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Martial Studies, Reviews, Weapons

Approaching the “Armed Martial Arts of Japan”: Thoughts on Comparison, Theory and Progress in Martial Arts Studies

Mount Tobisu Dawn Moon, from the 100 Aspects of the Moon by Yoshitoshi (1839 - 1892).

Mount Tobisu Dawn Moon, from the 100 Aspects of the Moon by Yoshitoshi (1839 – 1892).




Opportunities come in many forms, even in the guise of a sore throat. Since I have been feeling a bit under the weather I decided to use the next few days to catch up on my reading. While it is annoying to be away from the gym, any student can attest that there is never enough time to get through all of the books and articles that are out there. I have never been one to let a virus go to waste.

Still, tackling new literature is never as straight forward as one might think. The social sciences and humanities are an inherently social undertaking, meaning that every argument stands on the shoulders of those that came before. My study is always the most meaningful when I approach a new work as the next step in an ongoing research program.

The act of reading is also very context specific. You do not have to be a black turtleneck wearing post-modernist to realize that what you are likely to get out of a document depends in large part on what you have read before. What theories, facts, alternative cases and biases will you bring to this new text?

As a student of martial arts studies this is a something that I am often reminded of. It quickly becomes apparent that most authors write only on a single topic (Taijiquan, Southern China, Filipino Kali, etc). Serious works of sustained comparative analysis, or even shorter comparative case studies, are pretty rare.

There are some good reasons for this. The depth of personal, linguistic and social experience needed to address these subjects tends to nudge scholars more towards an “area studies” approach. A given author can only be expected to be an “expert” in so many languages, national histories or hand combat systems. In truth any one of these research tools could be the study of a lifetime.

Rich descriptive detail is good, yet granular emphasis comes at a cost. Too narrow a research focus will do a disservice even to those who are only interested in a single case. In our literature this is most obvious when dealing with historical or social scientific text that want to explain the development or nature of a given martial arts style.

Recently I received a copy of Alexander C. Bennett’s 2015 University of California Press book Kendo: Culture of the Sword. While Japan is not my main area of focus, it has been strongly recommended by a number of scholars. Heeding my own warning, I would like to expand my field of inquiry to take in some additional comparative cases. Given that the martial arts studies literature on Japan is already well developed, it seems like a logical place to start.

Nevertheless, I have been hesitant to dive directly into Bennett. I am not a specialist, or even a practitioner, of the Japanese martial arts. Nor would it be possible to grasp what is new and innovative about his research without brushing up on some of the prior literature first. So rather than reading the book which I just bought, I dug out my much older copy of G. Cameron Hurst’s Armed Martial Arts of Japan: Swordsmanship and Archery (Yale University Press, 1998).

Hurst’s volume must be considered one of the foundational classics of the modern martial arts studies literature. Published two years after Douglas Wile’s Lost Tai Chi Classics (SUNY, 1996), it is unlikely that our current research area could exist in its current form without their pioneering efforts to argue that these subjects revealed critical historical insights that were worthy of publication by top university presses.

I first encountered Bennett’s work because of my own (mostly unfulfilled) interest in Kendo. Armed Martial Arts of Japan was one of the first serious books on the martial arts which I read, long before I had any idea that I might someday be writing in the same literature. In college I took numerous courses on Japanese history, society and language. I even spent the better part of a year as a student in Japan. As such I was already very familiar with the basic factual outline that structured Hurst’s historical narrative. Yet I found his discussion of the martial arts intoxicating. It made all of the political and popular history that I had been studying come alive. As a much younger reader of martial arts studies, this book made a very good first impression.

Unfortunately this auspicious introduction went nowhere. In graduate school my own studies became more theoretically focused and Japanese interests receded into the background. When I did turn my attention to martial arts studies it was the tumultuous situation in 19th century southern China, rather than Japan, that caught my attention.

Hurst may have remained in the shadows if not for a visit last autumn to TJ Hinrich undergraduate class on the martial arts in East Asia at Cornell University. Her reading list drew on a wide range of book chapters and articles, but Hurst was the thread that held it all together. Students read a different section of his work each week augmented with additional materials. While watching the ensuing class discussion I realized that it was time to take another look at this volume. And the recent purchase of Bennett’s book provided me with the perfect excuse to make time to do so.

A European trade card showing traditional Japanese archery (probably circa 1930). Kyudo was one of the martial arts promoted by the Butokukai. Source: Author's Personal Collection.

A European trade card showing traditional Japanese archery (probably circa 1930). Kyudo was one of the martial arts promoted by the Butokukai. Source: Author’s Personal Collection.


Swordsmanship and Archery: Reading Hurst


It is not the purpose of this post to provide a detailed and comprehensive review of the Armed Martial Arts of Japan. Instead there are a couple of issues that I want to touch on as they speak to the what we have accomplished in the recent development of martial arts studies, and what is still left to be done. But even this, less formal, discussion might benefit from a brief overview of the contents of the text.

Hurst’s study is in many ways ideally suited for use in undergraduate classrooms. At just under 200 pages it is relatively brief. Nor does it presuppose more than a passing familiarity with Japanese history or culture. With some strategic classroom discussion even that is negotiable.

The author’s straight forward and highly accessible tone must be considered this work’s greatest asset. Most of his discussions are relatively short and to the point. Nor will students be confronted with either theoretical or linguistic/cultural jargon. Ideas that are central to Hurst’s presentation are introduced to the reader in an easy to digest manner. It is not surprising that so many professors turn to this work as an initial introduction to the field of martial arts studies.

What I considered to be some of the most interesting material in this study can actually be found in the introduction and first chapter. In addition to situating the martial arts within Japanese culture (itself a fascinating exercise given their very different associations in China) the author repeatedly returns to questions surrounding the meaning and social development of competitive sports in both the East and West. As the text progresses, his reasoning on this point becomes increasingly clear. The meta-narrative of the Japanese martial arts, as understood by Hurst, is a process by which combat exercises were increasingly seen as avenues for self-cultivation, and then further developed into pure competitive sports, during the period of their obsolescence in the Tokugawa and Meiji eras.

This process is most easily seen with archery, where the very act of scoring practice sessions easily lends itself to the development of both competitive sports and religious/social rituals. As Selby would no doubt remind us, some of the earliest written accounts of Chinese court culture make reference to non-combative archery. While this process took longer to unfold in the world of Japanese swordsmanship, the development of bamboo training swords (Shinai) and their use in what can only be described as competitive matches within urban dojos during the second half of the Tokugawa period eventually brought swordsmanship to a similar place.

While we tend to think of combat sports as an entirely modern phenomenon, even treating them as a symptom of industrial and post-industrial materialist values, in fact, they are firmly grounded in a much older set of historical processes. Yet the idea of competitive sports has been seemingly invisible in most discussions of the history of Japanese popular culture. To the extent that Hurst’s work can be said to address theoretical questions, or to draw on a broader framework of arguments, this is where readers are likely to find their orientation. How did combat swordsmanship and archery evolve into the types of Kendo and Kyudo that we are familiar with today? And what does this suggest about the nature of Japanese society at various points in time?

Following what is a well-established pattern in the writing of martial arts history, Hurst then turns his attention to the earliest known martial traditions in Japan. In this case he focused on the development of ancient sword traditions (up through the start of the Heian period) and the various social roles of archery at roughly the same time. The use of these skills in realms not normally associated with either the martial arts or combat sports today, such as religious ritual or court hunting, were also explored.

This is a common discursive strategy and it has the benefit of establishing a shared foundation of terms, concepts and facts that the rest of the discussion can draw from. Yet the more I read within the martial arts studies literature, the less satisfying I find these deep historical discussions. Increasingly I suspect that they betray a certain conceptual confusion as to what is actually being researched. While Hurst is by no means alone in grounding his martial history in the Bronze or early Iron Age, it might be helpful to consider what exactly this implies.

If the subject of the book at hand was the evolution of the Japanese sword as a physical object (say as a reference manual for archaeologists or museum curators) such an approach would be essential. One would want to be able to identify swords from various eras, know some details of their construction and how they were used by different classes of warriors. One would also want to explore period accounts detailing all of these facts.

Yet both the title and introduction to this book make it clear that Hurst did not set out to write a book about physical objects. Rather he is researching the “armed martial arts” that on the most fundamental level are social institutions, supported by other aspects of both the state and society, which in the case of Japan have tended to perpetuate themselves through very specific types of social organizations. In short, the Japanese martial arts which Hurst is most interested in (Kendo and Kyudo) are practices that are deeply tied to, and in some ways epiphenomenal of, specific moments in Japanese history. What technical debt they may owe to the battlefield skills of prior centuries is of relatively little importance to understanding how they were established as basically civilian arts dedicated to self-cultivation (and social advancement) in an entirely different era characterized by fundamentally different social structures.

In short, if we take seriously the fact that we are studying social institutions, and not the physical objects or technologies that they may use and venerate, it seems odd to begin our discussion of the modern Japanese martial arts in the period of ancient history. The actual stories of Kendo and Kyudo, as outlined in this book, appear to be ones of the early modern and modern periods.

This fact is readily apparent in the structure of Hurst’s two part volume (the first half of which is dedicated to swordsmanship while the second half tackles archery). In the very next chapter readers find themselves transported directly to the early Tokugawa period for a discussion of the immense social transformations that the new government of a unified Japan brought about.

The critical issues that arise in this discussion are the advent of a prolonged peace after a period of civil war, and the transformation of the Samurai from mostly rural (illiterate) warriors tied directly to feudal landholdings to an urban (highly educated) group of bureaucrats capable of serving the needs of an increasingly sophisticated government.

It was at this moment that the wide scale movement away from battlefield skills, usually learned by individuals in a military context under realistic conditions, towards “martial arts,” typified by demilitarized instruction in formal (usually indoor) schools began to occur. Dueling was still common early in this period. As a result self-defense, rather than battlefield tactics, came to dominate discussions of swordsmanship.

Later, with increased social stability and the organization of the dominant fencing schools, this gave way to an emphasis on Kata performance and conceptually driven study as a means of “self-cultivation.” Eventually civilians even took up a greater role in the development and teaching of what had become a fundamentally demilitarized skill-set. Chapter three really captures the moment of the creation of the Japanese “martial arts.”

I suspect that many readers, particularly those who have spent much time follow the debate about the value of “realism” in training and competition within the Mixed Martial Arts (MMA), will find the fourth chapter of the book to be the most interesting in the volume. In it Hurst relates a fascinating set of developments that began to dominant the discussion of swordsmanship in the late Tokugawa (though elements of this shift can be seen throughout the entire period of study).

Increasingly certain swordsman (mostly associated with the competitive dojos located in major cities, rather than the more traditional teachers in the domain academies) began to question the value of Kata and traditional training methods. The development of new types of training gear, from better bamboo Shinai, to masks, chest protectors and gloves, made it safer and easier for (often low status) samurai to engage in vigorous sparring and competition, thereby creating a name for themselves. With either a Katana or Bokken (wooden sword) such activity could easily result in serious injury or death. But now it was possible to put various training methods to the test and see (after hundreds of years of peace) which “sword” techniques were truly “realistic” and “effective.”

Not all schools jumped at this new development. It was evident to everyone that these “realistic” matches were essentially competitive sporting contests which were fundamentally about establishing social status. In short, for something claiming the mantle of “realism” they were about as far removed from the actual battlefield as one could get. Practitioners of Kata based training methods knew perfectly well that they were engaged in an abstraction. Yet they saw the transformation of fencing into a competitive sport as a step away from realism.

The second half of Hurst’s book then turns to the question of archery. If this discussion feels substantially briefer, it is because the author devotes only half as many pages to the topic. The same division between the early and late feudal periods that structured his earlier study of swordsmanship is once again employed.

In chapter 5 a number of stories of battlefield archery are related impressing upon readers why the bow was seen as the “soul of the Bushi” long before the sword became the “soul of the Samurai.” Various types of ceremonial court archery, hunts and competitions (many of which carried at least some hint of spiritual or ritual undertones) were introduced.

In the second half of the discussion readers are introduced to changes in the practice of archery following the end of Japan’s long period of civil war. In some ways the Tokugawa transition was a smoother one for archers. Firearms were already displacing them from the battlefield. Yet the nature of archery practice made sporting competitions obvious and popular ventures. And the idea of archery as a means of self-cultivation could claim a well-established and illustrious pedigree going back to no less a figure than Confucius himself.

The end result was that the lords of many domains were willing to support and pour resources into the cultivation of competitive archers. All of this manifested in a sudden mania for record setting. Some of the most popular of these including grueling endurance competitions in which archers vied to see how many “clear shots” could be sent down long and low temple corridors without hitting the roof, walls or floor. From an initial record of about 50 shots, Japan’s competitive archers were soon sending thousands of arrows down these corridors in marathon 24 hour shooting sessions. A note at the end of Hurst’s volume indicates that as of the time of its writing no modern Japanese archer has come close to replicating the feats of an earlier generation of bowman.

In the final section of the book Hurst turns his attention to the reform of both archery and swordsmanship in Meiji and 20th century Japan. Again, the fall of the Tokugawa government and the massive social dislocation which followed were initially quite disruptive to martial artists. Seeking to modernize (and stabilize) society the government did away with the Samurai class, banned the wearing of swords in public and forcibly closed many of the urban dojos (throwing countless martial artists out of work). Archery too suffered similar setbacks, though in truth its prior transformation into a sport (and means of self-cultivation) eased this later transformation as well.

Still, Japan’s martial artists did not simply give up. Some entrepreneurial former-Samurai began to stage public fencing matches (based on models for sporting spectacles already established by Sumo wrestlers) which pit swordsman from various locations and schools against each other. These were initially very popular with the public as civilians had always maintained an interest in the martial arts. Japan’s new police forces also decided that fencing skills were more of a practical skill than an anachronism given their experience in local uprisings and the frequent arrests of former Samurai. This resulted in the first efforts to create a standardized set of national Kendo Kata for the training of new recruits.

The establishment of the Butokukai, civilian group dedicated to the promotion of the martial arts and martial virtues in both the educational system and Japanese society at large, also helped to ensure that these fighting systems would find a place within Japanese modernity. In fact, given the tenacity and creativity that these arts showed in their continual efforts to accommodate changing social situations, it should probably come as no surprise that American efforts to marginalize the place of the martial arts in the Japanese educational system (and society) following WWII ultimately came to nothing. The story of the development and survival of the Japanese fighting arts is ultimately a very modern one in which these practices have been the means by which numerous individuals have sought to promote their own vision of what a modern, yet fully authentic, Japanese society should look like.

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

A vintage Japanese postcard showing Kendo practice on a battleship. Source: Author’s personal collection.


Conclusion: The Need for Theory and Comparative Case Studies in Martial Arts Studies

Hurst’s pioneering volume has much to recommend it. It provides an easily digestible, well researched, overview of critical developments in the Japanese martial arts since the 16th century. In publishing this book Hurst demonstrated that martial arts studies was a subject that university presses could not ignore. He has also given us a great classroom resource for those seeking to introduce this material to undergraduates. I would not hesitate to use sections of this book on my own reading list.

Yet there is also something about this work that feels a bit tired. It looks back to a style of historical writing in which, after extensive research, “facts” were simply presented to the reader without any sort of theoretical or interpretive framework to contextualize them. Hurst himself rarely enters into either causal or descriptive arguments. As he states on page 198, this volume was to be more dedicated to “narrative than analysis.”

He only seeks to draw two firm conclusions in his book’s final chapter. First, too much has been made of the conceptual difference between the “martial arts” and other types of “sports.” Second, while ritual and personal development have certainly been part of the Japanese martial arts, Western students have tended to overemphasize the place of Zen Buddhism in their development.

Both are helpful reminders, yet after 200 pages of reading one is left wondering whether the game has been worth the candle. Is there really nothing else that we can say about the nature and the development of the Japanese martial arts?

Hurst’s coy statement about “narrative over analysis” notwithstanding, one suspects that quite a bit of interpretive and causal theorizing must have gone into this work. Yet following the conventions of some historians of earlier generations, the author is content to let the readers guess what his assumptions have been, and how they may have colored his investigation of the “facts.”

More specifically, Hurst’s discussion of the transition of swordsmanship from a roughly trained battlefield skill to a refined, inward focused, martial art by the third decade of the Tokugawa period advanced quite a bit of subtle analysis. Yet it did so in the guise of “letting the facts speak for themselves.” After all, this remarkable transformation happened at exactly the same time as the dawning of Japan’s great period of peace. Thus it does not seem so difficult to explain the origin of the nation’s most popular martial art.

Upon rereading Hurst this narrative strikes me as incomplete at best, and potentially misleading. It also nicely illustrates the potential benefits of the comparative case study method, even if it means giving up some descriptive detail.

The dawning of peace was only one of many elements that changed in Japanese society at the start of the Tokugawa period. The class structure was frozen with new social regulations. The economy was overhauled. Buddhism was largely sidelined in favor of a renewed emphasis on neo-Confucian leadership strategies. The many small feudal governments that had ruled the state were consolidated into increasingly bureaucratized institutions. It is hard to think of a single element of Japanese life that did not change during this period.

Yet from the perspective of the martial arts the most important of these changes was the rapid urbanization that occurred throughout Japan. The growth of large and vibrant cities with robust economies and bustling entertainment quarters would have been perhaps the most obvious of these changes to an outside observer.

The transformation of the Samurai class was deeply bound up with this process of urbanization. As Hurst points out, they were cut off from their feudal obligations to the land and relocated to the city in mass, paving the way for a new type of bureaucrat…and martial artist. As such, the links between dawning era of peace and the development of the martial arts may not be as obvious as it first appears. Hurst even notes that urbanization co-varied with this process in his description of the period. Yet all subsequent discussions in the book focus to the cessation of warfare. If anything Hurst seems to see urbanization, like the martial arts themselves, as yet another result of the Tokugawa peace.

The Chinese case, however, suggest something very different. The first great eras of urbanization in the Late Imperial period occurred during the Song and Ming dynasties. Yet these were not notably peaceful times. In fact, invasion, conquest, and flows of refugees drove much of the process of urbanization during the Song dynasty. It was almost the exact opposite of the security environment seen in Japan.

And yet some of our first written references to what appear to be recognizable lineages of boxing and wrestling in China date back to this period. Specifically, as Chinese cities grew the martial arts became a popular element of urban entertainment. This took the form of both theatrical martial performances on stage, but also the opening of wrestling and martial arts schools. Again, this basic pattern is quite similar to what would be seen in Japan during the 17th century.

Even at its most peaceful the countryside of the Ming dynasty never enjoyed the degree of stability seen in much of Japan. Yet this was also a period of urbanization. And as the security situation degenerated in the final century of the dynasty, there was an immense outpouring of interest in the martial arts. Some individuals seem to have been primarily interested in these skills as potential resources for training local militias and such. Yet as Shahar has demonstrated, it was in this fractious security environment that the connections between unarmed boxing, traditional medicine and spiritual development were first seen in China.

In short, at exactly the same time that one might expect a return to rough and ready sword training, many individuals in China were expressing interest in esoteric types of martial arts that spoke directly to the need for self-cultivation. Clearly the exact nature of the relationship between these variables and the development of the modern martial arts is a topic that requires additional research. Yet the Chinese case suggest that we must take a much harder look at variables such as urbanization and the development of economic markets if we want to understand how this process worked.

This sort of multi-variate causal analysis cannot simply be subsumed in a “narrative” exercises like the one offered by Hurst. The facts cannot speak for themselves. A movement towards comparative case study will require the development of much more explicit theoretical frameworks.

A similar problem arises when Hurst tackles another paradox having to do with the social organization of the Japanese martial arts. He notes in his conclusion that all sorts of artistic activities, from flower arranging to tea ceremony, are organized through highly structured ryu systems. These institutional forms are by no means unique to the Japanese martial arts. In fact, these fighting systems can be thought of as “late adopters” of this important cultural pattern.

In other cases these institutions did a much better job of creating cohesive social organizations than they did for the Japanese martial arts. Whereas students of tea ceremony tended to remain loyal to their teachers, both personally and artistically, Japanese swordsmen were forever creating splinter organizations which would in turn break down along segmentary lines in future generations. As in China the Japanese martial arts organized themselves through a pseudo-kinship structure.  But it seems that they were never particularly happy families.

Hurst explained this puzzle by noting some unique features of Japan’s political organization during the Tokugawa period. To forestall the possibility of rebellion the central government closely regulated the movement of individuals and ideas. It was necessary to have a visa to travel even from one domain to the next. Under this system famous teachers would have to fully transmit their methods to their students prior to their return home to protect the reputation of their schools. Yet it would be difficult to maintain an ongoing relationship within the state’s feudal structures.  As a result these students had an incentive to form their own schools.

For Hurst the splintering of martial arts schools seen in Tokugawa Japan might be a byproduct of the government’s Machiavellian approach to ensuring peace by making cross-domain relationships as difficult to maintain as possible. This theory seems reasonable, until we again consider the case of the traditional Chinese martial arts.

There are both similarities and differences between the lineage groups that preserve the martial arts in China and the more highly structured schools that arose in Japan. And the political structures overseeing these countries were quite different. Yet the propensity to splinter along generational and lineage lines described by Hurst almost exactly fits the situation in China as well. In fact, we see something substantially similar in China in the 19th century, China in the 20th century, and China today. We even see the same pattern in the Chinese martial arts as practiced in Europe and America. While the principles of political and social organization between these observations fluctuates tremendously, the same basic outcome (messy lineage politics within martial arts styles), seems to be a constant. As any social scientist can tell you, a variable cannot explain a constant.

Despite his protestations to the contrary, it is almost impossible to write only “narrative” history while leaving the “analysis” to others. Simply describing the “facts” requires that one make inferences about what is going on and how these events are linked. “Analysis” is never separate from description. It is at the heart of the narrative enterprise. Whether he intended to or not, Hurst wrote a theoretical and explanatory book. You simply cannot avoid it when telling any story of sufficient complexity.

Given that causal and descriptive theory are unavoidable, it is better to confront the problem in as transparent a way as possible. One of the great advances that we have made in martial arts studies is to be much more conscious of what work our theories are actually doing for us. Ultimately this will lead to the development of better interpretive and social scientific theories.

Yet Hurst has also illustrated the danger of a single case. Social change is a complicated process in which multiple variables are always at play. Yet we cannot control for multiple factors if we only have a single observation to draw on. In that case there is a tendency to try and reduce the complexity of history too far, to reach for simplistic single variable models of outcomes because they are the only thing that we can test.

The best way to deal with this is through the use of the comparative case study method. As we have seen, many of the conclusions that Hurst reaches about the Japanese case read quite different when we set them besides events in China.

Yet this is an area where we have not seen nearly as much progress in recent years. Nor are such projects always easy to construct. They may require the use of historical sources in multiple languages or a movement away from the sorts of area studies approaches that have been common as scholars look for social scientific models offering more theoretical rigor. Still, the interdisciplinary nature of martial arts studies suggests that we may have certain advantages when undertaking this sort of work.

That then may be the ultimate value of the Armed Martial Arts of Japan. It is too easy to dismiss a book or a theory for being “wrong” in some detail. In reality such a critique tells us nothing. As simplifications of a vastly more complex underlying reality, all theories are born falsified. That is the original sin of academic thought.

The question then is whether you can be wrong in an important way, one that suggest future avenues for exploration or development. While Hurst’s pioneering working is now almost two decades old, I think that this post demonstrates that it still has the power to inspire those who want to think more deeply about the origin and meaning of the Asian martial arts. That is a sure sign of an important work.




If you enjoyed this essay you might also want to read: Bruce Lee: Memory, Philosophy and the Tao of Gung Fu





3 thoughts on “Approaching the “Armed Martial Arts of Japan”: Thoughts on Comparison, Theory and Progress in Martial Arts Studies

  1. The Luimere Brother’s made short films between 1895- 1905. These two in relation to the article may be of interest.
    925 Japanese Paired Sword Itto Ryu Kata – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fCswO3to8Ns
    Operator: Constant Girel
    Date: October 1897
    Location: Japan, Kyoto, Honshu
    Two men in traditional costume engage a sword fight.

    (926) Fencing at Japanese sword-https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lns37LCI1yg
    Operator: Constant Girel
    Date: October 1897
    Location: Japan, Kyoto, Honshu
    Kendo demonstration.

    Posted by Rod | February 25, 2016, 2:20 pm


  1. Pingback: Approaching the “Armed Martial Arts of Japan”: Thoughts on Comparison, Theory and Progress in Martial Arts Studies | SMA bloggers - February 25, 2016

  2. Pingback: What are “martial arts,” and why does knowing matter? | Kung Fu Tea - March 6, 2016

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