The Dangers of Secrecy

Traditional martial arts have a secrecy problem. This problem has existed for a very long time, and has likely lead to the death of countless fighting systems, and the degradation of many more. There was certainly a time where secrecy was important in martial arts–rivals and enemies discovering how you train, and what your best techniques are, would have a leg-up in challenge fights and ambushes. Despite the fact that this isn’t really the case, these days, the practice continues in many dojo all over the world and, unfortunately, it has had a few unintended side-effects.

Taika Seiyu Oyata (left) and Tasshi Jim Logue (right)

It used to be that masters would only teach the entirety of their system to one, or a small handful of students. This meant that, when the master died, it was up to those few people to continue spreading the system in the same way. This would keep the system small and, to a degree, would maintain a level of “purity.” The problem is that, sometimes, those students also die. During World War II, many Okinawan lives were lost, and almost certainly a great amount of karate knowledge was lost along with them. There have been more recent examples–such as what happened with Oyata Sensei’s RyuTe system–of this occurring on a smaller scale, so we know that it will continue to be an issue. This is tragic, because these systems contain very valuable information, and we may never know what was lost.

George Dillman is one of the most well-known fraudulent “masters” in the world

Another problem with secrecy is that it leaves room for fraud. When there are no examples of your system available on the public domain, you have no way of refuting false claims. People will attend a seminar, or cross-train a bit with someone, and a little while down the road, they are claiming to be masters of some obscure aspect of martial arts–kyusho (vital points) is a popular one. You can tell the public that those people are doing things wrong, or poorly, or are lacking legitimate knowledge and training, but that isn’t really enough. You end up being accused of using the “No True Scotsman” logical fallacy. The burden of proof is on you to prove that person wrong, and the only way to do it is to show how it should be done. Meanwhile, these people can gain major followings, who believe they really are masters, and there is nothing you can do to stop it. In the process, they taint the entire body of martial arts knowledge, and make your art look bad.

The third issue that I have with secrecy in martial arts, is a problem that comes along with just about every form of isolationism–delusions. When we are surrounded by people who learn the same things we learn, do things the way we do things, and believe the way we believe, we have no reason to question anything. Everyone around us supports our beliefs, and we can all be a happy little family unit. The trouble with this is that questioning and comparing is how we stay grounded, and maintain a realistic outlook on things. The phrase, “sunlight is the best disinfectant,” comes to mind. The infamous Yellow Bamboo style, seen in the video, above, is an extreme example of the kinds of things isolation can cause people to believe in.

Iain Abernethy, Rokudan  (6th Degree Black Belt)

Just recently, Iain Abernethy–currently considered the foremost instructor of practical kata bunkai–started a collaborative project to get the wider martial arts community involved in sharing ideas about kata application. I was very excited by this project, because it is a way for like-minded martial artists all over the world to share what they know and how they do things. Projects like this one improve the collective intelligence and memory of the community which, in my opinion, is vital to the development and enhancement of martial arts. It leads to a better overall understanding of martial arts, more examples of quality material for public consideration, and greater redundancy of information, ensuring that it will not be lost if a handful of people pass away.


Unfortunately, many people in the martial arts community are still strongly opposed to this idea. They believe it will foster fraud, promote a “YouTube Sensei” environment, and discourage people from seeking legitimate instruction. Maybe it’s just because I am one of those darned “Millennials,” but I believe the exact opposite is true. Even on an individual scale, sharing information has the benefit of advertising for your dojo. Iain Abernethy, himself, has a couple HOURS of video available, for free, and still doesn’t seem to have any trouble finding students. If someone is considering training, they will typically look up the schools in their area. Usually, they will then search for the style and the instructor’s name, to see if they are any good, and someone with a large following (like Iain Abernethy) has shared your material, a prospective student is more likely to seek out instruction from you. Besides, it isn’t as though sharing a 1 minute video explaining one application for one kata movement is going to give away everything you’ve trained your entire life to learn.

Sometimes, fictional masters give great advice

Even amongst people who believe information should be shared, it is often felt that it must only be done by the most senior-level of instructors. Interestingly, Matthew Apsokardu, the writer of the Ikigai Way, just posted this great (fictional) story about two masters’ differing opinions on the sharing of information. I’ll let you guess which one of the two masters I happen to agree with.

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About Noah

I began training in karate (Shuri-Ryu) in the Summer of 2006. Subsequently, I started training in judo, kobudo, and iaijutsu within the next 6 months. During my training there, I earned the rank of Sankyu (3rd Degree Brown Belt) in Shuri-Ryu, Gokyu (Green Belt) in judo, a certification in the use of the bo, and passed proficiency tests for the four tachigata of Shinkage-Ryu iaijutsu. I moved to Arizona in the Summer of 2008, and continued training and researching karate at home. I continued regular training in judo at a local club until 2010, when I was able to start training in Shorin-Ryu with Sensei Richard Poage. I have been training with him ever since, and currently hold the rank of Shodan (1st Degree Black Belt) in Shorin-Ryu under him. In addition, I began studying KishimotoDi under Sensei Ulf Karlsson in 2014.