Welcome to week eleven 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.  It concludes with some of my own thoughts on the questions that have been raised in the week’s assigned texts.

After spending an entire unit on Chinese martial arts during the Republic era, this week’s readings return our attention to events in Japan during the first half of the 20th century. More specifically, we examine the emergence of two of the most internationally popular Japanese martial arts, Judo and Aikido, as responses to, and emergences from, that country’s older jujutsu traditions.  Even if one is not an aficionado of the Japanese arts this is an incredibly important period as globalization of the East Asian fighting arts began, in large part, with Kanō Jigorō’s pioneering attempts to combine modern Western pedagogical methods (and sporting values) with the quest to cultivate “Japanese spirit.”  The institutions and images developed in these decades would go on to define global expectations about “proper martial arts” for generations to come.  Much of what we reflexively accept as traditional was first synthesized in these years.

Several important theoretical questions are raised in these readings.  Students are asked to consider the differences between Judo and Aikido, as well as the competing views of spirituality developed by their respective founders.  Also fascinating is their subsequent acceptance, or rejection, by later generations of students.  We must also address the rise of economic markets in the support and spread of the Japanese martial arts.  While purists viewed with the “commercialization” of the martial arts with suspicion, by the late Meiji it was clear that the survival of these practices in both the East and West would be conditioned on their ability to succeed in an increasingly competitive marketplaces. The expectations and needs of consumers would ultimately determine the levels of demand for different varieties of physical training, as well as the utility of government intervention in this sector.  Finally, it is not enough to consider the ways in which Japanese society was changing.  To explain the global success of these arts we must consider the cultural shifts that were under way in both the United Kingdom and the United States during this period.


Class Videos

This week’s readings were relatively brief as students were also assigned a paper.  However, Prof. Hinrich’s augmented this material with a number of YouTube videos including vintage scenes of practice from both Judo and Aikido.  I spent considerable time thinking about this material as it took more than an hour to work my way through it.  While interesting from a technical standpoint, one might argue that it is detached from the theoretical concerns of the reading.  Still, I became convinced that such videos were an important means to contextualize and frame the arguments that the students were being asked to evaluate. To be frank, nothing demonstrates the need to carefully evaluate hagiographic descriptions of the past quite like actual videos of the growing militarism of the pre-war years, or the turn towards pacifism in WWII’s wake.

The narration of this material by Prof. Hinrichs proved to be especially helpful in grabbing student attention in the sometimes distracting environment of distance learning.  There is no reason that similar video texts couldn’t be selected for most of the weeks in this class. What follows is an abbreviated selection of videos which readers might find helpful as they work their way through the readings.







Required Readings

  • INOUE Shun, “The Invention of the Martial Arts: Kanō Jigorō and Kōdōkan Judo,” in Stephen Vlastos, ed., Mirror of Modernity: Invented Traditions of Modern Japan, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), 163-173.
  • Geoffrey Wingard, “Sport, Industrialism, and The Japanese ‘Gentle Way’: Judo in Late Victorian England,” Journal of Asian Martial Arts (2003) 12.2:16-25.
  • Peter A Goldsbury, “Aikido,” Martial Arts of the World: An Encyclopedia of History and Innovation, Thomas A. Green and Joseph R. Svinth, eds., (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2010), 132-139.
  • UESHIBA Kisshōmaru, “Divine Transformation,” A Life in Aikido: The Biography of Founder Morihei Ueshiba, (Tokyo: Kodansha International, 2008), 174-180.


Additional Readings

One of my ongoing frustrations is that I have yet to find a detailed, scholarly, biography of Kanō Jigorō.  Perhaps such a thing is out there, but I have not encounter it.  That said, I really enjoyed Ueshiba Kisshomaru’s biography of his father, A Life in Aikido. It seems to be one of those rare martial arts biographies that strikes a successful balance between being very readable and still offering a detailed discussions of the social and political worlds that Ueshiba Morihei inhabited. Kisshōmaru delves deeply into somewht difficult topics including his father’s spirituality and ongoing relationship with new religious movements, his early adventurism in Northern China and later relationship with Japan’s military establishment.  I would certainly recommend the entire volume if one is interested in the Japanese martial arts during this period.



Discussion Questions

  1. Kanō Jigorō and Ueshiba Morihei both created new budo out of jujutsu; and both Kanō and aikido leaders actively promoted their new styles outside Japan. In what ways did their strategies of promotion differ?
  2. What specifically is modern about both Kanō’s and Ueshiba’s reinventions of jujutsu?
  3. Both Judo and Aikido have emphasized the importance of the “spiritual” element of training.  How did Kanō and Ueshiba’s understanding of spirituality differ?  What does the subsequent transformation of Judo and Aikido suggest about the global marketplace for for East Asian fighting systems?
  4. Of all the fighting systems that existed in East Asia, how do we explain Judo’s early acceptance by consumers in the United Kingdom and the United States?


Judo at Ina Middle School. Vintage postcard circa late 1930s. Source: Author’s personal collection.


Some Quick Thoughts on “Selling your Art”

I think that the discussion questions for this week are some of the best we have seen in the class so for.  Any of them would make for a great essay.  Treating Judo and Aikido as comparative cases in the creation of the modern martial arts opens many fascinating topics of conversation.  But before diving into any of them, we need to address an elephant standing squarely in the middle of the room.  As various fighting systems made the leap from the traditional world of the 18th and 19th century, to the modern era of the Late Meiji and the Republic of China, many things changes.  Perhaps the most important of these was the growth of new types of economic markets.

These market shifts are fundamental to understanding what happened within both the Japanese and Chinese arts as they determined how new groups of people encountered these practices while older mechanisms of social support were fading away.  The importance of these transformations should be obvious.  Still, we must acknowledge that among martial arts practitioners there can be a strong taboo against certain types of business discussions.

This isn’t a sentiment I often encounter in my fieldwork with martial artists coming out of the Pearl River Delta. Everyone in Hong Kong understand that rents for school spaces are high and that Sifu has to make a living.  Indeed, there is something about the region’s commercial ethos that reminds me of the “protestant work ethic.”  To be seen as a hard working and wealthy businessperson (or teacher) carries certain connotations of virtue.  Its even possible to catch glimpses of the region’s monthly tuition rates back to the turn of the 20th century as these things were occasionally advertised or written down.

Not everyone has been this comfortable with the commercial transformation of the modern martial arts.  The cost of Taijiquan instruction in the public parks of Northern China is often negotiated on a much more informal basis, and amateur instructors may make a point of publicly declaring that they do not accept payment for their teaching.  Likewise, the costs of training Wushu students at China’s elite sport universities is covered by the state.  In these circles it is not uncommon to encounter a sort of Confucian discomfort with the world of commerce and the resulting belief that martial arts instruction should be premised on social relationships (or patronage networks) rather than direct economic exchange.

Japanese martial artists also objected to commercialization of the fighting arts, though I suspect their norms originated from a class structure which placed warriors at the top of society, and merchants on the bottom (a notable departure from the Confucian norm).  This doesn’t mean that fencing or jujutsu instruction was free during the Tokugawa period, or that economic considerations are new.  Fees could be quite high and there are many stories of prominent swordsmen who did not earn teaching degrees as they could not afford the customary testing fees necessary to gain a license.  But in these circumstances the exchange of money often occurred within, and reinforced, specific types of feudal and social patronage networks.

The decline of traditional sponsors of military excellence (the state run exam system in China and Samurai feudalism in Japan) meant that if newly reformed martial arts were to survive, they would have to generate mass appeal and expand their reach to previously unavailable groups of consumers.  While martial arts reformers in both countries would seek to reestablish their ties with the state as a source of support, their efforts only succeeded by demonstrating that the mass appeal of their arts could provide governments with a mechanism to unify the population and drag it onto the world stage.

None of this could happen if one first failed to pay the rent.  And even that minimal condition was not possible if you failed anticipate the needs and wants of a quickly modernizing consumer base.  The term “consumer” is a loaded one.  A few of this weeks assigned readings quite consciously used it to differentiate between modern and traditional martial arts students.  A number of the undergraduates immediately objected to this as they did not view themselves as mere “consumers” when they entered the training hall.  Rightly or wrongly, they felt that the term devalued the authenticity of their practice.  Were they simply “buying” their art?  And what exactly is wrong with this model of education?

Nor are they alone in this discomfort.  Prof. Hinrichs related a fascinating story about her own Aikido Sensei who had an equally conflicted relationship with the market.  As much as he may have disliked the idea, his martial arts school, like every other large brick and mortar location, was a ultimately business which had to turn a profit if it wished to exist on a month to month basis.  Rent, taxes, insurance and salaries all must be paid regardless of one’s dislike of “mere” commerce.

Still, the ways in which individuals negotiate this duality is potentially important.  In this case the Aikido Sensei allowed his students to advertise the business, but only in educational and non-profit venues, never in commercial ones.  In this way he attempted to send a symbolic message about how he understood Aikido training, while still existing within commercial market structures. The underlying norm seems to have been that the martial arts should be defined by distinct types of interpersonal relationships (based on mutual responsibility), and brining money into the conversations threatened the authenticity of the exchange.  Yet that fiction can only be maintained once a comfortable market equilibrium (built around the exchange of services for money) has been achieved.

One suspects that many students in the West may be sensitive to these issues for other reasons.  The counter culture of movement of the 1970s was quick to adopt the martial arts while at the same time searching for an alternative to society’s capitalist ethos.  The interpersonal and deeply cooperative nature of much martial arts training must have made the two movements seem like fellow travelers.  Thus, individuals who are already in search of “post-modern values” may be particularly attracted to these practices.

The existence of a monetary taboo surrounding the martial arts is over-determined.  There are several cultural reasons why at least some martial artists in both Japan and China would feel this way.  Further, Western student have their own issues with the gritty reality of “selling/buying” an art.  Yet as scholars we cannot ignore the fundamentally commercial nature of these institutions in their modern incarnation.  It is through market structures that the vast majority of us encounter and access martial arts training.  Markets spread images and ideas about the martial arts, advertising their existence and making them a truly mass phenomenon.  They are implicated in practically every aspect of our practice.

We must also acknowledge that martial arts studies, as a field, does not exist in pristine isolation from commercial forces or pressures.  At the bare minimum, most members of our field are also student practitioners and it seems that a fair number of them demonstrate some avoidance of finances in their writing.  Or maybe that is not quite right?  Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the economics of martial arts are neglected for a variety of reasons that typically elude our conscious discussion.

Most of us take martial arts classes rather than run large schools.  There is a persistent pressure to “write what you know,” and as a result few of us are well situated to address the specific details of these market forces, no matter how important they might be.

One also wonders what role shifting research strategies have played in this rather odd myopia.  Within the anthropological approaches, we have seen a shift away from traditional methods of participant-observation, to performance ethnography and other highly confessional modes of writing.  While more traditional ethnographic methods may have encouraged the researcher to form a close relationship with a martial arts instructor, delving into all aspects of their familial, cultural, social and economic life, newer approaches tend to privilege the experiences of those taking the classes and the nature of embodied experience itself.  Clearly there is much to be gained from this second approach.  But I wonder if our neglect of economic constraints doesn’t also speak to what has been lost as we move away from traditional ethnographic approaches and research questions?

In conclusion, East Asia’s martial arts underwent a fundamental transformation in the late 19th and early 20th century.  This was in large part a cultural and political process.  Yet we cannot neglect the economic realities that these new institutions and organizations faced.  The global spread of both Judo and Aikido was only made possible by their development of new strategies  for attracting and retaining students.  Such iconic symbols as colored belts and matching school uniforms have their basis not in ancient traditions but modern market pressures.  The solutions these men pioneered would have a profound effect on the many other martial arts which emerged in the coming decades.  Understanding this shift is the basic precondition necessary to address any of the other discussion questions.



If you enjoyed this you might also want to read: Chi Sao, Ip Man and the Problem of “Dispersed Training” in Wing Chun