After more than 20 years in the Japanese martial arts (Iaijutsu/Kenjutsu, Aikido, Aiki-jujutsu, kobudo) and 16 years living in Japan, I walked into Ni Tien Martial Arts School in Singapore curious but not quite sure what to expect. What a surprise!
After about six months’ training in Kali Majapahit, here are the key differences I have found between FMA and traditional Japanese martial arts:
Kali places a lot of emphasis on “flowing” (called “tuloy tuloy”). We spend a lot of time working to develop fluid movements, and good Kalista are always moving.
Drills with single/double stick are used to create “chains” of movement that are later seamlessly linked into a never-ending loop of attacks.
This is radically different from the solid stances that typify Japanese and Okinawan arts. The Filipinos believe a fight to be dynamic and unpredictable, and that view is represented by the flow.
I was reminded of Capoeira’s hypnotic ginga, which keeps the opponent guessing all the time.
In the Japanese arts, there is a lot of focus on “committing the attack” and using one’s full body power to deliver a strike or kick.
Kali tends to minimize this, in favor of hitting the opponent more than once, and avoiding any risk of being caught off balance or overextended.
Attacking the Attack
In the Japanese arts, we are taught to attack the vital targets (body and head) of the opponent right away, and that strikes/kicks are to be blocked or avoided. This is very different from FMA, which employs guntings (“scissors”) to attack the attacking weapon as soon as it enters into range.
Kalista do go after the body/head of the opponent, but usually after destroying the weapons first. The idea of “removing the fangs from the snake” is uniquely Filipino.
Kali Majapahit is truly a multi-disciplinary approach to understanding FMA. Through practice in stick, knife, boxing, kadena, sikaran, dumog, and a variety of other traditional weapons, we learn to be comfortable at all ranges (largo, medio, corto) and lines (high, medium, low, ground).
This develops confidence in the Kalista that he/she will have suitable skills to respond to any attack.
By contrast, many of the Japanese styles (with the exception of Judo/Jujitsu) lack comprehensive skills for fighting on the ground or effective boxing, for example.
Recent MMA contests show that a flexible combination of striking, kicking, and grappling proficiency yields the best balanced fighters, who in turn have the greatest chance to adapt and succeed in fights.
Common Applications between Sub-Systems
The existence of multiple sub-systems in Kali Majapahit can create a huge body of knowledge impossible for the Kalista to remember.
Fortunately, Kali likes to reuse the same motions regardless of the sub-system. Thus, a technique we learn in double sticks will translate to a very similar motion with knife, single stick, or kadena.
This means that the Kalista is more easily able to group sets of motion together, and dynamically apply what they know across different situations, shortening the learning curve.
A shorter learning curve allows Kali Majapahit to pack a lot more curriculum into the same amount of time than another method could.
The Japanese arts have some commonality between each other (aikido and kendo, for example), but it is often subtle, and more difficult to uncover.
It also seems that the Japanese spend more time showing the differences between similar styles (like aikido and karate) than highlighting their similarities.
Furthermore, in Japan the overlaps tend to be left for only the very highest ranks, meaning that it might be 10 years or more into the training (if ever) before they get taught. By contrast, this is part of the defined Kali curriculum from Day One.
In Kali Majapahit, we do not teach forms or “kata”. Specific techniques are used to build core movements and skills, and as examples of key concepts.
As above, the concepts are universal in Kali, and the drills are designed specifically to highlight this fact.
We are often taught a series with stick, and then applying the same series with knife or empty hand, so that the concept is clear and becomes part of the Kalista’s fighting vocabulary.
Concepts in the Japanese martial arts are often esoteric, and have more philosophical/religious significance (such as the relationship between Zen Buddhism and swordsmanship) than actual practical application.
From the intermediate level in Kali Majapahit, the Kalista is challenged to find his/her “flow”. The goal is to apply the Kali concepts dynamically and creatively, so that it becomes an expression of the Kalista’s unique personality.
By contrast, it is common to see large groups (sometimes hundreds) of karateka or aikidoka doing the same kata in synchronized movements. Creativity and individuality are discouraged until the student is master level (5th degree black belt and above).
In Kali Majapahit, provided the concepts are applied, techniques are not labeled “right” or “wrong” and Kalista are strongly encouraged to explore and experiment to develop their own flow.
Focus on Combat Effectiveness
FMA are often called “deadly practical” or “killing arts”, especially by contrast to the Japanese styles, which seem more formal and rigid.
It is true that a great emphasis is placed on understanding the truth of combat in Kali and making sure the Kalista is well-prepared for it (hoping that it never actually happens).
FMA are commonly taught to elite Special Forces around the world, and while Japanese arts like aikido are common in law enforcement circles for restraint and removal, that “martial” part of the martial art is generally given less focus in Japan than the “art” portion.
It must be said that Kyokushin and other hard-style Japanese arts have been popular in MMA and are effective, but similar techniques are already encapsulated in sikaran as a subsystem within Kali Majapahit, just one of many we study during our training.
Given the historical pedigree of Japanese martial arts, techniques were originally designed for battlefield use, where the only acceptable outcome was the death of the opponent.
Modern adaptation has toned down this idea, but Japanese martial art breaking demonstrations (such as done in Kyokushin karate) are specifically meant to show lethal force in striking. Japanese arts tend to have an “all or nothing approach”.
Karate can be used to kill, but the emphasis on striking and kicking makes it hard to control an opponent without injury.
Aikido, Judo, Jujitsu tend to concentrate on restraint, at the expense of developing life-saving skills to protect the student in the case of mortal danger.
Kali spends time developing a variety of responses according the same underlying concept, and specifically outlines differing levels of force appropriate to the situation.
In modern society, we need to be aware of local laws regarding use of lethal force, and stay within our rights and ethical considerations at all times.
At the same time, we need to be able to act decisively if our lives or the lives of our loved ones are in jeopardy. Balance is the key that Kali Majapahit trains for.
One of the most fascinating aspects of Kali Majapahit study is the asymmetric exercises used to develop brain hemisphere independence.
A Kalista needs to be able to have both arms and legs moving independently, and this is only possible if one is ambidextrous, and has freed oneself from the limitations the lazy habits of the brain.
These drills not only improve coordination, but open up little used parts of our brains that can offer benefits in overall cognitive ability.
This training, when found in Japanese arts at all, is only shown at the master rank (5th degree black belt and above).
Again, Kali Majapahit students practice it from Day One.
It is true that traditional Japanese arts acknowledged the influence from China, which included the healing aspects of study. We still find traditional bonesetters (called “honetsugi”) having skill in martial arts as well as healing.
However, it is far less common for those skills to be part of the formal curriculum taught to Japanese martial artists the way Hilot (traditional Filipino massage and healing) is taught in Kali Majapahit. In this art, a black shirt (teaching rank) cannot be achieved without familiarity in Hilot.
Culture and Tradition
This is a misconception that must be put to rest once and for all. There is a commonly held belief that Japanese arts offer fantastic insight into the samurai mindset, loaded with the culture and tradition of old Japan.
Movies like “The Last Samurai” typify the western fascination with this. By contrast many believe that FMA is focused on combat effectiveness, with nothing to offer about the Filipino history and culture. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Even among Filipinos, knowledge of their pre-colonial history, and the proud warrior culture that they come from, is scarce and most Filipinos starve for a sense of national pride that is their birthright to inherit.
Kali Majapahit is active in re-importing the traditional Filipino warrior culture (and its proud history) back to the Philippines through teaching the background behind the concepts and techniques.
Upon examination, Japanese martial heritage may get better publicity, but is in no way superior to that of the Philippines.
In summary, this article is not meant to discourage the study of Japanese martial arts in favor of FMA, nor to present either system as “right”.
Rather, it is to show the contrast between styles and teaching methods, and to help promote the popularity of Kali Majapahit and FMA worldwide.
Not only as a fighting art, but as a comprehensive warrior lifestyle and philosophy, Kali Majapahit offers a path of tremendous scope and fascinating depth, and is worthy of consideration by any serious martial artist.
(Originally published in FMA Digest – Permission given by FMA Digest)