What did the martial artists of the past have that we don’t have today?
I don’t think it is possible to give definitive answers to this question, but it’s worth asking the question anyway.
There are many amazing and literally unbelievable stories about martial arts masters from the past, and some of them not so very far distant from the current age. For example; is it true or even possible for Ueshiba Morihei founder of Aikido to willingly stand in front of a military firing squad at a distance of about seventy-five feet and, at the moment they pulled the trigger, some were swept off their feet and Ueshiba ended up miraculously standing behind them! And just to prove a point, he did it twice! Shioda Gozo, Aikido Sensei says he witnessed this. .
Some of the tales from the more distant history are just as amazing.
Even if we take these stories with an enormous pinch of salt, stripping away the propaganda and the myth building, surely, there’s no smoke without fire? Two percent of that kind of ability would be more than enough. They must have had something?
It has to be said that the background to these kinds of stories is presented to us in a landscape that is so very remote from our own.
I suppose a key question is; is it possible for someone in the modern age, living a 21st century lifestyle to achieve anything like the semi-miraculous skills of the likes of Ueshiba Morihei in Japan, or Yang Luchan (patriarch the Yang school of Tai Chi) in China. Logically, if such skills exist, it may well be possible to attain such abilities in the current age, but it is weighed down with an almost unsurmountable number of negatives.
Allow me to present a speculative list of advantages these historical superheroes may have had in their favour, and then run a few comparisons.
But there are some significant challenges; beginning with the task of imagining yourself in the cultural landscape of the far east maybe a hundred years ago or even further back. This is a tough call for Westerners, as we have to peel away our own cultural understandings and inhabit the mindset of people half a world away, existing on cultural accretions that sit upon thousands of years of history, but please bear with me.
First of all, I want to present you with a puzzle that would be a useful starting place:
The possibility of rapid development.
If we take Japanese Old School (Koryu) Budo as an example, and we understand that there existed a well-established stratum of advancement; traditionally acknowledged by the presentation of sequence of certificates and eventually ending with a certification scroll that acknowledged ‘Full Transmission’, i.e. mastery of the system. That in itself could be considered a grand statement with a massive responsibility sitting on the shoulders of the recipient, the expectations are enormous, surely?
But, researchers reveal that these scrolls of ‘full transmission’ were sometimes offered to individuals with only a couple of decades of practice! I refer anyone who doubts this to Ellis Amdur’s book ‘Hidden in Plain Sight’. You have to ask yourself, how is that even possible?
In the recent ‘Shu Ha Ri’ lectures (mentioned in my blog post ‘Budo and Morality’) old time Aikidoka George Ledyard, when talking about the abilities of modern Aikido people (comparable to Ueshiba) poured cold water on an argument often brought forward in Aikido circles that if you train long enough, eventually you will ‘get it’ (something I have also heard said in Wado). In the interview Ledyard clearly called bullshit on that argument; to paraphrase; he said that they’ve had Aikido in the USA for over fifty years and still nobody can do ‘it’! I am going to be careful here as to what constitutes ‘it’. I’m not talking about fireballs of Chi emanating from fingertips; just effortless mastery and control is enough.
So, what is so very different? Let me put a few conjectural musings before you, in no particular order.
In Japan in the 19th and early 20th century a huge number of mostly young men studied some form of martial art (it became part of the school system). These arts had evolved into a commodity with a price. Previously the martial arts were the domain of the warrior class, now, because of the abolition of this same class, out of work warriors found a niche living teaching anyone who would pay. (A good example of this is found in the detailed ledgers of lessons taught and fees charged by Ueshiba’s Daito Ryu teacher Takeda Sokaku.)
There was an awful lot of it about.
As a snapshot of the time; in his key formative years (pre Wado) the founder of Wado Ryu Karate-Do, Otsuka Sensei is said to have extensively sampled the huge proliferation of Dojo within a small area of Tokyo.
I think it is fair to assume that within this system there must have been a highly competitive filtration mechanism at work and it must have been very rough and tumble. To illustrate this point you have to wonder why it was that Otsuka Sensei would consider making a living out of treating predominantly martial arts related injuries? (At one point, Otsuka believed that this was an area worthy of supplying him with an income, but his teaching successes ultimately changed his trajectory).
While it is apparent that the weapon training aspect of traditional Japanese martial arts struggled to survive (Naginata as an art was kept alive by the skin of its teeth mainly through the stubbornness of a few single-minded female protagonists) the empty-handed specialisms were adopted and subsumed by the powerhouse of the developing culture of what was to become Kodokan Judo. Judo, of course had a USP of being a ‘safe’ competitive format (see my blogpost on ‘Sanitisation’) and a builder of character, very much in line with progressive ideas developing within Japan at that time.
Even before that happened martial arts were considered part of the culture, and the Japanese have always been big on their culture, with a high regard for the arts and crafts and a special place for the artisans, and, it could be argued that the martial arts teachers were ‘artisans’. It may not be what an aspiring Japanese mother of the early Meiji Era might want for her son, but it still had the potential to provide respect and some form of status.
Looking at ancestors, either ours in the west or the equivalent in the far east, and, taking into account their social constraints, aspirations, outlook, mobility and world view, their bandwidth was pretty limited, compared to ours.
Theoretically our particular ‘bandwidth’ is huge, or at least it should be. For us, it’s not just the Internet, it’s education and all manner of loftier aspirations (being told what we should aspire towards) all supported by modern mechanisms, the structural framework of the society we live in and how we are kept secure by infrastructures that protect us from harm and ensure we are healthy.
Well, that’s how it’s supposed to work, but very recently things have become, to say the least, ‘challenging’, which in a way has highlighted some of the flaws in our current system.
Research has shown that this arguably ‘widened’ bandwidth is causing an actual shortening of our attention span, resulting in us leaping from one stimulus to another; one item of clickbait, and yet more irresistible reaffirmations on social media to boost our feeling of worth. Critics say this is actually dumbing us down and even restricting our brain power .
In the modern age the pressures of work leave less time to pursue other activities. In terms of martial art training in the west, anyone who trains twice a week is doing well and has probably established a good balance. Three times a week and people may say you are hardcore, any more than that and you’d probably be classed as an obsessive.
But this is so incredibly lightweight compared to someone like Shotokan Sensei Kanzawa Hirokazu who’s university training included multiple training sessions in one day! Or the Uchi-Deshi; the live-in students of Ueshiba Morihei, who not only had their daily training but were sometimes woken up in the middle of the night to be tossed around the Dojo by Ueshiba Sensei.
In historical Japan discipline and dedication were parts of the fabric of society, as were the virtues of hard graft and perfection of character through whatever it was you chose to dedicate your time, or even your life to.
The physicality of the early martial arts protagonists came out of a different lifestyle; even more so in rural areas, they were said to have ‘farmer’s bodies’. Ueshiba was a big believer in the physical benefits of tough labouring on the land and used it as personal training. There was definitely a culture of physical conditioning in the Edo period martial artists, photographs of Judo’s Mifune Sensei as a young man show a very impressive sculptured physique. Otsuka Sensei was said to have been keen on strengthening his grip, though his attitude to knuckle conditioning was somewhat ambiguous.
And then there is the issue of diet… A traditional old style Japanese diet has got so much going for it. It doesn’t mean that they were living in a health food utopia; for example; because of certain farming practices involving the use of human waste, internal parasites were surprisingly common. However, even with that, compared to our heavy use of sugars, processed foods and dairy products, they were by and large pretty healthy.
This has been a particular interest of mine. To take as an example; if you look at the lifespans of senior practitioners of the arts that use as a USP their health promoting benefits, e. g. Tai Chi with associated Chi Gung, it’s not particularly impressive. I have tried to dig into this but the statistics are a nightmare, particularly when it comes to average lifespans, mainly because of a lack of reliable information and infant mortality stats messing up the metrics.
But examined broadly, it doesn’t look great. Even with extreme outliers like the miraculous Li Ching Yuen. He was a Chinese herbalist and martial artist who it is claimed was born in 1677 and only died in 1933, making him 256 years old! Look into the supposed facts around his life and it begins to appear slightly suspicious.
On more than one occasion I have heard Japanese Wado teachers mention that practices found in other named karate systems are guaranteed to shorten your life, and a cursory look at the available evidence from those systems seem to support that idea, but even that doesn’t really tell you the full story. It has been said that some Japanese Sensei who come to the west seem to suffer from the negative effects of the western diet. Similar things are actually happening inside Japan; with the import of western food trends causing medical conditions to develop that used to be rare in Japan. Obviously, something that needs more research.
The lottery that is longevity can be skewed in your favour, if you lead a lifestyle devoid of extremes, striving for moderation in all things, then you have a better chance at living to a great age, but that of course is in competition with your genetic inheritance. Aforementioned Kanazawa Hirokazu pushed his body incredibly hard as a young man, potentially inflicting much early cellular damage to his system, yet still lived to be 88 years old. Mind you, Kanazawa adapted his training later in life to be kinder to his body, and he took up Tai Chi. But maybe his whole family line were predisposed to good health and longevity?
There is no definitive conclusion, only speculation.
Try as I might, I struggled to find any statistics that indicated martial arts participation in the UK, never mind about world-wide. Besides, what does that even mean? What even counts as a ‘martial art’? It would be really interesting to compare it to martial arts participation in Japan in the opening years of the 20th century.
I think it’s a fair guess to assume that the preponderance of martial arts in Japan in those early days would ensure some kind of higher waterline than in the modern world (well, at least I hope so). If we take the seemingly fast-track roadway to ‘complete mastery’ in 19th and early 20th century Japan as a truism, then that surely supports the argument – they weren’t giving Menkyo Kaiden (full transmission) away with Cornflake box tops and there had to be something going on! 
It’s true that they didn’t have the level of information at their fingertips in those days that we do today – but surely, it’s not the information, it’s what you do with it that counts.
In the modern era we are becoming further and further detached from the generation of masters who could actually ‘do it’, and if there are people out there who are on that level then they are side-lined by popularism. I cite as a possible example, Kuroda Tetsuzan (‘Who?’ I hear you say. It is ironic that his sparse, minimalistic Wikipedia entry speaks volumes, without saying very much at all.)
I suppose it all boils down to; who in the modern age is prepared to go beyond the mere hobbyist level and dedicate time and effort into an in-depth study of the martial art, supported of course by a Sensei who really does know their stuff?
 ‘Invincible Warrior’ John Stevens 1997 Shambhala Publications, pages 61 to 62. Other sources (Shioda’s biography) tell the story in more detail and mention that the marksmen were armed with pistols. At a guess, this incident was pre-war, possibly in the 1930’s. Shioda inevitably questioned Ueshiba, asking him how he did it? Ueshiba’s answer was as mysterious as the acts themselves, but he seemed to suggest that he was able to slow time down. Both times, one man was swept off his feet; the first time it was the man who Ueshiba said had initiated the first shot; the second time it was the officer who gave the command.
 Numerous modern commentators have railed against the ‘dumbing down’ that is happening. Google, John Taylor Gatto or Andrew Keen, but there are many other examples that perhaps don’t contain political bias.
 I am aware that there is a political dimension to the Menkyo Kaiden, certainly as it appears in the contemporary scene, which to me makes perfect sense.
Image: Author’s own collection.