A well known image of American soldiers gathered around captured Japanese swords. Many of these weapons would be brought back to the United States at the conclusion of WWII and would form the basis of the subsequent development of Japanese sword appreciation in this country.



Why is the Katana more popular than the Jian

A good friend recently sent me a link for a YouTube video asking why Chinese swords are not as well known in Western popular culture as their Japanese counterparts.  As the narrator noted, everyone knows the word ‘katana.’ Very few people, other than dedicated martial artists, are familiar with ‘jian’ or ‘dao.’  The video was thoughtful and well produced.  It also seems to have missed all of the most obvious answers to the question.

Its fundamental mistake actually emerged from one of its strengths.  The nice thing about the video was that it dove into Chinese folklore and storytelling about the sword.  To summarize too quickly, while there are a handful of famous swords in Chinese martial lore, in general these discursive traditions were more concerned with how a blade was used (or not used) than the intrinsic qualities of the weapon itself.  Power always rested firmly in the virtue of the wielder and not the weapon.  That makes even famous Chinese swords a bit different from something like Excalibur.

All of which was thought provoking, but ultimately pointless, if one was really trying to think about the cultural recognition of different swords (or fencing traditions) in the West.  It should go without saying that those same English-speaking audiences that are unfamiliar with the term ‘jian’ are also going to have missed most of the nuanced storytelling and literature that the author explored.  Rather than focusing on the history of Chinese swords, we need to consider the audience.  Specifically, how does a sense of cross-cultural desire emerge across generations?

John Maynard Keynes once observed that even the most action-oriented officials, the sorts of people who would recoil at the suggestion that what they did was even passingly “theoretical,” were always in the thrall of some half understood, long debunked, economy theory.  They were still “doing” theory in their daily jobs, but by insisting that they relied only upon “common sense” and personal experience, they were doomed to do it quite badly.  I have always liked this observation as it emphasizes the degree to which unconscious beliefs and biases shape the way that we approach the world.  The same holds true with swords. We cannot understand how people imagine the martial arts today without engaging in a bit of intellectual archeology.

If one wishes to understand why the katana is ‘cool’ whereas the jian is not, one must start by exploring Japan’s miraculous rise from isolated island nation to great power during the late 19th and early 20th century.  Japan’s defeat of Russia in 1905 sent shockwaves through Europe as people were forced to rapidly rethink everything that they thought they knew about racial politics and the military balance between great powers.  Japan’s continued rise during the 1930s, and eventual attack on Pearl Harbor, had an even greater effect on American culture.

Since the earliest reporters and writers to travel to Japan noted that the custom of wearing swords was still in effect, swords became closely associated with the Japanese people in Western popular culture at an early date.  At first these weapons were often invoked as being quaint, backwards or a reminder of difficulties of dealing with the residual Samurai class.  Occasionally they were a point of derision.  But as Japan’s power in the Pacific began its miraculous ascent, the sword was reimagined as a symbol of cultural power, and hence it became the key symbol to understanding the new cultural mythology surrounding Japan.

It is important to understand that this mythology was something of a joint project.  Japanese intellectuals were acutely aware of how they were described and discussed in the West. Thus ideas tended to be passed back and forth between global audiences and their counterparts in Japan.  Oleg Benesch has demonstrated at length that the concept of Bushido (the supposed ‘soul of Samurai’) that arose during the Meiji period (and would go on to have a huge impact on all modern Japanese martial arts) had almost nothing to do with medieval Japanese warrior culture.  On the contrary, it was highly influenced by English notions of what it meant to be a gentleman. This probably goes a long way towards explaining the concept’s immediate popularity in the West. Likewise, Japanese and Western writers conspired together to reinforce the primacy of the sword in the national psyche.

Nor can we ignore the fact that America came into direct military conflict with the Japan.  As such, the “soul” of this nation had to be reimagined as something other than a typical national culture for domestic political purposes.  It had to be seen as both mysterious and dangerous, befitting the massive sacrifice of lives and material that was about to thrown into the war machine.  American propaganda extolled the deadly threat of Japanese swords as a material extension of the equally threatening Japanese culture.  Naturally, people were inclined to believe it as such notions legitimated the conflict and made American forces seem all the more heroic in victory.

Chinese swords, which also made many appearances in period newspapers during the 1930s-1940s, were a different matter.  They were not held up as the soul of a nation, so much as they were pointed to as proof of the backward state of the Chinese military.  While GMD propogandist tried hard to place the dadao and the katana on the same level, no such equivalency ever emerged in the Western imagination.  When we saw a poorly equipped Chinese soldier holding a sword and a satchel of the grenades the only message that ran through the collective American psyche was “Buy more war bonds!”

These images and associations would not vanish after 1945.  Rather, they continued to inform the following generation’s films, comic books and radio dramas.  The existence of Chinese swords seems to have been quickly forgotten, but their Japanese counterparts needed to remain to remind us of the nation’s heroic sacrifices in the Pacific and superior spiritual strength.  We needed the Japanese martial arts to be dangerous so that we could be great for overcoming them.

It goes without saying that these sorts of background ideas would have a huge impact on the global spread of the Asian martial arts.  GI’s were stationed all over Asia, and they were exposed to all sorts of stuff.  A few individuals, like R. W. Smith (working for the CIA in Taiwan) became interested in the Chinese fighting systems.  But a much greater number of veterans seem to have followed the example of Donn F. Draeger and thrown themselves into the Japanese fighting arts precisely because these had been “proven on the battlefield.”  Again, one could spend an entire book chapter unpacking exactly what that means as the Chinese probably used martial arts on the modern battlefield more than anyone else out of sheer necessity. Yet in the 1950s it was too easy to just accept it all as common sense.  After all, even the American military had adopted Judo as an official training tool in 1943.  Japan’s martial spirit thus became an important element in the creation of America’s postwar sense of self.

All of which brings us back to Keynes and his ever-practical officials toiling away in ignorance of the past.  Just because we are personally unsure as to how we got here, it does not follow that the past has no influence on us.  This is precisely why martial arts studies must deal with intellectual history as well as the intricacies of practice.  Consequently, it’s also the reason why Leonardo was carrying a set of katana rather than jian when the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles first emerged from the sewers in 1988. The presence of Japanese weaponry automatically conveyed something important about these characters to the audience.


An early incarnation of the turtles. Note the similar masks not yet differentiated by color.


This is not to imply that there is anything automatic or inevitable about such developments.  Intellectual history is as full of contingency, happenstance and construction as anything else.  This brings me to the subject of the news clipping which follows.  A number of posts on this blog have asked how China’s government during the 1930s sought to use their martial arts as a way to increase the state’s ‘soft power’ in the global sphere.  This got me wondering about Japan’s campaign, and how it had been received by the press at a time when tensions between the two countries were escalating.

The following article examines the visit of a Japanese Kendo teacher to Los Angeles in 1936.  Joseph Svinth has already shown that by this point the Japanese American community had all of the domestically produced instructors that they needed.  This visit seemed to be part of a formal visit.

What is very interesting is to see the gravity with which the reporter from the Los Angeles Times responds to a public Kendo demonstration.  Even a children’s event where youngsters were trying to pop balloons tied to one another’s helmets was treated as a deep cultural mystery.  Clearly the cult of the sword was already a part of the American image of Japan long before this article was written. Enatsu Sensei’s interview attempted to further the Japanese American community’s effort to build bonds of trust and understanding with the surrounding city.

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 would destroy all of this.  The myth of the Katana would remain intact, but the LA’s kendo classes would be shut down by the government and many of the people and students in this article would probably end up in internment camps.  Feeling that Kendo was too closely tied to Japanese militarism most Japanese American would destroy their training equipment and forsake any practice of the art.  Very few were interested in returning to it after the end of WWII.  Ironically, it would be returning GI’s, instructors from Japan, and a handful of holdouts who would be forced to reintroduce the sport to American soil during the post-war period.

I like this article on a number of counts.  While the history of Kendo that it offers is totally unreliable, it does help to answer our initial question.  As a historical document it illustrates a vibrant regional martial arts community in the late 1930s, just a few years before its demise.  Finally it reminds us of the often-paradoxical relationship between the hard power of military might, and soft influence of cultural desire.  Enjoy.


T. Shimada leads a Kendo class in Los Angeles, 1933. Source: Vintage Press Photo. Author’s Personal Collection.


Japan Invades America

By Paul Willion. Los Angeles Times. January 12, 1936.


In the weird, half-light of gayly festooned streetlamps they look like fantastic automatons from a strange planet.  Toy balloons—shrieking reds, blues, greens and yellows—bob crazily about from anchorages atop black helmets.  Metal bars shine grotesquely from in front of oriental faces.  And dark costumes cover bodies to the feet, which are shod in white half-sox.

They stand there in two long rows, grimly facing each other, waiting. Their hands are clenched tightly about short, stout, bamboo poles.  And even as the onlookers begin to wonder if these can indeed, be humans, a shrill whistle bites the warm night air.

Instantly the two lines of Japanese youth leap toward each other, crashing blows upon one another with wild abandon. Some are battered to the street.  Others stagger, but remain erect.  The rest, either luckier or more expert, parry the torrent of thrusts in a mad battle royal of bursting balloons, clubbing, swaying bodies, and heavy grunting.

“It’s called ‘Kendo,’” volunteers an American-born Japanese youth, nodding towards the melee.  “It means ‘the way of the sword.’  Thirty-five million Japanese know how to play it!”

But that’s not the half of it.  This introduction of Kendo into the United States sounds an important diplomatic note-significant especially in that, choosing California as the radiating hub for their experiment, the Japanese recognize this state as the most promising in the New World from which to attempt to compose the cultures of East and West upon a newer and better basis of understanding.

The Japanese recall that we took baseball to the islands—and are pleased to believe that its immense popularity contains the germ of a wholesome plea for trans-pacific peace.  They know that golf, a purely occidental game in origin, swept Nippon like wildfire.  Nor could any intelligent person who witnessed the Olympic Games in Los Angeles do other than develop admiration for the amazingly quick mastery of Western sports by the Japanese.

But so far—with the exception of jiu-jitsu, never given much of a tumble on this side—the movement has all been in one direction.  Now the Japanese want to reverse that order, at least once.  And in Kendo they believe they’ve found a sport that will find response in America and provide thereby a means of widening Western appreciation of Japanese character and philosophy.

So it is that Kendo comes to California as an ambassador, for into its ritual and performance are woven the culture and race history of the Empire of the Rising Sun.  And, if by popularizing Kendo among Western nations from California as a center, another dimension can be added to closer understanding, Japanese diplomacy will feel well repaid for its efforts.

Kendo, mind you, is as old as Japan itself. Its history dates from the time of the Sun Goddess in the remote haze of antiquity some 2600 years ago. Kendo is at once a sport and a cult, inter-weaving the spiritual and the physical in a dyad ever an enigma of the Western mind.

“Know Kendo, know the Japanese.”

That is the message implied in the invasion of the United States by this unique and interesting sport.  It is the essence of things Japanese!

Every year a Kendo tournament is held in Japan.  Experts gather to compete.  Some come more than a thousand miles by sea and by land.  On May 5, Emperor Hirohito himself attends the annual matches held under auspices of the Japanese Fencing Union, dignifies the sport by his presence and places laurels upon the head of the victor.

No wonder that every public and private school in Nippon teaches this game!  It is estimated that fully half the islands’ population is versed in its intricacies and lore.  It is said, too, that Japanese school children in the outlaying provinces look upon the weekly visits of their Kendo teachers with all the eager anticipation of the Christian child for St. Nicholas.

The sudden outburst of Kendo in California is due to the visit of Prof. K. Enatsu, one of Japan’s foremost instructors. Since last February he’s been busy organizing classes throughout the State instructing likely pupils as future teachers of the gospel of Kendo in America.

Kendo has taken Nisei, the younger generation of Japanese in America, by storm.  The kids are crazy about it.  And if you saw the first pubic presentation of the sport on one of Little Tokyo’s streets in Los Angeles during Nisei Week last year, you saw the initial gesture made in the United States toward popularizing Kendo in the western world.

Now, a word about the game itself:

The mask worn covers the entire head and has long flaps that dangle down over the neck.  A thick towel is always worn on top of the skull as a protection against concussion.  The “do” is a hide circlet about the ribs, polished and black as patent leather.  It, too, has flaps these protecting the hips from the bruising force of blows deflected downward off the Shinai (bamboo sword) and from the body.  The Wrists and Fingers are armored with padded gauntlet gloves.

The Shinai, or dueling stick, is four and one-half feet long and made of four pieces of split bamboo glued together like a fly rod.  Such sticks are about two inches in diameter, have a small leather guard, and their tips are covered with a fine deer-skin thong so that they will not rip or tear an opponent’s skin or clothing.  Black cotton half-socks with a special compartment for the big toe complete the outfit.  Shoes or slippers are taboo, but participants may compete barefooted.

A rigorous ritual precedes each joust.  The two duelists bow, then kneel—their shinai, masks, gloves and towel in a near half-circle before them.  First, the towel is wrapped about the head.  Then the mask and gloves are donned.  All of these movements are so synchronized that the duelists finish dressing at exactly the same moment.  Again, they bow to each other, rise, move forward, cross their bamboo shinai, which are grasped with two hands like the old Scottish claymore, and, at a signal from the referee, the battle is on.

And you’ve never seen fast motion until you’ve had an eyeful of Kendo!

They attack, retreat, feint, and defend with movements that fairly challenge sight.  But the noise! It’s like Babel put on the loudspeaker.  The crisp crashes of shinai upon shinai and the duller thuds of bamboo finding head or body are augmented with constant shouts and grunts by the duelists—fearful indeed to Western sensibilities used to their fencing, boxing and wrestling enacted in almost church-like silence.

The four points of vulnerability are the head, torso, throat and arms.  A “touch” on any of these scores a point.  The combatants battle until a predetermined number of points has been amassed by one, or for a certain number of minutes, the winner being he who places the most touches at “time.”

Two separate schools constitute Kendo—foundation and combat.  Both are taught in Japanese gymnasiums and on playgrounds as well as in the military.  Foundations Kendo is presented in classes and includes instruction in several hundred different positions, thrusts and parries.  The pupil graduates into combat kendo, though not even the most astute pupil can hope to become expert in less than five or six years.

Before a shinai is ever laid in his hands, the pupil is schooled in the tradition of the sport—and it is this phase of playing that differs so radically from participation in European and American games.

To the initiate it is recounted that Kendo was born before the Christian Era, when the hardy men of the islands fought their foes with clubs, stouter and crueler than today’s shinai—but nonetheless comparable.  He is told the virtues of the Nipponese metal sword, a development from the original shinai.  And, with pride that surges to reverence, the teacher informs his pupils that Kendo has run parallel with the recorded history of the empire.  The oratorical preludes are usually concluded with the disclosure that, as a pure sport, Kendo was flourishing about the time Columbus was pointing the bowsprits of his tiny caravels toward distant western horizons.

Before that time Kendo was serious proposition!

Adeptness with which a warrior bandied his sword often told whether he would come home with his head on his shoulders or leave it unsung upon some battlefield.

About the time that the sword, as an effective means of attack, was being pushed into the limbo of forgotten things, some unheralded Japanese thought of preserving its fine traditions and spirit in a game.  Tournaments were organized, even as the knights of England held their jousts with the lane to the plaudits of admiring ladies; and since the date when kendo lost its original identity to become an exercise and spectacle, it has grown in popular esteem until today it is acclaimed the most widely practiced and venerated form of physical culture in Nippon.

Though kendo is strictly speaking a masculine sport, the system provides a less strenuous style for girls and women called “Naginata,” from the spear with which it’s performed.  Naginata is a drill stressing rhythm, grace and poise—not muscle building. Spoken words, intoned like sailors’ chanties, always accent the postures in a set series of gestures made to the sweep and click of the eight-foot long spears.  Few exercises are more graceful or colorful than Naginata done by a class of Japanese girls draped in their native gowns and obis, and with foreheads crowned with bands of white cotton cloth.

“Kendo teaches that the real enemy of man is inside, not outside, explained Prof. Enatsu.

“It avows that when we’ve conquered ourselves the physical enemy is likewise vanquished.  In the parlance of Kendo it’s lack of co-ordination, concentration and ethical perfection that defeat us.  Therefore, excellence in the art of Kendo strengthens our personalities and those characteristics which are the true measure of men.

“Kendo is so directed that it develops the finer impulses of life as well as the muscles.  The student is shown that physical outcome is the result of such items as thought, poise and tolerance and that if the individuals learns to subdue himself, he has won the greatest victory in life.  Kendo has never deteriorated int the status of a mere bag of tricks.

“Japanese fencing—though I dislike the term ‘fencing,’ even though in English there seems none more apt—amounts to a rite amongst our people.

“There is no such thing as defeat in Kendo, in the occidental meaning of the word.  The only possibility of defeat occurs if a combatant loses his temper, for which he’s in disgrace.  No one enters a tournament with malice.  It’s the inner enemy that the fencer is out to defeat.  The ideal of Kendo is to make the effort rather than to enjoy victory for victory’s sake.  Over and over again the student is cautioned that he must banish all thought of anger before advancing to the mat, that courtesy is more important than scoring a thrust, and that politeness is greater than brute strength.”

Savants, stooping to platitudes, tell us that to know the other fellows ideal, culture and customs is the high road to sympathetic understanding.  Nor is it any secret that strained relations existing at times between the United States and Japan can be assessed largely to an almost willful, and certainly pitiful ignorance of each other’s aspirations and problems.

And so, through the medium of a symbolic, representative sport that entranced thousands of Americans on the streets of Little Tokyo in Los Angeles during Nisei Week, many intelligent Japanese believe that they have found a key to unlock the door to many of the differences that have confused occidental and oriental cultures since the twain first met.



If you enjoyed this post you might also want to read: Tools of the Trade: The Use of Firearms and Traditional Weapons among the Tongs of San Francisco, 1877-1878.