10 Apr



Yo no Bi

A common trend in “martial arts” in North America is the pursuit of practicality. Many teachers will proudly stand before their students and declare a laundry list of adjectives to reinforce this belief such as “real”, “effective”, or “proven”. Many will profess that they perform contact fighting, sparring, iri kumi, or other such methods, stating that you cannot learn “real fighting” without receiving or inflicting pain on your training partner. I personally find this kind of thinking regrettable.

At one level, teachers may believe that such training makes their art “real”. Possibly there is some benefit in enduring such harshness, but his strikes me (pun intended) more of a gaman-tsuyoi (がまん強い) mentality than anything. It seems to me that most of these instructors and students are missing a fundamental principle of Okinawa and Japanese martial ways. This principle is known as yo-no-bi. Common among the older generation of craftsmen in Japan, yo-no-bi consists of two kanji, yo (用) which means use or application, and bi (美) which means beauty. Together they aim to balance the aesthetic and the functional – not only must a technique be functional, but it must be pleasing to the eye.

I can hear the rumblings and out-cries already; a technique’s only criterion is if it works. I have to disagree. If the only criterion for a technique is outcome (i.e. did it produce the desired effect on an opponent), then it is not a true technique. Using this outcome as a measure, then by default, strength emerges as the dominant factor. Other aspects such as timing, distance, composure, balance, and a whole host of other factors would be pushed to the way-side. And yet these are the more important aspects which make a technique beautiful but useful. Students and teachers are sometimes too quick to leap into fighting without proper development of technique or understanding of yo-no-bi. It is little wonder that there is virtually no connection between the technique found in their kata and what emerges in freer practice. In such situations it is ironic that they have neither functionality nor beauty in the skills they display.