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Self-Defense Within Martial Arts Training Demands a Real-World Perspective

Jeffrey Miller
Aug 17, 2007
This story is being offered in response to a request made by my teacher, Soke (Grand Master) Masaaki Hatsumi, during a recent training visit to Japan. During one of the training sessions, Soke was suggesting that everyone, regardless of rank, should make it a point to talk to those with actual combat experience and to learn from these people. The point was, if you do not know what a real fight is like, you will not be able to train properly for an authentic situation.

I was asked to share some of my experience in dealing with an attack and the following story came to mind. Though I have much experience with dealing with danger and dangerous people, this particular situation stands out as both a successful outcome where I was able to use some of my ninpo-taijutsu martial arts training, and a learning experience where I was actually able to control both my awareness and response, instead of mentally shutting down and "hoping" for the best.

The incident occurred many years ago while I was stationed in, what was then, West Germany. I was serving with the United States Army Military Police Corps. My partner and I were called to respond to a unit where a serviceman was assaulting others, including the officer-in-charge.

When we arrived at, what we thought was, the location of the incident, there was no one but the Charge of Quarters present. He had no idea about the incident. What none of us knew was that the 'problem' was occurring next door and moving in our direction.

While my partner and I were confirming the call with our superiors, the attacker entered the building where we were. He was obviously intoxicated and shouting racial insults and demanding satisfaction before he started a 'real war.' By the smell of him, he had been drinking heavily and primarily whiskey. His clothes showed signs of a struggle and at this point I wasn't sure if I was facing an attacker or the victim of an assault.

I immediately tried to calm the individual and find out what the problem was. As I was doing this, several other soldiers, including the command duty officer entered the building and became involved. The belligerent soldier was going on with his racial attacks and how he was attacked by what he thought were his friends. It was then that he turned his attention to me and began implying that he had martial arts experience and "didn't have to prove himself to anyone."

During this, and later after interviewing witnesses, we found that the individual had tested for his black belt in another martial art earlier that day and was out 'celebrating' with his friends. Witnesses testified that the more intoxicated he became, the more he started "showing off" to his friends which involved hitting and kicking. Eventually, his friends had had enough and then attempted to stop his obnoxious behavior by pushing him away and leaving him behind. This only made him more "playful" at which time he jumped on his friends resulting in them throwing him down on the ground. It was this that finally enraged him enough to chase them to the barracks and begin attacking others.

As he was telling me that he didn't have to prove himself, he also made statements that I only thought that I was tougher than him because I carried a gun, a nightstick and wore an MP helmet. I responded by removing my helmet and handing my night stick to my partner in an attempt to neutralize any perceived threat that I might be projecting and bring the soldier's anxiety level down. I informed him that the gun stayed where it was but that we needed to talk like civilized men so we could solve whatever problem was going on.

The soldier continued on with the "I'm a black belt and don't need to prove how tough I am" speech when he closed the distance and, from about an inch from my face, stated that, "I'm going to show you how tough you're not."

I ordered the soldier back and before I knew what was happening, I sensed his fist coming up between our bodies toward my jaw. I rode off the strike which landed before I could evade and then backed out as he began to flail widely with both arms at my head and body. I remember taking up a hoko-like position (a guarding posture in ninjutsu designed to create a protective 'bubble' that is difficult for the attacker to get through) to cover against the incoming attacks and having to simultaneously deal with an officer who thought that I was the one doing the attacking!

At one point, I realized that his right arm had wrapped around my left forearm and that a 'musha-dori-like thing' (uplifting elbow - shoulder dislocating technique) was happening. I remember moving to capture his balance and laid him down when suddenly his feet went out from under him. Later I found out that, in an attempt to help, my partner chose that moment to sweep my assailant's legs out from under him. I felt the soldier's shoulder give way as I applied the lock and took him down. This didn't help with the anxiety and emotional pressure I was dealing with as I was now worried about a possible 'police brutality' charge for excessive force.

This injury didn't deter his aggression though as he continued to fight against our restraint. We were finally able to subdue him and get him onto his stomach to be handcuffed when his wife and young child entered the building. I don't know how they found out about the situation but there they were. I felt sad for them and was only able to give a look of apology for having to do this. Again, more stress was added in that I didn't want to have to physically hurt this man in front of his family.

Unfortunately, their presence only served to escalate the problem. When the soldier became aware of his wife and child, he blamed my partner and I for his "embarrassment" and began to fight against his restraint again. I am not a big man and this soldier's build was easily 150% of my own size and weight, so holding him was a serious problem. Having to improvise and immobilize the man, I placed my night stick between the handcuff chain and his back and applied leverage against his spine which created a situation where he would only hurt himself with his continued resistance. This was only necessary for a moment or two, as he passes out from his exertion.

As I related during my initial telling of the story at the Hombu Dojo ('main training hall'0 in Noda-city, Japan, my legs begin to shake and I can feel my breathing change as I recall this situation and many others like it. It does not control me or the way I go through my life in the ordinary sense that I am not afraid to associate with people or the like. What it has done is imprinted on me much more than just a step-by-step memory of the events, and I'm sure that my recollection of these is less than accurate because the experience was much more emotional and from what Soke has called "budo-nerves" orientation or perspective than from any sort of memorized technique string.

I will simply end this by saying that, this situation is one that has forever changed my perspective on how I should train, and as a teacher, how I should train my students. It has taught me that kata-like, step-by-step training is only a piece of the training puzzle but, anyone who believes that they will fight this way is deluding themselves. Conversely, it has also taught me that training that is just henka-based, where the basics like cover, distance and the like are not drilled until they become second-nature and the student just "does whatever" in an attempt to imitate (his or her teacher) is also deluded. This type of practice is necessary but, again, only a piece.

I am in complete agreement with Soke when he points out that it is the ability to go between the animal instinct response required for surviving an attack and returning to the civilized state to live a happy life, unstained by fear, defensiveness or antisocial behavior because of the attack that should be the goal.

Let me also say that, I respect Soke and the Shihan master instructors that I train with. But, not simply because they are Soke and the Shihan. I respect these people and continue to train in this art precisely because my own experience with having to handle danger tells me that what they have to offer is authentic and "on the mark" with that experience. Because I know that should I ever be attacked again, it will be the lessons that I have learned from them and not my admiration of them or their abilities that will help to insure that my family gets to have me around a little while longer. In a world filled with martial artists and instructors who want trophies, admiration and to 'look good,' it is comforting to know that there are still those who have what the true warrior needs to create a life worth living and the power to protect that life from whatever might harm it.
About the Author
Jeffrey Miller is the founder and master instructor of Warrior Concepts International. He is the author of "The Karate-Myth" and the Danger Prevention Tactics video, among others. For more info, subscribe to his ezine here.
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