Vintage Postcard. Yukio Tani demonstrating a flying armbar on William Bankier c.1906. Source: Wikimedia.
Vintage Postcard. Yukio Tani demonstrating a flying armbar on William Bankier c.1906. Source: Wikimedia.




The term “Yellow Peril” is something that I do not often see in the martial arts studies literature. Even in research projects tracking the global spread of the traditional fighting systems it is conspicuous by its absence. This has always seemed odd. When I started to more actively research this topic a few years ago I simply assumed that the early 20th century fantasies of depravity, violence and racial competition which shaped so much of that era’s popular culture would be central to most of the ongoing discussions.

Questions of race and identity are commonly discussed in the martial arts studies literature. Yet most of these seem to be rooted in firmly in the post-WWII environment in which the Chinese and Japanese communities were already well on their way to being re-imagined as “model minorities.” Alternatively, the disillusionment and cultural confusion following America’s defeat in the Vietnam War has been much discussed. Nor have we neglected Bruce Lee’s contributions to the global spread of the martial arts as first an emissary of community struggle, and later a symbol of a more personal quest for development.

All of this is important. Yet the Asian martial arts did not begin their global journey in 1973. Half a century earlier they were already established on American shores where they were seen as a threat to the dominance of Western martial arts and as a powerful political symbol of the changing balance of power in the Pacific. And by 1920 it was clear that this was no passing fad. Judo and jujitsu had managed to find a footing within the military, police and civilian communities.

This raises some important questions. The early 20th century saw very active nativist agitation against the Chinese and Japanese communities in the US. This resulted in new rounds of legislation that served to further marginalize and segregate these groups. The idea of a “Yellow Peril” was an active and motivating force among many labor activists in the Progressive Era who linked the appearance of relatively low wage Asian agricultural workers in California both to an erosion of wages and a threat to White American masculinity. In the wake of the failed Boxer Uprising in China (1899-1900), or the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905), any mention of Asians and violence was more likely to bring up the specter of Fu Man Chu (or some other literary villain) than a boundary crossing hero like Bruce Lee.

The Asian martial arts made their first important inroads into Western popular culture at a time of considerable cultural anxiety. How were these trends connected? And how did the basic social scripts and patterns that were laid down in the early 20th century go on to shape and influence the larger process of cultural appropriation of these fighting systems in the 1970s and 1980s?

It is no coincidence that both of these time periods, the 1910s and the 1970s, share a number of key characteristics. Both were periods of rapid globalization measured in the growth of international trade and domestic economic dislocation. These eras were also characterized by the fear of global war in which Asia might play a more prominent role. And in both periods the public showed a great interest in the Asian fighting arts. Reconsidering the role of the “Yellow Peril” in this earlier period may reveal previously overlooked social patterns which survive into the later period as well.

An advertisement for the Yabe School of Jiu-Jitsu in the July 1905 edition of the Buisness and Bookeeper Magazine. Note the not to subtle reeference to Japan's recent victory over Russia and its relevance to hand combat.
An advertisement for the Yabe School of Jiu-Jitsu in the July 1905 edition of the Business and Bookkeeper Magazine. Note the not too subtle reference to Japan’s recent victory over Russia and its relevance to hand combat.



Jiu-Jitsuing Uncle Sam


Recently it was my good fortune to run into an article which nicely sets the stage for this sort of comparative exercise. Wendy Rouse published “Jiu-Jitsuing Uncle Sam: The Unmanly Art of Jiu-Jitsu and the Yellow Peril Threat in the Progressive Era United Stated” in the October 2015 issue of the Pacific Historical Review. Best known for her work on childhood and family life among early Chinese-American immigrants, in this piece she turns her considerable historical talents to a detailed examination of the media discussion surrounding the initial introduction of Japanese jiu-jitsu (using the spelling preferred at that time) and its complex, at times contradictory, relationship with economic, gendered, nationalist and social discourses in early 20th century America.

This article has much to recommend it and will be of interest to anyone who studies either the global spread of the Asian martial arts or the Asian-American experience in the progressive era. The author’s research is firmly grounded in a rich array of primary sources. These fall basically into two categories. On the one hand she has assembled an impressive database of newspaper and magazine articles, early jiu-jitsu manuals (published by both Japanese and Western authors), political statements and even advertisements for mail-order martial arts classes.

This material is often juxtaposed with more traditional historical sources (including letters and journals) recording the conversations and thought of political elites. Much of her investigation of upper-class opinion on the Japanese question and the value of jiu-jitsu focused on President Theodore Roosevelt’s effort to master the system, promote it within the USA and wrestle with its implications for his understanding of early 20th century racial/national hierarchies.

Her empirical discussion is also theoretically grounded. Rouse draws inspiration from two sources in particular, and they seem to have provided the framework upon which she organizes her understanding of the forces that shaped the progressive era’s appropriation of judo and jiu-jitsu.

The first of these is Elliott G. Gorn’s now classic study, The Manly Art: Bare-Knuckle Prize Fighting in America (Cornell UP, 2nd ed. 2010). Appearing in the late 1980s, this book made two major contributions to the discussion of the combat sports and fighting traditions. First it argued that these practices revealed important insights into a wide range of social, class, political and gender discourses. At the time this was still a novel insight.

Secondly, it used the development of boxing to argue that changes in any of these discourses could only be understood in relation to what was going on in the other. In short, the combat sports are interesting precisely because they provide a way to cut into a group of complex and mutually constitutive social forces. Rouse’s own contributions to the discussion do much to reinforce both of these prior conclusions.

Rouse also references Akihiko Hirose and Key Kei-ho Pih’s “Men who Strike and Men who Submit: Hegemonic and Marginalized masculinities in Mixed Martial Arts” (Men and Masculinities, 2010 no.2, 190-209). When looking at the debate between “striking” versus “grappling” strategies in the development of mixed martial arts these authors noted a strong correlation with stereotypic “western” and “eastern” theories of masculinity. They noted that culturally speaking more “western” modes of attack such as punching and kicking (reminiscent of boxing) tended to be favored over Orientalized and “feminized” practices such as jujitsu. However, the effectiveness of these techniques led to them being selectively appropriated in such a way that they were no longer a threat to the overall (western) cultural values of MMA. As will become clear Rouse sees basically the same pattern playing itself out between 1902 and the end of WWI. As such this article functions as her main interpretive lens.

Rouse’s article starts out with a brief yet comprehensive review of popular anxieties centering on increased Asian immigration and the threat of a “Yellow Peril” in America in the late 19th and early 20th century. After looking at the political and imperialist origins of this discourse she turns her attention to the ways in which it intersected with other powerful economic and social conflicts during the period. Labor organizations were on the front lines of this fight as they had the most to lose from falling wages. Antagonistic patterns that had developed with reference to Chinese communities during the 19th century were increasingly applied to Japanese immigrants (many of whom were actually coming from Hawaii) in the 20th.

These clashes led to new legislation marginalizing and attempting to segregate Japanese-American residents during the Roosevelt Presidency. This was a problem for the president who had a more complicated and nuanced view of the Japanese. While he (like practically all members of his generation) perceived the world as a series of racial hierarchies, Roosevelt was not in favor of the outright exclusion of the Japanese. This was likely because he both admired and was somewhat afraid of Japan’s growing military stature in Asia and wanted to avoid conflict with Japan so far was possible. Yet at the same time he was politically obligated to respond to the demands of progressive voices in the labor movement.

This sort of political calculus alone might be enough to explain the eventual banning of Japanese immigration to America. Yet in what ways can it help us to make sense of the growing popular interest in jiu-jitsu, which began to explode at almost the exact same moment in time?

Rouse argues that to understand this we must also look at the “crisis of masculinity” which was starting to grip popular discourse in the early 20th century. Many streams contributed to this rising tide of anxiety. It stemmed from the increasingly urban and sedentary nature of American life as the economy evolved, changing theories about the value of physical culture and even the growing women’s suffrage movement. Yet there were also unmistakable racial overtones to this discussion. Indeed, it is here that Western fears of a “Yellow Peril” began to play out differently for the Japanese than what had already been seen with the nation’s much larger Chinese population.

Japan had been a rising military power in Asia for decades, and the world had begun to take note. Many Western commentators had been surprised by the effectiveness of Japan’s modernized military during the Sino-Japanese War and the Boxer Rebellion (where the performance of its forces could be compared directly to its allied Western counterparts). But that was nothing compared to the wave of awe that was unleased by Japan’s defeat of Russia during the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905), whose conclusion was negotiated by Roosevelt himself.

On the one hand this vastly improved Japan’s standing in the Western imagination. Compared to China it was seen as a strong, mature and modernizing force in the region. Its military victories on the field reinforced the virility of its national image. Yet this growing strength came with an undercurrent of anxiety as to what it all meant for America’s aspirations in the Pacific, as well as its own sense of masculinity.

The appearance of multiple jiu-jitsu teachers in the United States further complicated this question. Working class Americans were very much invested in both wrestling and boxing as not just popular sports but signs of their collective masculinity. When the initial contests between American and Japanese fighters failed to demonstrate the inherent superiority of the former, the national press began to sit up and take notice.

In an era when national, racial and gendered hierarchies were so tightly tied in the public imagination, Japan’s success on the battlefield, and the success of individual Japanese martial artists on the mat, seemed to reinforce each other in a powerful and potentially frightening way. As Rouse notes, all of this tied directly into the ongoing national conversation on the “Yellow Peril.”

Another advertisement for the Yabe school, this time empahsizing the arts value to women. This one ran in the Black Cat Magazine during the year 1905.
Another advertisement for the Yabe school, this time emphasizing the art’s value to women. This add ran in Black Cat magazine during the year 1905.



Exoticizing, Feminizing and Appropriating Jiu-Jitsu


In the second half of her article Rouse lays out the three main strategies by which American society seems to have come to terms with the Japanese martial arts in the early 20th century. Interestingly, both the supporters and opponents of these fighting systems employed all three of these strategies, and at times even adopted the same basic symbols. Yet variations in emphasis led them to sharply different conclusions.

The first of these strategies was to emphasize the exotic and alien nature of the Japanese martial arts. Secondly, commentators attempted to question the cultural values that they represented (by way of comparison western boxing was often seen as upholding the social values most important to western notions of “manliness”). As such, the popular press was full of both subtle and overt efforts to “feminize” the image of jiu-jitsu. Lastly, when it became clear one simply could not dismiss this body of practice on technical grounds, efforts were made to appropriate or co-opt the martial arts in ways that did not challenge the perceived dominance of western models on masculinity.

Rouse’s discussion of the exoticizing impulse when dealing with jiu-jitsu is perhaps the best developed and most interesting aspect of her paper. Both supporters of the system and detractors pointed to its foreign and esoteric nature, yet they drew very different conclusions as to what this implied for the practices worth. Both early American and Japanese martial arts teachers in the west immediately latched onto the public’s appetite for oriental mystery and romance and saw this as the key to successfully marketing their wares.

Yae Kichi Yabe, a jiu-jitsu instructor trained in the Tenjin Shinyo-ryu, set up shop in Rochester NY in 1904 and promptly began to advertise heavily in a number of national publications. In addition to promoting his school these advertisements attempted to sell books and correspondence lessons which could introduce one to the art of jiu-jitsu. While a number of different advertisements were produced, each of them promised to reveal fighting techniques which up to a single generation ago had been kept secret within Japan and were only now being taught to foreigners for the first time. Alluding to the recent victory over Russia, Yabe claimed that it was this secret knowledge (previously confined to a handful of Samurai families) which had been the key to his nation’s fighting prowess and their relatively few causalities.

Opponents of the new system also latched onto the exotic nature of jiu-jitsu, yet they drew sharply different conclusions. Rather than a contest of strength and endurance the Asian martial arts seemed to be based on skills that drew heavily on cunning and deception. In fact, it was not even clear that one could think of jiu-jitsu as an athletic sport at all. While a system of self-defense, it did not appear suitable for the sort of moral instruction of the nation’s youth that boxing and wrestling had offered. Of course a number of Western fighters loudly disagreed with the often heard assertion that these systems would allow a well-trained small individual (presumably one who was Asian or female) to beat a larger person (presumably a white male). Not only did this go against the basic logic of weight-classes in Western combat sports, but it seemed a direct challenge to racial and gender hierarchies at a time when upholding these systems was seen an as explicit goal of American physical culture.

Rouse’s discussion of the feminization of jiu-jitsu, while interesting, is less well developed. In this case almost all of her examples explore the ways in which critics attempted to discredit the art by feminizing it. Writers in the boxing press criticized jiu-jitsu as a proper fighting art after hearing reports of it being taught to female college students at Vassar. That example was fascinating as it actually brought together the trifecta of racial, class and gender anxiety in an explosion of animosity directed squarely at jiu-jitsu. Reading through a few such examples it is not hard to understand why the growing popularity of the art in some quarters might be seen as a threat to the masculinity of working-class boxing fans.

Unfortunately this discussion was not as detailed as the one that came before, and it left out what may have been one of the most interesting elements of the story. Both supporters of jiu-jitsu as well as its opponents seemed to collude in the feminization of the art. Yabe’s advertisements are once again quite instructive. Some of his pitches focused explicitly on female insecurity and the value of martial arts training as a means of self-defense for women. In other cases it was emphasized how a proper knowledge of jiu-jitsu would allow “boys” to overcome “men.” And his advertisements emphasized the small size and frame of the Japanese soldier who had humiliated their hulking Russian enemies.

Nor was Yabe alone in this effort. Inazo Nitobe discussed at some length the place of women in the Bushido philosophy and their sometimes extensive training in traditional hand combat skills. His widely read 1904 volume, Bushido: The Soul of the Samurai, actually places this discussion of women directly following his chapter on the sword as the “soul of the samurai.” Kano Jigoro included women in the Judo system from its foundation. Further, the suffragette’s also brought quite a bit of attention to jiu-jitsu. It seems then that women of Vassar were in good company.

The feminization of the Japanese arts was not just a slur.  It was a very effective advertising strategy which was actively pursued by their supporters. Following the lead of Dominic LaRochelle it may also be useful to ask to what degree these newly produced American manuals were following the lead of their Japanese language counterparts.  If so, the use of feminine imagery within the Japanese martial arts may be more complex than this discussion suggests.


jiu-jitsu judo.ngram.english.smoothing 0
A google N-gram chart showing spikes in the popularity of terms “jiu-jitsu” and “judo” in published English language documents during the first two decades of the 20th century. The blue line notes when Roosevelt began to publicly practice the art. The green lines demarcate the start and end of the Russo-Japanese War, and the Red Lines Mark WWI. Note the increase in usage of these terms around the start of both conflicts.



jiu-jitsu judo.ngram.english fiction.smoothing 0
As above, but this graph looks at instances of the use of jiu-jitsu and judo in works of English language fiction. Note that in both cases we see a bump in fictional references after a corresponding rise in non-fiction uses. Neither term appears with any frequency in the google database of scanned publications prior to 1900, and both remain in circulation after 1920.


Lastly Rouse looks at the various ways in which jiu-jitsu was appropriated by the western hand combat establishment. This is a somewhat complex topic and probably could have been a paper of its own. While a growing number of individuals in the West were aware of jiu-jitsu, it seems that Roosevelt’s patronage of the art (starting in 1902) helped to spark a much wider (and more lively) national discussion of the topic. This was further elevated by Japan’s victory in the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905) and the perceived role of jiu-jitsu in its victory.

While jiu-jitsu became something of a fixture in popular fiction from that point onward, its popularity as a fighting system seems to have ebbed over the next five years. Yet it did not disappear. Its basic effectiveness led to a number of important western wrestling and boxing teachers adopting elements of it in their own teaching systems. Further, the specter of the First World War looming on the horizon led militaries in both North America and Europe to begin to look for more effective means of hand combat training. Jiu-jitsu excelled in this role. It also found a ready audience (willing to pay for instruction) among law enforcement officers who actually had to put hands on criminals on a regular basis.

By the end of the First World War jiu-jitsu had left a very notable mark on Western fighting culture. Yet, as Rouse points out, it was not usually adopted whole cloth. Nor were many individuals advocating the adoption of the Japanese value system that lay behind the art (of course the actual age and authenticity of Bushido is a separate question and one that goes well beyond the scope of this discussion). Instead, elements of jiu-jitsu were culturally appropriated in ways that augmented, rather than undermined, what remained an essentially Western understanding of violence.


Another classic Yabe School add. This one was seen in number of publications and it gave a clear overview of the schools aims and pitch. Source: Recreation, July 1905.
Another classic Yabe School add. This one was seen in number of publications and it gave a clear overview of the schools aims and pitch. Source: Recreation, July 1905.



The conclusion of this article may seem anti-climatic. Yet one must wonder how it could be otherwise. As Krug has pointed, the cultural appropriation of the Asian fighting arts has been a long and slow process because certain types of deep knowledge and values are not shared across cultures. Thus when former boxing instructors begin to teach karate or jiu-jitsu, the structural content of their lessons will always have a lot to do with boxing. Or to put it in slightly more theoretical terms, one cannot change your “habitus” as quickly as you can change your “style.”

In that sense I am not sure that what Rouse describes is so much a defeat of the existential threat that jiu-jitsu posed to the West as it was the first step on a much longer adventure. Seeds that were planted in the 1910s began to sprout and grow in the 1930s-1940s. Those trees, in turn, did not begin to really bear fruit until the 1960s and 1970s. And at each step along the way new material was added to the process.

As I stated at the start of this discussion, I quite liked this article and would not hesitate to assign it to students. It provides an important overview of an era of the globalization of the Asian martial arts that does not receive enough attention.

Still, I suspect that to get the full benefit of Rouse’s effort we need to continue to connect the dots. We must ask ourselves how the lineages, social discourses and media images that attached themselves to the martial arts in the 1910s continued to shape the nascent understanding that each succeeding generation brought to their own encounter with these hand combat systems.

One cannot help but notice that the three part pattern of Orientalization, feminization and appropriation which Rouse uncovered in the early 20th century bears an uncanny resemblance to process by which the Chinese martial arts entered the public consciousness in the 1960s-1970s. Indeed, when one looks at Yabe’s advertisements for his various books and courses, with all of their promises of esoteric knowledge and commercialized self-confidence, we are seeing a template that would reemerge time and again to sell very similar visions throughout the next 70 years of American history.

On a more theoretical level, an awareness of the central role of Japan’s victory over Russia in shaping how the idea of the “Yellow Peril” was experienced in the early 20th century, and the impact that this had on the spread of jiu-jitsu in both practice terms and its discussion in the popular media, may affect how we think of events in the 1970s. It could be that the upsurge of interest in the martial arts and images of Asian violence that arose in the wake of the defeat in Vietnam was not an isolate event, but a script that had its own historical antecedents lurking in the background.

The work of a theorists like Sylvia Shin Huey Chong (The Oriental Obscene: Violence and Racial Fantasies in the Vietnam Era, Duke UP 2011) may apply to discussions of the globalization of the Asian martial arts more broadly than we generally think.  While her argument directly addresses a number of films of the post-Vietnam environment, the many striking similarities to social discussions that were happening in the post-1905 era suggest that her theory might have something to say on our understanding of these events as well. Likewise a better understanding of the early 20th century movement of the Japanese arts should improve our theorizing of events in later decades. The lasting value in Rouse’s work is to show us that many of these seemingly obscure pathways have been traveled before.  In fact, we have been on them for longer than we can remember.


If you enjoyed this post you may want to read: Through a Lens Darkly (20): Ip Man Confronts the “Indian” Police Officer