Journal of Japanese Sword Arts

A monthly magazine dealing with all aspects of Japanese sword study.

Subscribing to the Journal of Japanese Sword Arts

Issue: #88 Jan. 1998

Journal of Japanese Sword Arts

A monthly journal concerning all aspects of the use of the Japanese Sword. Articles, news, reviews, technical tips.

$36 cdn in Canada per year

$36 US in USA

$48 overseas.


Kim Taylor, ed.

44 Inkerman St.

Guelph Ontario

Canada, N1H 3C5


by Kim Taylor (1994)

"DUK KOO KIM (1959-1982) He gave his life to provide some entertainment on a dull Saturday afternoon in November."

-Leigh Montville, "A senseless 'game' on a Saturday afternoon" Boston Globe (Nov. 15, 1982)

"AGATHOS DAIMON nicknamed 'the Camel' from Alexandria, a victor at Alemea. He died here, boxing in the stadium, having prayed to Zeus for victory or death. Age 35. Farewell."

-Epitaph at Olympia

Both of these quotes are from "Combat Sports in the Ancient World" Michael B. Poliakoff 1987 Yale University Press, New Haven and London. Duk Koo Kim was a Korean boxer.

These two statements point out one of the essential differences between modern society and earlier ages. (The classical Greek world was deliberately chosen for an example since western democratic civilization is thought to derive from it.) The difference may be stated simply; in the modern age the ideal is "life at all costs" while in ancient Greece the ideal was more to the tune of "having a life worth living". Both men above were boxers, both societies viewed boxing as a sport, the difference is in the attitude of the society toward that sport and the commitment of the men who compete in it.

Contrary to modern mythology it may not be true that "nothing is worth dying for". Some things are, even a game can be worth dying for in the context of having a life worth living.


Perhaps part of the reason for the modern attitude is the recent tendency to take away the responsibility for our own actions. This is a dangerous trend and makes for a society of thoughtless over-insured people. Civil law suits tend to assign the blame for a person's own stupidity to others. They take the argument of common sense away. The underlying principle is that all people are stupid and someone else ("society" ie. the government) must be responsible for them. A great example of this was the suggestion a few years ago by a coroner's jury that underwater nets be put up over the pilings in Toronto harbour so that drunks diving off of the Island Ferry wouldn't hurt themselves.

Medical science is another example of the modern attitude to life and death. The ability to keep people alive far beyond any previous expectation has lead somehow to the attitude that since we can do it, we must. "Life at all costs" becomes "life at tremendous costs" as more people are hooked up to machinery and kept alive by multiple organ transplants.

The very existence of living wills, the very need for such things, shows just how far we must go to ensure that we live and die with some measure of personal choice in the matter.

A life that is worth living is one where a person is responsible for his or her own actions, stupid acts are seen as that and any damage accrued, the result of that stupidity. This removes the need for the incredible array of government laws (and thus control) that surround us to "protect" us from our own folly. A life worth living implies the freedom to decide when that life is worth ending. "Society" now controls even that. This is a dangerous trend as we can see from the attitudes of Greece and Rome to the combat sports.


Let's return to the ancient world and try to find why it was not seen as "senseless" that a man would die while participating in a combat sport.

Here is the story of a dead man who won his competition. An athlete named Arrichion died in the final round of the Pankration. The Pankration is often claimed to be the forerunner of all unarmed martial arts, it included hitting, kicking, wrestling and anything else except biting and gouging the eyes. (These were often used however.) Arrichion was a former 2 time winner in the competitions. On this occasion his opponent had applied a scissors lock and a choke hold. Arrichion managed to break the scissors and in the process dislocated his opponent's ankle. The man immediately conceded the fight, a short time after that Arrichion was found to have died from the choke.

All the contemporary accounts which survive for us to read praise this decision to die rather than give up. Most of the artworks which depict this fight show Arrichion entering directly to the other Olympus.

In the same accounts all boxers and pankratiasts receive praise for going on with spirit alone after the body has collapsed. The strength of a man was seen in how much determination and self-discipline he had, not just in how much physical strength or skill he possessed. The ability and willingness to go beyond what was "humanly possible" was recognized and praised when it was demonstrated.

During the early years of the Greek games, winning was the only place given. There were no second or third places for those who did not succeed at the game, there were no "sportsmanship" awards. By some accounts there was damned little "fair play". The object of the game was to win, why should there be any recognition for those who fail. Since there was considerable fame (and money) for the winner and nothing for the rest, the athletes were willing to exert their best effort at each contest. There was no question of "going for the tie".


Before we decide that the Greek cities were hosting the games as bloody spectacles, remember that the Greeks were not some sort of oriental "despotism", they were the root of Western democratic thought. They could have created a more humane boxing but did not.

It was the Romans who invented the caestus which was a stone or metal spiked glove for the boxing ring. This type of boxing was not much better than the gladiatorial games that the Romans also loved so much.

The Greek law, graphe hybreos, was a response to hybris or assault. They had a very clear idea of what violent crime is. Greek law considered violence a crime against the state and a reflection of the desire to dishonour the victim. Injuries would indeed heal but the violence to society was considered truly dangerous. Perhaps we should take a moment and ask ourselves how this compares with the modern attitude toward assault.

Far from being cruel or stupid, the Greek society had a very well developed idea of what constituted cruelty and violence. They approved of neither. The majority of people did, however, approve of combat sports.


Why would a boxer compete in this kind of risky sport? Was it because the athletes were poor and this was a "way up" to a better life? This is one of the modern arguments for boxing, taken it seems from pop sociology. "Society" closes all avenues except the fight ring to the poor disadvantaged boxers.

The argument doesn't work any better for the old world than it does today. The financial rewards aren't that good and they don't come for a long time. In the older Greek games, the athletes were still amateurs. For amateurs read wealthy since they had to be rich enough to train on their own time. It was not until cities and wealthy patrons began sponsoring athletes that the poor could compete. With the advent of "professional" athletes in the games a poor man could make a living as a boxer, but the game was established well before this time. Money only made the games more open to all.


Combat sports were (and are) not part of the military system either. Even in Greece where fighting was "hand-to-hand", boxing, wrestling and pankration were mostly considered useless as training for war.

There were of course others who argued that combat sports or at least the training for them made better soldiers.

Actually the fighting of that era was not one-on-one fighting, but formation work in closely coordinated units, so individual ability was not particularly relevant. Team sports were better suited as training for war. The very same team sports that we suppose are teaching our children how to get along in society.

Sparta, the most despotic and warlike of the Greek cities, had a lot of games involving fighting for a ball or for territory on the playing field. Other states had none such, their sports were purely individualistic.

Rome, the classical military society, had only contempt for the combat sports of Greece. They saw them as simple entertainment. Training was fine since it made for a fit soldier but the individual competition was not. Roman opinion was that sport was a spectacle, or an exercise done in the baths. Citizenship was revoked upon participation in sports contests.

The Greeks, except for the Spartans, had a different opinion.


The Greek ideal of the hero came from the Homeric epics, giant individuals fighting other giants. The actuality of the time was the phalanx, a block of men with shields, bristling with spears. In short, war seemed to be rather depersonalized. This situation could easily lead to a transfer of the Homeric ideals onto the combat sports. It is significant that there are no inscriptions and statues of Greek Generals, but many praising athletes.

The statesman sees himself as a figure somewhat above the rest of the mob, this attitude rapidly leads to despotism if the politician can accrue enough power. The athlete as hero helps to counter this personal power. Plato's complaint about the honours given to athletes instead of to politicians was certainly accurate but misguided in the democratic state. If the leaders become heroes the state is in trouble.

If the sport contains an element of danger, the athlete will gain greater glory for it. The greater the glory the more the gap between the heroic athlete and the General or the politician. Both of these sit home safe from the actual fighting in the wars they create while the boxer risks his neck for his sport.

The despotisms like Rome and Sparta had to downplay sports and degrade athletes because they were direct competitors for the ruler's glory.

Combat sports may also deprive a ruler of cannon fodder. Not that enough people would die in the ring to make a difference in even the ancient armies. The problem is that the society as a whole might see that there is something other than "the state" that is worth dying for. The example of the combat athlete, who has control of his own life, demonstrates graphically that the citizen may decide his own fate. It is not wrong if you do not submerge your life to that of the state. You do not have to stay safe so that you can fight for the leaders. This leads to the idea that you can choose to fight the leaders of your own state if it seems necessary. This attitude in the population makes it hard to maintain a despotism.


The argument begins to get us into a discussion of what values combat sport had for a society. One is the example of individual effort and individual choice as mentioned above. The citizen was inspired to think and act for himself, without reliance on the state. This made a stronger democracy.

The other side of this coin is that the combat sports and their potential for glory and recognition gave an outlet for some intensely competitive types who might otherwise have made problems for the society. If they were invited to work "within the system" they would be despots.

Perhaps, before condemning combat sports as some kind of gladiatorial games, we should look at history and try to see how those who invented the gladiators, the Romans, looked at the combat sports. The type of society that encouraged boxing and the other individual sports was not the society that made war into a national pastime.

Lets go on to the modern view. "Combat sports produce people who are aggressive, cruel, war-like and violent". These sports would include the eastern martial arts as well as boxing and wrestling. Today we have no sports that are similar to the Greek Pankration. Such a thing would have to be a combination of Kick- boxing and all-in wrestling.

Before we get to the sports, however, lets look at play. There is always a great deal of discussion at Christmas-time about war toys. What is getting a little more surprising is the discussion which has developed in the last few years about "competitive" games as a whole. These are to be replaced with "cooperative" games which have no winner or loser at all.


First, war toys. Toy soldiers through the ages have been the "dolls" of little boys. Now of course little boys (or rather their parents) get a choice of "real" dolls or soldier dolls. There is probably not much difference since kids will make up their own interpretation of what a toy means and does regardless of what their parents intend.

Toy guns are perhaps another matter. In this case, instead of one doll killing another, one little kid now runs around killing another. This is better exercise. This also has the potential to teach little kids that people get killed in wars. When societies forget this they have another war to remind themselves. Those most opposed to war are those who know it and its effects, not those who are "protected" from that knowledge. Children aren't stupid, they know the difference between play and reality. They can also understand the basis of that play. If they are taught what their war games represent, they may learn about war.

Unfortunately for these children we run up against the reluctance of our society to deal with death. TV shows that are "bad" for kids are ones that show people getting blown away with a lot of blood and mess. Those that are "acceptable" often have as much banging around with guns but nobody dies. This is sick. We are teaching a generation of kids (if they actually are learning from TV) that you can spray bullets all over the place and nobody gets hurt.

Since children today rarely get the opportunity to see family members die, they should learn the reality of death through play or TV at least. The current attitude is to pretend that death is a curable and slightly embarrassing disease. Like measles, when a kid runs into this disease too late in life, all sorts of bad complications arise.


Non-competitive or "cooperative" games are supposed to produce kids that are non-aggressive. The theory is that they will work better in the society. What will a generation of citizens who have been trained not to rock the boat do when asked to go to war? They may just cooperate with their governments. It is always seen as a strange thing that the men who are in charge of the nuclear arsenals are such "nice boys". They are likable, agreeable, boys-next-door who will, when ordered, turn the keys and punch the buttons to blow us all to hell. The military does not want aggressive, competitive individualists in these positions. They want people who will follow instructions and work with the "team".


"Team sports teach cooperation and build that team spirit that is necessary for modern life" many might say. A team sport such as American football is a great example of a game that is almost diametrically opposed to the combat sports. Football is about war, it is a game of territory and the taking of objectives. Each member of the team must perform his job in coordination with all the other team members. Aggression and competitiveness from individual players can be detrimental to the team since this will result in penalties being assessed. The winning team will keep its cool and each member will do his job without too much initiative.

A great many high-school kids are crippled and killed each year playing this non-combative game.

Ask any military commander what the perfect soldier is, he will describe the perfect team sport player. This is not to suggest that team sports are supported by the military as a replacement for the cadet system. It is simply a reflection of the type of soldier needed in the modern age.

Combat sports, it turns out, are not much better at producing soldiers today than they were in the time of the ancient Greeks. The athlete who wrestles, boxes, or fights with a sword must have certain qualities. He must rely on himself alone, nobody else can help him survive and win in the ring. He must be stubborn and willing to suffer for his art since it hurts. There is no "team" to do anything for, if he wants to quit he can. This actually makes it harder to continue the training and the fight when the body starts to ache. With no help, direction or support from anyone else, the combat athlete makes his own decisions and sometimes lives or dies on the basis of those decisions. Such self-reliance and independence of thought makes for a poor soldier.

Combat sports don't make the participants war-like. In fact, as the Spartans claimed, team sports are more efficient at instilling the needed cooperative spirit to form a good military system.


Still, some may say "If you teach kids how to fight they will become cruel and violent". This is one of the major arguments against the combat arts. By competing directly against an adversary and trying to physically defeat him the athlete becomes degraded and animal-like. The primitive urges that are barely suppressed by society come bubbling up to overwhelm and turn the athlete into a sadistic killer. Kids taught boxing, wrestling or martial arts go out and beat up defenceless and weaker children.

Actually that's wrong.

It's almost a truism amongst those who have studied it that martial arts or combat sport training almost always leads to a reduction in violent behavior.

There are several theories advanced to explain this phenomenon.


By participating in violent sports the athlete works off his natural aggressive tendencies and he is able to cope with the stresses of modern life more easily without resorting to physical aggression.

This may be true to a certain extent but most combat athletes tend to be a lot more aggressive just after the workout begins than just before it. The sport requires aggression and violence so the athlete supplies it. Perhaps the violence is simply well under control until inside the ring.


In the martial arts especially, a beginning student can look up to the instructor and the senior students and see that they are not violent and cruel. In fact in the potentially destructive atmosphere of the class they are remarkably gentle and kind. This acts as an unconscious lesson to the student and he or she naturally emulates the seniors.

This phenomenon is certainly real but one wonders how the chain of influence began. It doesn't take into account the fact that many students become less violent even in the absence of good role models.


Again, most of the martial arts have a certain moral or ethical code that has become attached to them. This code almost always includes injunctions against senseless violence and unnecessary aggression.

The theory would be fine except that the vast majority of instructors never mention any such code let alone teach it systematically. Boxing and other western sports have no such codified moral teachings at all, yet their effect is the same as the martial arts.


Perhaps the combat athlete simply has a higher threshold of violence because he knows that he has a good chance of winning any physical confrontation. By the same reasoning, he is not as affected by stress since he has the ultimate appeal to physical force available at need. With no fear of a fight, the athlete is less likely to try to "get in the first blow".

This sounds a bit like the argument for Peace through a strong military.


A higher threshold of insult might be a better explanation. The combat athlete has a very positive self-image which will make him a great deal less sensitive to the slights, real or imagined, that trigger most violent encounters. The ultimate goal of the martial arts (those practiced as a way to self improvement) is the dissolution of the ego completely. This means that there is no more "self" to be hurt by the actions of others. At this stage the question of violent reaction to a situation becomes completely unemotional. The egoless athlete will do as the situation calls for in a completely objective frame of mind.


What may ultimately explain why combat athletes don't go around picking fights and practicing cruelty is simply that they know it hurts. They know what it feels like because they themselves have been on the receiving end of the same punches they can deliver. They also realize that to start a fight, it better be worth the risk because nobody is good enough to win a fight without taking some damage. Invincibility is a lie and even the most inexperienced of opponents is likely to land a scoring blow.

In all of this we are talking of combat sports and those martial arts which actually include giving and receiving punishment. The martial arts which never include actual contact or competition (usually because they are "too deadly") are not classed as combat sports here. They are better considered as dance or a similar activity. This is not to suggest there is anything wrong with dance, it's just not combat sport.


Given all of this, there still isn't a simple reason to condone or participate in combat sports. The argument that they will make better citizens through strengthening individualism and personal responsibility is a little nebulous.

Here is a simple one. There will always be those individuals who feel a need to push at their own limits and to challenge life. These are people who sky-dive, hang-glide, rock climb, and perform other risky sports. Unfortunately there are similar types of people who drive at high speeds when drunk and pick fights in bars. In this case the combat sports will provide an outlet for confrontational risk-taking that doesn't put bystanders in danger. Think of it as "societal catharsis".

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Last Updated March 6, 1998 by
Kim Taylor