Denis Gainty. 2013. Martial Arts and the Body Politic in Meiji Japan. New York: Routledge.
In this post I have the distinct pleasure of discussing Prof. Gainty’s work on the relationship between the martial arts, embodied identity, agency and nationalism in Japan during the Meiji period. This is an exciting project for a few reasons. First, it has been a while since our last meeting of the Book Club, and I have been looking for a thought provoking volume to reboot this feature of the blog. While Gainty’s work specifically addresses the Japanese martial arts, Chinese martial studies readers will also find it useful.
This work presents a critical comparative case that students of the Chinese martial arts should spend a lot more time talking about. Not only are there some interesting parallels in the timing and process of the construction of the “traditional martial arts” in both China and Japan, but Chinese reformers in the Jingwu and Guoshu movements studied and made reference to neighboring events when arguing for their own reforms.
Secondly, many of the themes most interesting to scholars of Chinese martial studies, such as impact of imperialism, modernization and nationalism on the development of hand combat, are also central to historical discussions of developments in Japan. Likewise, while some Japanese reformers in the 1920s-1940s sought to distance arts like Karate and Jujitsu from their Chinese inflected roots, the impact of Confucian thought on the way that these issues were discussed was harder to shake.
Even the more theoretical question of “embodiment” as an alternative to structural or textual ways of understanding the formation of identity plays a central role in Gainty’s project. Following Wacquant’s lead in Body & Soul: Notebooks of an Apprentice Boxer (2004), this set of questions is currently receiving much attention in the martial arts studies literature. See for instance multiple entries in the volumes Martial Arts as Embodied Knowledge (2011) edited by Farrer and Whalen-Bridge, and Fighting Scholars (2014) edited by Garcia and Spencer. Readers will also want to note Paul Bowman’s response to this trend in Martial Arts Studies (2015).
When we reach the more theoretical part of our discussion next week it will be particularly interesting to note not just how Gainty’s use of embodiment leads him to critique post-structuralist theorists like Foucault, but also how his approach deviates in fundamental ways from the path outlined by Wacquant. While Wacquant claimed that embodiment should define both the subject and research method of “carnal sociology,” Gainty’s engagement with more historical questions leads him to take up the former set of concerns, but not the latter. His research was done in a library, rather than on the training floors of the reformed Butokukai. In some ways that makes this volume an interesting test of Wacquant’s method.
The questions that Gainty proposes reach far beyond the realm of the Japanese martial arts. On the immediate level most of this work is concerned with an institutional history of the Dainippon Butokukai (Greater Japan Martial Virtue Association), an organization founded in Kyoto in 1895 that would go on to promote and shape the development of the Japanese martial arts (and militarism more generally) through its close relationship with the state and security apparatus. Yet he uses this case to systematically deconstruct the polar dichotomy between “individuals” and the “state” that characterizes so many debates in modern history.
While he admits that the Butokukai often functioned as an arm of the increasingly militarized Japanese state, Gainty resists characterizing as an entirely top down organization. His work shows how individuals within the world of the Japanese martial arts actively sought to appropriate government symbols, institutions and even the imperial household to advance both their own vision of what it meant to be a modern Japanese citizen.
Individual agency is the main theoretical thread running through this book. Time and again Gainty rejects the common assertion that Japanese modernity was a top down affair, something imposed by the center on the periphery. Instead he argues that Japanese history is better characterized by the rhizomic spread of many competing vision’s modernity where the supposedly centralized state was actually contested on both the policy and symbolic level. Obviously this argument has important implications for the question of agency in a number of other modern states as well. It also serves to seriously critique the commonly held notion that Japanese fascism during WWII, centering on the Emperor Cult, was something that was simply imposed on a national population unable to resist it.
Oddly the implications of this assertion for how we should judge the culpability of martial artists who actively used their agency to promote xenophobic ideas and greater militarism goes largely unexplored by the author. Gainty’s main project is not to comment on the problem of Japanese fascism. While his book repeatedly touches on later eras his historical argument is firmly focused on the Meiji period. Still, his theory implies some interesting questions for further thought.
The last reason why this particular text is so interesting to work with is that I expect most of you will not have read it. While the theoretical arguments in this book are critical to many discussions happening in martial arts studies now, at $140 I doubt that there are many copies of this work in circulation. Usually I announce the test that will be reading in the Book Club ahead of time so that readers can purchase a copy and follow along with the discussion, much as you might in a university seminar. Given the pricing of this particular volume I think we will dispense with that delay and instead get down to business. Nevertheless, interested readers may want to check with your local university library to see if they have a copy on hand. The importance of Gainty’s work will reward your effort. Of course you could always save yourself about $100 and just order a copy of his dissertation instead (hint….hint….).
Introduction: Martial Arts and the Birth of Modern Japan
Gainty’s book is notable for a few things, but one of the first traits that any reader will notice is its brevity. At about 140 pages the author is forced to get right to his argument and has little space to indulge in extended case studies. I think that it is probably safe to assume that whenever a historian writes a 140 page book, the publisher must have had something to do with it. Longer books are more expensive to print than shorter ones.
The advantage of this is that Gainty’s argument is by necessity focused and this gives his book a more explicitly theoretical feel than many other historical investigations. The disadvantage, which readers will note almost immediately, is that the author rarely has time to provide a comprehensive critique of competing hypothesis or even to support his own positions. Very often we are told what the conventional reading of some situation has typically been, and then an alternative way of understanding the same set of facts is suggested. Whether or not it is really a good idea for us to adopt this new reading is rarely explored in the detail that one might like.
This has been one of my persistent frustrations with Gainty’s volume. I feel that his argument is constantly being forced forward without fully developing everything that the reader may want (or need) to hear. Obviously the front matter of a book and its introductory chapter are always important, but this situation makes them doubly so. Here we have the author’s first statement of the essential methodological problems that, in his opinion, haunt the writing of modern Japanese history. All of the points introduced in the subsequent five short chapters bear directly on these issues.
The preface of the book begins rather inauspiciously with a recounting of all of the times that well-meaning individuals told the author that the Japanese martial arts were not a fit subject for scholarly research. Luckily Gainty stuck to his guns, but it may be important to stop and briefly consider what this actually means for the project at hand. Certainly quite a few individuals have been doing serious academic work on a wide variety of aspects of the Asian martial arts for some time now. Gainty is hardly the first individual to bring Bourdieu’s ideas of embodiment to bear on the study of the martial arts.
Yet it appears that not only the author, but the individuals who advised him, proceeded largely in ignorance of these trends. Obviously there is a lot of Japanese language literature on the history of the Japanese martial arts, and it is well reflected in this volume. Yet in his preface and introductory discussion, Gainty fails to engage with the English language literature on martial arts studies.
He thanks Cameron Hurst III and Andrew Morris for their advice. Of course Hurst is the author of the 1998 Yale University Press volume Armed Martial Arts of Japan. He is also the single most important voice within the martial studies literature that Gainty engages with throughout his volume. In fact, he critiques and refines Hurst’s writings in many places.
By comparison Morris, who has also researched and written on the development of the martial arts and nationalism, is mentioned in only a single footnote. The author appears to proceed in total ignorance of Wacquant’s groundbreaking work on embodiment, identity and combat sports, even though he draws quite heavily on much of the same theoretical background. Nor do Farrer and Whalen-Bridge make any appearances in this volume (though their work had been out for at least a year before the present volume was published).
Besides its brevity, this work appears oddly isolated. The author feels that he is a lone voice talking about hand combat, even though his work is actually engaging with many of the themes that are central to current discussions in martial arts theory. This is not at all the case with regards to the historical literature. There the Gainty’s literature review seems to be on firmer footing. But the Preface and Introduction of this work strike me as a critical argument as to why we need martial arts studies, and why it is so critical to develop a richer engagement between research areas and methods.
Gainty begins his Introduction by describing the creation Butokukai. This immediately gives him a chance to introduce the reader to a broad outline of the organization’s development and then to neatly transition into some of the theoretical problems that we see in all discussions of Japan’s modern history. These are (besides the problem of defining modernity itself) the questions of where it emanates from (structures or individuals) and where it is experienced (again, at a collective or individual level).
The author then discusses his research methods and sources, most of which are documents produced by or pertaining to the Butokukai. This brings up an interesting set of additional questions about theory testing. After all, Gainty’s central goal is to describe individual agency and to understand the local construction of the nationalist project. Yet his research method does not focus on the individual or the embodied level of analysis. Instead he immediately launches into institutional history.
As we will see in the following chapters, much of this history has to do with showing how the Butokukai manipulated the government to advance the martial arts and its own agenda for Japanese nationalism rather than submitting to the more “top down” model that is usually assumed. So the jujitsu and fencing that we see here is all of the bureaucratic rather than the “embodied” variety. Nor is this basic pattern ever really challenged in later chapters of the book.
Again, this is an issue you will want to pay attention to as you read through the argument. Gainty suggests quite a bit about how Japanese martial artists experienced the embodied reality of modernity and nationalism, but he never actually explores these themes in their own writing or life experience. He has no in-depth case studies. Gainty talks about lots of martial artists, but almost never in terms of their actual practice.
While he is interested in individual agency, he presents us with data about institutional and political history. So what are the possibilities and limits of this sort of research design? Can I really explore an argument about the power of radical individual agency, embodied identity and a multiplicity of modernities by telling a highly rational story about institutional development?
Chapter 1: The Martial Arts in the Late Tokugawa and Early Meiji
Some of Gainty’s most important contributions come in the form of the myths that he explodes. Students who are simply curious about the background of the modern Japanese martial arts will probably find Chapter 1 to be the most straightforward and valuable part of the volume. This chapter looks back to the Tokugawa era and describes the state of the Japanese martial arts prior to the founding of the Butokukai. This era is not particularly well understood and many of the myths that obscure our vision of the past are at least partially the responsibility of later efforts of the Butokukai to creatively remember its own origins.
Gainty’s real argument in this section revolves around the different ways in which commoners interacted with the martial arts. These included their appropriation as value systems and status symbols, through the entertainment industry (plays, storytelling, art) and lastly through their actual practice. Again, this is one area where students of Chinese martial studies are likely to find a number of interesting parallels as we think about the circumstances that led to the diffusion of martial practices in other areas of Asia as well.
Conventional wisdom held that the martial arts were the exclusive domain of the Samurai and that the commoners were excluded from their practice. Attempts at social engineering at the start of the Tokugawa period had sought to create this outcome, and the restrictions on who could wear two swords were a visible status marker linking the later bureaucratic Samurai with their more warlike ancestors. When the regime was replaced with the western leaning Meiji government, the class system was abolished and former Samurai were prohibited from wearing swords. The assumption (often seen in Japanese literature and echoed by Hurst) is that interest in the traditional martial arts reached their nadir as society was looking towards foreign models and rejecting traditional culture.
While it is certainly true that the Meiji period was rough on the Samurai and their public image, Gainty argues that the death of the martial arts has been much exaggerated. In fact, no such thing happened. Many of the accounts that seek to explain this period are actually coming not from disinterested observers but from either social reformers or martial artists who wished to accentuate their own role in crafting the newly emerging Japanese nation.
The decline of the Samurai class had very little impact on the actual performance of the martial arts as they had long ago lost their monopoly on these practices (if it had ever existed at all). Throughout the second half of the Tokugawa period commoners had been well represented in both fencing and jujitsu schools. In fact, Gainty reminds us that during the late Tokugawa some of the most important fencing instructors were commoners.
Commoners also played a critical role in the dissemination and consumption of media that promoted certain visions of the Samurai ethos as well as the martial arts. It was they, rather than the Samurai led government, that popularized the story of the 47 Ronin. Likewise, swashbuckling stories of Miyamoto Musashi or other more contemporary heroes always drew a crowd.
Of course commoners were also the most important supporters of public martial arts spectacles. Early on these might be Sumo matches or the Meiji era proto-Kendo tournaments. Later Judo contests (often hosted by police departments) would play a similar role. In short, the martial arts had a broad base of support in Japanese society that extended far beyond the Samurai class during the late Tokugawa period.
Gainty goes so far as to argue that the dissolution of the traditional class system and the sword ban, far from harming the martial arts, actually did much to promote their popularity. By destroying the last vestiges of the old social system commoners could now access a greater number of martial practices in unimpeded ways. Many teachers from the traditional ryuha had been looking for ways to increase their student base and reform the ways that their arts were taught since the 1860s-1870s. Now they had even more of an incentive to do so.
This is critical as the creators of the Butokukai would later tell a story in which, prior to their efforts in 1895, the Japanese martial arts were practically forgotten and extinct. It was their pioneering efforts alone that saved these practices, and presumably also gave them the right to oversee and dictate how they would mediate the relationship between society and the state.
Such a reading of history also facilitates the view that practices such as Kendo and Judo were imposed by the Ministry of Education onto a passive society in an attempt to promote militarism. Yet as Gainty argues, the Butokukai succeeded both because it emerged out of a period of generally increasing interest in the martial arts, and it was very good at figuring out how to appropriate the machinery of newly created local government offices to pursue its own goals.
Chapter 1 is critical as it really lays the ground work for explaining the explosive growth of the Butokukai in the opening years of the 20th century. Readers will also note that it works as a stand-alone text in that it very briefly introduces short discussions of other subjects that will be explored as later chapters in the book. Notice for instance that the very first discussion of efforts to introduce martial arts instruction into public schools happens here. Again, this was an initiative that came from Japan’s martial arts community, not the government. The Ministries of Health and Education actually resisted the move for decades on “scientific” grounds.
On a more personal note I found the discussion of the role of the Tokyo Police department in the modernization and promotion of the martial arts to be particularly enlightening. I was aware of their ongoing association with Kendo, Judo and Aikido training, but had never realized how central this was to their institutional history and identity. This might make a nice subject for a more focused future study.
Chapter 2: The Dainippon Butokukai: Its Founding, Growth and Dissolution
The second chapter is the longest and most comprehensive in the volume. This is where Gainty lays out the bulk of his historical argument, though a more detailed theoretical discussion of what it all means will have to wait until Chapter 5. While the author’s main argument seems to be that nationalism and modernity were subjective, constructed on the local level and experienced by individuals as an embodied reality while practicing the martial arts, the bulk of his writing focuses on the Butokukai’s institutional development. In fact, what is missing from this chapter is any discussion of what the organization’s martial arts were actually like at that embodied level.
This is not to imply that the group’s institutional history is in any way simple or theoretically uninteresting. Details of its evolution are used to support Gainty’s arguments about the importance of individual and local autonomy on an empirical level. The leading figure in the founding of the Butokukai is a Kyoto tax collector and martial artists by the name of Torimi Koki. Seeking a more dignified way to celebrate the 1,100th anniversary of the founding of Kyoto Torimi to put together a massive display of martial arts that reflected his views of what was valuable in Japanese identity.
His initial efforts were not met with much success, but Torimi’s fortunes changed after he recruited a local police chief to his cause and eventually succeeded in getting an audience with the Governor of Kyoto Prefecture, Watanabe Chiaki. It was then suggested that rather than simply hosting a demonstration it might be better to found a group that could promote the practice and preservation of the Japanese martial arts. As Gainty points out, these two individuals were both closely connected with the new Home Ministry. With their connections a raft of locally important members (mostly prefectural level government employees and educators) followed. It was the support of the Ministry of Home Affairs (the Naimusho) that would ultimately legitimize the fledgling organization and facilitate its rapid growth.
This does not mean, however, that the Butokukai was simply the creature of the government. Rather what we see emerging is a contested institutional space. Clearly government elites wanted a tool with which they could reach into society and the preexisting connections between the police, military and the martial arts made the Butokukai an obvious choice for the Home Ministry. Yet at the same time martial artists like Torimi were actively seeking a way to use the state to promote (and even subsidize) both their practices and their view of what Japanese modernity should be. The legitimacy granted by government recognition and oversight aided these efforts.
Nowhere does this strategy become more apparent than in Gainty’s discussion of the organization’s relationship with imperial symbolism. In many ways the Butokukai appropriated the imperial mythos and gaze (even insisting that the titular head of the organization be a crown prince) to legitimize its efforts. Indeed, one is forced to admit a degree of admiration for the sheer audacity of its efforts and the size of its demands, always cloaked in a veneer of loyalty to the government and the Imperial household.
Yet the leadership of the Butokukai had more to worry about than simply negotiating their relationship with the center. As the organization expanded it quickly established branches in Japan’s various prefectures. These were nominally under the leadership of the local governor and, once again, relied heavily on Home Ministry officials as well as local police organizations and veterans for its leadership. For their part local leaders seem to have signed on as they saw the Butokukai as a means of advancing certain projects of their own. If nothing else it provides a way of publicly replicating, and hence symbolically enhancing, local power structures. This confluence of institutional interests, as well as the general increase in the idea of Bushido and the martial arts following the Sino-Japanese War, facilitated an absolute explosion in the group’s membership. In only a few short years Torimi’s group became a mass national organization.
This expansion into the countryside was critical to the Butokukai’s goals as it provided the resources (raised through membership and donation drives) necessary to carry out its various projects. The first of these was to be the construction of a massive hall in the ancient capital of Kyoto (which still stands today). Yearly martial arts exhibitions, efforts to preserve traditional weapons, monthly newsletters and lobbying to promote the inclusion of the martial arts in the public school system were also on the agenda. The Butokukai even built a training facility to produce martial arts educators, further consolidating its institutional control over the actual practice of the martial arts.
Of course this reliance on income from the prefectures was not without its institutional costs. The leadership in Kyoto quickly found that they were forced to justify their fundraising and membership drives by proving individuals in outlying areas with things that they wanted as well. Indeed, Gainty shows that much of the actual policy work of the Butokukai during this period was a response to membership demands for visible results, rather than a centrally imposed ideology coming out of the Kyoto offices or the state government that was imposed on the countryside. Again the Butokukai, as well as the Japanese nation and society, emerge and contested spaces where individuals employ the martial arts to enact their own local vision.
Two of the more interesting sections of this chapter deal with this same issue of center-periphery negotiation. The first is the question of the symbolic meaning membership in the Butokukai within local society, including the mytho-historic significance of having one’s name recorded on the membership roles in Japan’s ancient capital. In other words, what did local, often not very wealthy, members think that they were really getting in return for their membership fees.
Yet probably even more important on a theoretical level is Gainty’s discussion of the organization’s various periodicals and newsletters. Of course these are one of his main historical resources that he turned to in researching his topic. Yet they were also a critical channel of communication between the center and the periphery. In this section we also see Gainty deviating from his emphasis on individual embodiment and agency in favor of a more literary or “imagined” vision of the collective body of Butokukai. Again, all of this will become increasingly important in later discussions, so readers will note his discussion here.
Collectively these publications contained a fascinating and eclectic mix of technical articles, philosophical discussions, songs, news items, and reports on events in various prefectural chapters (including tournaments, festivals and promotions). Prior to 1907 they even included the English language piece. Drawing on Benedict Anderson’s idea of “print capitalism,” Gainty argues that these publications were central in creating both a unified identity among Japan’s martial artists, and a unique approach to what it meant to be a citizen of modern Japan.
Critically this vision of nationalism, while it was expressed in terms of the Emperor system, the “National Body” and even militarism, was not a simple imposition of a government ideology. Rather the pages of the various publications were themselves a negotiated space that various local clubs appropriated these symbols in an attempt to write themselves into Japanese history. Even ideas such as the “National Body,” which were in common use elsewhere, tended to be subtly subverted and renegotiated by these martial artists to better reflect their shared practices.
Still, one cannot help but feel that Gainty’s brief engagement with Anderson is something of a missed opportunity. To oversimplify, Anderson views the nation as an “imagined community,” something that is conveyed by textual discourses and which happens in the head. In Chapter 5 Gainty argues instead from the primacy of physically embodied experience.
For him the Japanese nation seems to exist on an almost individual level because it is experienced and interpreted through the bodily experience of each Butokukai member as they perform their Kendo kata or engage in a Judo tournament. One does not “imagine” what it means to be Japanese so much as you feel and experience it to a degree that is almost pre-verbal. You know that this same sensation is shared by all other members of your community.
While the theoretical aspect of Gainty’s argument is not fully explored in this chapter, I feel that a more critical engagement with Anderson’s ideas were necessary. Indeed, one suspects that Gainty’s research could be used to critique elements of how Anderson treated the late-comers within the community of nation (see especially Chapters 6 and 8 of Imagined Communities). Alternatively, if Gainty accepts this basic theoretical framework as unproblematic, it would be fascinating to see how he synthesizes both Anderson’s view of the nation and his own more subjective and radically embodied understanding.
The first half of Gainty’s work presents the bulk of his empirical research. As such it seems fitting to wrap up this discussion with a few related observations. His treatment of the Butokukai makes a great contribution to martial studies literature. Given the centrality of this organization to the development of the modern Japanese martial arts, and the controversy that surrounds its involvement with the government prior to WWII, surprisingly little work has been done on it. There can be no doubt that the portrait that Gainty paints more textured and nuanced than anything else available in the English language literature. Better yet, Gainty situated his exploration of this institution in a way that makes it immediately relevant to a number of important discussions that are currently taking place in martial arts studies literature. His work also has relevance to larger debates in the field of history, answering decisively the “so what?” question which he feels plagues martial arts studies.
Still, there was lot more that could have been said about this organization and perhaps should have been. Focusing on the Butokukai’s dual negotiation, between the state above and the prefectural chapters below, allowed Gainty to explore the importance of agency. Yet readers are left with very little idea about what Japan’s premier martial arts organization actually did on a day to day basis. We are told that it was tasked with regulating the martial arts at certain periods of time, but aside from its mixed attempts to create a standard Kendo and Judo kata, not what that entailed.
Indeed, there is very little discussion of the actual practice of the martial arts under the Butokukai system at all. One suspects that the author of the book was working under some pretty tight page limits, yet I can’t help but think that his historical discussion could have benefited from the inclusion of some much more detailed case studies, preferably focused at the individual level, which really explored the construction of ideas like modernism, nationalism and agency as they were actually experienced by practicing martial artists. How did Seki’s embodied experience of Japanese nationalism through the martial arts actually impact his proposals for introducing Judo and Kendo into the public school system? Without a more detailed discussion of events at this level it is difficult to accept Gainty’s theory in its totality over other possible alternative explanations.
And what about those practitioners who fell outside the Butokukai system? Was their experience of the body politic substantially different because of their institutional exclusion? Kanō Jigorō might make an interesting counterpoint. Indeed, he plays a somewhat mercurial role in Gainty’s narrative.
Kanō was certainly associated with the Butokukai system. He sat on its committees and wrote the occasional article for its journals. Yet he also maintained his own personal and organizational independence. Did that have any substantive impact on how he or his students experienced nationalism or the state? If not, why?
Readers will have to wait until the second half of the book to really dive into some of the central theoretical issues that are advanced in the introduction and then hinted at in the first few chapters. Yet one wonders how relevant the evidence in these first two chapters really is. Certainly it is suggestive. Gainty explodes certain long-held myths about the martial arts in the late Tokugawa and Meiji period. Yet lacking detailed individual level cases, can Gainty actually test his theories of identity and embodiment? Following Wacquant’s warning, can we really understand how embodied practices affect one’s relationship with the “body politic” if we simultaneously reject embodiment as a research method? We will return to this issue in the second half of our discussion.
If you enjoyed this discussion you might also want to see: The Book Club: Chinese Archery by Stephen Selby: A Critical Text for all Students of Chinese Martial Studies