The Interaction of Physiology and Character in the Martial Arts


September 10, 2003 by Shojiro Koyama (with Lana Susskind-Wilder)


Shojiro Koyama

Shojiro Koyama

"Modern life is too quick and competitive, changes are rapid, and karate helps us see past the world around us and into ourselves. Our pace of living keeps us looking ahead, karate helps us rediscover ourselves. Studying kata is like basic education and kumite is the final examination. The only diploma is using karate in everyday life."


Many karate schools advertise that they teach "martial arts", but unfortunately, often do not specifically define what is meant by that term. The school may, on the surface seem to provide training in martial arts, but in fact may focus so heavily on tournament competition and sports style karate that it loses the connection to the principles that underlie its roots. Such principles may be codified in standards such as the dojo kun, however they are difficult to monitor and enforce at the level of the individual dojo, especially when they are parroted by rote, misunderstood by the students and not adhered to by the instructors. At some of these dojos, what is advertised as martial arts may turn out to be more along the lines of sports competition at best, and street brawling at worst! Students may be subtly or even overtly discouraged from moderating their testosterone-induced aggressive instincts in order to bolster their tournament performance and likelihood of victory in the ring

Sumo wrestling is a traditional Japanese martial art in which aggressive competition is very important. However, sumo differs from a pure sports activity and illustrates a fundamental characteristic of martial arts in that while victory is important, it is not everything. To be a sumo Grand Champion, one must not only win in tournament, but must also display a commitment to perfection of character at all times. The deportment of a true sumo Grand Champion reflects dignity, integrity and honour. Because sumo champions are important celebrities in Japan, they are highly visible, and must therefore be willing to recognise and accept their obligation to display integrity and honour in all of their public behaviour, in the ring and out. Therefore, non-sportsman-like displays of emotion on the tournament floor, whether one wins or loses, are inappropriate and unacceptable for a competitive Japanese sumo wrestler. It is very interesting to watch a sumo match. Even though it is physiologically unnatural to suppress the intense emotions that accompany aggressive competition, the contestants almost never engage in passionate displays. Consider how different these sumo wrestlers behave than do, for example, many professional football players after scoring a winning touchdown. This type of moderation is also traditional among practitioners of other true Japanese martial arts such as Aikido, judo, kendo, and of course, karate. Students of these activities who do not behave in accordance with principles of modesty, dignity and honour cannot truly be considered martial artists in the traditional Japanese sense. Unfortunately, it seems to increasingly be the case that modern society is so influenced by the entertainment-sports mentality that many students of karate behave more like professional football players than like dignified sumo Grand Champions.

Nobel prize winning biologist Roger Sperry stated that all human behaviour is the result of hormones acting on the nervous system. In human beings (as well as in animals) passionate physical and emotional displays are a natural reaction to the secretion of hormones such as adrenaline and testosterone that accompanies aggressive physical competition. The body does not know the difference between attack by an enemy and a controlled kumite match in the ring. In both cases the brain perceives a threat and reacts by engaging the sympathetic ("fight-or-flight") nervous system and directing the release of hormones that enable the body to better react to that "threat", whether or not it is actually real. Such physiological reactions are adaptive when one faces a truly dangerous situation, however, they can lead to unhealthy physical and emotional stress when they are too frequent or too intense. The restraint and self-control displayed by practitioners of martial arts such as sumo helps moderate what would otherwise be unhealthy effects of an overabundance of stress and aggression hormones. Physiologically, this behaviour helps counterbalance the arousal caused by the sympathetic nervous system by engaging the calming effects of the parasympathetic system. In contrast to the sympathetic system, the parasympathetic system decreases the heart rate and blood pressure and deactivates hormones like cortisone and adrenaline that can cause unhealthy levels of stress, and eventually illnesses such as heart disease, stroke and even cancer. In this regard, the restraint displayed by martial arts practitioners that may seem to be merely a means to spiritual growth and character development is actually physiologically protective as well.

The two-minute, single point matches of karate are very compatible with moderation of physical and emotional overreaction. The emphasis on control, spatial perception and cool-down between bouts of punching and kicking engage parasympathetic-like elements of the nervous system. This balance of increase and decrease in physiological arousal is one of the characteristics that helps to differentiate martial arts from competitive sports. Unlike martial arts, many sports can be thought of as promoting only the arousal-supportive functions of the human nervous system including secretion of testosterone and adrenaline. After the sports competition is over, the athlete goes home still keyed up and physically aroused. In the case of the martial arts, during the match itself the sympathetic nervous and hormone systems are fully engaged, just like in competitive sports. However, martial artists learn to moderate these reactions as soon as the match is over, thereby engaging the parasympathetic system, cooling down more rapidly and controlling the effects of hormones such as testosterone. We have learned that an inability to control these effects can be disastrous. For example, research shows that many criminals have an overabundance of testosterone and are more likely to react aggressively to its presence.

Long ago, in hunter-gatherer societies, the effects of testosterone on young males was critical for survival. Male hunters had to have the strength and aggressiveness to stalk and kill their prey as well as to effectively protect themselves against wild animals. Women were less dependent on physical strength and stamina, and in fact, hormones that increased aggressiveness in female caretakers might have been counterproductive. The same was true for the older males of the community who retired from hunting and stayed behind to help raise the children and became repositories of wisdom. Therefore, as men aged, nature assisted them in the transition from aggressive hunter to village elder by decreasing the secretion of hormones such as testosterone. Human physiology has not changed significantly since the days of the hunter-gatherers, although society most definitely has. Today, there are very few functions or activities that are not open to women, including the more aggressive sports. As a result, balance and moderation are more critical than ever. Too much emphasis on activities that rely on testosterone can ultimately complicate human relations and lead to hostility and violence. Also, it often results in a tendency to devalue those who are less aggressive and physically strong, either because of their basic constitutions or the natural, inescapable effects of ageing. As we age, our hormone balance changes and our physical resilience decreases. We must all learn to adapt to these changes, and to find value in the spiritual development, wisdom and grace that accompany ageing, lest we become discouraged by the fact that we are no longer valued for our physical prowess. Remember, hunters, sumo wrestlers and champion karateka must all eventually face retirement. If we think of karate as a lifetime exercise, we are able to find new meaning in the practice of our art, different from but no less important than our youthful value as tournament competitors and potential champions.


Shotokan: Traditional Karate for a Richer Life (Paperback) by Shojiro Koyama


Buy his book here from Shotokan: Tradional Karate for a Richer Life

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