means for us in a practical sense. At the very least, it must include how to interact with the police.

2)      The Problem – the problems self-defence tries to address are divided into two broad groups – criminal violence and personality-based violence. Therefore, anyone who claims to teach self-defence MUST address this. They must teach you what kind of people commit each kind of violence and how to recognize the warning signs.

3)      The Self – In a TV show about fraud in the martial arts business, Marc MacYoung points out that many martial arts teachers assume that their students are always in the right, that they are never at fault in starting the violence or making it worse. That is a very dangerous assumption. Personality-based violence is much more common than criminal violence, and therefore in self-defence we need to teach people how to not let their own personalities create the violence or make it worse.

4)      The Techniques – These can never be left out. But I list them last because they are affected by everything else. The techniques taught should always be filtered through the context of what is legally acceptable in that society. They must address genuine attacks used in criminal and personality-based violence. And being skilled in them gives the student the confidence they need to keep themselves controlled under pressure and not escalate violence further than necessary.


I love martial arts. And so do other martial arts instructors, I’m certain. And when you love martial arts it is easy to see everything in the light of martial arts (“Everything is Kung-Fu!” proclaimed Jackie Chan’s character in the latest Karate Kid movie). But when it comes to self-defence, there is so much more at stake if things go wrong (the physical, legal and emotional consequences).  So we owe it to ourselves to as clear as possible about what self-defence is, what it isn’t, how to recognize if you know self-defence and, if you don’t, what are the gaps you need to fix.

So the next time you see some advertisement or informercial about the next latest, greatest martial arts fad to hit our shores, and how this or that art is the best for self-defence, remember my four features of self-defence given above. If you love martial arts, good for you! But if you just want to learn self-defence, then make sure that is what you are getting!


Like what you get in this newsletter? Learn how to recognize more dangerous situations and how to deal with them in the Walk in Safety ™ Primer Module!


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About Junjie
Musician, Martial Artist and father of two boys. Rambler, thinker and compulsive teacher.

2 Responses to Newsletter (07) – Martial Arts or Self Defence?

  1. eastpaw says:

    Great post, JJ.

  2. jkdway says:

    Agreed, great post and thank you for the mention!

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