WWII Era Japanese postcard showing Kendo and Judo. Source: Author’s personal collection.



It seems to be taken as an article of faith in much of the popular writing on the martial arts that these hand combat systems provide not only an avenue for self-actualization, but also the ability to bridge troublesome social or cultural divides.  Multiple mechanisms have been explored by scholars seeking to understand how the traditional martial arts might unite us.  In her recent book Janet O’Shea developed the concept of “oppositional civility” to explain how the management of cooperative disagreements in the ring (who will win a round sparring) might give people the skills they would need to contend with contentious real-world political issues without rupturing the polity.

Other mechanisms have also been proposed.  I have previously hypothesized that participation in martial arts communities might contribute to the formation of both bonding and bridging types of social capital.  If that is the case, then there is a rich literature in the social sciences that suggests that training with (and competing against) each other in the martial arts might strengthen civil society as well as our bodies.

The literature on “soft power” (as defined within the field of political science) is also relevant here.  As diverse communities are drawn to accept new practices by a shared type of cross-cultural desire, there is an increased chance they will adopt similar norms and institutions.  Joseph Nye’s soft power theory was originally advanced as a way of explaining the rise and function of hegemonic states in international relations which other players did not seek to balance against despite the predictions of realist theory (e.g., United States and the spread of the global liberal democratic order).  Even a shared desire might be sufficient to bring about increased cooperation in some areas.

Yet all of this theorizing neglects a sad truth.  Any longitudinal study of popular attitudes towards the martial arts will quickly reveal that these fighting systems have just as frequently been used to divide individuals and populations over time.  Indeed, it is worth remembering that many of these systems developed and spread during times of nationalist conflict.  It is thus not surprising that Japanese Karate, Korean Teakwondo and Chinese Wushu (along with countless others) have been used to both build and tear down cultural barriers.

Martial Arts Studies needs more nuanced understandings of these processes capable of explaining how it is that a single system can take on diametrically opposed meanings in such short periods of time.  Throughout the early 20th century there was a healthy interest in, and respect for, the Japanese martial arts.  Yet by the late 1930s American public attitudes had changed rapidly.

I recently came across two artifacts of this shift.  The first is a Japanese postcard, circulated in Japan, probably during WWII.  The image is self-explanatory.  It presents a montage of students (and future soldiers) practicing Kendo, Judo and some sort of sword drill in tight ranks in an open field.  Jared Miracle notes that the inscription on the card related that Budo was “being polished” at the school in question.  Indeed, it’s hard to escape the notion that at a time when Japan was already embroiled in a massive war with China and much of the Pacific, a militaristic notion of Budo had come to not only define the practice of the martial arts, but the self-conception of the nation as a whole.  This was an era when it was widely believed that Budo was what made Japan “Japanese.”  It was seen as a cultural boundary which could not be crossed.

Despite their earlier enthusiasm for Judo and Jujutsu, by the late 1930s many Americans had come to agree with this assessment.  The martial arts became a physical marker of the vast cultural difference between the Japanese and the West.  Worse yet, this perception would be turned on the many Japanese-Americans who had sought to practice and teach these arts in their own communities.

It should be remembered that none of these practices completely disappeared during WWII.  In fact, the LA Times continued to run regular coverage of Japanese-American Kendo tournaments and martial arts exhibitions throughout the 1940s.  This is somewhat remarkable given the internment of so many citizens and the disruption of most martial arts schools.  Yet public Kendo demonstrations continued in LA throughout the war.

Still, the LA Times is somewhat remarkable for the neutral (or even positive) tone that it took towards these events.  More typical would be the following article in the Washington Post.  Its author (S. Graham Williamson) turned to Kendo to construct a type of “national character study” of the sort that were popular in the mid-20th century.  More specifically, he wondered whether Western observers were making a fundamental mistake when they argued that Japanese soldiers were driven by a fanatic loyalty to the Emperor.  He instead argued that the often suicidal behavior of individual soldiers was less ideological in nature and more a reflection of years of martial arts training designed to inculcate a state of mushin, or “no mind.”

Some of the arguments presented here will remind readers of Paul Bowman’s thought on the perceived connections between the martial arts and mental illness.  It is easy to accept that mindfulness training is a fundamentally good thing when one uses it get through a stressful morning commute.  Yet when we learn that Anders Behring Breivik claims to have trained in many of these same psychological techniques and to have used them in his slaughter of 77 individuals in Norway in 2011, one wonders whether we can assign any inherent normative value to such modes of training.

Still, there are some major differences between Bowman’s theorizing and the arguments made in the article below.  Williamson does not see the martial arts as a mere technology available to anyone.  In his view they are the extension of a set of essential racial and ethnic characteristics.  He used his exploration of kendo to not just explore seemingly irrational aspects of battlefield suicides, but to convince his readers that the Japanese themselves are so profoundly unlike us that they cannot even be seen as human.  Kendo training is used to emphasize their essential inhumanity.  At times the author will use racist stereotypes (noting that the Japanese appear to be stupid and fanatic), but he also goes well beyond that, characterizing them in demonic terms.

One might note that such rhetoric was not uncommon during WWII. Indeed, there is a tendency to dehumanize one’s enemies in every war.  Yet it strikes me as somewhat remarkable that the very same practices that were being invoked as synonymous with fascist, and even demonic, practices in the 1940s would by the 1950s once again capture the hearts and minds of so many returning GI’s and young Americans.  The flip flops in how something like Kendo was perceived between the early 1930s, the early 1940s, and finally the first years of the 1950s, could not have been more jarring.

I suspect that there are important lessons to be learned here.  Concepts like “oppositional civility” probably presuppose a certain type of civic society in which they may thrive.  Yet when these fighting systems are co-opted by nationalist conflicts (as was so often the case during the 20th century) such possibilities seem to break down entirely.  Likewise, while the Japanese martial arts exercised a certain degree of “soft-power” in North America during the 1900s-1930s, these same images were inverted in incredibly damaging ways during the early 1940s.

I suspect that we might draw two lessons from this.  First, the bonds of cultural desire are quickly shattered by the realities of interstate conflict.  For a soft power regime to have any sort of long-term stability, it must reflect the realities of the economic and military distribution of power within the global system.  This likely limits the range of states who can rely on these strategies as independent tools of statecraft. Second, once images have been spread through public relations campaigns, governments have little control over how target populations will choose to reinterpret or reuse them in the future.  Such would be the fate of the West Coast’s Kendo clubs in the 1940s.


Boy Scouts practice Kendo in California, 1928. Source: Vintage Press Photo. Author’s Personal Collection.



‘Sublime Sport’ of the Japs and Its Significance: ‘Kendo’ helps to explain some of our Enemy’s Psychological Weaknesses

By S. Graham Williamson

Washington Post, Dec. 12, 1943. B3


We’ve just begun to understand the Jap, and the war in the Pacific will have to be a long, long conflict before we gain a complete knowledge of him.

When our soldiers and marines reported that the Nipponese on Attu and elsewhere were blowing themselves to bits with hand grenades rather than surrender, we at first attributed this to fanatic bravery.  But, significantly, even in this last desperate gesture, the Jap was not carrying out his military assignment.  He was supposed to kill as many Americans as possible before ending his own life, yet plenty of arms and ammunition often were found around the bodies.  Death was too attractive to delay.

This enigma of the Jap’s character is just one of the things that bewilders most Americans.  The German we understand.  He is a tactically clever, fanatically arrogant fighter.  But when he is licked, he knows it.  When there is nothing else to do (as in Tunisia) he surrenders.  He wastes no good grenades on his own belly.


The Sublime Sport

Nothing in the Jap’s methods of thought resembles ours.  Perhaps a description of one of his major sports will help us to remove some of this remoteness.  Almost nothing has been written about this sport in the Western World—although we have given much space to descriptions of jujitsu, descriptions which spoke admiringly of the mechanical aspects of that form of wrestling without considering the psychological factors which the Jap regards as uppermost.

The neglected sport is known to the Jap as “Kendo.”  Meager references in English mention this game only as the Japanese form of “fencing.” The Jap refers to it as “The sublime sport of Kendo.”

There is an element in the behavior of the Jap which we are inclined to identify as stupidity, discipline, devotion, or fanaticism, most often the latter.  A study of Kendo seems to reveal none of these…it is Mushin! [All emphasis in this article is found in the original]

Just as, among all mammals, play is merely a training for the survival [of] conflict to come, and Britain’s past victories “were won on the playing fields of Eton,” so may a brief study of the rarely discussed sport of Kendo throw some light upon the desperate yet inefficient suicides of Attu.

Let us look into a Bushido house where Kendo was practiced (even in California until Pearl Harbor) and examine the peculiar nature of the sublime sport.  Perhaps we may learn something of this Jap who though tremendously formidable because of his disregard for self-preservation has a blind spot from the very same causes.

There is no furniture in the large room.  In one corner, on the wall, is a small Taoistic [sic] shrine.  The floor is covered with canvas.  Around three sides wrestling mats have been rolled up into bundles to serve as benches for a score of males from 6 to 60 years old.  All are appareled in black-skirted costumes.

Now two young men walk out onto the floor and face each other at 18 feet.  Under the left arm of each is a bamboo pole somewhat longer than a baseball-bat, a pair of black gauntlets and a visored helmet.  They bow to each other from the waist, then kneel, and again genuflect with the head and shoulders.

They put on their helmets and gauntlets as they rise to their feet.  They approach each other, holding their sticks obliquely in front with both hands.  They cross the tips of the sticks as fencers do.

Then from each contestant comes a series of short, guttural shouts—half yell, half grunt! And all at once the very devil has taken possession of both and they are hitting each other over the head, on the shoulders, arms and chest with apparently homicidal fury.  The sharp crack of each blow is so loud it sounds as though a dozen bones are broken, and each swing is accompanied by a wild cry on the part of the aggressor.

The black-hooded figures, leaping and shouting, have lost all human appearance.

All [that is] actually visible of the participants are their bare feet and the occasional gleam of eyes through the steel bars of the visors.  A spectator has a mixed impression of the Ku-Klux-Klanners on the loose, the jousting of Knighthood in full flower, and a conflict of Daemons of Darkness.

This, then, is the ancient and honorable sport of Kendo.  On the Pacific Coast before the war some one hundred and sixty second generation Japanese-American males were trained in the art, science and religion of Kendo by five well-financed Budo Societies.


Slight Protection

The headgear (Ken) is a sort of hood made of thickly padded cloth with a mask of horizontal steel bars.  A heavy shield (do) made of lacquered leather or plated bamboo is worn belt-like from the crest of the hip-bones up to the armpits.  Heavy gauntlets (Kote) cover the hands and forearms.  And a light quilted padding, following the classical skirt-like pattern of Japanese armor, gives a small degree of protection to the thighs.

The stick is called a shinai and is made of four quarter-segments of extremely heavy bamboo bound together with cat-gut.  The shinai is tipped with leather and has a leather hand-grip.  The fact that it is made of four segments partially explains the terrifying percussion that accompanies each blow of the shinai.

But let no one assume from this that the effects of violence is fictitious.

The shinai is a potent club, hardly less heavy than a baseball bat and the proactive coverings described are extremely vulnerable.  The blows are delivered with tremendous force, and not only is most of the protective covering quite inadequate, but the upper arms and lower legs have practically no protection at all.

Just as in fencing, bull-fighting, ballet-dancing and other esoteric sports, the uninitiated spectator of kendo is always observing the wrong things and never really knows what is going on.  He is bound to feel that whichever contestant is batting the other over the head with the greatest frequency and fervor is coming out on top. But, of course, such is not the case.

There are four scoring points in Kendo: (1) A blow on the top of the skull, (2) on the wrist, (3) on the side of the torso between the hip and armpit, (4) a thrust to the throat.  But there are two qualifications which are even more important to remember.

First, the blow must be delivered by the shinai within six inches of its tip.  Second, the umpire must decide that this blow was delivered with such force and direction that had the shinai been a real Japanese sword (which in this situation would be a single-edged, slightly curved saber about three feet in length) it would have proven fatal to its recipient.

In Japan, matches were decided by two out of three scoring points, but in California it was customary to decide the bout by a single point.

The wildly guttural shouts which the players emit are called kiai, and are not mere expressions of exuberance nor attempts to terrify the adversary. The ideal of the Kendo player is to enter the state of mushin.  Literally mushin means without mind.  (Remember this fact when you are thinking of the Japs on Attu.) In terms of Western psychology we would say that to attain the state of mushin was to eliminate the conscious mind and to give oneself over completely to the control of the subconscious.

“The player must care nothing about winning, must think nothing of the audience….his body must become an inspired automaton of the Kendo skill while at the same time his spirit seem to glory in a new freedom.”

Now to return to the kiai. These cries are a means of indicating the state of mushin which one has achieved.  They are first given at the beginning of a match so that each contestant may judge the inner spiritual mettle of the other.  They are continued for the same purpose; the player gives explosive expression to the state of “sublimation” he has gained.

The fact is that the soldiers of Japan are trained in the art of attaining mushin, thoughtless concentration, sublime automatism.  This ability is a psychological fact, just like the development of the biceps.

A great deal has been written about it under the name of “self-hypnosis” in American magazines of psychology.  The United States Army, (no doubt wisely) has not attempted to make any use of its two-edged possibilities.


Has Disadvantages

It must seem rather obvious that mushin has its disadvantages as well as its advantages.  Under its influence ordinary men are willing to die with supernatural willingness.  But there is also the mute evidence of the full ammunition pouches strapped to the waists of the suicides, and the loud evidence of the irrational kiai which seemed to negate many of the desperate nocturnal raids of the Jap.  The general effect appears to be not much better than the achievement of being high under the influence of marijuana.

Fanaticism implies a fierce, monomaniacal, death-defying adherence to some ideal.

This is not what motivates the Japs of Attu when they blew out their bellies long before they had exhausted their ammunition.  The ideological factor was missing.  This is not what motivated them when they emitted their wild yells at times when they might otherwise have surprised the Americans in their sleep.

Our military psychologists had better forget about fanaticism and learn to understand and measure the sublime state of mushin if we are to win our war with the Jap without too long a struggle.



If you enjoyed this article you might also want to read: The “Wing Chun Rules of Conduct”: Rediscovering Ip Man’s Original Statement on the Philosophy of the Martial Arts.