Kendo and Judo as part of life in the Japanese Navy. Source: Vintage Postcard. Author's personal collection.
Kendo and Judo as part of life in the Japanese Navy. Source: Vintage Postcard. Author’s personal collection.




The martial arts can speak to a number of important questions, but perhaps to none as directly as popular attitudes towards violence. Much of my recent research has looked at what the organization of martial arts groups in China reveals about the nature of social conflict. Yet for those who share my interest in the modern martial arts and conflict, it is hard to imagine a case study quite as rich as the Pacific theater of the Second World War (WWII).

During the years prior to the outbreak of this conflict martial arts played many roles within the domestic political discourses of both Japan and China. Hand combat reformers argued that they were an inexpensive means by which the state could reform physical education in schools, promote physical fitness among the general population and improve public health. Yet they were also turned to as vehicles for promoting nationalism, strengthening state control of civil society and structuring the ways that civilian populations would perceive other peoples in the coming conflict.

The idea that these fighting systems somehow revealed essential truths about the Japanese (and later Chinese) people even aided the explosion in popularity which these same systems enjoyed in the West after the close of hostilities. Still, as many scholars have previously argued, the seemingly immutable links between the Asian martial arts and specific ethnolinguistic identities were ultimately a byproduct of specific political discourses, the efforts of individual reformers and the power of “invented traditions.”

In today’s post I would like to take a look at a couple of period artifacts that help to illustrate the process by which these discourses were created and spread throughout society. Both of the postcards that we will be discussing were printed in Japan during WWII and were intended to illustrate and humanize scenes of daily military life. Presumably these sorts of images were created for the benefit of both the soldiers who might have bought them as well as their families back home.

These seem to have been fairly popular and it is not hard to find them in auctions and specialized collections. They exist in multiple series, some of which focus on the army, while others tackle the challenges of naval life. I have always suspected that some of them were actually reprinted after the end of the war, but because postcards are usually not dated I have yet to definitively confirm this.

As one might expect the vast majority of images presented on these cards have nothing to do with the martial arts. Topics such as “swabbing the decks”, eating lunch in the field and feeding the horses dominate these series. Yet a few cards in each series seem to be dedicated explicitly to the practice of hand combat.

This is not surprising as martial arts training had become a mandatory part of most primary and secondary educational programs in Japan during the late Meiji period. The military itself also made use of various martial disciplines in its training. Sumo wrestling, judo and kendo are all well represented in these series and soldiers are seen both participating in these events as well as watching them as spectators. Yet this does not exhaust the limits of the artist’s martial imagination. From time to time we even catch glimpses of the Chinese martial arts as well, always seen from the perspective of victorious Japanese soldiers.

Before going on I should make a couple of final notes. First, I would like to thank Dr. Jared Miracle for providing me with a rough translation of the contents of these postcards on very short notice. He was also kind enough to share some of his thoughts on these images. Any errors of omission or commission in the discussion below are mine alone.

Another vintage Japanese postcard showing kendo practice on a battleship. Source: Author's personal collection.
Another vintage Japanese postcard showing kendo practice on a battleship. Source: Author’s personal collection.

Kendo in the Navy Life

Our first postcard focuses on traditional fencing and judo. Of all of the martial themes that appear on these postcards, swords and the practice of kendo are by far the most common. While we in the West tend only to imagine karate or judo when discussing the Japanese martial arts, this emphasis on sword-play accurately represents the importance of kendo in the development of Japan’s martial arts culture during the pre-war period. While it is nice to see a portrayal of ship-board kendo training on this postcard, the brief mention of judo is what makes it really standout in my opinion.

When reading a Japanese cartoon, proceed from right to left, and top to bottom. A rough translation of dialog runs as follows:

Banner: “Gekiken”

Fencing Sailor 1: “He enjoys taking that posture/stance he learned.”

Officer: “Like some kind of ‘Sword Barbarian,’ eh?”

Fencing Sailor 2: “Here I come!”

Judo Guy: “We really prefer judo over gekiken.”

At first glance this postcard would seem to accurately capture a fairly mundane moment in the life of many sailors. Ample photographic evidence exists to demonstrate that shipboard kendo practice and competition was common in the Japanese navy. In fact, I have other photographic postcards that show scenes that are almost identical to the one portrayed in the postcard above. In one sense this image is interesting precisely because it replicates such a mundane moment in time.

Nevertheless, the cartoon is more interesting than its photographic brethren in that they do not attempt to tell us anything about what the various participants in these activities are thinking. Or at least what those who were employing these images to create a certain discourse linking martial arts practice and military service wanted us to believe that they were thinking.

For instance, given that practically all Japanese high school students practiced kendo at one time or another, it may be significant that the side banner on this postcard identifies the scene as one of “gekiken” (or old style fencing) rather than kendo. While I am not an expert in Japanese martial arts history (most of my own research being focused on China), one suspects that this reflects the debate that emerged in the 1930s where certain military officers and martial artists began to worry that “modernized” kendo (which had developed more as a means of self-cultivation and competition) was no longer preparing officers with practical battlefield skills. In fact, Japanese swordsmen faced a number of setbacks when they first entered the Chinese field.

Hence the “older” approach to fencing went into revival during the WWII period in an attempt to update the skills of Japanese soldiers for the modern battlefield. In that sense it may be interesting to observe that the second swordsman appears to be using unorthodox “barbarian” techniques that the first is being forced to adjust to.

This card also appears to intentionally juxtapose such “rough and tumble” combat training techniques with the more structured, fraternal and even “gentle” nature of judo training. While many soldiers practiced judo, the art itself never seems to have undergone the same transformation that gripped the kendo world. This juxtaposition of two different approaches to the martial arts seems to provide the narrative thread that runs through this card.

Dadao.Japanese Postcard.WWII.Dadao


Glorious Deeds of Arms

Banner: “Glorious Deeds of Arms: Prisoners of War and Spoils of War”

Japanese Officer: “This is banned dum-dum ammunition.”

Japanese Soldier: “Yeah, we also captured the enemy’s tank(s)!”

Captured Chinese Soldier: “POWs certainly enjoy the Japanese Army’s kindness.”

Japanese Soldier: “I’d really like (or it would be nice) to take this Green Dragon Blade home as a souvenir, eh?”

Our second image turns its attention to the infantry in occupied China. There is no indication within the picture to indicate where or when this scene is supposed to have taken place. But photographs of such “victory scenes,” where Japanese soldiers are shown posing with confiscated weapons (or occasionally at important landmarks) are commonly found in soldiers’ photo albums from the period. Again, one of the most interesting aspects of this image is its intentionally generic nature. Images of such scenes were frequently recorded and then reproduced on a massive scale for consumption by viewers on the home front.

The great advantage of the illustrated format of this particular image is that it provides the artist with a way to tell us what is (or should be) going on in the heads of individual soldiers. The first individuals who speaks is probably meant to be an officer (note the mustache, katana, and high leather boots). His interest is focused on the more modern and deadly aspects of the Chinese military. In this case it has just been discovered that the Chinese soldiers in question were armed with “dum-dum” rounds.

This is a slang term for any bullet that is designed to mushroom or expand on impact to inflict more damage on its victim. The name itself is a historical reference to the Dum Dum arsenal in India where the British experimented with such ammunition in the late 19th century before it was banned by the Geneva Convention. While it is not uncommon to come across references to “dum-dum rounds” in English language discussions, I was previously unaware that the term had entered conversational Japanese in the 1930s.

Notice also that the next speaker emphasizes the mechanized nature of the Chinese army by pointing to the captured tank on the far right of the image. The viewer is not meant to feel pity for a “poorly equipped” Chinese army. Obviously this is a fine line to walk given what is going on at the left-hand side of the card. But the “testimony” of the captured Chinese soldiers themselves notes that we need not be concerned for their welfare. Of course this is one place where the images presented by the official propaganda and actual historical events are different in profound ways.

On the left side of the card a very different conversation appears to be happening at exactly the same moment. Here two soldiers pick through a pile of traditional weapons that have been confiscated. One holds a classic dadao aloft, while the other hefts a guandao. He refers to this weapon as a “Green Dragon Blade.”

In so doing he explicitly identifies the weapon as that wielded by the hero Guan Yu in the classic novel The Romance of the Three Kingdoms. The same story was very popular in Japan (where it often went by the title Sangokushi). In fact, this one work has spawned literally countless derivative novels, stories, plays, woodblock prints, poems, manga and movies between the late Tokugawa period and today. It has occupied an important place within Japanese popular culture for literally centuries.

A captured Chinese dadao being held by a Japanese soldier. Note the unique saw back blade. Source: Author's Personal Collection.
A captured Chinese dadao being held by a Japanese soldier. Note the unique saw back blade. Source: Author’s Personal Collection.


Conclusion: The Martial Arts and Modernity

Both of our postcards have built stories around the physical trappings of the martial arts. In the first image we see sailors, faces obscured by kendo masks, training on a ship with bamboo swords. In the second image we instead find real swords, won in an actual fight, while their former owners look on passively. And in both cases the martial arts are shown to be an aspect of the modern battlefield rather than a purely cultural exercise.

Still, it is interesting to consider this relationship with modernity in a slightly more detailed way. The subtle comparison between Japanese gekiken and judo suggests an acute awareness that martial practices in Japan were evolving and changing in response to things happening in their environment. Interestingly, the various martial artists within the image seem to have mixed opinions on the value of these trends. While the two swordsmen throw themselves into the newly revived “old style” fencing practice, the judo players behind them look on with some degree of incredulity. All of this indicates a high level of social literacy regarding the sorts of political debates that were happening within the world of the Japanese martial arts.

In contrast the Japanese vision of the Chinese martial arts seems to be frozen in time. More specifically, it is frozen in a vision of an “Orientalized” past defined by the immensely popular Sangokushi which dominated much of Japanese popular culture throughout the 20th century. This is fascinating as the widespread adoption of the dadao by Chinese troops was in some ways just as recent a trend as the innovations in Japanese military fencing that the first postcard seemed to be commenting on.

Nor did these cards show the Chinese as having only obsolete equipment. Theirs was a mechanized force complete with artillery. How “glorious” could “deeds of arms” be when unleashed against a vastly inferior enemy? Still, while the Japanese fighting arts were viewed as an evolving part of a modern military structure, their Chinese counterparts are reduced to essentialist markers of ethnolinguistic identity. Further, this identity is made accessible to Japanese consumers and readers through the popular novels and media of their day.

There are a number of interesting points to take away from this brief discussion. While forces within Japanese society sought to use their traditional martial arts to promote certain ideological and nationalist positions, readers appear to have been aware of recent changes in how these arts were practiced and political debates within the martial community. This is the opposite of the sort of allochronism that one might expect to see. Secondly, Japanese readers are expected to have some interest in (and familiarity with) the practice of Chinese boxing. If nothing else traditional Chinese weapons are shown as desirable war souvenirs.

Yet these practices are understood only through political discourses and media representations that have the effect of stripping them of their actual history. This misperception of the true nature of the Chinese martial arts becomes one step in the process of reducing them markers of an inferior ethnolinguistic identity that must be overcome or controlled. This would seem to suggest that the misunderstanding of someone else’s martial arts history is at least as dangerous as accepting a false narrative of one’s own practices.

Guan Yu as shown by Utagawa Kuniyoshi in his collection of prints from the Sangokushi.
Guan Yu as shown by Utagawa Kuniyoshi in his collection of prints from the Sangokushi.

If you enjoyed these images you might also want to see:  Through a Lens Darkly (31): Red Spears, Big Swords and Civil Resistance in Northern China