Hello whozits!

So 4 months, and several missed classes into Systema, and my most recent class was a near-complete debacle. I was distracted, and tense, and was only mildly comforted at how much cleaner the mats were from my being wiped all across them. I’m also fairly certain I got partnered with Snake Pliskin:

(That first guy in the beginning; that’s how I felt)

Anyways, despite my freshly humbled self, I’d like to compare and contrast some aspects of Karate and Systema. Now, while I will try to be as general as possible, do keep in mind this is from my experience in both. This is by no means a comprehensive survey of the two martial arts.

For God’s sake, don’t cite this in your thesis!

With that said, thusly we proceed.

First of all, I’ve noticed that they both seem to be complete martial arts, at their highest level, and by that I mean that if you train sufficiently long in both martial arts then you’ll be proficient in all aspects of hand to hand fighting, including, but not limited to striking with hands, elbows, knees, and feet, stand-up grappling (applying locks, chokes, and takedowns from standing), and ground-fighting. I’ve seen balance points, finger locks, and pressure points in both arts. They are both sufficiently complex systems that their mastery involves enormous physical, intellectual, and spiritual investment.

However, there are some important differences in focus, and perhaps more importantly pedagogy that can helpfully distinguish the two.

Karate originated as a method of self-defence. It has origins in family styles of kung fu, and in regional fighting styles of Okinawa. It has many tenets, but two of relevance are: “There is no first strike in Karate,” which can be interpreted as a karate-ka only responding to an aggressor, never instigating an attack; and “One strike, one kill,” which emphasizes the importance placed on ending a confrontation immediately. Thus, karate is strongly rooted as a civilian martial art, and while it has been adopted by military and law enforcement, that was not its primary purpose.

Systema, on the other hand, developed directly out of the Russian military, and Ryabko Systema is specifically designed by Mikhail Ryabko who is heavily involved in the Russian military. While the class work is definitely not of an aggressive nature, there is definitely a military focus. Deception and the ability to completely end and control an encounter are emphasized. Whereas some martial arts (karate included) advocate running away from a conflict (not a bad plan), so far I haven’t seen this at all in Systema, which suggests its designed for encounters where running away isn’t an option. To my way of thinking, this seems decidedly military.┬áSo the first important difference would be that Karate emphasizes civilian self-defence, whereas Systema emphasizes a more military approach.

The next difference is in the expected progression for a student. While a karate-ka will begin very tense and static in their movements, they will eventually become proficient at fighting in this way, and then move towards developing a more comfortable, soft way of fighting. This is a reflection of it being designed to quickly enable somebody to survive basic violent encounters. Systema, on the other hand, maintains its softness from the start. Tension is the enemy right from the beginning. In my opinion, this makes the beginner Karate-ka a more effective fighter than the beginner Systema student. However, as the Karate-ka becomes proficient at fighting in a hard way, the Systema student becomes a better fighter through softness, and at this point any advantage held by the Karate-ka may no longer exist.

The last (important) difference is pedagogy. While Karate is taught through practising techniques and kata, and sparring, Systema is taught almost exclusively through partner drills. This, I believe is a more effective way of teaching (though it doesn’t conform so easily to a nice, orderly line-up of students, which I suspect would have offended traditional Japanese sensibilities on some level). Working with a partner immediately gives you feedback on the technique you’re working on, and how it needs to be modified, or perhaps that it won’t work with a particular person. It also keeps you aware of the other aspects of using the technique (in a standing armbar, for example, it’s easy to forget that the person has another arm). In fairness, however, partner work would not be an effective way to learn a kata, and being able to practice kata without a partner is a significant boon (as surely some practitioners were practising in secret, and therefore had no partner). As well, my particular dojo emphasizes a lot of partner work in the advanced program (I’m sure, due in no small part to my Sensei’s having trained in a number of other martial arts as well).

So, to summarize, Karate is a civilian-oriented, initially hard, and solitary martial art, while Systema is a military-oriented, consistently soft, and social martial art.

But now for the important question-

Which is better?

And the answer:

Don’t ask dumb questions.