Military Accomplishments of Japan, slide 2. Photo by Tamamura. Source: Author's Personal Collection.
Military Accomplishments of Japan, glass slide 2. Photo by Tamamura. Source: Author’s Personal Collection.


“There is a problem with the study of martial arts similar to that identified by Markus Davidson in the case of “spiritual studies”: many of the scholars involved in the topic are themselves practitioners and their work betrays a normative apologetic agenda…As practitioners themselves these scholars have tended to underplay certain historical factors in the development of their martial arts that tend to portray them in a negative light…Blurring the lines between scholar and practitioner, this comment and more indicates an Eliadean style of study—i.e., one that presumes a transhistorical essence which martial arts contribute to manifesting.”

Jonathan Tuckett. 2016. “Kendo: Between “Religion” and “Nationalism.” Journal for the Study of Religions and Ideologies, Vol. 15 Issue 44: 179.

The Martial Arts Between “Religion” and “Nationalism”

I first read Jonathan Tuckett’s article “Kendo: Between “Religion” and “Nationalism” with great enthusiasm. (Journal for the Study of Religions and Ideologies, Vol. 15 Issue 44 pages 178-204).  It was with some reservations that I put it down.

This was not simply a matter of getting to the end of the article and discovering that my initial impressions had been mistaken.  Rather, it is hard to shake the feeling that there are two distinct projects being carried out under a single title, only one of which the author was well prepared for.  This article both illustrates that researchers in a number of disciplines are increasingly directing their attention towards the traditional fighting systems, while at the same time suggesting the dangers of these developments happening in isolation from the larger conversation within Martial Arts Studies.

How do you discuss an article in which one half of the equation (the theoretical) is uniformly strong, interesting and informative, and the second half (the empirical) is just as doggedly weak?  More to the point, how might a scholar even come to produce such a paradoxical work?

One strongly suspects that this sort of situation is more likely to arise in a relatively new literature, such as that dealing with the academic study of the martial arts, than in an established disciplinary discussion.  Still, projects like this can reveal much about the state of a field, and the challenges of doing good research.  While I suspect that this article will find a limited audience within the field of Martial Arts Studies (and to be totally clear, the author was addressing his research directly to his colleagues in Religious Studies), a close reading of it may yet be instructive.


Reframing the Discussion of “Religion” before the Existence of Religion

My initial enthusiasm for Tuckett’s piece was directly related to a number of topics that he raises in the first section of his paper.  As readers of Kung Fu Tea will have already noted, there is a lot of interest regarding the nature and place of “spirituality” in all forms of traditional martial arts practice.  Nor is this trend limited to styles of Asian origin.  Even practitioners of modern and hyper-real practices, such as MMA and Lightsaber fencing, are heard to hold forth on the more transcendent elements that can be found within their practices.

I suspect that much of this enthusiasm for linking the topics of religion and martial arts is a result of the way that these practices first gained popularity in the West in the post-WWII era.  The Japanese martial arts had, by their own account, been closely connected with Bushido, the “Soul of Samurai” (and by extension modern Japan), throughout the early 20th century.  After its defeat during WWII, and with its new status as a valued and trusted ally during the Cold War, such notions generated interest among Western consumers searching for new models of masculinity.

During the same era various modes of Eastern spirituality also became an important parts of the Western counter-culture movement, further promoting and shaping these trends.  Consider, for instance, how often the writings of Alan Watts have been discussed, or appropriated, by martial artists (including no less of a fan than the Little Dragon himself!).  Nor can we easily dismiss the importance of visual media such as David Carradine’s Kung Fu, or Bruce Lee’s nod to the Shaolin Temple (and all things vaguely philosophical) at the start of Enter the Dragon.

The exact historical pathways by which these desires entered the Western conscious are too complicated to review in full.  Yet one thing is certain.  By the late 1970s American consumers were certain that when they signed up for a Kung Fu class they were also about to be exposed to an exotic system of “Oriental spirituality.”

What they actually got was another matter entirely.  A number of martial arts systems (particularly those from China) had actually spent much of the late 19th and early 20th centuries attempting to purge themselves of anything that looked like heterodox folk religious practices (e.g., spirit possession, magical talisman, invulnerability practices, etc…) in an attempt to appear to be “modern and scientific,” and thus in step with the new Chinese society envisioned by the May 4th reformers.  Thus the irony that many of China’s newly secularized martial arts seemed to get more religious only after their export to the West.

Nor is it clear that one can properly talk about “religion” in the context of these martial practices prior to the second half of the 19th century (at the very earliest).  As Tuckett notes, and documents at some length, the modern notion of “religion” is an almost entirely Western one.  Its current global spread has as much to do with 19th century missionary movements as any inherent ability to capture something intrinsic to human nature or behavior.

Like others before him, Tuckett notes that there was no specific word in either Chinese or Japanese that matched the modern concept of religion until the Japanese formulated one following their contact with Western ideas in the middle of the 19th century.  The Chinese, seeing some utility in this new concept, then imported it as a loan word a little later.  Thus attempts to discover the “religious basis” of the traditional Chinese (or Japanese) martial arts are almost always doomed to fail as they are premised on improperly reading a modern concept onto a period of cultural history in which it did not yet exist.

This is not to say that there were never ritual, cultic, magical or spiritual practices associated with the martial arts.  There certainly were.  When young warrior monks took to the field in medieval Japan the elderly members of their community gathered in the temple to engage in war magic on their behalf.  Spirit possession has been documented in certain martial arts communities in China (both North and South) from the 19th century to the current era.  And while claims of invulnerability magic were rare enough that they often attracted (hostile) official interest, talismanic magic was widespread throughout Chinese society.   Nor, as authors like Shahar have argued, can we ignore the many ways in which the development of the Chinese martial arts from the Ming era onward interacted with Confucian, Daoist and Buddhist conversations (though usually not in the ways that certain modern apologists would have us believe).

This constitutes one of the central puzzles within the current historical discussion of the martial arts.  To what extent can specific practices be understood as “religious” in nature?  Are such manifestations, when they occur, outliers?  Or did various spiritual systems impact the practice and development of both civilian and military training systems in important, non-trivial, ways?

The great strength of Tuckett’s article is that he provides a framework for tackling these questions head one.  And his background in Religious Studies suggests that he is well equipped to do so.  Rather than addressing these questions on an a strictly empirical level, the author begins by noting that a theoretical discussion is necessary prior to exploring the existence of “religion” in a set of societies where no concept of religion exists.

There is much to be said for his basic approach.  Tuckett begins by noting that the martial arts (and their complex relationships with both “spirituality” and “nationalism”) might help to further problematize the very notion of “religion” within the field of Religious studies.  He then argues against conceptualizing religion as a unitary concrete “thing” and instead proposes a more “ideological” understanding of its function.

Mirroring the ongoing debate over the definition of “martial arts,” he echoes Paul Bowman’s argument that scholars should look past ultimately futile efforts to “define” religion and instead focus on where these practices have gone, how they have changed, and the functions that they have fulfilled.  This is illustrated, in large part, with a discussion of the “three ways” (Confucianism, Buddhism and Daoism) in Chinese (and later Japanese) society.

Tuckett notes that what appears to be critical about these systems in the pre-modern context is that each becomes a strategy for “naturalization,” or “the modes by which a person ‘fits’ in their life-world so that they survive and thrive.” (p. 196).  Religion and nationalism are fundamentally related to each other in that they can be described as two different modes by which people categorize strategies of naturalization.  Throughout his article Tuckett repeatedly comes back to the notion that religion can be understood as the withered remains of previous systems of social governance (or state organization), a position that any reader of Anthony Marx’s criticisms of Benedict Anderson’s approach to nationalism will already be familiar with.

Tuckett then turns to an all too brief (and somewhat one sided) discussion of the complex debate between practitioners of the “traditional” martial arts and modern combat sports.  Without attempting to delve into the motivations or world view of those who practice “martial sports,” he notes (and uncritically accepts) the critique of traditionalists that at one time there had been great “spiritual” value in these practices, but that because of the rise of competition such things had either been lost or were under threat.

This claim (accepted as a historical fact) becomes the compass that orients the subsequent development of Tuckett’s theoretical understanding of the martial arts and their relationship with categories like spirituality, religion and nationalism.  The thought that there should be some sort of spiritual content to these practices leads him to hypothesize that the traditional martial arts also function as modes of naturalization meant to aid individuals (or closed social groups) in surviving and thriving in society.

This set the stage for the last piece in Tuckett’s theoretical model.  The repeated claims to a comprehensive spirituality seen within the martial arts (best illustrated by a discussion of the move to transform the Japanese fighting systems into formalized “do’s” or “ways” in the Meiji era) demonstrates the degree to which these practices can been seen as an indication of “seriousness” in the Sartrean sense.  Or to put it another way, the traditional martial arts can be shown to be eufunctional in a way that competitive practices are not as they subordinate the individual to dominant social norms and needs.  The Code of Bushido that motivated Samurai warriors, or Japanese soldiers during WWII, illustrates the depth of this “seriousness” in action.

What purpose martial sports fulfill, or why societies are willing to sometimes invest vast resources in them, is seemingly forgotten and left in silence.  This may be a glaring omission.  Indeed, we will return to this question, and how its neglect may have impacted the development and testing of the Tuckett’s theory, later in the review.  Yet the overwhelming impression that one receives upon reading the first half of this paper is that the author’s interests lay almost exclusively in addressing issues within the Religious Studies literature.  As the nature of combat sports (supposedly devoid of any spiritual value) would not seem to bear directly on this issue, they were not a priority in what was, after all, a fairly brief article.

Nevertheless, Tuckett’s deconstruction of “religion” is extremely helpful.  Many of the more popular debates on the role of religion in the martial arts begin with authors who feel a general sense of unease about how to address these issues, and lack the conceptual tools to do so.  In not very many pages Tuckett is able to bring a remarkable degree of clarity to these issues.  As such the theoretical section of his article may well be of interest to students of Martial Arts Studies who wish to address some of these same topics in their historical research.

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

Kendo and the Uses of Martial Arts History

To illustrate his theory Tuckett turned to Kendo, perhaps the most “spiritual” of Japan’s modern Budo arts.  Indeed, I say “illustrate” in this case rather than “test” as Kendo is not really a “hard case” for a theory like this to handle.  Still, the dual association of the Japanese sword arts with 20th century Japanese nationalism on the one hand, and as a very different pathway for the naturalizations of a sub-national group (the Samurai) during the Tokugawa period, allows for a deeper exploration of the author’s main themes.  It seems that his engagement with this specific martial art pushed the author to develop his theory in some novel and interesting directions.

Yet whereas Tuckett’s academic background was well suited to elaborating a potentially helpful theory of religion, things changed when the focus shifts to the historical martial arts.  Nor is it clear that the impact of this shift will be confined to his empirical discussions.  By the end of the article readers are left to wonder whether a lack of basic familiarity with the case in question, and the martial arts studies literature as whole, negatively impacted the authors ability to develop his basic theoretical framework.

Tuckett signals his unease (and perhaps unfamiliarity) with the existing literature on the first page of his article.  Here we find the ominous warning.

There is a problem with the study of martial arts similar to that identified by Markus Davidson in the case of “spiritual studies”: many of the scholars involved in the topic are themselves practitioners and their work betrays a normative apologetic agenda…As practitioners themselves these scholars have tended to underplay certain historical factors in the development of their martial arts that tend to portray them in a negative light. (p. 179)

The question of how a scholar’s personal activities or identities impact their academic research is certainly an interesting one.  Nor has it been neglected within recent conversations within the field of Martial Arts Studies.  Luke White has asked how the assumption (actually mistaken) that all students of MAS are themselves practitioners impacted the interpersonal dynamic of participants at a recent conference.  Likewise Sixt Wetzler has gone to great lengths to argue that we must separate the “object language” of any individual style that a scholar might be familiar with from the theoretically oriented language of our emerging field.

Yet these are relatively nuanced discussions compared to Tuckett’s broad generalizations about the nature and the quality of the Martial Arts Studies literature.  So how much confidence can reader’s place in his characterization of the current state of affairs?  A quick look at his bibliography would suggest a note of caution.  Indeed, the more relevant question might be why an author might feel entitled to make sweeping generations about a subject before performing even the most basic literature reviews.

While Kendo is the article’s central case, it appears that Tuckett is unfamiliar with the literature on this specific art, or recent advances in our understanding of the evolution of Japanese martial arts more generally.  If he has studied this literature deeply he shows no indication of it within this discussion.  The only source that seems to have had an impact on his view of the art was Alexander Bennett’s recent study Kendo: Culture of the Sword (University of California Press, 2015).

Bennett’s work is an excellent introduction to the subject.  It is probably what I would recommend to anyone looking to start a reading project on Kendo.  Yet a scholar of religious or martial arts studies hoping to plumb the depths of historical Japanese swordsmanship has many other sources available to them.  None of them are dealt with in Tuckett’s article.

Even easily located and relevant works, which would pop up in any basic library catalog search, are missing from his discussion.  Two of the most obvious omissions include G. Cameron Hurst’s widely cited Armed Martial Art of Japan: Swordsmanship and Archery (Yale UP, 1998) and Denis Gainty’s Martial Arts and the Body Politic in Meiji Japan (Routledge, 2013).  Given the author’s interest in approaching the martial arts, nationalism and religion through the lens of “ideology” the omission of any reference to this second work is particularly puzzling.

Hurst would have provided important nuance to Tuckett’s quick characterization of the evolution of Kendo. And given Tuckett’s mention of Karl Friday’s 1997 Legacies of the Sword (Hawaii UP, 1997), another work from the same period, its absence is all the more puzzling.  Rather than drawing on the rich literature that the Japanese martial arts have generated, most of the paragraphs in the Kendo section simply end with a footnote citing Bennett.  Nor does Tuckett really challenge or engage with Bennett’s characterizations of Kendo in a substantive way.  On a historical level the entire conversation remains derivative of a very small number of sources (basically Bennett and a handful of webpages).

Nor does his treatment of the more general Martial Arts Studies literature inspire confidence.  Tuckett makes a brief reference to Green and Svinth’s Martial Arts in the Modern World (Praeger, 2003).  Yet the only really substantial sources that seem to have informed his thinking are John Donohue’s chapters within Jones’ collected volume Combat, Ritual and Performance: Anthropology of the Martial Arts (Praeger, 2002).

With a single substantive exception, Tuckett’s knowledge of the academic literature on the martial arts appears to be firmly rooted in the late 1990s and early 2000s.  And even that lacks the expected depth.

His apparent unfamiliarity with the explosion of publications that have emerged in the last decade is unfortunate as he has had no chance to engage with other researchers that might speak to his interests.  For instance, while some historians of the Asian martial arts may have neglected their relationship with ritual or spiritual systems (Peter Lorge), others have devoted quite a bit of time and energy to the topic.  Meir Shahar’s work on Shaolin, or War and Faith by Tsang, spring to mind as potential sites of scholarly engagement.  The ethnographic literature offers many more examples including (but not limited to) Boretz’s Gods, Ghosts and Gangsters or D. S. Farrer’s Shadows of the Prophet.

In going through his bibliography it does not appear that Tuckett has maliciously mischaracterized the existing (and rapidly growing) academic literature on the martial arts.  Rather, he has failed to notice its existence.  At one point he quotes Alexander Bennett in an effort to characterize the existing scholarly literature:

 “A growing number of English books about traditional Japanese Swordsmanship are on the market.  Most of them, however, are how-to manuals, biographies of master swordsmens, or translations and commentaries on classic tests—often historically naïve, mixing fact and fiction.” (p. 22).

Yet upon going back and re-reading this passage in its full context it very quickly becomes apparent that Bennett is not talking about the current academic literature on the martial arts at all.  While its sins many be many, producing large number of basic “how-to” manuals are not among them.  Instead Bennett was passing his judgement on the growing popular literature on Kendo.  None of this was ever meant to be actually scholarly.  In fact, Bennett goes on to introduce some of the actual academic work on Kendo, and even recommends two of the authors I noted above (Hurst and Gainty).

This oversight is not simply a missed opportunity.  It may actually effect Tuckett’s substantive discussion of the martial arts in ways both large and small.

For instance, on page 192 we find Tuckett accepting discredited creation myths regarding the origins of Okinawan Karate, seemingly unaware that a fair amount of discussion has already taken place on this topic.  Rather than looking at the cultural, political and economic currents that brought piracy, trade, southern Chinese boxing and Japanese imperialism to the Okinawan Islands, readers are informed that the area’s inhabitants were forced to create unarmed arts to resist the Samurai following the Japanese ban on weapons ownership.  One suspect that this old chestnut conceals much more than it reveals about the origins of Karate.

Indeed, the reality of civilian fighting systems in Japan is a problem that haunts the edges of Tuckett’s discussion.  I say “haunts” as he never directly addresses the fact that, contrary to his Samurai-centric understanding of the Japanese martial arts, some of the most famous and respected fencing masters of the late Tokugawa period were civilians. Indeed, civil fencing systems existed even before that, and it is not at all clear how they fit into Tuckett’s theoretical scheme or whether they can even be accommodated.  Or for that matter how does one account for the continued popularity of Kendo in Korea, or its growing presence in Chinese cities like Shanghai?  On suspects that it succeeds in these realms despite its association with Japanese nationalism, and not because of it.  So what does this type of naturalization look like?  Or is this simply Kendo as a combat sport?

While Tuckett is intent on demonstrating the “serious” and “spiritual” nature of swordsmanship, as well as its fundamental cultural continuity from medieval Japan to the present, he never notes, let alone effectively deals with, the fact that it was massive popular public fencing tournaments in the Meiji period (sporting competitions organized along the same lines as Sumo competitions) that revived the public’s flagging interest in fencing and helped to give rise to the modern (only later spiritualized) practice now called Kendo.

Indeed, after reading this case the reader is left to wonder whether the author’s failure to adequately theorize the social function of martial sports left him in a position where he was unable to identify and appreciate the impact that this strain of practice has had on modern Kendo (and a great many other arts).  Or perhaps his lack of familiarity with the historical literature allowed for the construction of a theory that would lead him to ignore some of the most interesting and colorful episode’s in Kendo’s early development?

Whatever the case, the end result is clear.  Rather than fully accepting the fact the martial arts are basically modern invented traditions, whose relationship with the past is best understood as a set of discontinuities, slippages and inventions, Tuckett seems to be inadvertently recreated the very thing that he warned his readers against, an “Eliadean style of study—i.e., one that presumes a transhistorical essence which martial arts contribute to manifesting.”

Nowhere is this more clear than in his treatment of “Bushido.”  Recent scholarship, such as Oleg Benesch’s Inventing the Way of the Samurai: Nationalism, Internationalism, and Bushido in Modern Japan (Oxford UP) has addressed at great length the history and evolution of a concept that appears to be central to Tuckett’s argument.  Whereas he follows late Meiji authors in accepting Bushido as the transcendent core of Samurai identity, current scholarship argues convincingly that this concept is basically a late invention, conjured up in service of the “national essence” only in the Meiji period, and (ironically) influenced by European ideas about the ideal gentleman.

Reading early 20th century notions of Bushido back onto the pre-Tokugawa Samurai is a conceptual error of exactly the same type as reading modern Western notions of religion backwards onto Chinese history.  Worse yet, even short asides, like the ones on the supposed origins of Okinawan karate, undercut the reader’s faith in Tuckett’s ability to reliably explore these issues.

Kendo students in a gym in downtown Shanghai. Photo: Cai Xianmin/GT .
Kendo students in a gym in downtown Shanghai. Photo: Cai Xianmin/GT .


The supposed sin of the existing Martial Arts Studies literature was that it was too close to its subject matter.  One’s involvement with a given martial art would inhibit any ability to write about it in a dispassionate and factually accurate way.  As Tuckett notes in Footnote 4, he is not totally immune from such concerns.  As an instructor of Taekwondo he questions his own ability to speak to issues in that art.  So, to maintain a frame of objectivity, he has chosen to address Kendo instead.  Has his paper benefited from his prior lack of engagement with this art, or any of the Budo systems?

The short answer would seem to be no.  Ironically his characterizations of the origins of Karate, Kendo and Bushido as the “Soul of the Samurai” all seem to be far more romanticized than what appears in most of the Martial Arts Studies literature that I read on a daily basis.  Further, the simplistic way in which he asserts the existence of this problem ignores the vast libraries that sociologists, anthropologists and critical theorists have written on whether complete objectivity is ever possible, or whether it is actually desirable.  Once again, there is a literature out there that speaks directly to these methodological concerns.

Still, these are not simple questions.  I think they are the sort of issue that must be continually reexamined.  As such Tuckett’s direct approach to the issue of objectivity on the very first page of his article was one of the things that piqued my interest and got me to read this piece, even though Kendo and the Japanese martial arts are outside of my immediate realm of research or interest.

Upon reconsidering this question in light of Tuckett’s subsequent writing, what quickly becomes evident is the vital need to problematize the notion of “martial arts” in much the same way that he begins by forcing us to question what we think we know about the definition of religion.  In point of fact, authors like Paul Bowman and Sixt Wetzler have already undertaken just this task.

Is it better to understand the martial arts as “things,” or as moving identities and ideologies?  Are they really bodies of technique that (despite the occasional round of evolution) have their feet rooted deeply in the past, remaining an identifiable “trans-historical essence”?  Or should we take much more seriously the notion that the martial arts are invented-traditions (as Tuckett himself repeatedly notes)?  In that case they will reveal to us mostly the upheavals and slippages of history rather than the smooth and continual transmission of a pure vision of the past.

It may be that certain martial artists are biased in their discussions of Musashi Miyamoto.  He is after all, an easy figure to romanticize.  Yet this does not come from the fact that modern Kendo students “practice his art.”

Modern Kendo is just that, modern.  It has very little to do with the revered swordsman or the martial culture of medieval Japan.  Likewise the types of Southern Chinese Kung Fu that I practice are conceptually, technically, culturally, economically and socially distinct from whatever may or may not have happened at the Shaolin Temple during the Ming dynasty.

They are much more a directly a reflection of the types of youth culture that dominated Hong Kong’s cityscape during the 1950s and 1960s.  More than that, they reflect my teacher’s own struggle to find an “authentic Chinese martial art” in America during the 1980s.  And to an even greater degree they reflect my own attempts to both establish, and understand, identity in an increasingly globalized world.

In short, the martial arts of early modern Japan and China no longer exist, except as historical subjects.  Even in the very rare cases where some sort of direct transmission can be established, what influences our practice and understanding to the greatest degree is our own circumstances and life experience.

Given that this article began by positing that the martial arts function as a form of naturalization, this does not come as a surprise.  On this point we are basically agreed.  They do what they have always done, help students feel secure while they search for ways to survive and thrive in a quickly changing world.  Yet the ever evolving nature of that process should make us very wary of supposing that the martial arts are some sort of easily defined object that we share with the ancient past.

Might a modern scholar and Kendo practitioner be biased in her research on Musashi Miyamoto?  She might be.  Yet the first step in dealing with that possibility is not to withdraw from the practice of the martial arts, or an engagement with the academic literature surrounding it.  Nor is it clear that writing on a different fighting style would help us to avoid the bias.  This distortion is not actually rooted in the nature of the “things themselves,” rather it resides in our sense of identity and nostalgia.  A Taekwondo student may be just as biased in their discussion of Musashi Miyamoto as a Kendo practitioner.  In reality, both of them practice modern arts that generate a powerful sense of nostalgia for a past that never existed.  Simply making a lateral shift in the art we happen to write about does little to insulate us from the temptation to romanticize or simplify these practices.

Paul Bowman has recently argued for a more theoretically informed approach to Martial Arts Studies.  While it emerged independently from these discussions (and apparently the entire MAS literature) this article is interesting in that it begins by advancing a well-developed theoretical framework, both drawing from, and also contributing to, the broader Religious Studies literature.  Indeed, Tuckett is absolutely correct in noting that a systematic examination of the martial arts could contribute much to this area.

Yet this article also illustrates the need to for an equally disciplined and focused dedication to the empirical and historical disciplines.  It is not just that the data needed to test or illustrate our theories emerges from these areas.  Nor is it simply a matter of instilling confidence in the reader that we have mastered our subject matter and are responding to important developments in the literature.

Rather, good theories arise (at least in part) from our perception of the paradoxes and discontinuities of life.  Only in that way can we generate novel, yet substantively important, questions.  To be involved with modern modes of practice, while also being deeply steeped in the historical, critical or sociological literature, is to be perpetually aware of the puzzles that the martial arts pose.  It is not clear to me that this vision, however blinkered by personal experience, is more limited than one operating under the false promise of pure objectivity.


If you enjoyed this review you might also want to see: Understanding the Red Boats of the Cantonese Opera: Economics, Social Structure and Violence 1850-1950.