A Japanese private holding a captured Dadao sometime between 1931 and 1936.  Source: Author's Personal Collection.
A Japanese private holding a captured Dadao sometime between 1931 and 1936. Source: Author’s Personal Collection.





This post is the third and final installment of our short series reviewing Denis Gainty’ 2013 book Martial Arts and the Body Politic in Meiji Japan (Routledge). Readers new to this work may want to review Parts 1 and Parts 2 here.

In my own field most authors tend to place their theoretical discussions in the first few chapters of their books and then fill their later half with case studies and empirical discussions. Gainty’s writing strategy is exactly the opposite of this. His major historical discussions happen in the first few chapters of the book. After that a few special cases are discussed with reference to the broader literature. Finally in Chapter 5 he lays out his complete theoretical argument and attempts to contextualize all of the data that has been presented to date.

In writing, as in life, one cannot serve two masters. The tight constraints of this manuscript (which is less than 150 pages in length including the introduction) frames these choices in a particularly harsh light. Yet by the end of this volume readers may still have questions about what sort of book they have just read. Was this an attempt to paint a detailed and textured portrait of an important institution in Japanese martial arts history, one that has often been misunderstood in the west, and to do so in ways that is sensitive to well established trends in current scholarship? Or is this really a book about how we should write modern history? Is it a critique that is designed to force a major rethink of how we conceptualize key ideas such as “embodiment,” “agency” and even “the nation?”

Gainty’s work is fascinating precisely because of its ambition. While a study of a specific Japanese martial arts institution, it attempts to speak to a number of more critical issues. In one sense this is precisely the sort of scholarship that we need to demonstrate that martial arts studies matters. Yet how much can any author really accomplish in 150 short pages? Readers will need to decide for themselves whether this could have been a stronger book had Gainty decided to throw his resources in one direction or another.

Still, some of the ideas presented in Chapter 5 are worthy of careful consideration, and at least one of them might have fundamental implications for our understanding of the relationship between martial artists and the state across Asia. In theoretical terms the arguments offered by the author are neither as novel as he supposes and (as I mentioned in my previous posts) they have a habit of stopping at exactly the point where things are just starting to get interesting. Yet some of the more historical, cultural and empirical insights that he offers may have exactly the sorts of far reaching implications that he hoped for.

Students of martial arts studies may certainly benefit from a careful reading and review of this material. As such, the following essay proceeds in three parts. In the first section we will quickly review the actual structure of Gainty’s chapter and the goals that he sets for himself. Next we will review some of the major theoretical shortcomings of this discussion. I will try to limit this discussion to the most critical points as many of my objections mirror prior criticisms that I noted in our review of Chapter 3 (Capture the Flag).

More interesting are some patterns that Gainty noted in how the kokutai or “national body” was discussed by various government organs and individual martial artists during the late Meiji period. These discussions, while seemingly abstract, actually signal policy areas that were subject to direct contestation between various modernizers and traditionalists as the emerging nature of the nation-state was coming into focus.

It is particularly important to consider how more traditional martial artists turned to Confucian concepts in advancing their beliefs about the role of martial arts in society and how the government responded to them. Much of this is directly relevant to conversations which would also happen in China. Indeed, much as already been written on the notion that the Chinese were somehow the “sick men” of East Asia and the response of the martial arts community to this collective taunt. Gainty’s discussion of the Confucian roots of the Japanese notion of the “vital state” may provide us with some additional tools to understand this discussion and follow the ways in which it played itself out.

Picture of the Great Victory at Fenghuangcheng (Sino Japanese War) by Ogata Gekko.
Picture of the Great Victory at Fenghuangcheng (Sino Japanese War) by Ogata Gekko.


Defining the National Body


One of my enduring frustrations with this work is that while the author takes “embodiment” as one of his central concepts, and repeatedly asserts that the martial arts are an ideal lens to understand how embodied citizens utilize their agency to construct their own understandings of society, he does not seem overly interested in anyone’s bodily experience in particular. Rather than actually looking at what real martial artists had to say about their own embodied understandings of the martial arts, or engaging in Wacquant’s “carnal sociology,” Gainty seems more or less content to focus on embodiment as a linguistic metaphor while at the same time assigning it all sorts of essential priority. Nowhere are the limitations and possibilities of this approach made clearer than in Chapter 5.

The chapter begins with a reference to an event noted much earlier in his manuscript. In 1899, facing increasing pressure from the national membership to actually do something to promote the national arts rather than continuing to run endless fundraising drives, the Butokukai issued a pamphlet which might be thought of as an internal “white paper” for its members.

This document outlined a more expansive (and community) oriented agenda for the organization as well as announcing plans for the completion of the Butokuden (the group’s headquarters in Kyoto).

What likely attracted less attention at the time-though it is central to Gainty’s work-was a short discussion that outlined the Butokukai’s understanding of citizen/state interactions. Readers were reminded that the Butokukai served as the guardians of an essentially Japanese type of knowledge and practice, the traditional martial arts. These practices were the appropriate offering to placate the Imperial Soul, which represented nothing less than the governing faculties of the state. Through the martial arts the spirit was trained, honor was cultivated, and citizens were taught the skills necessary to lay down their lives as an offering to the Emperor. “Thus, the vitality of the state is promoted.”

The specific word translated as vitality is “genki.” This term will already be familiar to students of Japanese language or culture for its many uses, including in basic daily greetings. “Genki” can be thought of as referring to healthy energy or, as Gainty translated it, life giving vitality. Unlike the more universal Qi, “Genki” energy is typically defined as an attribute of an actual physical body. Thus in a not so subtle way the Butokukai, in attempting to carve out a place for the martial arts in modern Japan, was directly referencing another critical idea from the period, the kokutai, or “national body.”

Gainty notes that this metaphor for an embodied state, one that necessarily implicated its equally carnal citizens, was a critical image during this period and was often used by the state to explain the functions of various groups such as soldier or students. For instance, the imperial household was seen as the “head” of the body, which in turn depended on soldiers and martial artists to act as its “hands” and “legs,” carrying out its bidding. They in turn relied on the “head” for guidance.

Given the importance of this metaphor to understanding both debates about the nature of the Japanese state, as well as the Butokukai thoughts on the relationship between martial artists and the government, Gainty launches into a detailed historical review of the origin and evolution of this term. That is then followed by a debate about the various ways in which the concept of the kokutai has been used by academics to erase the agency of the Japanese people and misunderstand the ways in which they were active participants in crafting their own multiplicities of modernity.

Of course it is worth noting that many actors within the Japanese government itself seemed content to use the idea of the “national body” in exactly this way. As even Gainty admits, they tended to focus on informing citizens of their functions rather than emphasizing their responsibilities and agency.

Still, all of this raises a critical question that is not easily ignored. If the idea of the national body was simply about coercively extracting resources from citizens in the face of efforts at rapid modernization, why did so many groups within society seem to actively embrace the label and coopt it in attempts to advance their own agendas? Specifically, why would so many martial artists engaged in conscious acts of self-creation adopt this same verbiage? How did they understand it, and how did the Butokukai modify this more traditional understanding in the pursuit of its own policy goals?

In the second section of the chapter Gainty focuses on these questions. He begins by returning to the educational reformer Seki (introduced in a previous chapter) who unsuccessfully lobbied to have the martial arts included in the national school curriculum. Seki made abundant use of embodied metaphors in his policy pitch.

Interestingly enough, so did the Ministry of Education and various health officials who also turned to the idea of the kokutai in resisting Seki’s proposals about martial arts instruction. Yet as Gainty demonstrates, their understanding of this common term diverged in seemingly important ways.

Seki began the conversation by noting that an over-emphasis on western methods of education and physical training was leading to the weakening and the sickness of the national body. Specifically “The waning of military power [in the nation] was like a dying pulse in a body [the state].” (Clarifications are my own.) Gainty interprets this to mean that military power is the lifeblood of the national body and that only martial arts training could keep it pumping. So how was this to be accomplished?

At this point Seki turns to the Confucian classics. This is interesting for a number of reasons. As China’s position in the global community deteriorated reformers in Japan increasingly removed Confucian ideas from the educational system and national discourse. Yet Seki may have turned to these same (unfashionable) notions to signal both his traditional attitudes towards the martial arts and need to turn away from western models.

Paraphrasing a section of the “Great Learning” he noted that training in the martial arts would first allow individuals to protect their bodies. Once they were secure they could ensure the safety of their home and family. As the home and family were made safe one could then protect the nation. Lastly, once these other goals had been accomplished, one could “restore the health of those who are enfeebled or depressed, encouraging bravery and loyalty, and developing vigorous spirits.” Obviously this mirrors the more commonly seen four part progression of where a man should first cultivate himself, then ensure harmony in the family, govern his country and finally bring peace in the world.

In his argument Seki not only presented an alternative to western views of bodily training, but he outlined a simple Confucian theory explaining how the efforts of individual martial artists were linked to the goals of the state through the mechanism of the kokutai or national body.

At this point Gainty stops to once again note the question of agency. In adopting this particular formula Seki is clearly placing the concerns of the state above those of the citizens. Yet the decision to seek these goals resides with individual martial artists. It is their moral responsibility and privilege to seek to invigorate the state, but it is not their simple function, or the thing that they were created for. In both Gainty and Seki’s reading of the Great Learning, agency rests clearly with the individual decision maker.

Unsurprisingly the various ministries of the Japanese government tended to see things differently. They instead invested their own office and the imperial household with the aura of agency. Yet they also turned to foreign sources to explain and develop their own understanding of the kokutai.

If we assume the Emperor is the head of the “national body,” what then are individual citizens? Turning to western notions of biology and medical science they seem to imply that students and other individuals were best thought of as cells within the body. They had a vital function to perform, and it was the body’s job to protect them from unnecessary damage (such as the injuries that could be incurred in martial arts training) precisely because of their interconnected relationship with the state. In reviewing these arguments Gainty notes the ways in which seemingly scientific and rational medical discourse (much of which focused on the very real problem of repeated head injuries in children) were used to shut down an otherwise problematic conversation about the state-society relations.

And what of the Butokukai? Readers may recall that Seki’s efforts were independent of this later organization. What was its understanding of the kokutai and the links between martial artists and the state? Upon reviewing their literature Gainty sees the emergence of a hybrid ideology. On the one hand this group adopted some of the Confucian discussion, which was used to emphasize how the choice to train individual bodies could impact the collective state body as a whole. Yet they also went to lengths to note the degree to which the state and the imperial household preceded the people. Thus one’s “participation” in these institutions was preordained.

Upon reading these passages it is tempting to see to see the Butokukai as a sort of field where the ideas of more traditional martial artists and government officials were contested, eventually yielding the compromise position noted above. Unfortunately Gainty’s empirical review of the period literature leaves readers with critical questions. Was Seki’s interpretation of the “Great Learning” and his application of it to understanding the social function of traditional combat methods a standard belief among Japanese martial artists of the period? Or was this instead a one-off effort to explain a seemingly obvious truth to a group of government officials uninterested in the martial arts?

Likewise, did other reformers in Japanese society share the Ministry of Education’s view of the kokutai, or was this very top-heavy reading of the national body something that was confined to a handful of government employees? In short, has Gainty just used a public debate about the martial arts in late Meiji Japan to reveal a major fault line in the public construction of one of the era’s key political and social concepts, or is this simply a set of individual rhetorical moves in a single debate on education policy? Unfortunately readers are left to puzzle this one out for themselves.

Gainty closes his chapter with a discussion of “The Body as Agent.” Here he once again takes issue with Foucault and other sorts of systemic theories (be they philosophical or sociological in nature) that would attempt to construct a single narrative of modern Japanese history. Much of this debate comes to focus on his anxieties about agency, a concern that he (somewhat oddly) sees as unimportant in Foucault’s writing (or at least he claims that Foucault dismisses it too easily). To rectify the problem he then turns to a brief (two page) discussion of Lakoff and Johnson’s work on language and experience. This is an immense research area with a lot to say, yet Gainty’s argument basically collapses down to an assertion that “meanings” are multiple and that responsible historians have an obligation to highlight this complexity.

This is the point at which the possible theoretical criticisms of this work wrap back around and begin to once again touch on empirical questions. Surely it is the job of a historian to show significant complexities in understanding, agency and meaning. Yet has his work actually accomplished this?

As I stated in my post on Chapter 3, for a book that focuses so much on agency, choice and the freedom to engage in self-construction, its remarkable how few examples of this we actually see in the text. In his most recent discussion Gainty demonstrates some very interesting, but ultimately minor, differences in how a single martial artist and cabinet committee employed a concept that was being heavily promoted by the government as a metaphor for state/society relations. Disturbingly, when the Butokukai entered the playing field they did not so much advance a third alternative as attempt to bring Seki’s more Confucian reading of the concept in line with a more statist view.

Yet if this is all that an emphasis on agency can reveal, is it really bringing forth the multiplicity of visions of Japanese modernity that Gainty has worked so hard to evoke? Where are those martial artists who rejected the notion of kokutai? Were there any thinkers in the world of jujitsu or Kendo who questioned the centrality of the Imperial Household or the trend towards state backed militarism? If so, why were they not a part of this discussion? And if not, then all of this discussion of “individual experience” needs to be redefined as agency only to choose from a very limited and preselected pallet of options, carefully vetted by powerful actors in both society and the state. Many readers will need to be forgiven for not finding the choice to militarize society from below rather than above a horribly compelling one.

Gainty structured his study around an attempt to bring the masses back onto the stage on history, at least in the ways in which we write about them. Yet one suspects that it would not be too challenging to take exactly the same empirical facts that he lays out here and read them instead as a case study in psychological entrapment by the state and the various mechanisms by which false consciousness (meaning the conviction of agency without real choice) is constructed.

I think on the most basic level his problem is actually an empirical rather than a theoretical one. This study focuses on too few actors and it fails to plumb the depths of their actual lived experience within the martial arts. For the most part, none of the central individuals discussed in this work really dissented from the broad outlines of policy supported by critical players in the Japanese government. This is a study that offers us descriptive richness, but not a lot of actual variation on the big issues.


Someone sends Bruce Lee a message...I think we all know what happens next.
Someone sends Bruce Lee a message…I think we all know what happens next.




Conclusion: The Problem of Choice


As Gainty would probably assert, the central problem that we all face in our writing and research is choice. Most of us lack generous research budgets. Publishers sometimes impose unrealistic page limits, and time is always the most precious resource of all. As I think back on this work I really believe that Gainty’s vision of the direction that martial arts studies needs to go is pretty much perfect. But is this the sort of thing that can ever be accomplished in a single volume? I would suggest not one of 150 pages. Hence my frustration that Gainty is constantly forced to move on just as he suggests a problem that is really worth digging into.

There are basically two directions that this work could have gone in. Both are predicated on a prior choice of what is really at stake in a study of the relationship between the martial arts and the body politic in Meiji Japan. On the one hand 150 pages is enough room to write a very fine, textured description of a specific institution and how it found its expression at the personal, local and national level. But to really do this it would be necessary to delve more deeply into the embodied experience of actual martial artists, rather than simply approaching approximations of the issue through linguistic or political metaphor. Such an approach would also give the author an opportunity to actually show the variety of meanings and choices found in the construction of modern Japan through the practice of the martial arts rather than simply asserting that these were out there. Of course doing so would require that the theoretical discussion (much of which turned out to be somewhat shallow) be rolled back.

Alternatively, one could take Gainty’s theoretical project much more seriously. I believe that a work like this actually could make a real contribution to the way in which we write history and think about core concepts. Yet developing truly novel approaches to these questions requires a more nuanced and sustained engagement with both the classic theorists, as well as a treatment of more recent authors including those who have already tackled a number of these issues within martial arts studies. One wonders how Gainty’s thoughts on embodiment and agency would evolve after a sustained discussion with Wacquant, who is never cited in this text?

Of course doing this would once again require a massive redistribution of resources. Rather than writing an empirically grounded book, Gainty would be forced to spend most of his effort (perhaps 100 pages) on these more theoretical discussions. A single shorter case study might be given in the first chapter of such a book or dispersed throughout.

Still, if it were up to me I think that I would have gone the empirical route and saved the heavy duty theory for my follow up volume. There are just too many interesting points that come up throughout Gainty’s writing which he never had the time to investigate. I doubt that I would have exercised the same self-control.

In other places I mentioned the need for case studies of the actual embodied experience of martial artists in their daily practice. I think that a richer exploration of the lives and experiences of actual practitioners would need to underpin any expansion of this research program. But on a more intellectual level this last chapter has really gotten me thinking about the role of Confucianism in conditioning how early 20th century martial artists understood their relationship with the state.

Perhaps a word of explanation is in order. Most of my research focuses on the hand combat teachers of southern China during the Republic period. During this era a huge number of reformers emerged and started to publish books and articles all of which advanced their own agendas for how the martial arts might aid the modernization process and lead to “national salvation” (a phrase particularly favored by the Jingwu (Pure Martial) Association).

In a sense the problem that I face is the opposite of Gainty’s. He is constantly challenged to find heterogeneity within a society that most people assume was already totalitarian in nature and under strong government domination. Thus one might not expect to see a lot of variety within how the average Japanese high school student in 1920 understood his Kendo class. Chances are there was a lesson module for that (thanks to the Butokukai) and it was coordinated at the national level.

During the same period in China one does not have to search long to find of variety of perspectives, experiences and an almost shocking degree of “agency.” To read the debates surrounding the martial arts in that period is to practically be hit upside the head with a cacophony of voices, each proclaiming its own path to “national salvation.” The challenge that I face (exacerbated by my historical and cultural remove) is to locate certain points of discussion that were broadly shared or contested, even if martial artists in various styles or parts of the country may have spoken about these things somewhat differently.

For instance, one of the trends that we see in the Republic era is an attempt to ground the Chinese martial arts within Buddhist or Daoist traditions to better reinforce and accentuate their connection to “traditional” Chinese culture. While discussing the desire to find ancient Buddhist roots within Wing Chun, Ip Chun (the old son of Ip Man) has noted that in reality there is no Buddhism or Daoism in the system, other than that which has simply been absorbed into the background of Chinese culture.

Yet for those who wished to delve deeper he did note that his father studied Confucian philosophy as a youth and understood Wing Chun, and its relationship with society, largely in terms of the Confucian Classics including the “Doctrine of the Mean” and the “Great Learning.” Of course these are the same traditions that Seki drew on in his attempt to explain the ideal relationship between martial artists and the modern nation state.

One suspects that a quick survey of period publications would probably reveal that Ip Man was not alone in this (any more than I expect Seki was in Japan). Indeed, while both the reforming Japanese and Chinese states had officially moved on from such ideas, it seems likely that such “image maps” would have continued to inform the way individual martial artists understood both their own responsibilities and relationship with the larger national body.

It is also fascinating to note that idea of the “national body” was not simply limited to Japan. A very similar concept was also quite widespread in China. Chinese martial artists were also very concerned with the “vitality” of this body. Many of them saw their social function as strengthening individual bodies and spirits to rejuvenate and “save” the nation as a whole.

Readers will perhaps be most familiar with this conversation as it took shape in the “Sick Man of East Asia” debate. I have written a little bit about this concept elsewhere, but have yet to devote the resources to this question that it deserves. This phrase was actually developed by the European press and first applied to discussions of western countries. Yet nowhere has the idea gained such traction and emotional power as in China during the first half of the 20th century. In fact, it is not hard to find period martial arts publications advancing the claim that the Chinese national body was sick or weak (probably a self-evident point given the pain and national humiliation of imperialism) precisely so that they could offer a cure. Again, the parallels with the Japanese case outlined by Gainty are fascinating.

In short, I suspect that Seki’s theory of the martial arts within society could have broad implications for any state or locality with a Confucian heritage. Again, I am not asserting that this is the only way that martial artists in those areas would have viewed the question. Gainty’s point about the need to bring forth the complexity of individual experience is well taken (and in the case of Republican China, very hard to ignore). Still, one suspects that this could have been an important axis of debate and contestation. As Ip Chun has suggested, the “Great Learning” (and other related Confucian concepts) may have colored the ways in which many Asian individuals understood what it meant to be martial artists in the modern world.




If you enjoyed this post you might also want to read:  Zheng Manqing and the “Sick Man of Asia”: Strengthening Chinese Bodies and the Nation through the Martial Arts