How Jiu-Jitsu Became a Traditional German Martial Art




One of my on-going projects is a co-authored study of Wing Chun’s history (and social meaning) within the German martial arts community.  I will admit that in the crush of competing papers and presentations this topic, while fascinating, has slipped to the back burner.  Still, I believe that it is a critical issue to consider from a number of perspectives.

One would be hard pressed to think of any nation (and I include Hong Kong in this statement) where Wing Chun has proved to be more popular than Germany.  I have never conducted a scientific study on the topic, but I suspect that there are probably more practitioners of the art there than in any other single country.  Traditional Chinese systems have generally done well in Germany.  Taijiquan and Hung Gar both have an impressive following.  In fact, all sorts of martial arts generate a great deal of enthusiasm.  While most studies of the globalization of the Asian fighting systems focus on the post-WWII North American market (and get caught up in factors that were unique to the social history of this region), it is my hope that a detailed study of more recent events in Europe will help us to broaden our theoretical understanding of the global spread of these communities.

Still, finding the time to pursue the various projects that I have lined up can be a challenge.  There are only so many hours in the day, and fewer still if you plan on spending some of them in the gym and the training hall.  But I recently came across something that may nudge this project towards the front of my research agenda.


“London Sees Thrill of Japanese Sports.”
A Judo match between a British and German competitors. Taken from a vintage newsreel. 1932.


Making Jiu-Jitsu German

Sarah Panzer, who recently finished her PhD in History at the University of Chicago, authored a chapter in J. M. Chao et al.’s edited volume Transnational Encounters between Germany and Japan (Palgrave, 2016).  I decided to skim the collection on the odd chance that it might have some discussion of the early history of the Asian martial arts in Europe, and it did not disappoint.  Readers will want to check out Panzer’s paper “When Jiu-Jitsu was German: Japanese Martial Arts in German Sport and Korperkultur, 1905-1933” (91-106).

The article is just as evocative as the title suggests.   While historically, rather than theoretically, oriented, it chronicles the initial introduction of the Japanese jiu-jitsu into Germany, and its steady rise in popularity through the middle of the 1930’s.   At first blush this success might not appear surprising.  Historians of sports and popular cultural have already commented on the global spread of jiu-jitsu during the early 20th century.  When you have Teddy Roosevelt literally promoting a Japanese fighting system from the Oval Office, it is not hard to understand why a variety of scholars would take note.

Yet Panzer notes that the German case suggests some unique paradoxes.  Rightly or wrongly, German society during the early 20th century had a reputation for being hostile to foreign sports.  Given that this was the great age of nationalism in Europe, that trait was not entirely unique.  In the period rhetoric that surrounded these discussions, great emphasis was often put on the local “rootedness” and cultural value of a given activity.

Given that context, it would be hard to think of any more exotic a physical practice than Japanese jiu-jitsu during the 1910’s.  One might suspect that this art would have enjoyed only a modest degree of success.  That was not the case.

Jiu-jitsu took off at a pace unmatched in most places in the West.  Indeed, the early success of the Japanese grappling arts in Germany seems to be an almost textbook case of cultural borrowing and acculturation.  Panzer notes that by 1937 Nazi leisure organizations could, with no sense of irony, advertise their jiu-jitsu programs as “typically German” types of recreation along with swimming, horseback riding and calisthenics.

German’s fascination (and later close political relationship) with Japan was a critical aspect of this story.  As in other places, Japan’s victory over Russia (1904-1905) set off a wave of admiration and questioning.  Germans were fascinated by the stories of the surprising strength, endurance and mental resilience of the Japanese troops in Manchuria.  In this environment certain individuals came to see the Japanese as ‘kindred spirits’ and perceived in them an alternate model of the link between hyper-masculinity and nationalism.

Jiu-jitsu came to be seen as the secret code that would allow the outsider to unravel the mysteries of Japan’s military strength, won in seeming defiance of the strict racial hierarchies of the day.  To those whose interest were broader, it was also taken as a key to the island nation’s success in rapid industrialization, a mirror revealing its perceived quality of spiritual equanimity, and even a clue to the excellence of Japan aesthetic sensibilities.  As always, the Asian martial arts seem to have thrived when they were accepted as the key to unlocking an entire range of values stretching from the realms of masculinity and militarism to culture and spirituality.

In this environment, it is no surprise that pioneers like Eric Rahn would begin to train themselves in these techniques, or that the demonstrations performed by Japanese sailors on a goodwill tour would win an elite audience and result in the art’s introduction to police and military academies.  Panzer notes that the first dedicated jiu-jitsu club opened in Berlin in 1906.  By 1923 there were no fewer than 13 established schools in the country.

Still, by the 1920s the first flush of “Jiu-Jitsu Fever” had cooled off in much of the rest of the West.  Jared Miracle has noted how the art’s introduction fit with changing notions of masculinity in North America.   Yet Wendy Rouse has argued that the critique of traditional masculinities which drove much of the initial enthusiasm for the art never quite fit with the overall trend of the progressive era in the US.  Thus one suspects that additional forces might help to explain the success that the art enjoyed in Germany.

Panzer notes some key differences in this process of acculturation.  At the most basic level German students did not simply take up ‘Japanese’ practices.  Rather, they sought to transform them in such a way that they could legitimately be understood as extensions of German, rather than Japanese, values.  Some thinkers went even further, formulating an argument that jiu-jitsu had, at heart, always been German, and may have emerged from the nation’s brutal medieval battlefields.  In that sense, there was nothing uniquely Japanese about the art at all.  It was simply another example of the knightly cultural traditions that were revered in so many other places within Western society.

Panzer states:

“Indeed, one of the first scholarly works on the discipline [of Ju-Jitsu] was an explicit attempt to redefine it as fundamentally German.  Martin Vogt, an instructor at the Theresien-Gymnasium in Munich. Published his own findings on the cultural heritage of jiu-jitsu under the title Dschiu-Dschitsu der Japaner—das alte deutsche Freiringen.  In this meticulously illustrated pamphlet Vogt juxtaposed images of standard jiu-jitsu holds and grips with woodcut images from medieval German texts on wrestling, including one illustrated by Albrecht Durer.  Vogt claimed that he had felt compelled to write the book in response to the growing visibility of jiu-jitsu in Germany following the Russo-Japanese War; his work was meant to be a response to the growing suspicion among Germans that the Japanese possessed some secret or special knowledge about combat and self-defence that made them especially formidable opponents. Vogt attempted to dispel any existing anxiety about jiu-jitsu by making it more immediately familiar and recognizable thereby effectively recovering it as a forgotten piece of German cultural inheritance.

In the text that accompanies his elaborate pictorial comparisons of jiu-jitsu and medieval German wrestling Vogt argued that jiu-jitsu was, quite simply, a system of practical techniques paralleling those used by medieval Germans, preserved and formalized in Japan.  He never went so far as to suggest that one evolved out of the other, but instead argued that any logical study of the human body and its weaknesses in hand-to-hand combat, unencumbered by the demands of chivalry or rules of combat, would have yielded similar and practical strategies.” (p. 95-96)


A uniquely German approach to jiu-jitsu emerged in more practical venues as well.  Panzer documents the shifts that occurred within the German umbrella organization as the “self-defense” aspects of the art (often those that would be of the most interest to law enforcement or military personnel) fell out of favor and were replaced with training regimes that placed much more emphasis on the basic movements that would be useful in competition.  Indeed, this debate on the value of competition defined the evolution of the art in the post-WWI period.

Given the success of the art’s sporting wing, one might be forgiven for assuming that judo, which also shed many of its militant techniques in favor of those that could be used in more sporting settings, would have been a great success.  This was not the case.  The cultural and moral aspects of the practice that Kano went to such great lengths to promote rubbed many of these early German practitioners the wrong way.  They sensed within them the inescapable presence of Japanese nationalism and identity.  In their view none of that was really essential to jiu-jitsu, which at its core was an expression of universal truths about human combat, and (under their guidance) had evolved into a uniquely German system of physical training and competition that did not closely resemble daily practice in the Kodokan.

Nor were they swayed by appeals to judo’s greater ‘internationalism.’ Defenders of the emerging discipline of German jiu-jitsu pointed out that none of these arts had developed as successfully in other Western countries as they had in Germany.  And in any case, it was the expression of uniquely German values transmitted through specifically developed bodily technologies that gave the practice its intrinsic values, not Japanese moralizing.


An American Wrestler facing off against a Judo student. This photo is identified as having been taken in the Philippines in 1904, but Joseph Svinth suspects that it was actually taken in the US in 1904. Source:


What is this a case of?

Panzer’s historical study is fascinating.  One of the ironies of the 1920’s was that so many individuals wished to claim either judo or jiu-jitsu as their own when there was little doubt where these systems actually came from.  We have already reviewed a case of English wrestlers who refused to admit that there was anything uniquely Japanese about the system of combat.   And Chinese nationalists were only too eager to point to their systems of jacketed wrestling as the ultimate origin of all Japanese hand combat practices.  Indeed, Kano and other early Japanese students went to great lengths to rhetorically distance judo from any relationship with Chinese boxing and promote its ‘pure’ Japanese origins.

Still, I have yet to see anything so far reaching as the German acculturation of jiu-jitsu in the pre-WWII period.  They wasted little time in replacing its core Japanese identity with their own brand of German values and nationalism.  Panzer suggests that these efforts were so successful that by the middle of the 1930’s these grappling arts had effectively become German, rather than Japanese, in the popular imagination.  German martial artists were certainly aware of their Japanese brethren and knew of the prevailing trends on the other side of the Pacific.  And yet they unapologetically declared themselves to be the masters of the better art, unpolluted by Kano’s internationalism or moralizing.

These sorts of arguments are not entirely unique.  While the discourse emerged much earlier in Germany than any parallel Western cases that I am aware of, by the 1980’s and 1990’s similar sentiments were being openly expressed by a variety of American students of the Chinese martial arts.  As always, the specific circumstances vary.

Within certain quarters of the American Chinese martial arts community, the common refrain was that the authentic martial arts no longer existed in China.  By the late 1970s they had died out, or been pushed to the brink of extinction.  Truly excellent teachers could only be found in California, Taiwan, Hong Kong or within the South East Asian diaspora.  This sad state of affairs was usually attributed to the Cultural Revolution.  The light of China’s martial genius had been extinguished and now existed only within the diaspora.

It is certainly true that the Cultural Revolution badly disrupted the folk martial arts and local fighting systems of mainland China.  There is no denying that.  Yet this rhetoric always seemed a bit self-serving.  The underlying message seemed to be that only experts located in the periphery (and given the nature of globalization, many of them were not Chinese) could judge the legitimacy of an individual’s performance of, or identity within, the greater Chinese martial arts community.

Again, the details of these specific cases are quite different, but they seem to share certain echoes.  This is where a more theoretically focused discussion of the German case might be helpful.  If one were only interested in the evolution of the German martial arts community, that might not be as critical.  Yet when we make our theoretical framework explicit, it becomes easier to identify mechanisms that transcend the peculiarities of any single career or case.  A more explicit theory might allow us to begin to compare cases, and from there to consider the evolving nature of the global spread of these fighting systems.

Many such discussions begin when we look at an outcome and ask, “What is this a case of?”  Generations of graduate students have been taught that this is the first step in inductive social scientific inquiry.  But rather than establish a strict system of categories, perhaps we should re-frame this classic question.  After all, what we are really searching for is some sort of tool to help us make sense of what we are seeing (something which we cannot make sense of, and therefore cannot effectively categorize).  In that case we might instead ask, “What theoretical lens, or set of concepts, reveals the most about this case?”

The German example is interesting as it seems not to fit a number of the stock concepts that often help us to make sense of the martial arts.  This is not an example of an “invented” tradition as the term is typically used.  While the displacement of Japanese identity by German values was certainly novel, and German jiu-jitsu can be understood as a domestic creation, there was no attempt to forget the role of the Japanese in all of this.  That sort of overwriting of the past, so critical to the work of Hobsbawm and Ranger, is not really seen here.  Nor did German jiu-jitsu ever attain any sort of hegemonic or binding status within the national discourse.  It remained one sporting community among many.

We might turn to the idea of cultural appropriation to explain this trend.  Simply defined this is the adoption of elements of one culture by members of another in ways that are harmful to, or serve to further marginalize, the first group.  While a commonly referenced concept in the literature, there is a wide range in how various authors apply this idea.  Most researchers define this as an overtly negative (often exploitative) process and therefore different from the sorts of “cultural exchange,” borrowing and hybridization that emerge naturally whenever two cultures meet.

The question of whether the creation of German jiu-jitus was harmful to the Japanese is an interesting one.  One can only imagine that the ways in which Japanese values and culture were systematically stripped out of a practice that was a source of great national pride in the 1920’s would have been irksome.  The discovery that a Japanese creation actually had “German roots” seems, on the surface, like a classic act of appropriation.

Yet when you delve into the case things become much more complicated.  In current theoretical discussions one of the things that separates an act of appropriate from normal borrowing, hybridization or admiration is the existence (and exploitation) of a preexisting power asymmetry between a dominant and a subordinate community.  In fact, it is this asymmetric exchange that lies at the heart of most of these discussions.

This causes obvious problems for the case of German jiu-jitsu.  Japan was in no way subordinate to Germany.  The island nation was never conquered or colonized, and by the 1920’s had emerged as an aggressive imperialist power in its own right.  In some key respects both Japan and Germany were similarly positioned within the global system.  Both were highly centralized late industrializing powers that felt hemmed in by preexisting power structures.  Both went through a carefully scripted process designed to create a common national identity.  Japan actively sought to export and internationalize its grappling traditions as one element of a public diplomacy strategy designed to bolster the state’s influence in the global arena.  The successful spread of its physical culture indicated the rapidly rising strength (and prestige) of the Japanese state, rather than any sort of post-colonial status.  The cultural appropriation framework does not seem to be a fit this case.

A more fruitful approach to this set of puzzles might be found if we were to change gears and instead think more carefully about the specific goal of the jiu-jitsu pioneers vis a vis the rest of German society.  The Budo arts may have been part of the social discourse that decided what sort of modern society Japan would become, yet that was certainly not the case in Germany.  While popular compared to other places in Europe, the number of people who took up Japanese grappling was still relatively small.  In this instance we are dealing with the actions of a well-organized, self-selecting, voluntary social movement.

This realization might turn our attention toward the concept of “strategic anti-essentialism.”  This notion was developed (and later abandoned) by the American theorist George Lipsitz.  It begins with a scenario in which a social group is unhappy with some aspect of an artificially imposed cultural construct.  They then adopt the practices or identities of an outside culture as an act of resistance.  One suspects, however, that the values what are ultimately expressed are those of the community in question rather than a true reflection of the culture that is turned to.  As such, practices are not just adopted, they are also adapted.  In this framework global transmission always implies transformation.  Nor does strategic anti-essentialism make any necessary assumptions about the sources or motivations behind this act of adoption.

While perhaps not a perfect fit, this seems to give us more traction on the German case.  Historians of the martial arts have already warned us that shifting and contested notions of masculinity and nationalism were among the forces that helped to explain the global spread of these practices in the early 20th century.  Further, the rhetoric that Panzer shares makes it clear that many of the early advocates of jiu-jitsu seemed unhappy with the direction and values that had been adopted in other German athletic movements and combat sports.

Testing this theory is beyond the scope of this essay.  That would require an experienced social theorist who is an expert in early 20th century German social history.  Unfortunately, I am a social scientist who looks at China’s encounter with the global system.  As such I will happily hand this baton off to other scholars for the next leg of the race.

Still, I think that this brief discussion has suggested three points.  First, Sarah Panzer’s paper is both fascinating and insightful.  Second, while she is primarily interested in the evolution of German sports culture, this case may be of interest to a broader range of readers.  Finally, bringing an explicit theoretical framework to the table might help us to bridge the gap between nationally focused case studies and broader comparative projects.  Germany’s jiu-jitsu students were not the only individuals to turn to Asian fighting systems in the hopes of escaping the cultural constructs that they inherited.  That impulse seems to have led to both the adoption and the adaption of the martial arts in many communities throughout the tumultuous 20th century.



If you enjoyed this essay you might also want to read: “The Professor in the Cage”: Can Gottschall Bring Science to the Study of Violence?


3 Comments Add yours

  1. STEVE HIGGINS says:

    Enjoyed the JJ / Germany article.  JJ certainly became part of the German cultural firmament to the extent of being part of the training regime of Hitler’s SS.  See Tony Fosters

    The human body only moves in specific ways. See here a basic JJ method from Walker’s text of 1840.In other words, the Asian and European combative traditions must of necessity include many methods common to most.  This method is depicted in various JJ texts, such as Earle Liederman’s, from the early 1920’s.  I learned this from my father in the 1950’s. Steve HigginsCold Mountain Tai Chi | Kitchener | Cold Mountain Internal Arts | | | Cold Mountain Tai Chi | Kitchener | Cold Mountain Internal Arts Tai-Chi and Qi Gong instruction for spiritual and physical health, artistic expression and martial awareness. In… | |


  2. James Tan says:

    A wonderful and most interesting piece. I’ve been in Germany for nine years now and a lot of the national character traits you mention are very clearly seen. Just as an aside, as well as Chinese martial arts, I teach Japanese taiko drumming here. Much like traditional Jujutsu, I’m hard pressed to think of a country where there are more practitioners of taiko outside of Japan. The Germans are mad for it. I haven’t seen any attempt to culturally appropriate it yet though!

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