A vintage Japanese postcard showing kendo practice on a battleship. Source: Author’s personal collection.



Welcome to week nine of “History of East Asian Martial Arts.”  This series follows the readings being used in Prof. TJ Hinrichs’ undergraduate course of the same name at Cornell University.  This is a great opportunity for readers looking to upgrade their understanding of Martial Arts Studies.  It is also important for those of us in the academy who are thinking about how we can craft classes, or create new units, that draw on Martial Arts Studies in our own teaching.  Rather than reporting on the class discussion and lecture, this post will introduce the readings and some of the study questions that have been assigned.

This was our first week back after spring break which is critical as it was also the first full week of on-line instruction following the closure of the campus due to the rapid spread of COVID-19 in New York State.  There are have been some notable changes to this course.  To begin with, a new syllabus was circulated to the undergraduates.  The new grading requirements and deadlines need not concern us, but it should be noted that the readings have been simplified as student now have access to only what is available through the library’s electronic reserve.  After some though I have decided to follow the revised and streamlined reading list as it probably better approximates what readers at home will be able to locate as well.

Second, there has been some change in the format of instruction.  Prof. Hinrichs has begun to record short lectures which the students can watch ahead of time.  These, along with the required readings, allow them to compose one paragraph responses to discussion questions on a class bulletin board.  Finally, during the regular lecture times there is a live Zoom meeting.  This provides the students an opportunity to ask questions, additional lecture material is presented, and discussions questions are posed.

It will be interesting to see how things evolve going forward.  The workload for the students seemed heavy this week, so it is possible that things will be simplified as the instructor determines which of the on-line teaching tools are doing the best job of reaching the students.  Still, it is clear that you can facilitate a pretty decent group discussion through Zoom (albeit with a delay as people mute and unmute their microphones).


Unit IV: Modernization and the Globalization of Practice

The readings for this week introduced a new unit focused on the late 19th and 20th century modernization of the East Asian martial arts.  At this point the syllabus has slipped back into its familiar pattern of juxtaposing events in Japan and China on opposite weeks.

This unit asks students to consider the following questions:

  1. In what ways do processes of modernization differ from the historical transformations that we examined for earlier periods?
  2. Until recently, globalization has usually been thought of only in terms of the spread of European and American culture to other countries. East Asian martial arts, however, have a long history of migrating the other direction. What are the historical dynamics of the spread of East Asian martial arts to other parts of the world?

Much of the class discussion focused on the first of these questions.  It was clear that modernity, as a theoretical concept, was something that the class wanted to get their minds around, especially in a “traditional” setting such as the martial arts.  Much of our in-class discussion focused on the rise of nationalism in the late 19th (or early 20th) century, the process of modernization and secularization, and the concept of “invented traditions” as a response to modernity.


Week 9: Bushido as Japanese Spirit

  • Cameron Hurst. 1998. Armed Martial Arts of Japan: Swordsmanship and Archery. New Haven: Yale University Press. 147-176.
  • William M. Bodiford, “Religion and Spiritual Development: Japan,” in Martial Arts of the World: An Encyclopedia, Vol. 2, ed. Thomas A. Green, (Santa Barbara: ABC-Clio, 2001), 472-485.
  • Oleg Benesch, “Essentials of Samurai Thought,” Japanese Philosophy: A Sourcebook, James W. Heisig, et. al., eds., (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2011), 1108-1112.


Discussion Questions

  • In what ways did earlier reinventions of samurai traditions, such as in the transition to Edo peace, differ from the reinventions of Meiji and later?
  • How did bushidō become the “soul” of Japan, as opposed a path for bushi, and how did that transformation impact the meaning and practice of martial arts?
  • Key Terms: bushidō, budō


Kendo club at a Japanese Agricultural School during the 1920s. Note the rifles along the back wall. Source: wikimedia.


Quick Thoughts on the Readings and Discussion Questions

We have already encountered the Bodiford article and it is well worth reviewing (or re-reading) as we move into this new unit.  It is among the most concise accounts I have ever seen of the invention of a new national martial culture. Students should also consider how the fundamental reworking of Japanese religion by government officals (always in ways that were inspired by Western sociology) bolstered this process and contributed to the creation of a new cultural complex.

Oleg Benesch’s various articles and books can be thought of as expanding on this framework.  He is interested in how the disappearance of the samurai as an actual social class of individuals allowed the “samurai spirit” to be reinvented by the state and declared the essence of the Japanese nation.  Martial arts practice was an important means by which this radical social experiment was normalized within a few generations.  Benesch goes to lengths to demonstrate that the roots of 20th century Bushido lay not within traditional Japanese thought, but rather are self-conscious attempts to import Western culture in an effort to modernize the Japanese state.

This brings us to Hurst.  No serious student of Japanese history doubts the magnitude of the social shifts that occurred during the Meiji period.  And even a cursory familiarity with the martial arts during the Tokugawa and Showa periods is enough to confirm that these practices were fundamentally reformulated both in terms of their techniques and cultural values.  Still, we must determine what sort of revolution we are observing.  Is this a top-down transformation, in which a small group of government officials put Japan on a pathway that would lead inexorably to hyper-nationalism and fascism?  Or is it something else?

Martial arts historians are not the only people who ask such questions.  In popular discussions of modern Japanese history there has been a tendency to focus attention on national level policy makers.  While their actions were critical, this also tends to absolve other elements of Japanese society (including its martial artists) of responsibility for what happened during the nation’s imperialist phase.

Hurst does not directly address these debates in this chapter, yet his entire discussion of the Meiji period focuses on the declining fortunes of a small group of relatively elite samurai and the impact this had on fencing.  Likewise, his account of martial arts’ deathbed resurrection focuses largely on their appropriation by the state as an element of education policy and as a tool of nationalism.

It might be unfair to burden undergrads with an extensive counterpoint reading, but we should carefully consider each of these points.  Hurst basically lays out the accepted wisdom.  Yet this is not the only way that the tale can be told.  More specifically, the first two chapters of Denis Gainty’s 2013 (Routledge) monograph Martial Arts and the Body Politic in Meiji Japan, should be considered mandatory reading on this point. Gainty was Hurst’s final graduate student and the two, rather tragically, died only a year apart.

Gainty believed that his mentor’s treatment of the modernization of the Japanese martial arts was in need of fundamental revision.  He began by challenging the samurai centric version of these events, noting that by the late Tokugawa period several of Japan’s leading fencing instructors were civilians.  Indeed, civilians studied all of Japan’s martial arts, from wrestling to gunnery and their numbers were rapidly increasing.  While the destruction of the samurai class and the (temporary) closing of the urban training halls was disruptive to these practices, it was not the existential event that many modern martial artists have assumed it to be.  Removing the last vestiges of samurai exclusivity and the decline of the domainal schools allowed for an explosion of creative energy within the martial arts sector. Indeed, the later Meiji was fundamentally a time of energy and innovation within the Japanese martial arts. That is certainly not the impression that one gets when reading Hurst. It is worth considering, for instance, the differences in how Hurst and Gainty evaluate the importance and ultimate legacy of urban Gekken shows.

All of this sets the stage for Gainty’s next move.  Challenging the top-down narrative, Gainty carefully explores the creation and evolution of the Dai Nippon Butokukai in the late 1890s and early 20th century.  Through careful research he shows that it was civilian martial artists who spent decades lobbying one government after another to include martial arts within the national educational curriculum.  Japan’s technocratic and statist reformers actively resisted these moves for years.  Likewise, it was Japan’s martial arts who advocated for a vision of society in which their practices would be used by the state to promote nationalism and to militarize the population for service in imperialist conflicts across Asia.  This plan was certainly promoted by many state actors.  Yet it was eagerly evangelized by many Japanese martial artists.

A true revolution was a foot during the Meiji period, but at least some elements of Japanese modernity arose from below.  Gainty concludes that martial arts are critical to understanding this period as they became a means by which citizens could exercises and experience agency in debates about the nature of Japanese modernity.  This point is absolutely critical as many other states have attempted to use the martial arts to advance a national agenda.  During the 1920s Taijiquan and Wushu were pushed into service in Republican China.  In the post-war years Taekwondo became a pillar of both Korean identity and physical culture.  One can multiply examples at length.

We do not expect to see the same historical processes playing out in an identical way in each state.  Still, each one of these cases asks us to carefully consider the question of agency.  Once a state intervenes in the sector, are the martial arts reduced to tools of propaganda and social control?  Can these institutions become sites of political or social resistance?  Put more simply, in the modern world does martial arts practice actually empower individuals?

The Japanese case can been read as suggesting that the martial arts function merely as another layer of social control.  It may be disturbing that Japan’s Kendo and Judo instructors were unable to resist the rising tide of militarism, but perhaps we should not be surprised when we remember the immense power of the modern fascist state.  Gainty suggests an even more disturbing possibility as to why Japan’s martial artists had very little interest in resisting imperialist policies.  Yet by emphasizing the importance of agency at the local level, he raise the possibility that in other times and places martial arts communities might advocate for radically different visions of society.  They might even gain the influence to bring them about.



If you enjoyed this discussion you might also want to read: Martial Arts and the Body Politic: A Review in Memory of Denis Gainty