29 March 2011

"Walk on the Right Side"

Image Source
Last year South Korea started a “walk on the right side” campaign to create consistency between their pedestrian culture and traffic system. Although the traffic system in Korea requires cars to drive on the right side, Korean pedestrians traditionally walk on the left side. This dichotomy has an interesting explanation.

The traffic system in South Korea was based on the United States and dates from the 1960s and 70s when President Park Chung-Hee pushed for economic reform that included great infrastructural development. South Korea's roads and traffic laws were modelled after that of the United States. While Korea's traffic system dates from this era, Korea's pedestrian habit of walking on the left side has an earlier source – the Japanese occupation.

A photo of a samurai carrying his swords
on his left side.
During the Japanese occupation of Korea (1910-1945) Koreans were forced to accept many Japanese habits, including walking on the left side. The Japanese both walk and drive on the left-side. The reason for them walking on the left side is not related to their traffic laws, which were probably influenced by the British. Rather, walking on the left is a custom that dates back to feudal Japan during a time when men customarily carried swords. The swords were carried on the left hip, so that it could be easily pulled from the sheath with the right hand. Because the sheath and sword is fitted on the left hip, it required pedestrians to walk on the left side. If they passed each other on the right side, their swords may bump against each other or get tangled. The solution was walking on the left side so that their empty right hips pass each other, so walking on the left side became the custom and this was passed onto the Koreans during the occupation. This explains the discrepancy between Koreans pedestrian customs (having a Japanese origin) and Korea's traffic regulations (having an American origin).

The reason I'm recounting Korea's (and Japan's) walking habits is to show how the way we move is often influenced by the culture and socio-political environments we find ourselves in. It is undeniable that the techniques we learn in whichever martial art we study were forged from within a specific culture, with its historic influences, and a certain socio-political context. And sometimes such techniques become outdated. South Korea decided recently to change the pedestrian habit which is not in sync with the more recently developed traffic laws. Similarly, some techniques in our martial art may be outdated or be culturally irrelevant. There are a number of examples, but I will focus on only one, because it so vividly illustrates my point.

A throwing technique from a kneeling position.
In its self-defence volume, the ITF Encyclopaedia devotes over ten pages to self-defence from kneeling and sitting-on-the-floor positions. These techniques are very situational and obviously part of a very specific cultural context, namely an Asian setting where people routinely sit on the floor. In all my years of Taekwon-Do study I have not once attended a Taekwon-Do class (even in Korea) where any of these floor-sitting techniques were taught. The reason is obvious, they do not make sense within the cultural contexts of any of the Taekwon-dojang I have attended. I'm not dismissing these techniques altogether; they are an important cultural heritage of our martial art and have interesting historic value and some of it may actually prove contextually relevant. Still, how relevant are they in your life?

It is important for any instructor to research his system's techniques and question their current validity. If they are not of value within your cultural and socio-political contexts, then maybe you should not spend too much time on them. In a previous post titled “I Don't Like Your Self-Defence” I discussed this issue in more detail. Not spending as much time on the techniques that are culturally or socio-politically of less value is one thing, another important point is to actively increase the training of those techniques that are fitting the likely scenarios your students may find themselves in. This may very well require you to reinterpret the techniques in your system and make them practical and sensible for your cultural and socio-political context.

Korean marines training during the Vietnam War.
Image Source
Keep in mind that Taekwon-Do's origin was the Korean military, which means that originally it's defensive approach was for the battlefield, and not for civilian use. Most people studying martial arts today are not combatants but everyday citizens and have to adhere to certain civil behaviours. Therefore, martial arts for civilian practise have to be reinterpreted within a “civilian defence system” as considered by Bob Davis and Dan Djurdjevic, which is different from a real “martial” (i.e. military) system.


Ymar Sakar said...

Obata Toshishiro decided to remove the seiza techniques from the Yoshinkan aikido he teaches, calling it aikibujutsu. First of all, he teaches primarily Westerners in the US centered more or less, so a lot of his students were getting knee injuries from sitting in seiza and then trying to do aikido techniques. That makes sense if you think about it. Japanese students never had to learn how to walk in seiza, because that's how they normally do things. They have been conditioned for it and know how to avoid problems because of the 10 or 20 or 30 years they have been practicing. Americans... not so much. Especially not when you add in the weight of another person on top of them.

So since Americans don't sit in seiza and thus we aren't going to be assassinated in this posture, Obata took out that part of the curriculum entirely in favor of more pragmatic self defense methods. Not only was the training not designed for a modern US climate, but it was also producing injuries and negatively hampering a student's progress. That's the "unintended side effect" of adhering to tradition. When tradition seamlessly applies from Sun Tzu's 500 BC war to today's unconventional warfare, it's all good. But when it doesn't...

SooShimKwan said...

And that is why it is important to question -- question if things are practical or traditional. It is not always necessary (or even wise) to throw out the traditional, but at least having a clear awareness of what is traditional, rather than presently contextually practical, is of utmost important to keep the art relevant.