Judo in Taiwan, 1895-1945: The Dark Side of Martial Arts Politics

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  Dong Jhy and J. A. Mangan. 2018. “Japanese Cultural Imperialism in Taiwan: Judo as an Instrument of Colonial Conditioning.” in Mangan, Horton, Ren and Ok (eds.) Japanese Imperialism: Politics and Sport in East Asia – Rejection, Resentment and Revanchism…. Continue Reading →

Through a Lens Darkly (57): The Asian Martial Arts and Modern Primitivism

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This advertisement is from the 1970s, but it hits many of the same notes as the one discussed in this post and I love its graphic nature.




My ongoing research on the public diplomacy of the Chinese martial arts has taken a decisive turn.  The Second World War is one of those historical calamities that defines an era, and I now find myself venturing into the post-war era.  This is something of an adventure for me as I have gotten rather comfortable with the first half of the twentieth century.

Adventures are fun.  But any journey worth the trip is also a bit intimidating. Moving into a new era inevitably means loosening my grip on old assumptions and trying to see familiar processes through new eyes.  More specifically, if we are going to understand how various Asian states engaged in “Kung Fu Diplomacy” in the 1950s and 1960s it becomes vitally important to learn a little more about the attitudes of the Western public that they were attempting to appeal to.  What sorts of desires and predispositions do we find here?  Why might images of the martial arts appealed to them? What did they make of updated martial arts practices the post-war period?

Such answers might help to explain some of the remaining paradoxes regarding the post-war globalization of the Asian martial arts. For instance, it makes sense that Americans would have found the Japanese martial arts more interesting than their Chinese cousins during the 1910s.  Japan had just shocked the world with their defeat of Russia, and all sorts of travel writers were commenting on the rapid modernization of its society. It was inevitable that the Western public would develop an interest in their martial arts as it sought to come to terms with a newly ascendant Japan.

This is a logical, cohesive, and widely shared narrative. It also makes what happens after WWII something of a paradox.  If there had been a degree of polite interest in the Japanese martial arts during the 1910s-1930s, it paled in comparison to the boom unleashed during the 1950s.  Yet this was a humbled Japan, one that had been exposed as a brutal fascist power and utterly broken on the battlefield of the Pacific. China, on the other hand, had been on the winning side of this conflict and an ally (if a somewhat reluctant one) of the West.  Yet American GI’s remained vastly more interested in judo than kung fu.

Perhaps Japan’s status as an occupied country after 1945 made its culture available for colonial appropriation in ways that had not really been possible in the 1920s-1930s.  If nothing, else the country was hosting a sizable occupation force? Yet China’s status as a defacto colonial power in the late Qing and early Republic period did not seem to make its physical culture all that attractive to the many missionaries, government functionaries and YMCA directors that administered the Western zones of influence there.

Donn Draeger explained his interest in the Japanese martial arts by noting the superior performance of Japanese soldiers on the battlefield. Yet surely that had as much to do with their superior weapons, officers and communications systems as anything else. Something in this equation remains unexplained.  Japan continued to possess a store of cultural desire (or “soft power”) that was intuitively obvious to individuals at the time. But what exactly was it? Ruth Benedict’s controversial book, the Chrysanthemum and the Sword, has been widely criticized for what it got wrong about Japanese society.  Yet we still need to come to terms with its popularity.  What does this say about the Western adoption of the martial arts, and their continued preference for Japanese, rather than Chinese, fighting systems in the 1950s and early 1960s.  After all, it was an era when American servicemen and women were being in posted in Taiwan and all over the Pacific region.  Why not a sudden interest in White Crane?


Funny story, I decided to write this post while listening to a DJ on an NPR’s Retro Cocktail Hour play this record.



Visiting the Tiki Bar

We can shed some light on this small mystery by turning our attention to a larger paradox, emerging from the realm of architecture.  In 1949 the Eames finished construction on “Case Study Number 8”, now known simply as the Eames House.  This masterpiece of modern design was an experiment in using newly available “off the shelf” materials (many invented during WWII) to create functional modern dwellings to address America’s post-war housing crisis.  If one were searching for a harbinger of mid-century design, something that would begin to push its simplified, functional, glass and steel lines into the mainstream of American culture, this might well be it.

Yet this was not the only architectural trend to explode in the early 1950s.  At exactly the same time that Americans were building mid-century masterpieces, they were also creating thousands of cringeworthy Tiki bars.  It would be hard to think of two aesthetic visions that could be more opposed to each other.  Why would the flannel suit clad worshipers of America’s modernist temples spend their evenings in Tiki bars, listening to an endless supply of ethnically inspired vinyl records that inevitably featured the word “savage” in their titles?

Americans are restless spirits searching for paradise.  Their popular culture has been shaped by reoccurring debates about where it is to be found, and how one might acquire such an ephemeral state.  Much of the 19thcentury was invested in debates between pre and post-millennial religious movements.  In the early 20thcentury these currents secularized and reemerged as a debate between what I will call “progressive modernism” and “modern primitivism.”

It was the core values of progressive moderns that the period’s architecture rendered in steel and concrete. This social movement exhibited an immense faith in the ability of technology to address a wide range of material and social challenges, and the wisdom of human beings to administer these ever more complex systems. The era that gave us the space race promised that man’s destiny lay among the stars, and it was only of matter of time until well ordered, rational, societies reached them.  Of course, there were underlying discourses that found a certain expression in the 1950s.  It is clear that science and modernism had been looking for a future paradise in the stars since at least the time of Jules Verne.  But the 1950s threatened to make this vision a reality.

Reactions against progressive modernism also had their roots in the pre-war period.  Post-impressionist artists were becoming increasingly concerned about the sorts of social alienation that technological change brought.  They turned to African, Native American and Asian art as models because the abstract forms they found within them seemed to symbolize the alienation of modern individuals cut off from traditional modes of understanding.  Yet these “primitive” models also offered a different vision of paradise, the promise that an early Garden of Eden could still be recovered if we were to turn our backs on a narrow vision of progress and attempt to recapture the wisdom that “primitive” communities possessed.

The current of “modern primitivism” surged again in the post-war era, a period of unprecedented economic and technological change.  A wide range of thinkers once again became concerned with creeping alienation.  Some noted that that an Eden could be found within.  Joseph Campbell, drawing on the work of Jung and Freud, released his landmark Hero with a Thousand Facesin 1949.  Rather than seeing happiness and fulfillment as something to be achieved through future progress, Campbell drew on psychological models to argue for a return to something that was timeless.  The stories of forgotten and “primitive” societies were a sign post to our collective birth right.  Likewise, Alan Watt’s the great popularizer of Zen Buddhism, published prolifically throughout the 1950s and 1960s, feeding an endless desire for an internal technology that could insulate us against fears of displacement, alienation and even nuclear annihilation.

It is easy to discount the Tiki Bar, to treat it as an architectural oddity.  Yet it was simply a popular manifestation of a fascination with naturalism and primitivism whose genealogy stretches back to the first years of the twentieth century. The easy play with sexual innuendo and hyper-masculinity that marked these spaces makes sense when placed within the larger discourses on the stifling effects of modernism, social conformity and the need to return to a more “primitive” state to find human fulfillment.  The savage was held up as someone who bore a secret vitally important to navigating those temples of glass and steel that marked the American landscape.




A Kendo Lesson

The pieces are now in place to approach the central subject of this essay.  Throughout the 1950s and 1960s Canadian Club whisky ran an advertising campaign attempting to associate their product with notions of exotic travel and (luxurious) adventure. In an era when much of the advertising in the alcohol market focused on nostalgic images of hearth and home (situating the consumption of whisky within a comfortable upper-middle class heteronormativity) Canadian Club asked its drinkers to aspire to something more.  It featured images of archeological expeditions to Central America, safaris in Africa, and (of course) adventures in the exotic east.

Yet the fulfillment in these adds was not simply the product of getting back to nature, or living in a more primitive condition. It was necessary to physically strive with the citizens of these realms to capture some aspect of their wisdom.  At times these advertisements, each of which reads like a miniature travelogue, seem to spend as much time advertising hoplology as whiskey.  Of course, nothing as prosaic as judo was featured in these adds. One did not need to join the jet set to experience Kano’s gentle art.  More exotic practices, including jousting matches between Mexican cowboys, stick fighting in Portugal, and Japanese kendo were held up as the true measure of a man.

Judging from years of watching eBay auctions, the Kendo campaign was Canadian Clubs most successful of their excursions into hoplology. Or, more accurately, people have been more likely to preserve the Kendo advertisements than some of the other (equally interesting) campaigns.

Titled “In Japanese Kendo its no runs, all hits and no errors” the advertisement tells the story of traveler who comes to Japan and, after a brief period of instruction, joins a kendo tournament.  Readers are informed:

“A greenhorn hasn’t a chance when he crosses ‘swords’ in a Japanese Kendo match,” writes John Rich, an American friend of Canadian Club “In Tokyo I took a whack at this slam-bang survivor of Japan’s 12thcentury samurai warrior days.  The Samurai lived by the sword and glorified his flashing blade.  His peaceful descendant uses a two-handed bamboo shinai in a lunging duel that makes Western fencing look like a dancing class.”

Predictably, things go badly for Mr. Rich who is immediately eliminated without being able to get a blow in against his first opponent. His instructor informs him that he “needs more training.” But its ok, because even in an environment as exotic as this, one can still enjoy Canadian Club whisky with your fellow adventurers. Interestingly, the advertisement places Mori Sensei within the category of fellow travelers when he opens a bottle from his personal reserves.  Thus, a community is formed between the jet setting adventurer and the bearer of primitive wisdom through their shared admiration for the same popular brand.

So what is the Ethos of a kendo tournament, at least according to a 1955 alcohol advertisement?  It is challenging and painful.  But is it primitive?  Is it savage?

Historians of the Japanese martial arts can easily inform us that Kendo is basically a product of the 19thand early 20thcenturies.  Yet this advertisement repeatedly equates it with the world of the samurai, thus suggests that something medieval lives on in Japan.  According to mythmakers in both East and West, this is a defining feature of Japanese culture.  So clearly there is a type of “primitivism” here.

Nor does one need to look far for the savagery.  It is interesting to think about what sorts of practices we don’t see in these advertisements.  I have never seen a Canadian Club story on judo, Mongolian wrestling or professional wrestling. Not all of these adds focus on combat, the jet setter had many adventures to consume. Yet when the martial arts did appear, they inevitably involved weapons.  I suspect this is not a coincidence.

Paul Bowman meditated on the meaning of these sorts of issues in his 2016 volume Mythologies of Martial Arts.   While those of us within the traditional martial arts think nothing of picking up a stick, training knife or sword, he sought to remind us that to most outsiders, such activities lay on a scale somewhere between “deranged” on one end and “demented” on the other.  While one might argue for the need for “practical self-defense,” it is a self-evident fact few people carry swords in the current era and even fewer are attacked with them while walking through sketchy parking garages. There is just very little rational justification for this sort of behavior.  Most of who engage in regular weapons practice can speak at length about why we find these practices rewarding, or how they help to connect us with the past. But all of that rests on a type of connoisseurship that most people would find mystifying.  For them, an individual who plays with swords has either seen too many ninja movies or is simply asking for trouble.  Playing with weapons (as opposed to more responsible pursuit like jogging, or even cardo kick-boxing) is almost the definition of “savage.”

But what about an entire society that plays with swords? What if one has been told, rightly or wrongly, that this is a core social value?  It is that very disjoint with modernity that would make such a group a target for the desires of modern primitivism.  The problem with the Chinese (and hence the Chinese martial arts) was not that they won or lost any given war.  Rather, it was the (entirely correct) perception that the Chinese people did not valorize violence.  Despite all of the critiques that were directed at their “backward state” and “failure to modernize” in the 1920s-1930s, their pacific nature was seen as a positive value widely shared with the West (indeed, it was a point of emphasis in WWII propaganda films).  Ironically, that similarity would serve to make Chinese boxing less appealing to the sorts of individuals who consumer Canadian Club whisky, or at least its advertisement.  Nor did the actual performance of real Japanese troops on specific battlefields determine the desirability of their martial arts.  It was the image of cultural essentialism (carefully constructed by opinion makers in both Japan and the West), which made kendo desirable because of its “primitive nature,” not despite it.

Seen in this light, the early global spread of the Japanese arts makes more sense.  What had once been a modernist and nationalist project could play a different role in the post-war American landscape.  These arts promised a type of self-transformation that placed them in close proximity to the currents of modern primitivism.  While the Tiki bar appealed to those who sought temporary release from the strictures of progressive modernism, the martial arts spoke to those who sought a different sort of paradise.  Theirs was an Eden to be found in the wisdom of “primitive” societies and the search for the savage within.



If you enjoyed this essay you might also want to read: The Tao of Tom and Jerry: Krug on the Appropriation of the Asian Martial Arts in Western Culture


Wabi-Sabi: Martial Arts in a Warming World

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This red pine is a unique expression of the Wabi-Sabi ethos. Source:https://bonsaibark.com/2012/12/06/theres-bunjin-and-then-theres/



Martial Arts and Politics: The Big Picture


The latest (dire) global warming report produced by US government scientists is inspiring conversations everywhere. I overheard a particularly interesting discussion between two colleagues earlier this week which focused not so much on the technological or policy measures that would be necessary to deal with rapid climate change, but the sorts of social attitudes would be necessary to support those steps.  They were discussing well-funded public relations campaigns, but I must confess that I have (empirically well grounded) doubts as to how effective these sorts of efforts can be.  “Confirmation bias” suggests that people are most likely to accept messages that reinforce what they already believe, or what they have already experienced.  Long lasting changes in attitude usually emerge from the ground up, and not as a slick advertising campaign. After all, not every advertisement for a product, candidate or social cause is quite as successful as its backers may have hoped.

This is one of the reasons why I am interested in popular culture. It allows one to begin to decipher some of the logic behind larger patterns of political change or stability. Rather than being an escape from the world of politics, I often think of it as the repository of shared attitudes and values which are the raw materials of tomorrow’s innovations. It literally defines the realm of what is imaginable. Whether that is a comforting thought is a different question.

The martial arts may, at first, seemed removed from large scale social or political concerns.  Much of our research focuses on identity, embodied experience, history, or the impact of these practices on relatively small communities.  All of this is important, but it does not exhaust the significance of the martial arts within modern society. I suspect that many of us study the micro-effects of the martial arts as we are martial arts practitioners ourselves.  We are anecdotally aware of their transformative power, so it is only natural that we would want to explore and systematize these insights.

Nevertheless, there is a bigger picture.  The social effects of the martial arts stretch far beyond the relatively small and ever shifting group of individuals who are actually training in them at a given point in time.  Their representation in the media has a profound effect on how we imagine our world.  I also suspect that the interaction between these arts and the political realm are likely to become increasingly significant.

That last proposition may seem far-fetched as we spar, roll or practice on any given night.  To understand how we must first come to terms with the economic concept of the “externality.” Simply put, this notion helps to explain “market failures” when (from society’s point of view) too little or too much of a good is provided. While discussions that treat the martial arts as something that can be bought or sold tend to be socially frowned upon, the simple truth is that almost all of us encounter them as a commercial product within an economic marketplace. An externality exists when the individuals who buy and sell a good (that would be us) are not capable of capturing the full benefits (or negative implications) of their market transaction.

A quick illustration may be helpful. Psychologists have noted that moods tend to be “contagious” within a social network. If you are surrounded by individuals who are stressed and unhappy, you are more likely to feel the same way, all else being equal. But if one of your friends is in a particularly good mood, that is likely to have an impact on your mood as well. I suspect that many of my readers can already guess where I am going with this. Individuals who practice the martial arts (or who engage in any form of regular exercise) report increased levels of wellness (measured across a wide variety of dimensions) and lower stress levels. That is precisely why many of these students pay for school membership in the first place.

Yet the “contagious” aspects of mood and lifestyle choices suggest that friends and family members are also reaping some of the benefits of this consumption choice even if they have never taken a single martial arts class. Because their increase in well-being is invisible in a supply/demand, chart it is not taken into account when a teacher decides how many nights of instruction to offer, or a consumer decides how many hours a week to devote to training. The end result is the existence of an externality where, because the full benefits of some people’s martial arts practices are hard to measure, the “good” in question is under-provided.

This is a single, somewhat trivial, example.  But the world of the martial arts and combat sports generates dozens of similar externalities’ touching on all sorts of cultural, social and political questions. These externalities are likely to be shaped by the social, market and political forces that regulate the expression of the martial arts in a given place, and as such they vary by country and time period. In some cases we may also find that martial arts practice (like the consumption of any good) has unexpected negative consequences and that they are being over-provided.  For instance, one suspects the current culture of traveling long distances for short seminars which is so vital to the financial success of many martial arts schools is doing the planet no favors. That seems like something that is likely to change in the future.

Nor is any of this a particularly new idea, though, to the best of my knowledge, no one has yet to formalize these intuitions through the lens of micro-economics.  China and Japan both subsidized, promoted and even mandated certain types of martial arts practice in the early 20thcentury, but not because there was a burning need to train middle school students in practical self-defense skills. Rather they realized that an entire complex of other values and “benefits” (fitness, discipline, patriotism, increased militarism) accompanied martial arts training.  It was the secondary effects of Guoshu or Budo that drove their consumption.  Whether any of this would really “work in the octagon” was not the primary consideration in the promotion of these programs.

Fortunately for us, the violent and unstable years of the 1930s are now in the past.  But what about the future?  How might the unintended, unpriced, consequences of martial arts practice help us to deal with some of the massive challenges facing modern society? When might some of these externalities take on negative consequences? And what sort of balance are we likely to see between grass roots efforts emerging out of popular culture on the one hand, and coordinated (possibly government backed) information campaigns on the other?

Obviously, such a topic is too big for a single blog post.  It could well be the subject of an entire series of books. My goal in this essay is to lay out some unexpected macro-level ways in which the martial arts might help (or inhibit) our attempts to address largescale issues.  The following post touches on global warming as a “hot” topic that has been in the news. Yet this basic method of analysis, one that focuses on the externalities of martial arts practice, could easily be applied to any number of social or political issues (some of which I may return to in the future.)


A typically minimalist Japanese dojo. Photograph by Jared Miracle.



Wabi-Sabi and a Warming Planet


While popular discussions tend to focus on the practical “reality” of the martial arts, or perhaps their history, I suspect that much of their true transformative value lies in the unique aesthetic vision that each art conveys.  A certain amount of caution is necessary here as the exact contents of this vision varies from art to art.  The cunning of Brazilian Capoeira practitioners can be seen and felt in their practice. It is one part of a set of social survival strategies that is discussed, debated and judged in physical movement. Yet the uniqueness of Brazilian society suggests that this cannot ultimately be reduced to the sorts of “cunning” that one might find in Irish stick fighting, or the “yin power” that is expressed in Chinese martial or ritual performance.  Both “yin power” and “cunning” can be understood as aesthetic expressions of cultural meditations on the challenges of survival in often harsh environments. Yet each conveys a distinct set of nuances and insights.

Given the importance of the Japanese martial arts in kicking off the modern exploration of these fighting systems, perhaps we should not be surprised to discover that the concept of Wabi-Sabi (usually understood as values related simplicity, impermanence, asymmetry and austerity) has permeated further into the global consciousness that any of these other martial arts related visions. It is not hard to find evidence of the philosophical notions (focusing on the Buddhist insights that all things are impermanent, empty and vessels for suffering) that underpinned this aesthetic style within the Japanese martial arts. One can see it in the simplicity of the traditional judo gi, the austere etiquette of the dojo, and even the way that scrolls or artwork are presented in the school’s tokonoma.

Still, my first encounter with Wabi-Sabi was not mediated by the martial arts. As I teenager I was lucky enough to study with (and work for) Bill Valavanis, who runs the International Bonsai Arboretum in Rochester NY.  It was primarily through the mediums of bonsai, traditional Japanese gardening and stone appreciation that I encountered a set of concepts which amounted to a profound meditation on the nature of existence at a formative time in my own life. Neither martial artists or Bonsai masters can deny the essential truth of existence.  All things are impermanent, and all things are incomplete.  Within such a philosophical framework it is easy to elevate frugality, simplicity and austerity as the key guiding values of human existence.

One suspects that a profound appreciation for Wab-Sabi arose just as much out of the observation of daily life in early-modern Japan as erudite Buddhist argument.  In truth, Japanese life was often harsh, food was scarce, and the material conditions that most people lived under were spartan at best. Japanese houses were (and to a certain extent remain) unheated during the winter, and the hottest days of summer brought their own challenges. Yet students of Japanese history and culture are often amazed by the beautiful material culture that was woven out of these challenging conditions.

The modern West sits at a crossroads.  Our social, economic and political systems have rested on the core principle that people should be able to consume as many material goods as they want.  And if they cannot achieve this level of consumption now, they have a right to work towards it in the future. It seems unlikely that this situation can continue. Failure to politically address rising sea levels, increased severe weather and the future loss of prime agricultural land to drought would be economically and socially catastrophic. One might think of this worst-case scenario as global warming’s “hard landing.”

But even the best-case, most cooperative, scenarios will eventually require a massive adjustment to practically everyone’s lifestyle within the industrialized West.  Short of a miraculous technological innovation that allows us to pull carbon from the atmosphere at will, huge changes in consumer behavior are likely in store.  These will influence what we eat, how we travel and where we live. We are likely to see birthrates plummet across the developed world as raising children becomes more expensive. In the long run, cuts in consumer activity married to a dropping, aging, population, suggests that we could see a significant shrinking of major markets.  That, in turn, suggests a massive reduction in the rates technological, medical and social change which we have come to expect.

Anyone who has spent enough time in the social sciences knows how difficult forecasting is. Economists love to make predictions. In my field (political science) we try to avoid it whenever possible. The challenges of modeling climate change are well known and much discussed.  But they pale next to the sheer impossibility of predicting how people (at either the individual or national level) are likely to respond to this.  And given that the scope of climate change (whether we can ensure a relatively “minor” rise of 2 degrees, or if we end up in more of a worst-case scenario) is dependent on the creative and cooperative behavior of such unpredictable actors, I don’t think that anyone can accurately say what the future will be.

Still, we know a few things.  Whether we agree to tie our own hands through democratically decided legislation, or allow unmediated market forces and natural processes to do it through a “hard landing,” the average resident of the Western world will be consuming a lot less.  Realistic carbon taxes (if instituted) will raise the price of all sorts of inelastic goods (food, transportation, heating) in relatively predictable ways. Drought, sea-level change and a rising demand for energy will do the same things (though in a much less predictable way) through market mechanisms.  One way or another, discretionary spending is going to drop.  It is hard to say by how much, or when.  But it is impossible to believe that this will not have a substantive effect on where and how we live.  In short, we are already transitioning from a period of “wanting more” to one of “getting less.”


The beauty of snow, contrasted with the challenge of winter, has often been a subject for Japanese artists. Source: Evening Snow at Kanbara, from the series “Fifty-three Stations of the Tōkaidō” by Utagawa Hiroshige. metmuseum.org


This brings me back to the Japanese notion of Wabi-Sabi. Within this philosophical vision “freedom” does not originate from one’s ability to escape the bounds of the natural world. Rather, freedom is found as one lives successfully in harmony with it.  More often than not in Japanese history, this has taken the form of finding beauty and meaning in the simple, the frugal, the rustic and the sincere.

As a political scientist I worry that the sorts of “diminished expectations” that climate change is already bringing will lead to increased levels of social instability and violence.  It is hard to see the current riots in France (the worst since 1968) as anything other than a preview of what could happen in many other places as carbon taxes start to bite, or governments lose the ability to keep up with mounting natural disasters and rising food prices.  Some of this will be unavoidable.  But our social expectations of a world in which progress is measured in increased consumption is sure to exacerbate such tensions.

The concept of Wabi-Sabi is interesting to me as it has always been more than a set of guidelines for gardening or architecture.  It is a remarkably well-developed argument about the benefits of choosing less, of living simply, rather than always pushing for more. The central problem of modern existence is the creation of social and individual meaning.  Whatever its drawbacks, the economically focused “American Dream” succeeded in structuring the imaginations, efforts and expectations of generations.  It can only be modified or replaced by another set of principles capable of doing the same.

Telling a generation of Americans that due to their carbon footprint they can only buy “tiny homes,” or 500 square foot urban apartments, is a recipe for revolution. But supporting a vision of society where people spend more time having experiences with friends and family rather than working to acquire ever more things to stuff in ever larger houses could be the beginning of a renaissance.  Cultivating a deep appreciation for Wabi-Sabi as an aesthetic vision, and accepting the fundamental values that lie behind it, could be an important step in making that happen.  Indeed, it might prove to be the most important moment of cultural exchange between Japan and the global West.

This is where we return to the martial arts.  Sadly, one cannot really gain an understanding of these concepts (let alone cultivate a new set of values) simply by reading blog posts.  In my experience Wabi-Sabi is a set of values that must be physically experienced to be fully appreciated.  My small appreciation for these values came from hours spent working in an arboretum as a teenager, time spent living in Japan as a young adult, and countless hours invested in the training hall.

Sadly, Bonsai is not a not a very popular hobby in the United States.  But the martial arts are. They are studied by children and adults in a wide variety of settings.  More importantly, they are projected, appreciated and debated through our media.  While only a minority of individuals practice them, there are very few people who don’t have some sort of expectations about, or understanding of, the Asian martial arts.  This makes them an important vector to promote a new set of values as society enters an era of consuming less but appreciate more.

As intriguing as this possibility is, it would still require a massive effort.  Indeed, this is where political intervention or well-funded informational campaigns might enter the picture. In large part the martial arts have succeeded in the West as they have been adapted to reflect modern Western values, rather than the full complexity of, say, Chinese or Japanese culture. Yet the perpetual search for authenticity within these communities (and perhaps the new or exotic by those who are curious about them), might provide an opening to increasingly bring notions like Wabi-Sabi to the forefront of public discussions of certain martial arts. Equally helpful would be public relations campaigns linking these values to fashionable changes going on in other areas of popular culture, health, architecture or diet.  Again, physically enacting such values, and experiencing them in multiple realms of life, is a necessary precondition for their acceptance.

One might object, correctly, that in focusing on the philosophical or aesthetic dimension of the martial arts we lose sight of their “true purpose.” Worse yet, we risk turning them into purely didactic, rather than practical, exercise. Certainly, care is necessary. Yet it is worth remembering that communities and nations have always been acutely aware of the externalities that the martial arts produce. Throughout the 19thand 20thcentury states were generally much more interested in the “supplementary” side effects of martial practice than the details of what was actually taught in the training hall. Acknowledging this fact is not “politicizing” the martial arts.  They have been political all along.  The real challenge facing us, both as scholars and practitioners, is to understand the full social implications of what we are already doing. Only then can we ask the difficult questions about what will best safeguard the psychological well-being and physical safety of our students as we move into an uncertain future.



If you enjoyed this essay you might also want to read this piece on gender in martial arts training.


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