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Words: Matt Jardine

By now, most within the BJJ community are aware of the inextricable link between Brazil and Japan, but as the South Americans modified and ‘evolved’ the techniques of the Far East, did they, and now we, ‘throw the baby out with the bath water’?

Are we guilty of turning our backs on a culture that may still have much to offer and could help us take our BJJ to the next level? Are we missing out on beneficial training methods because of our misunderstanding and misinterpretation of their efficacy?

There is no doubt that the two cultures are poles apart; the archetypal images of the stark minimalism of Kyoto’s famous Zen Rock garden and temple, RyoZen-ji, and the effervescent colours of beach wear on Ipanema beach attest to this.

Opposing poles however, as is depicted in the Yin Yang symbol of oriental theory, can work harmoniously.

To begin this debate we need to briefly outline the traditional Japanese martial arts training modalities: Kumite, Kihon and Kata.

Kumite: This is ‘free sparring’ in the Japanese arts. Like BJJ it covers a spectrum from specific-focused sparring to total free fighting.

Kihon: Picture a line of Karate students practicing individual techniques without a partner; this is Kihon.

Kata: Do you remember the ‘Karate Kid’? Not the modern version with Will Smith’s boy (this is actually a film about Kung Fu rather than Karate but let’s not go there…) but the original with Mr. Miyagi and his young protégé? In the third film, Mr. Miyagi is on the beach teaching ‘Dannyo san’ a series of flowing interlinked moves against a presumed imaginary attacker; this is Kata!

The most prevalent objections I encounter in BJJ academies about the ‘Traditional Arts’, concerns both Kata and Kihon. They are considered by many students of these academies ‘pointless and outdated relics of the past’, or ‘unnecessary and unhelpful training methods for the modern day’. If we look closer though, we may see that we are ‘missing a trick’ by completely banishing these training ideas from our practice.

It is undeniable that one of the incredible strengths of BJJ study is the huge time spent sparring against a resisting opponent. We can all relate to an average class broken down into a warm up, one or two techniques briefly practised then up to half the class time rolling and ‘live sparring’. This is what makes BJJ players tough from a martial arts perspective - they are pressure tested from day one.

Historically, three centuries of colonisation and now a modern economical and social structure blighted by the far extremes of rich and poor, have led to an eclectic, practical, sink or swim attitude that permeates the mats of jiu jitsu academies. This very quality however is also one of BJJ’s potential flaws.

As well as recognising the large proportion of sparring in any given lesson, I’m sure many of us can equally relate to the difficulty in trying to remember the myriad techniques squeezed into the 15 minutes or so ‘technical time’ preceding live sparring.

The simple truth is that rolling very often takes precedence over drilling; variation of technique often preferred over repetition leading to a mat of, although tough, potentially technically inaccurate fighters.

Some of the ‘rejected’ philosophies of Japanese training could be the antidote. To understand how, we need a small insight into the cultural attitude of the Japanese.

Japan is a nation that prides itself on attention to detail. They are not renowned for their abilities to ‘pioneer’ but they will take an existing creation and, with disciplined focus, continuously refine until the original is simply ‘better’.

The car industry is a perfect example of this. The flamboyance of the Mediterranean is represented in the magnificence of Italy’s Ferrari: fast, creative and aggressive although notoriously unreliable. In stark contrast however think of Honda, Nissan or indeed any another Japanese car manufacturer. Hugely reliable, affordable and, when you look under the bonnet, also engineered to be a performance car but without the need to be flashy.

These ideas also permeate martial arts training. Turn your attention back to Kata and Kihon (technical training without a partner). In a Japanese Dojo (academy), for example, you could find yourself demanded to repeat a single kata during class time for up to 6 months. If you train 3 times a week and manage to fit in 20 kata per lesson this adds up to a massive 1,440 repetitions over the duration! How many of us can honestly say we have drilled our ‘armbars’ that much? Refined our ‘triangle’ to this degree? Investigated our ‘footlocks’ in such detail?

From one perspective these 1,440 reps without a resisting opponent may seem no more than martial aerobics. From another, more Japanese perspective, these reps are the very thing that could ‘change your game’ precisely because they do not involve a ‘live’ opponent - yet!

These technical repetitions, free from the natural pressures that accompany ‘live rolling’ (even those that exist in the innocuous environment of ‘friendly practice’), allow the student to pay deep attention to detail. Practice with this sort of ‘mindfulness’ stands at the heart of Japanese thinking and allows the student to create a close relationship with the technique.

Understanding and appreciation of the biomechanics are gained as the lengthy practice commits the techniques deep into muscle memory. At this stage the student is much more likely to be able to use the moves when finally reintegrated and used against the pressures of a ‘live’ opponent. Roy Dean, BJJ black belt and holder of black belts in the Japanese arts of Judo, Japanese Jiu Jitsu (Seibukan JiuJjutsu) and Aikido says this of the benefits of Kata and Kihon training: “Japanese culture and training has definitely had an effect on my personal expression of Jiu Jitsu, and there are some characteristics of this kind of training that you can see in my BJJ game.”

The Japanese also emphasise repetition in their practices.  My judo practises as a teenager in Japan were filled with Uchikomi, more Uchikomi and then Randori. Many repetitions, very few questions. Understanding comes through practise, not the other way around.  All these repetitions create a student who’s capable of reflexively executing techniques, which look beautiful because they are done with precision, commitment, and little conscious thought.

Another benefit to Kata and Kihon training is that they allow you a focused regime of practice for when you don't have a partner. How often have our partners, at the last minute, been unable to make an arranged out of class training session? We are left on the mat a little disappointed. We know we probably shouldn't waste this time so we do a couple of break falls, shrimps and half-hearted stretches - all without direction and focus.

With Kata we can set ourselves a definitive practise session. For example, we could commit to completing 5 of ‘kata number 1’ and 5 ‘kata number 2’ before performing 20 individual armbars focusing on raising the hips. Our time is now utilised effectively within a structure that we can feel confident hasn't wasted our time.

Roger Gracie black belt, Nic Gregoriades, embraces this idea and shows a great example of the sort of Kata you could practice (or create your own) in his online Master class (http:/tinyurl.com/covtamv) - the whole video is worth a watch but the Kata is actually at 13 minutes and 43 seconds.

My final point about the benefits of Kata and Kihon is a little more unexpected, very akin to Japanese cultural philosophy, but useful to us never the less. The repeated practise of Kata and Kihon is actually deeply relaxing, almost meditative.

After many repetitions you may well find that your mind gets so engrossed in what it is doing that it just ‘stops thinking’. The Japanese call this mental state ‘Mushin’ (no mind), we would probably recognise the term as ‘being in the zone’. It is the sort of mindset that I feel the great Rickson Gracie speaks of when he teaches, and adheres to when he trains.

Whatever the name, it is a highly efficient state of mind that enhances learning, performance and stress relief. Part of my competition warm up routine is to use Kata to ‘calm down’ before fighting.

Both the Brazilian and Japanese mindsets have so much to offer in terms of martial arts. A hybrid of the two nears perfection. From battle tested sparring to calm and considered attention to detail, can we afford not to look again at each other’s cultural attitudes and integrate them into our training? If nothing else comes of it, we will at least understand our fellow man/woman just that little bit more. And isn’t that, after all, one of the greatest aims of the martial arts?


April 12, 2016 — Jiu Jitsu Style