When I explain my understanding of Filipino Martial Arts (FMA) to those studying other systems, the best way to illustrate the differences is to describe FMA as Lego.
If you examine FMA as compared to a vastly different system like Aikido, FMA is from another world. The way FMA has been taught to me lacks the ordered structure of a Japanese system. There are no ranks or belts to strive for, no “techniques” to perfect at well defined skill levels. Instead, you’re driven to work on skills or attributes. Ranks in my system are not that important. What does matter is your ability to use what you’ve learned.
In Aikido, you are given a set of attacks and the techniques to neutralize them, and you practice them until you’re able to perform them well enough to move on to a new rank. In FMA – again, as it’s taught to me – you learn angles and the bits and pieces needed to address attacks from those angles. The instrument of attack can be a knife, stick, machete, spear, an arm or leg; it doesn’t really matter since you consider direction and range first rather than the instrument of attack. The response can range from the simplest slip or tap to a series of joint breaks, strikes and a takedown.
An Aikidoka is trained to respond with a choice of techniques, but here lies the key word: techniques. In Aikido, you’re not specifically instructed to take the choice of responses to an attack and break them down and assemble them to make your own response. Whereas in FMA, that’s precisely how you’re trained to think in combat. Instead of responding in a preset pattern, you need to be flexible enough to make your own strategy and technical responses on the fly.
The best way to understand this is to think of FMA skills as Lego bricks. The abilities and attributes you pick up are the bricks and as you progress you pick up more bricks to add to your collection. As you get more bricks, you also learn to assemble them. Rather than play with a complete toy, literally with all the bells and whistles, you need to make you own toy from bits and pieces you’ve gathered.
This is why there are so many different FMA systems, and yet all have some similarities and address similar threats. Each of those systems are made by people who picks up their own Lego bricks and made their own “toy”, based on what they prefer and what they felt suited them. Give children a whole box of Lego pieces, have them build a house, and you’ll see that each of them already has individual ideas on what a house should look like. Yet by and large they are all "functional
In comparison to FMA’s “technical flexibility” (for lack of a better word at the moment), an Aikido technique like shihonage ( four corner throw) is an entire “toy”, much like a Tonka truck which works well with other Tonka toys. It’s a neat and workable toy, but I can’t take it apart to make a new one. In FMA, a simple parrying deflection is just one piece of a grand puzzle. That in itself works but it will work even better in combination with other pieces. Only after years of Aikido does the practitioner appreciate techniques as components; as a student you simply do the techniques and master them, you’re not encouraged to be creative with what you’ve learned. In comparison, FMA encourages creativity even at the basic levels. You learn fundamental responses to attacks and you already see that they are in fact simply pieces. I myself was seeking structure in FMA when I began studying it and only after a lot of struggling did I finally understand the futility of searching for something that just isn’t there.
This seemingly madding method of martial study is in fact the best way to deal with the wide variety of threats FMA throws at the student. From sticks you transition to knives and empty hands. By considering angles instead of instrument or method of attack, the problem of using a single counterattacking movement is somewhat easier to dealt with. However, this approach is in itself not easy. It precludes that the FMA student have the technical and mental flexibility to adapt to the circumstances. That adaptability is accomplished by having the technical repertoire that will allow the student to fluently translate a knife evasion into deflection of a punch. You can’t respond with what you think is the best choice if you don’t have a lot of options to choose from. FMA may present an excellent solution for weapon and empty handed attack and counterattack, but it’s not an easy path by far.
Ironically the Samurai had the same attitude toward combat. The most highly skilled among them were able to use more than just their swords. In battle they would be able to pick up any weapon and use it to slaughter their enemies. I’m seen more than a few similarities between classical jujitsu and some of their weapons techniques that hint that they also practiced a similar “Swiss Army knife” approach to fighting.
But the samurai were a dedicated warrior class, having no other responsibilities in that society but to wage war, their weapons now as relevant to the modern age as medieval halberds are to assault rifles. On the other hand, the Filipino warrior was a farmer or fisherman in peace and a guerrilla fighter in times of war, with weapons and fighting methods that are still highly relevant, in the hands of World War II guerrillas and Philippine Special Forces fighting in the jungles of Mindanao today.