Philosophical and Strategic Concepts of Martial Arts


The principle of aiki (合気) is particularly difficult to describe or explain. The most simple translation of aiki, as “joining energy”, belies its philosophical depth. Generally, it is the principle of matching your opponent in order to defeat him. It is this concept of “matching”, or “joining”, or even “harmonizing” (all valid interpretations of ai) that contains the complexity. One may “match” the opponent in a clash of force, possibly even resulting in a mutual kill. This is not aikiAiki is epitomized by the notion of joining physically and mentally with the opponent for the express purpose of avoiding a direct clash of force. In practice, aiki is achieved by first joining with the motion of the opponent (the physical aspect) as well as the intent (the mental portion), then overcoming the will of the opponent, redirecting their motion and intent.

Historically, this principle was used for destructive purposes; to seize an advantage and kill one’s opponent. The modern art of aikido is founded upon the principle that the control of the opponent achieved by the successful application of aiki may be used to defeat one’s opponent without harming them.


Kokoro (心:こころ) is a concept that crosses through many martial arts, ut has no single discrete meaning. Literally translating as “heart”, in context it can also mean “character” or “attitude.” Character is a central concept in karate, and in keeping with the do nature of modern karate, there is a great emphasis on improving oneself. It is often said that the art of karate is for self-defense; not injuring one’s opponent is the highest expression of the art. Some popularly repeated quotes implicating this concept include: “The ultimate aim of Karate lies not in victory or defeat, but in the perfection of the character of its participants.” -Gichin Funakoshi


Literally ‘martial way’ is the Japanese term for martial art.


A code of honor for samurai way of life, in principle similar to chivalry but culturally very different. Literally “the way of the warrior”, those dedicated to Bushido have exemplary skill with a sword or bow, and can withstand great pain and discomfort. It emphasizes courage, bravery, and loyalty to their lord (daimyō) above all.


Words that I have often heard are that “everything begins with rei and ends with rei“. The word itself, however, can be interpreted in several ways; it is the rei of reigi meaning “etiquette, courtesy, politeness” and it is also the rei of keirei, “salutation” or “bow”. The meaning of rei is sometimes explained in terms of kata or katachi (“formal exercises” and “form” or “shape”). It is of prime importance not only in karate but in all modern martial arts. For the purpose in modern martial arts, let us understand rei as the ceremonial bow in which courtesy and decorum are manifest.

He who would follow the way of karate must be courteous, not only in training but in daily life. While humble and gentle, he should never be servile. His performance of the kata should reflect boldness and confidence. This seemingly paradoxical combination of boldness and gentleness leads ultimately to harmony. It is true, as Master Funakoshi used to say, that the spirit of karate would be lost without courtesy.


A term describing ‘fighting spirit’. In practical use this often refers to the scream or shout made during an attack, used for proper breathing as well as debilitating or distracting the enemy.

Hard and soft methods

There are two underlying strategic methodologies to the application of force in Japanese martial arts. One is the hard method (剛法, gōhō), and the other is the soft method (柔法, jūhō). Implicit in these concepts is their separate but equal and interrelated nature, in keeping with their philosophical relationship to the Chinese principles of yin and yang (Jp.: in and ).

The hard method is characterized by the direct application of counter-force to an opposing force. In practice, this may be a direct attack, consisting of movement directly towards the opponent, coinciding with a strike towards the opponent. A defensive technique where the defender stands their ground to block or parry (directly opposing the attack by stopping it or knocking it aside) would be an example of a hard method of defense. Hard method techniques are generally conceptualized as being linear.

The soft method is characterized by the indirect application of force, which either avoids or redirects the opposing force. For example, receiving an attack by slipping past it, followed by adding force to the attacker’s limb for the purpose of unbalancing an attacker is an example of soft method. Soft method techniques are generally conceptualized as being circular.

These definitions give rise to the often illusory distinction between “hard-style” and “soft-style” martial arts. In truth, most styles technically practice both, regardless of their internal nomenclature. Analyzing the difference in accordance with yin and yang principles, philosophers would assert that the absence of either one would render the practitioner’s skills unbalanced or deficient, as yin and yang alone are each only half of a whole.

Openings, initiative and timing

Openings, initiative, and timing are deeply interrelated concepts applicable to self-defense and competitive combat. They each denote different considerations relevant to successfully initiating or countering an attack.

Openings (隙, suki) are the foundation of a successful attack. Although possible to successfully injure an opponent who is ready to receive an attack, it is obviously preferable to attack when and where one’s opponent is open. What it means to be open may be as blatant as an opponent becoming tired and lowering their guard (as in physically lowering their hands), or as subtle as a momentary lapse in concentration. In the classical form of combat between masters, each would stand almost entirely motionless until the slightest opening was spotted; only then would they launch as devastating an attack as they could muster, with the goal of incapacitating their opponent with a single blow.

In Japanese martial arts, “initiative” (先, sen) is “the decisive moment when a killing action is initiated.” There are two types of initiative in Japanese martial arts, early initiative (先の先, sen no sen), and late initiative (後の先, go no sen). Each type of initiative complements the other, and has different advantages and weaknesses. Early initiative is the taking advantage of an opening in an opponent’s guard or concentration (see suki, supra). To fully take the early initiative, the attack launched must be with total commitment and lacking in any hesitation, and virtually ignoring the possibility of a counter-attack by the opponent. Late initiative involves an active attempt to induce an attack by the opponent that will create a weakness in the opponent’s defenses, often by faking an opening that is too enticing for the opponent to pass up.

All of the above concepts are integrated into the idea of the combat interval or timing (間合い, maai). Maai is a complex concept, incorporating not just the distance between opponents, but also the time it will take to cross the distance, and angle and rhythm of attack. It is specifically the exact “position” from which one opponent can strike the other, after factoring in the above elements. For example, a faster opponent’s maai is farther away than a slower opponent. It is ideal for one opponent to maintain maai while preventing the other from doing so.

The Three Attacks

  • Go no sen – meaning “late attack” involves a defensive or counter movement in response to an attack.
  • Sen no sen – a defensive initiative launched simultaneously with the attack of the opponent.
  • Sensen no sen – an initiative launched in anticipation of an attack where the opponent is fully committed to their attack and thus psychologically beyond the point of no return.

The principle of Shuhari describes the three stages of learning.

States of mind: empty, immovable, remaining, and beginner’s



Literally meaning “flow” in Japanese, Ryū is a particular school of an art. U.S.A. school of Japanese martial arts.


Sensei (先生) is the title used for a teacher, in a similar manner to a college ‘Professor’ in the United States. Sōke (宗家:そうけ) translates as “headmaster” meaning the head of a ryu.

Seniors and juniors

The relationship between senior students (先輩, senpai) and junior students (後輩, kōhai) is one with its origins not in martial arts, but rather in Japanese and Asian culture generally. It underlies Japanese interpersonal relationships in many contexts, such as business, school, and sports. It has become part of the teaching process in Japanese martial arts schools. A senior student is senior to all students who either began training after him or her, or who they outrank. The role of the senior student is crucial to the indoctrination of the junior students to etiquette, work ethic, and other virtues important to the school. The junior student is expected to treat their seniors with respect, and plays an important role in giving the senior students the opportunity to learn leadership skills. Senior students may or may not teach formal classes, but in every respect their role is as a teacher to the junior students, by example and by providing encouragement.

Ranking systems

There are ultimately two ranking systems in the Japanese martial arts, although some schools have been known to blend these two together. The older system, usual prior to 1868, was based a series of licenses or menkyo. There were generally very few levels culminating in the license of total transmission (menkyo kaiden).

In the modern system, first introduced in the martial arts through judo, students progress by promotion through a series of grades (kyū), followed by a series of degrees (dan), pursuant to formal testing procedures. Some arts use only white and black belts to distinguish between levels, while others use a progression of colored belts for kyū levels.


It has often been said that forms (kata) are the backbone of the martial arts. Nevertheless, different schools and styles put a varying amount of emphasis upon their practice.

Credits to: wikipedia

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