Living in most parts of the developed world any would-be martial artist usually has a plethora of choices of arts to study. There seems to be a martial arts masters and grandmasters living on every other street corner. So how do you choose a martial art? There’s lots to consider in the choice. What follows are some guidelines to the categories of martial arts are kind of grouped into, besides country of origin. Because that really is only the cultural trappings of the art itself, it has little to do with the art itself.
Martial Art/Martial Way/Martial Sport
The first thing you should think about is your goal in taking a martial art. There are three general categories of arts that are called martial arts. The first is a martial art. These tend to be more focused on the martial aspect of their techniques. They tend to be more useful in self-defense, but they are also becoming harder to find, and there is little immediate reward. They could also be based on specific historical situations that may not be as relevant today, such as kenjutsu. Most people are not going to be involved in a sword fight in the near future. In Japanese martial arts, they tend to have “-jutsu” as an ending, such as jujutsu, kenjutsu, or hojojutsu.
The second type is a martial way. They are usually derived from martial arts, but their main concern isn’t the martial aspect, but the personal development aspect of martial arts. They can be useful in self defense, depending on the training method, but that isn’t the main goal of the art. Aikido is a great example of this.
Martial Sports are again, usually derived from some original martial art, and martial skills are demonstrated, but because of the rules of competition, self-defense isn’t their main goal. The winning of competitions against another martial sports practitioner is. Putting your abilities and skill against another person’s skills and abilities. Personal development may or may not be part of the goal depending on the art. TaeKwonDo, Kendo, and even Judo all fall into this category. Though honestly Judo fall into both the martial way, and martial sport categories.
These categories are artificial creations, and many arts don’t nicely in these categories. But they establish the goal of the martial art, and they are all viable, depending on what it is that you are looking for.
Hard or Soft
The second category most martial arts are lumped into is hard or soft. A hard art is one whose techniques rely on meeting force with an equal or larger force. They tend to focus more on the overt physical abilities of the practitioners. When dealing with a punch, a typical hard reaction is a block, forcing the punch up, and counter-punch. Shotokan karate, Tae Kwon Do, or Escrima would be good examples of hard arts.
A soft art is one where the goal is to not overtly resist force with force, but to redirect any energy or force coming towards you. Dealing with that same punch, a soft art will redirect the punch without stopping the energy of the punch, and then usually perform an attack, joint lock, or a throw. Aikido, Bagua, or Taiji are all good examples of soft arts.
Now, those categories being established, there no arts that are 100% hard, or 100% soft. And soft gets a bad rap in the West. It is our ideas that martial arts is about strength and/or skill overcoming the bad guys’ strength and/or skill. 14th Century German wrestling and swordplay measured their skills with the same idea, they just called them strong and weak techniques.
The end result is whatever art you pick, it only matters that you enjoy it. Because the best art is the world is the one you do, and enjoy the most.