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I’ve practiced a small amount of martial arts (enough to get myself beaten up while looking like a fool), but all the same I feel somewhat qualified to comment on what’s real and what’s not in that world. I’ve seen a fair share of martial arts snake oil.

A few months ago, I learned about Yanagiryuken, a martial artist who I believe practiced Daito-ryu Aikijutsu (no word on his credentials). He specialized in spectacular feats of channeling qi, a mysterious invisible force, to defeat his opponents at a distance, never laying a hand on them. You can see a video demonstration of his prowess.

He wagered 1,000,000 Yen that he could beat anyone who would pay 500,000 Yen to face him in a no holds barred match. A young MMA fighter took up his wager. (warning: don’t view this if you would be uncomfortable seeing an old man given a bloody nose and knocked on his rear)

What I find fascinating is that he and his students bought in to his fraud so completely. What made the students dance around when there was obviously no reality to Yanagiryuken’s powers? What made Yanagiryuken believe his own press releases and get into the ring with a real fighter?

It seems to be a great example of communal reinforcement. I can imagine a new student not wanting to stick out of the crowd and tell the emperor that he’s got no clothes. This student also would also feel a subtle social pressure to react to the teacher’s buffoonery as if it were real. This is a great example of the principle of insufficient justification. (How Denial Works—Denial in General and Mormon Denial in Particular, p. 87)

I feel bad for those who are duped by their teachers into a false sense of security. I can only hope for their sake that the student’s aura of confidence will dissuade any potential attacker from making the attempt.

They lied to each other often enough that they all came to believe the lie to be truth. What a fascinating case study of how groupthink can overcome an individual’s otherwise rational judgment!

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  1. Anonymous said,

    August 8, 2007 @ 8:56 am

    I quite agree with the above comments.This man and his students clearly BELIEVED that their master had magic powers and yet, he was made to look like an average old man who has never been punched before.

    Belief; whether its religious,political or spiritual becomes worthless when faced with fact based,hardcore scientific truth.

    I do hope he recovered though,a solid punch on the chin can ruin your well being.

  2. Jonathan Blake said,

    August 8, 2007 @ 9:16 am

    I still can’t believe he got into the ring with a real fighter. I’m dumbfounded on how thoroughly deceived everyone was. I wonder if they came up with reasons after the fact why it didn’t work to save face. Tongue in the wrong part of the mouth, fiddling with your big toes. Uh huh.

  3. cybr said,

    August 8, 2007 @ 10:25 am

    You can mock all you want, but come to my place. I bet $5.00 my little daughter’s pu pu dia pur technique will knock you back a couple of feet.

  4. Green Oasis » Sword of Truth said,

    October 4, 2007 @ 11:18 am

    [...] another for the file of self-deluded martial artists. This man believed that he could perform a ritual that would protect him from his own razor-sharp [...]

  5. Me said,

    May 17, 2008 @ 1:38 pm

    This is not about magic powers. Chinese and Japanese traditionally believe ki is life energy and that it’s real.

    For some reason, his kiai technique seemed to work with his students. I don’t know why it did. But also obviously, it didn’t work on the MMA opponent who was not a student of his and likely didn’t know anything about kiai. So what happened ? Yanagiryuken apparently was not experienced enough with actual grappling and punching. Kiai was all he relied upon and once it didn’t work.. he was in for trouble.

    Does that mean it works, after all ? I don’t know.

  6. Jonathan Blake said,

    May 17, 2008 @ 3:15 pm

    I’m pretty sure that they were all self-deceived, like a non-religious cult. Ki has yet to be demonstrated in a controlled setting. I group it with the likes of astrology and palm reading.

  7. Phil said,

    July 13, 2008 @ 4:52 am

    I agree the part played by psychology, but can’t imagine Yanagiryuken would make the wager without testing his powers on people who weren’t his students – i.e. surely he would have known that students are a special case?

  8. Jonathan Blake said,

    July 13, 2008 @ 5:38 am

    You would think that would be a good idea. I don’t know if he did or not. I have my doubts.

  9. Anonymous said,

    October 29, 2010 @ 2:50 pm

    i totally agree with you.. also stage hypnotism works with the same principles..

  10. Jonathan said,

    October 29, 2010 @ 3:47 pm

    I watched the videos again and can’t stop shaking my head.

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