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She called me a name I had
to look up in the dictionary.
When I did I said "What's
wrong with that?"

Why Martial Arts are a Subculture

On this page:
Starting to Separate The Two | Martial Arts a Subculture?

A charge that is often leveled at us is that we don't understand the martial arts. Because "If we understood the martial arts, we'd know that...."

Our response is there is a difference between the martial arts and martial arts culture. And that a lot of the non-kosher behavior that occurs in the martial arts culture/world, have nothing to do with martial arts.

While I love the martial arts, I do not respect or agree with much of what goes on in  the modern martial art culture. By martial arts culture I mean not only the business practices, marketing, politics, structures and trends of schools, organizations and groups, but the larger scope of fads, fashions, advertising trends within the larger subject. I also include the personal behaviors, agendas and motives of many individuals within the subculture. Most of this kind of conduct is hidden behind and justified as part of the over all "training." and/or "tradition."

Starting to Separate the Two ... And Why It Is Important
To illustrate how martial arts differs from martial arts culture, let's use some outside examples:  learning and school ... religion and church ... faith and religion ... and, of course, country/society and government.

Each of these examples shows a larger concept, but one that is often confused with the institutions that is associated with it. But realize the following:
         1) The institution, business or organization is not the same thing as the
          larger subject.
                   For example learning is not the exclusive property of school.
                   People learn on their own all the time. Unfortunately, the close
                   association of the two often cause people to think they are the
                   same thing.

       2) Although organizations draw their 'authority' from the larger
          subject, a discussion of an organization's conduct is not the same
          as  discussing the subject itself.
                     For example, a church is not the same thing as religion -- not
                     even a particular religion. Even though religion is practiced in
                     that church, the counseling services, business practices,
                     community services and organization of that particular
                     establishment -- while strongly influenced by a particular
                     religion's tenets -- are NOT the same thing as that religion.
                     Furthermore, what happens in that church may not be
                     indicative of every church within the same religion.(1).

So when we are talking about martial arts school business practices or the behavior of a group that identifies itself as MA/SD/WSD/RBSD, we are not talking about the martial arts, we are talking about that organization's actions and attitudes.

Unfortunately, the unscrupulous long ago learned that the best ways to cloak their activities is under the guise of the larger subject. As such you can rely on them on smudging the differences. If you don't have clear distinctions between the two then you will be more willing to accept something as part of the larger subject that is purely for personal gain of the other person. This is why we warn people against many of the practices of commercialized martial arts schools that involve the requirement of free labor. This is a common ploy justified as "helping you understand your art." In practice, it isn't only free labor, but the student actually paying to work for the school while teaching other paying students.

Martial Arts a Subculture?
Take a look at the definition of subculture and see if  the term "martial arts culture" isn't appropriate.

The Random House Dictionary defines subculture as:
     3. a) the cultural values and behavioral patterns distinctive of a particular
     group in society. b) a group having social, economic, ethnic or other
    traits distinctive enough to distinguish it from others within the same
    culture or society.

When you look at the bigger picture, what most people think of as "the martial arts" is a subculture! You can pick up any sociology text book(2) and look up what makes a subculture's distinctive "traits" and find everything you need to support this contention. Here are a few
   1) Unique Dress
   2) Unique Language Patterns
   3) Unique Traditions
   4) Unique Customs and Behaviors
   5) Specialized Values and Behavioral Ideals
   6) Specialized literature, equipment and supplies
   7) A common and unifying theme

Unique dress? Gi's, doboks, academy shirts all identify the martial artist in the school. And let's not forget all the paraphernalia you can buy to identify yourself as a martial artist outside the school. Aside from items you can hang up on your wall or put on your bookshelf, you can get shirts, hats, jackets, bumper stickers, key fobs and even tattoos.

Unique language patterns? Whether using foreign terms or terms specific to the school, buzz words abound in the martial arts.

Unique traditions? In many cases the traditions come from another country, but in many schools there are home-grown ceremonies, awards and rankings/titles.

Unique customs and behaviors? Bowing and addressing people by foreign titles is common in your society? You do that at work? Engaging in imported ethnic traditions is 'unique customs and behaviors.'  

Specialized values and behavioral ideals? You can walk into countless strip mall dojos across the country and see tenants of the art painted on the wall. The idea of a "learning a warrior tradition" bandied about in so many schools that this promise for self-esteem is worthy of psychological, sociological and anthropological studies.

Specialized books, magazines, TV and radio shows, equipment and supplies?  Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, Steven Segal, countless other martial arts movie stars as well as any number of MA rags. Entire publishing houses are dedicated to the subject.

A common and unifying theme? Bikers have Harleys, cowboys have livestock, Goths have clothing and music, martial artists have... the martial arts

If it looks like a duck ...

While there is massive diversity within the subculture -- to the point that some might object to the idea of calling it that  -- it is obvious from an outside perspective that what people think of as "the martial arts" is a subculture.

Once you look at it from this perspective, a lot of the strum und drang of the subject takes on a totally different perspective ... often reflective more of  marketing and sales than self-defense or ancient Oriental traditions.

Return to top

1)Although many people would argue this in the positive sense (e.g. weddings, funeral and counseling), their definition is too convenient. If one allows for that, one cannot disallow church politics, embezzlement, misconduct by the clergy and in some cases, wars as part of the religion as well. Because after all these were being done under the cloak of the 'church' and in the name of 'religion.' See why it's important to make that distinction? Return to Text

2) As we said, by picking up any textbook on cultural anthropology or sociology you can get a criteria of what makes a subculture. In fact, there are books on the subject itself  Brake, Mike. 1985. Comparative youth culture: the sociology of youth cultures and youth subcultures in America, Britain, and Canada. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, p. 8. Hebdige, Dick. 1979. Subculture: The Meaning of Style. New York: Methuen and Co. Hannerz, Ulf. 1992. Cultural Complexity: Studies in the Social Organization of Meaning. New York: Columbia University Press, pp. 68-81) Unfortunately, finding a clear set of definitions on the Internet can be a little harder. Here are a few off-site links that give some of the identifying standards of subcultures Return to text

Martial Arts America
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