A press photo issued by the Japan Press Illustrated Service. The caption on the back reads “Instruction of Halbert and Sword.—The halbert has been instructed from old as a peculiar Japanese military art of women that trains them spiritually at the same time according to then spirit of chivalry. Photo shows girls of the Fifth girls high school of Tokyo practicing the art. (Copyrighted 231). JPI Photos.” Source: Author’s personal collection.



Denis Gainty. 2013. Martial Arts and the Body Politic in Meiji Japan. London and New York: Routledge. 208 pages. $55 USD. Reviewed by Benjamin N. Judkins.


The passing of Denis Gainty in 2017 robbed the martial arts studies community of a promising voice. The earlier death of G. Cameron Hurst, Gainty’s dissertation advisor, in 2016 had already been a blow to students of Japanese martial arts history. Hurst’s seminal monograph, Armed Martial Arts of Japan: Swordsmanship and Archery [Hurst 1998], established a scholarly discussion of these subjects that transcended the early efforts of Donn Draeger and other, more popular, writers of the postwar era. Hurst helped to lay the foundations for the current flowering of martial arts studies. It is tragic that the field would lose both a critical pioneer and one of his most promising students in such a short period of time.

Gainty’s most enduring academic legacy will surely be his work Martial Arts and the Body Politic in Meiji Japan [Gainty 2013]. Whereas Hurst produced a broad study, examining the evolution of swordsmanship and archery throughout Japanese history, Gainty cogently argued for more tightly-focused studies. Rejecting standard historical approaches and the sociological variables that characterized much of the previous work in this area, Gainty instead sought to craft his own ‘historio-ethnographic’ method which, while accounting for the basic structure of a situation, privileged the auto-biographical writings of Japan’s martial artists [5]. In this way, individuals who cultivated these bodily disciplines were allowed to describe and interpret their own experiences.

From the start, Gainty lays out an ambitious project designed to complicate much of the ‘received wisdom’ shaping discussions of the modern Japanese martial arts. The Dai-Nippon Butokukai (Japan Martial Virtue Association) was a critical institution responsible for much of the popularization and standardization of the martial arts (particularly kendo) in the Meiji and Showa periods. Still, the English-language literature has largely neglected this critical institution. Hurst dedicated only a few pages to exploring its contributions, and most of that discussion revolved around elite government figures and their competing political agendas [Hurst 1998: 158-165].

In contrast, Gainty focused his entire volume on a finely-grained social and institutional history of the group. His carefully constructed case study results in two major findings. First, Gainty argues quite convincingly that the standard view of the Meiji period as an era in which the martial arts stagnated and nearly vanished is profoundly mistaken. This view is actually the product of romanticized notions equating the Japanese martial arts with the Samurai class. In reality, Japanese civilians had practiced (and taught) many of these systems for quite some time. Far from imperiling the martial arts, the disappearance of the Samurai as a visible social class actually opened a space where these arts could be appropriated by new cultural, economic, and governmental forces. When we set aside misty visions of the vanishing Samurai, what we actually find is a period of rapid growth and dynamic change within the Japanese martial arts….


Click here for the rest of my review, and links to the most recent issue of the Martial Arts Studies journal.


Denis Gainty, 1970-2017.



If you liked this review you might also enjoy: Who Benefits from the Traditional Martial Arts: Public Goods vs. Private Gains.