Kendo at Ina Middle School, probably late 1930s. Vintage postcard. Authors personal collection.





Today’s post is the result of a happy coincidence.  As regular readers will be aware, I occasionally collect and share vintage images of the Chinese martial arts.  Many of these come from the sorts of ephemera (postcards, advertisements, old newspaper clippings, newsreels) that contain interesting data on the social place of the martial arts, but are too easily lost to history.


From time to time I also run across images of other sorts of martial artists.  While not directly related to the TCMA, these are important as they remind us that all of these practices, images and ideas existed as part of a complex web of global interaction.  That is true even of some images with solidly nationalistic pedigrees.


These other postcards and photographs come from a variety of sources.  French Savate proved to be a popular subject for a time.  The American occupation of the Philippines resulted in a many images of knives and other traditional weapons that are of interest to martial artists today.  I recently ran across a couple of older images of traditional boxers in Thailand that I hope to share at some point.


Yet most of the imported early 20th century martial arts imagery originated in Japan.  Pictures of Chinese sword dancers, or Thai boxers, were occasionally captured by Western photographers seeking to capitalize on an interest in “Oriental” places and practices.  The martial images that they produced, while recording some interesting ethnographic data, tended to be only a small percentage of their total catalog.  They also seem to suggest more about the state of Western, rather than Chinese, culture.  That is probably to be expected when we remember that individuals within early 20th century China did not send postcards to each other, and were never the intended audience of such images.


The Japanese did use postcards, and they produced them in large numbers for domestic consumption.  And because a great many Japanese reformers were interested in promoting the martial arts (both domestically and internationally), these fighting systems tended to find their way into all sorts of contemporary media.  Martial postcards from the 1920s-1930s usually focused on Kendo or Sumo, probably the most popular pursuits at the time.  But occasionally images of other practices (including Judo, archery or more traditional forms of swordsmanship) also turn up.


Such postcards also served a social purpose.  Some might commemorate an important moment in the history of the local branch of the Butokukai (such as the completion of a new training center), while others turned their gaze towards the reconstruction of Samurai practices from a previous era.  All of them seem to have aided and reinforced the creation of a specific vision of community.  And (as Benedict Anderson might suggest), this community was often imagined along specifically nationalist lines.




Budo in the Ina Middle School



This brings us back to the happy coincidence that reunited the two postcards discussed in this essay.  I ran across the first image about a year ago and did not think very much of it at the time.  The scene showed students practicing Kendo in a typical Japanese middle school during the pre-WWII era.  While always interesting, such images are not terribly rare.


Then, a few months ago, I had the good fortune to come across another image.  This example caught my eye as pre-WWII Japanese postcards showing Judo (or any form of unarmed combat) are harder to come by.  While students in the West came to see Judo as the preeminent Japanese martial, in truth Kendo was vastly more popular in Japan itself.


As I was placing the new find in an album it just so happened that there was an empty spot in the sleeve that also held the preceding image of the kendo class.  I caught my breath as I looked at the two images side by side for the first time.  Both pictures had clearly been taken in the same classroom.  Note for instance the details of the chalk board and door.  Its also interesting to see how the hardwood flood of the kendo class has been covered with movable matting before the commencement of Judo training.  And judging from the shadows on the floor both images were taken at approximately the same time of day.  Yet to my (admittedly fallible) eye, the Judo and Kendo instructors appear to be two different individuals.   I had inadvertently run across two images that may have been part of a larger set of postcards.


At this point I contacted my friend Jared Miracle (be sure to check out his new book).  Jared was kind enough to translate the captions of both cards.  He noted that both were written in a traditional character set and said “Ina Junior High School Kendo Club Practice” and “Ina Junior High School Judo Practice.”  Given the rather short length of the training uniforms seen in both photos (much shorter than those favored in the post WWII period), and the American GI inspired haircuts, Jared tentatively concluded that both images may have been taken in the late 1930, just as Japan’s nationalist fervor hit its peak.


Other scholars (such as Alexander Bennett, Denis Gainty and G. Cameron Hurst) have noted that the pedagogy of the Japanese martial arts underwent rapid reforms in the immediate pre-war period.  As conflict loomed on the horizon martial arts such as Kendo were reworked to move them away from a sporting basis and to emphasize basic battlefield skills.  Training was increasingly conducted outside so that students would be accustomed to charging across “live terrain” when they found themselves in China or on the islands of the Pacific.



Judo at Ina Middle School. Vintage postcard circa late 1930s. Source: Author’s personal collection.




Imagining the Community


One does not see a direct allusion to these more militant reforms in these postcards.  Perhaps this is not a surprise as the intended consumers of images of Ina’s students were probably their own parents and grandparents.  Yet why do we have these specific photographs at all?  What work did such images do?


Ina is not a large place.  Located in the mountains of Nagano Prefecture, Wikipedia lists its current population at around sixty-eight thousand individuals.  One suspects that its pre-WWII population was probably smaller.  Looking at the small city (really a town) on google earth reveals a population center hemmed in by a mountain valley and agricultural fields.  Today Ina is mostly known for its beautiful mountain landscapes.  My area of study is not Japanese martial history, but I can find no indication of a previously glorious martial heritage in this small city.


One imagines that Ina in the early 20th century might have felt somewhat remote.  While Tokyo may not be far off as the crow flies, the Japanese Alps and winter snows would certainly be enough to create a sense of isolation in a small, primarily agricultural, community.  Certainly, rapid governmental reforms (and military conscription) in the late 19th and early 20th century would have created more of a sense of belonging within “the nation.”  But so would the martial arts.


When examining postcards such as these, it is worth noting how many images were produced in middle and high schools, and even occasionally at universities.  Pictures taken at educational institutions, all run by the government, are common.  Those produced by politically well-contented cultural institutions, like the Butokukai, are not far behind.  But I don’t think I have a single postcard (in my admittedly small collection) produced at a private dojo.


Obviously, such places existed.  Some even gained great popularity.  Morihei Ueshiba could not have created Aikido without dealing with the problem of finding real estate.  Yet such private endeavors remain under represented in this segment of the visual record, especially during the 1930s.


The great story of the Asian martial arts, in both China and Japan, from probably the 1880s-1950s was the effort to take that which had been particular and local, and make it unifying and national.  How better to accomplish these aims than to make the martial arts a standard part of the compulsory education program?  It is this effort (which finally bore fruit in 1911) that is being reflected in the ephemera of the period.


In addressing the origins of the notion that the globe should naturally be understood as a series of discrete “nations,” Benedict Anderson noted that this process had more to do with imagination and historical contingency than any sort of shared “primal essence.”  What was important was not so much a thousand years of commerce uniting two locations in Europe, but whether, with the spread of the printing press and the rise of markets for mass produced books, they shared the same vernacular language.


If so, then the inhabitants of these two towns might read the same newspapers.  To oversimplify an important argument, by taking part in a common conversation in which certain stories and items of news were related to one another, they would come to imagine themselves as being members of the same “nation.”  They would also come to imagine all of those reading other newspapers in languages that they could not understand as being members of other nations.


The spread of shared print vernacular markets allowed individuals to imagine that they were part of a broader community in which everyone one else was caught up in the same collective dream.  Of course, Japanese social elites in the early 20th century did not have the benefit of Anderson’s social theory.  But they had the martial arts, and an extensive nationalist discourse surrounding them.


How much more powerful would it be to not just imagine the existence of the nation on a cognitive level, but to gain an embodied feel for it?  What if the existence of the nation could be imprinted on one’s physical habits and movements? What if “the nation” could be a somatic experience?


By including martial arts training in the national curriculum, a junior high student knew that when he rushed forward, shinai held high, he moved with hundreds of thousands of identically armed classmates at his back.  It would be hard to think of a more powerful vector for the inculcation of nationalist identity than the combination of somatic experience and discursive indoctrination that would result from making martial arts training compulsory in government run institutions like schools and the military.


Dennis Gainty, in his book Martial Arts and the Body Politic in Meiji Japan (Routledge 2013), notes that such concerns both complicated and drove efforts to create a set of universal Kendo kata to be practiced throughout Japan a generation before these photographs were taken.  Discussing one such effort, he notes:


“As we recall from Chapter 2, the Kata used a tripartite division under the designation of man, earth, and heaven (jin, chi, ten). By practicing the kata, the practitioner literally embodied and enacted the fluid relationship between earth, heaven and human; through it, he experienced the cosmos.  In this sense, the frameworks suggested by the Butokuai’s meticulous definition of bodies did not call up the atomomized individual theorized by Foucault; instead, they are more readily understood as serving exactly the opposite purpose, offering the individual a physical means by which to express and experience embodied unity with the imperial line, with the Japanese nation, and with the universe.” (p. 130)


Of course, this was a view of the universe seen from a very unique perspective.


We should be clear that this process was never restricted to just Japan.  While the Japanese state may have been the first to capitalize on modernized and standardized martial arts training, others looked on with great interest.  Various public and private reformers in China, noting Japan’s success, worked hard to integrate their own hand combat traditions into the national curriculum.  Unfortunately, these efforts have not left the same visual record.  As I mentioned at the start of this essay, the Chinese never really adopted postcards to the same degree as the Japanese during the early 20th century.  But we have enough newspaper accounts of local school demonstrations being staged (often by Jingwu or Guoshu affiliated classes) during the 1920s and 1930s to know that substantial inroads were made.


One suspects that individuals in Japan bought, mailed and collected postcards such as these to further extend this aspect of the “imagined national community” beyond the physical bounds that a shared martial practice allowed.  A postcard’s most interesting attribute is precisely the fact that it was designed to travel in search of an audience.  As Gainty might argue, in collecting and mailing these images individuals became active participants in crafting their own view of what a modern strong Japanese nation would look like.  Yet as these postcards continued to circulate, both in China and then the West, their underlying meaning evolved to meet the needs of new audiences.  When examining photographs such as these we can almost recapture the moment when a primarily nationalist discourse became something else on a global stage.




If you enjoyed this you might also want to read:  Do the martial arts unite or divide us? Kung Fu and the production of “social capital”