So, What IS a Martial Art?

In my last article, I wrote about how, using the strictest definition of the word “martial,” most of what we practice, as martial artists, isn’t really…well…martial.

Today, I’m going to expand the definition of martial arts and talk about what is more in-line with the way we use the term today. This thought is one of those things that I’ve struggled with ever since I tried to define what a martial art is three years ago. There are lots of activities that are recognizably martial arts, and several that are martial arts adjacent pursuits. For example, should boxing be considered a martial art? There are many people who would say yes. It is a combat sport. In that case, would American football be considered a team combat sport? Merriam-Webster’s first definition of combat is A fight or contest between individuals or groups. Football would fit into that definition, as would any sport, but is American football a martial art? No, of course not. So the definition of a martial art requires more specificity.


If we frame this thought through the lens of historical context, there isn’t an easy correlation that can be drawn between combat, in the historical meaning, and football; as opposed to boxing or fencing, where the connections can be easily made. So that should probably be part of the definition. There is a historical connection to actual combat, even if that’s not the primary goal of the art today. Most martial arts will fulfill this constituent of the definition. Even more modern arts such as Jeet Kune Do, or Krav Maga, would be able to show their historical connections.

Of course there are some who put more emphasis on the historical aspect. I’ve met several people who practice Chinese martial arts and place more weight on the lineage of the art than there should be, but they are not alone. I have found disparaging remarks about other lineages in Japanese martial arts, Indonesian martial arts, and I’ve seen it creeping into HEMA (Historical European Martial Arts) now.


In order to qualify as an “art” as opposed to a set of skills, there has to a cultural component. I’m of the hoplogical mindset that the martial art of a people can be used as a cultural identifier as much as, say, their pottery or music. There are certain philosophies, ideas, and symbolisms that creep into a martial art from the person or culture from which the martial art was developed. For example, there is a certain “Japaneseness” that is part of Aikido. You don’t have to speak Japanese, or study Buddhism to be competent in Aikido, but to fully understand the “why” of Aikido, you have to at least acknowledge the culture to explain how the art came to be. Every art has this to some extent. Some more, some less. I don’t practice Krav Maga, but from what I’ve seen of it, there isn’t any Israeli or Jewish cultural aspects discussed as part of the class. Therefore “military” should be considered a a separate sub-culture of martial arts.


Most martial arts are practiced for the self-development, or self-defense, aspect, which can manifest as an appetite to compete, a desire for physical fitness, a want to be around friends, or even a wish to achieve a meditative state. Depending on the martial art being practiced, and how it’s taught, it can probably achieve all of these things and more. It has been said that, at least in Japanese martial arts, this difference between wartime martial studies and the ideas of self-development caused the change from the term bujutsu (martial technique or method) to budo (martial way) (Draeger, 1974). This may be an over-simplification, but I believe the general idea of the premise holds. Please understand, again, I am not saying anything about the efficacy of budo vs. bujutsu, only describing the emphasis of their training. Aikido (notice the -do ending) is an excellent example of a budo. Its main focus is producing people who are more harmonious with their surroundings. That says nothing about the systems ability to develop people who can defend themselves or not.


So, to put it all together, in order for something to be a martial art, it has to have a connection to previous methods of combat or self-defense, a cultural context that it emerged from, and at least some part of the curriculum has to be based on self development. According to my definition, we can include practices like boxing, fencing, HEMA, kung fu, aikido, Judo, Olympic Taekwondo, Silat, Escrima, and most of the arts we think of as martial arts. Unfortunately, every time you draw a line in the sand, something is always going to be on the other side. By my definition something like Krav Maga wouldn’t be considered a martial art. It is missing the cultural criteria (at least from my limited experience with it). I am not saying it shouldn’t be taught, or that it is not effective. On the contrary, I believe it is extremely effective as a self defense system.  Maybe it deserves its own category called “Self-Defense Systems,” but that is a discussion for another post.

Draeger, Donn F. (1974) Modern Bujutsu and Budo.  New York; John Weatherhill

Jaredd Wilson

Jaredd Wilson

Jaredd Wilson has been practicing Japanese martial arts since 1996, and currently trains in Nami ryu Aiki Heiho under Brian Williams Sensei, in Nashville, TN
Jaredd Wilson

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Jaredd Wilson has been practicing Japanese martial arts since 1996, and currently trains in Nami ryu Aiki Heiho under Brian Williams Sensei, in Nashville, TN

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