naganita and kama

“I perceived in this moment that when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys. He becomes a sort of hollow, posing dummy, the conventionalized figure of a sahib. For it is the condition of his rule that he shall spend his life in trying to impress the “natives,” and so in every crisis he has got to do what the “natives” expect of him. He wears a mask, and his face grows to fit it. I had got to shoot the elephant. I had committed myself to doing it when I sent for the rifle. A sahib has got to act like a sahib; he has got to appear resolute, to know his own mind and do definite things. To come all that way, rifle in hand, with two thousand people marching at my heels, and then to trail feebly away, having done nothing — no, that was impossible. The crowd would laugh at me.”

George Orwell, “Shooting an Elephant,” 1936.



This post will cover the second section of Denis Gainty’s 2013 Routledge volume, Martial Arts and the Body Politic in Meiji Japan. The author began this work by citing Tip O’Neill’s quip that “All politics is local.” Upon reaching the end of his book I started to question why he selected it. Certainly he has shown a grasp of local identity, understood in geographic, historical and personal terms. Yet this work seems to elide the nature (and fundamental realities) of politics. This is a shame as the book that Gainty wrote ended up being something of a political history, looking at issues both large (the construction of the Japanese nation-state) and small (bureaucratic infighting over who would regulate the martial arts).

One should not think that I blame the author for this. Politics, like death and taxes, is something that we all endure. It is a universal experience. As such individuals (including random people who happen to be put in front of a TV camera) feel universally qualified to hold forth on the subject. As someone with a background in Political Science, this is something that I have noticed before.

Nor did the author apparently set out to write a book about Japanese politics. As such, much of what he uncovers may at first appear to be new. But concepts or critiques that are innovative in one context (an institutional analysis of the Butokukai for instance) may be less than novel in another.

For this reason I have taken it upon myself to suggest a new introductory quote for the volume. I think that Gainty’s specific theoretical goals for this section would have been better foreshadowed by George Orwell’s famous essay attacking imperialism and, more specifically, the illusions of imperial control. If nothing else this essay suggests that many of Gainty’s theoretical conclusions about identity, agency and social power have a bit more history behind them than one might at first suspect.

In the previous post we covered the Introduction and Chapters One and Two. This was the historical core of the work, presenting first a discussion of the evolution of the Japanese martial arts in the late Tokugawa and Meiji period in general, followed by a more detailed institutional history of the Dai Nippon Butokukai. This organization functioned as both a regulatory and lobbying group while maintaining a close relationship with the Japanese government (particularly the Home Ministry).

In the West it is perhaps best remembered as an organ used to promote militarism during the 1930s and 1940s. Nevertheless, Gainty argues that it would be a mistake to view this group as simply a mouthpiece spreading government ideology. Instead the martial arts in general, and the Butokukai in particular, were important venues by which individual Japanese citizens could exercise their agency in shaping unique (often quite personal) understandings of their place in the modern nation-state project.

All of the major theoretical and empirical points touched upon in the remaining chapters of this book were first introduced in Chapter 2. In fact, if you are looking for a single stand-alone text to use in a classroom setting, that would be my recommendation. It provides the reader with a detailed discussion of the evolution of an important Japanese martial institution while introducing the basic outline of Gainty’s theoretical arguments.

Chapters Three, Four and Five can almost be treated as selective expansions of topics raised in the first half of this book. The first, dealt with below, discusses the importance of community festivals or “spectacles” in spreading the vision of the Butokukai as well as giving ordinary Japanese citizens (most of whom were not martial artists prior to 1912) a place to encounter these practices in their own community.

Chapter Four looks at the many efforts launched by various martial artists to have their practices adopted into the public school curriculum. This reform was critical in making the physical experience of the martial arts an almost universal aspect of Japanese identity for a generation of children. Chapter Five is the book’s theory chapter. Here Gainty uses his empirical framework to argue for an extensive rethink of how we conceptualize modern Japanese nationalism. This is followed by a very brief conclusion looking at the ultimate fate of the Butokukai.

Given the limitations of space I am going to concentrate this post on Chapter Three. In the next installment of this discussion we will take a closer look at the fifth section. I choose these two chapters as they make the greatest number of theoretical contributions, and thus offset the more empirical first half of the book quite nicely. Nor did I feel that it would be fair to compress both discussions into a single blog post.

One of the remarkable aspects of Gainty’s book is the scope of his theoretical discussion. The arguments that he lays out in these chapters are important precisely because they have broad applicability to a number of discussions within martial arts studies. Gainty even asks scholars of modern Japanese history to take a step back and fundamentally rethink how they understand such basic concepts as the “the nation” and “the people.”

It would be remarkable if a volume on the evolution of the martial arts during the Meiji period could lead to such a fundamental reevaluation. That is why this project must be considered one of the more ambitious books to emerge within the martial arts studies literature. Given the importance of his arguments a slower and more thoughtful engagement with his work will be rewarded.



Three Case Studies


The third chapter of this volume sets out to tell the story of how various Japanese citizens, outside of the Butokukai’s headquarters in Kyoto, imagined what it meant to be a Japanese citizen through the organizations various festivals and tournaments which were hosted in provinces throughout the country. The chapter also introduces Guy Debord and Michel Foucault as its major theoretical foils and attempts to supplant their more structural view of power with one that places agency back in the hands of local actors. This point is made the most directly through the discussion of a visit by Prince Yoshihito (the future Emperor Taisho) to Aomori in 1908 where he met with a number of physical education teachers and took in a Kendo match.

The central question for Gainty is the direction of the “gaze” surrounding Yoshihito. Was royal family disciplining the countryside and imposing central order through their tour of the region? Or was the visit really a response to the demands of local elites and interest groups (such as the Red Cross chapter and the Butokukai) who sought to appropriate the physical presence of the Prince and use his mystique to legitimize their own priorities and image of the Japanese state?

This question helps to set the stage for the further theoretical discussion in Chapter Five. As such it deserves some careful consideration. Nor is Gainty the first to wonder about the influence of the “popular gaze” upon the elite. As the quote at the top of this post demonstrates, Orwell argued that the expectations of the ruled could have a totalizing and hegemonic effect upon the actions of the rulers, even in ways that were ultimately damaging to both groups.

Before returning to the significance of the Prince’s visit, we should first consider the structure of Gainty’s argument. This chapter is really structured around three basic historical cases with a few, more focused, discussions added to give a bit of depth to the descriptions. Each of these cases focuses on the festivities accompanying either the opening of a new branch of the Butokukai or an important tournament which happened early in the life of the organization.

This chapter is also critical as it most directly speaks to the author’s interest in local identity in the martial arts, and whether or not one can imagine nationalism as simply a projection forward of local identity and experience. In certain other places his discussion of “the local” devolves to the level of individual embodiment and experience. Here its meaning is more geographically and historically structured.

The first case examined by Gainty is the opening of the Prefectural branch in Yamaguchi. This hall was constructed in 1902-1903 and in many ways this case is the most straight forward of those that the author presents. He also has some very good historical accounts to draw on, so this case really provides our baseline understanding of what these local spectacles were like and how individuals related to them.

Historically speaking this area was interesting because of its strong ties to the Meiji revolution. Perhaps for that reason the new Butokukai hall was built directly over the site of the old domain school. The actual celebration of the new branch’s inauguration was actually held at the much larger high school and was preceded by a Shinto ritual. The ceremony itself was presided over by not just local martial artists, but prominent politicians and dignitaries from the central organization in Kyoto. The former gave speeches linking the area’s storied past to Japan’s modern imperial future and expounding the abstract virtues of Bushido. The later group oversaw the ensuing tournament (which included the display of both forms and competitive fencing) and handed out swords as rewards for the winners at the end. This same basic pattern of events was seen in each of the major cases reviewed by the author.

The situation in Ibaraki prefecture was much the same. In the closing years of the Tokugawa period the old Mito domain had also been a stronghold of anti-Shogun sentiment and this seems to have resonated with the imperial atmosphere that the Butokukai was attempting to promote. Once again they built their structure on the remains of the old domain school. Unfortunately Gainty’s sources on this case are not abundant, though the area’s martial arts did have an interesting mytho-religious component which did find some expression which was not seen in Yamaguchi.

By far the most interesting of the three cases was the opening of the Butokukai in Aomori Prefecture. This case exhibited the greatest historical and contemporary deviations from the baseline established by the other two. To begin with, this was an area that had supported the Tokugawa regime, rather than the Meiji rebels during the revolutionary period. Secondly, the martial arts seem to have been more popular and diverse in this area.

Whereas the Butokukai was the dominant martial arts organization in the other areas (at least by the accounts that Gainty provides), in Aomori the situation was much more complex. A local kendo tradition coming out of the old domanial school succeeded in establishing itself as a private academy in the region and enjoyed a degree of government support. There were also a number of village Dojos that occasionally engaged in feuding and competition. In fact, the movement of the Butokukai into the area was accompanied by orders from the governor that students were to no longer engage in “extracurricular” martial arts training (meaning classes outside of the two officially approved schools). This killed off the local Dojo tradition in favor of a centrally regulated vision of the martial arts.

Apparently this resolved the issue of local competition, but Gainty never fully explores the situation. One would very much like to know who the banned schools were, what they taught, the sorts of students they attracted, what they fought over and how their students understood their connection to the Japanese nation. Unfortunately his case leaves all of those questions unexplored. Given that this degree of competition within the martial arts community was unique to this case, it feels like a bit of a missed opportunity.

Nevertheless, such a discussion may have led Gainty away from his central argument. He instead focused his attention on the various audiences that witnessed the tournaments, ceremonies and events hosted by the local martial arts organizations. Prior to 1912, when they were added to the public school curriculum, most Japanese citizens did not practice the martial arts. Gainty points out in Chapter One that media such as theater and published stories were an important vector whereby individuals formed their ideas about the martial arts.

Kendo club at a Japanese Agricultural School during the 1920s.  Note the rifles along the back wall.  Source: wikimedia.
Kendo club at a Japanese Agricultural School during the 1920s. Note the rifles along the back wall. Source: wikimedia.


Capture the Flag: Local Autonomy and the Imperial Gaze


Oddly Gainty never really returns to this insight. Instead in Chapter Three he notes that public spectacles such as those discussed in the previous cases were a major way in which ordinary citizens came into contact with the martial arts. How they would have interpreted the public rituals of the Butokukai in light of the media discourses which were so popular is not a topic that he delves into.

Instead Gainty notes that not all observers of these affairs were equally common. In 1908 Prince Yoshihito visited Aomori where he met with officials, toured high schools, and took in a Kendo match (staged between students of the Butokukai and the Too Gijuku private academy) among other activities. In addition to local officers of the state (officials, teachers, etc…) the Prince was met at the train station by civic groups such as the Red Cross and a military wives association.

At this point Gainty launches into a more theoretical discussion of the disciplinary nature and ordering function of the “imperial gaze.” After exploring the various ways in which such spectacles can reinforce structural power (all of which he finds to be inadequate) he then makes his first big theoretical move. Gainty suggests that rather than this being an exhibition of “structural power,” one could also interpret the situation as a case where local elites and groups representing various interests are actually using the appearance of the Prince to legitimize their own projects and power structures.

In this case it was not just the “gaze” of the Prince that was in play. Rather his very bodily presence was being appropriated by local actors to witness what they have done. This effectively reverses the expected power dynamic (in practical terms one wonders how much say the Prince actually got in setting his own agenda once he reached town), and opened a space for individual agency to be not just present but actually effective.

This is certainly an interesting twist, and one to which I am generally receptive. The problem with such a move is not that it is too novel or requires an exotic theoretical apparatus. It does not. Political Scientists who actually observe what happens at stump speeches have noted this same phenomenon for decades. And no less a figure than George Orwell wrote a very well-known short story about it in 1936. The fact that such a power dynamic might run in both directions is basically common sense.

The more practical empirical problem is figuring out how much of each current is actually present in any given situation. As has happened in other cases, Gainty suggests that the situation might be seen in this other way over the course of a paragraph long discussion, and then moves on. Yet in a chapter that focuses on the importance of local influence and agency, such an argument cannot simply be presumed. It must actually be outlined, argued and then demonstrated.

Yes, I agree, one could read the situation in this way. But why should I? What was written in local newspapers, journals or Butokukai newsletters that would lead me to suspect that this was really the case? Which specific martial artists were present, and what did they feel about demonstrating their skills for the Prince? How did any of this impact their actual understanding of the relationship between martial arts practice and the Imperial Household united via the metaphor of the “National Body?” Again, all of this is very possible, but I was disappointed that it was merely suggested rather than actually demonstrated. For a book that is ostensibly about personal agency and the embodied experience, the actual thoughts and actions of individual martial artists is practically invisible. Instead we are left with a very rational brand of institutional and political history. One must carefully consider what this means for efforts to test Gainty’s central assertions.



Shooting the Elephant: Structural vs. Local Power


The concluding section of this chapter then launches into a brief theoretical discussion. Most of this consists of an attack directed against Guy Debord and Foucault’s theories of public spectacles as sources of structural influence. Obviously there are differences in the writings of these two theorists, yet at the end of the day Gainty decides that they are fundamentally united by their commonalities.

Both privilege structure over individual agency to a degree that he finds unacceptable. Gainty also concludes that neither leaves any room for local culture in their theories. Finally, as thinkers who were most concerned with events in early modern Europe he questions the validity of applying their work to Japan.

Of course all of this is a little odd as I am not aware that either of these authors ever addressed the finer points of the Butokukai’s institutional evolution. Instead it was Gainty who essentially dragged them into the debate seemingly only for the purpose of quickly summarizing their arguments (some might say badly) and then dismissing them. Given that the entire theoretical section of this chapter was only two pages long, one is left to wonder what is going on here. Was this really the most constructive writing strategy given the tight constraints of this volume?

I suspect that this is one section of the book that reflects its prior life as a doctoral dissertation. While one could certainly develop an argument for the relevance of these two theorists, it would probably take more than two pages. At minimum it would require a much more sympathetic and nuanced reading of their work.

The discussion presented to the readers at the end of this chapter seems a bit forced. Rather than bringing in a theorist that the author actually liked, and who might have helped to illuminate the chapter, we see a quick dismissal of Foucault seemingly because it was what someone else expected to find in a discussion like this one. After all, crown princes and police officers in Burma are not the only ones who can find themselves trapped by social convention. At some point every graduate student (and I think we have all been there) takes a swipe at Foucault because it is the expected thing to do. Again, the discussion feels like a lost opportunity for a deeper engagement with some of the very interesting empirical findings earlier in the chapter.


A romanticized scene from the Boshin War. Battle of Hakodate. c. 1880 painting. Unknown painter.  Source: Wikimedia.
A romanticized scene from the Boshin War. Battle of Hakodate. c. 1880 painting. Unknown painter. Source: Wikimedia.



Conclusion: Forgetting in the Making of a Nation


Readers should also take careful note of the concluding paragraphs of Chapter Three as they introduce a major theme that will reemerge in later discussions. Noting the deeply intertwined expression of local and national values in Budokukai spectacles Gainty states:

“This brings us back, somewhat unhelpfully, to the essential chicken-and-egg problem of how polarities in social systems operate. If we continue to reify the categories of national and local, society and individual, powerful elite and masses as polar opposites, then we continue to be plagued with the impossibility of tracing how and why those categories could operate within a framework of continual change. If, instead, we understand the national as an expression of the local—as a vessel within and through which local, personal realities gain power and legitimacy in the new language of modern communities—then we might reconfigure (if not resolve) this impasse….if [the] national can be understood as the sign under which the local, the individual, was made relevant in modern Japan—then we may be closer to capturing the spectacular meaning of the Butokukai.” (pp. 93-94)

The collapsing of pairs of polar opposites seems be one of Gainty’s major tools for repeatedly emphasizing the role of individual creative agency in the face of what most historians would see as overwhelming systemic power. Such an argument is not without a certain degree of attraction. Indeed, all complex political systems, be they local, national or global, are comprised of strategically entangled actors who manifest a whole that is seemingly more than the sum of their parts.

Nevertheless, it is precisely the nature of the emergent properties that arise in complex systems that makes attempts to understand them by focusing solely on the individual level so problematic. One strongly suspects that many of the individual “bodies” that Gainty is so interested in, whether they be the bodies of individual martial artists, or local organizations dedicated to some specific vision of “traditional practice,” were socially constructed by a variety of forced (the media, the educational system, shocks of the global trade system…) long before they ever planned their first martial arts gala or wrote a letter asking for the educational system to be reformed. Put another way, in the modern era, can the “local” really be understood without reference to a prior definition of the “nation?”

This is Gainty’s last challenge to us. Rather than seeing the nation as an imagined community that constructs us, that orders our identity from the outside, can we instead make sense of it as an expression of our own local conditions and aspirations. To say that such a view of the nation is radically subjective does not go far enough. In this case the nation is reduced to a rhetorical strategy to be filled and given purpose at the individual level. Yet what system can local structures define themselves in opposition to if not widely disseminated national identities and values?

One of the issues that I have with this argument is that in Gainty’s cases there appears to have been some pretty clear boundaries imposed on the creativity of individual martial artists in their attempt to define their “vision of the nation.” Yet Gainty never really explores what they were. So long as they had the backing of the police, the military and the Home Ministry, martial artists were free to advocate for educational reform and an increasingly militarized understanding of the “national body” and the imperial system. Yet without these allies their efforts never seem to have gotten very far.

The aspirations of the village Dojos of Aomori Prefecture were clearly beyond the pale of what local officials would accept and hence they were shut down. For that matter, the Butokukai chapters in both Yamaguchi and Aomori celebrated their connection to the imperial ideology with equal vigor, even though they had been on very different sides of the Boshin War.

In one locality government officials commanded that the past be remembered, while in the other everyone worked very hard at forgetting it. Clearly individuals made choices, but they did so from a limited and highly regulated pallet of options that delineated what local identity could be. Is this really all there is to individual agency? And if so, can it really challenge the utility of systemic theories?

In 1882, prior to the advent of the Budokukai, Ernest Renan reminded us that “the essence of a nation is that all individuals have many things in common, and also that they have forgotten many things.” Gainty’s chapter reminded me of this quote precisely because so much of the spread of the Budokukai involved the suppression of the old and particular in favor of the “timeless” and “universal.”

Yes, individuals within this chapter did seem to exercise some agency in terms of what they choose to remember. Yet the agents of structural power that haunt the edges of Gainty’s study, always just out of view, seem to have dictated in pretty strong terms what must be forgotten. This is precisely what makes me skeptical of the supposition that the nation can be understood as a rhetorical strategy or an expression of the “local.” The enforced remembering and forgetting of the nation seems to strongly condition how the local can even be imagined or understood.

Gainty does a very good job of reminding us that Meiji era martial artists were not puppets. They had their own agendas and portfolios of allies.  They were also highly motivated. Yet his work does not present a clear sense of the field that they exercised their agency on. That requires bringing the reality of structural constraints back into the discussion.


If you enjoyed this discussion you might also want to read:  The Book Club: Chinese Martial Arts by Peter Lorge, Introduction-Chapter 5: Reconstructing China’s Ancient Military Institutions.