It is almost impossible today to imagine a society devoid of any reference to Japanese martial arts. If you look close enough, you can realize that these are ubiquitous in the popular imagery and its consciousness. But the Japanese martial arts have infused western societies at an even more significant level, far beyond their obvious influence on literature, cinema, or even dance. The notions of honor, respect, strictness and self-sacrifice conjugated to a pragmatic and dreadful efficacy have helped to promote an entire system of values which seems to have implanted itself deeply and that does not seem to be going to disappear any time soon. Even though every civilization has developed its own combat forms, very few have managed to export it as successfully as the Japanese. I would like to discuss today about the implantation of Japanese martial arts in Occident and to try to shed light on what made it such an unequaled success.
Before heading for the heart of the matter, it seems important to me to state that in popular culture, the juxtaposition of the words "art" and of the adjective "martial" (from Mars, the Roman god of war) is often made to specifically describe and separate oriental combat systems, especially the Japanese ones, from their western counterparts. One can of course question the pertinence of such a choice and the reason why it has been so widely accepted when the west itself is not at all poor in terms of numbers and styles of refined combat systems. The variable geography of European nations over time has yielded its fair share of conflicts, and that until very recently. In spite of this heritage and of the efforts of a few groups of enthusiasts, it is a lot more common to see bare footed people wearing white pajama and throw each other over a tatami than individuals wearing plate armor and waving heavy two-handed swords at each other. Strangely enough, the western martial disciplines do not lack recreational value and they have been appreciated as past time for a very long time with for example the Greek wrestlers during the Olympic games so what is new under the sun? Why is it that in Europe, within a martial context that was already well furnished, did we see a new hunger for more martial disciplines?
In my view, the reason for this is not to be found in what these disciplines had in common but precisely in what were the novelties of the Japanese martial practices. It is obviously of their intrinsic moral/religious aspects that I wish to talk about since in most of these disciplines, the spiritual and physical considerations are two sides of the same coin. This novelty was all the more striking for the Europeans because since the Enlightenment, the spiritual and the mechanistic had been cautiously separated, both by the church and by science (but for different reasons). Still, this very quality of the budo (武道) seems to be what has granted them their qualification as arts.
From a purely physical point of view, the repetitive and choreographed aspect of the teaching (kata, 型) and the absence of competitions (at least, initially) also contributed to differentiate martial "arts" from martial "disciplines" or martial "sports". It is also rather interesting to note that these practices are offshoots of ancestors that go back to hundreds of years and yet they have only been introduced to Europe very recently, much later than the beginning of the political and commercial contacts between Europe and the land of the rising sun. In my mind this can be due to two main factors. First, there is an obvious protectionism operated by the Japanese regarding the transmission of their secrets, especially regarding warfare. Even within Japan, the transmission of the secret fighting techniques within the koryu (古流) was very restricted and selective. I would like to make clear however that the focus of today's article is the spread of budo, not the transmission within the koryu. The other reason which in my opinion is the most important one is that during all that lag time, one can argue that the westerners were not "ready" to receive the content of this teaching and that they might not have shown the same interest regarding the fighting techniques of a technologically less advanced people (at the time) as we do today. In fact, the American army started to include budo techniques in their close-combat only after having fought against the Japanese in China or Okinawa during the Second World War
Because of 50 years of relative peace (at least in the Northern hemisphere), the research became different, efficacy took the back seat and the shaping of the individual became more important than the learning of lethal techniques. This is in fact strikingly similar to what happened in Japan when the Bakufu (幕府) of the Tokugawa (徳川, 1603-1867) was ensuring stability and peace all across Japan. Since they were no longer solely applicable to the battlefield but in a large range of different situations (in duels, at the court, in the street etc.), martial arts could therefore diversify and enrich themselves. Also, for reasons of cast and etiquette, the samurai (侍) who seldom had to fight any more in these peaceful times were not allowed to take on another craft and they had to become full-time functionaries. Similarly to what happened in Greece long before, or in Europe during the Renaissance, the reflection of the bushi (武士) aroused from the idleness of their charge. As an example, Yamamoto Tsunetomo (山本 常朝), the author of the reference book on bushido (武士道) called Hagakure (葉隠), compiled between 1709 and 1716, had probably never had the occasion to fight in the battlefield in his entire life. It could also be argued that the due to the lack of significant technological advance in Japan until Commodore Perry's second visit to Japan in 1854, the Japanese had a great deal of time to develop and refine swordplay and hand-to-hand combat while the west was busy deigning and operating war machines.
The question that derives from this is: can we apply the same reasoning to our situation in Europe at the time the Japanese martial arts got introduced? I believe that we can indeed. Europe in the early 50's was at a stage where canons and planes had replaced swords and horse riding, and after a war that had traumatized an entire continent, the way was now clear for the message of the budo to pass without having to be hindered by its martial burden. People were no longer getting ready for war but they craved for peace. Everyone was trying to become a better and fairer person through the tireless polishing of codified combat techniques that for most, had not be put in use in the battlefield for a very long time indeed. The success was instantaneous.
If one wants to trace back the implantation of budo in Europe, one has to travel earlier than this and get acquainted to one of the most famous characters of its time, an man who illustrated himself on several occasions through his use of exotic combat techniques in order to reach a just resolution when facing lawless criminals. I am talking of course about the great Sherlock Holmes and of his Bartitsu (written "Baritsu" in the novel, a martial art that saved the famous detective, most notably during his fight against his nemesis the professor James Moriarty in "The Final Problem"). Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Holmes, had indeed been introduced to William Barton-Wright, a British engineer who had spent three years in Japan and had returned to England as early as 1898 in order to spread his creation, a new self-defence system called Bartitsu. This made him most probably the very first westerner to teach a Japanese martial art in Europe. His approach was nothing short of revolutionary since it consisted in a complete mix of styles and disciplines. He was also the very first organizer of mixed martial arts fights, hence preceding Bruce Lee by about 70 years! It is the tracks left by pioneers such as Barton-Wright that the first Japanese instructors followed when they were first dispatched in Europe to teach. In an even more significant way, the system put together by Bill Underwood and William Fairbairn which served as a basis to close-combat techniques for most occidental armies after the Second World War and during most of the 20th century came to be because of their study of Japanese martial arts.
Documentary on Bartitsu
It is this new found pragmatism that was so instrumental to the incredible spread of Japanese martial arts in Europe while boxing, fencing, cane and savate had long deserted the streets for the comfortable salons of high societies. They had become "sports", this new activity started in industrial, 19th century England which was supposed to be so beneficial to the body. The main differences between the sports of the antiquity and these modern forms boiled down to the notion of "record". The historian Philippe Lyotard said on the topic: "There is a very clear break between modern and antique sports; it is the notion of record (and therefore performance). Record and performance express a vision of the world that is profoundly different to that of the Greeks. The culture of the body is different. For the Greeks, this culture was ritual, cultural, religiously inspired while for the modern minds, the body is a machine with a yield." I believe that what Lyotard describes here the most crucial point that the Japanese martial art proposed at the time.
With these considerations in mind, we could even argue that Japanese martial arts represented a journey back to the source of what real sport ought to be. Of course, in addition to the purely physical appeal, the gentlemanly character of the fighters of that time was drawn to the slightly egocentric considerations of perfection and self-improvement carried by budo. The martial artist is therefore centered on his own person. This sort of egocentrism is still very present today; one just has to read the present website and others to get a feel of this. An ill-minded person might notice that in martial arts, just as much as in sports, we beat the crap out of each other, since efficacy is at the center of the research, but in martial arts, we do it while gazing at our own belly button...
We saw that these two dualistic aspects of Japanese martial arts, efficacy and self-improvement resonated deeply in Occident, the machine was launched and a new industry was created. Beyond the benefits that the practice of such disciplines could grant, their exoticism achieved to attract the attention. It is also at about that time that the first accounts of life in the Far East started to passionate the crowds with the publication of the works of expatriate writers such as Arthur May Knapp or the Irishman Lafcadio Hearn. It is therefore little surprise that the Japanese martial arts spread so easily at a time when the whole Occident got excited by the magic of the orient.
Letter of J. Kano to P. de Coubertin
I have explained the fundamental difference between budo and sport, but as often, we will soon come to realize that everything is not so simple. A phenomenon that should not be forgotten is the progressive mutation of budo into sport (in its modern definition of course). This leap is actually quite vividly criticized by the aficionados of ancestral techniques. The argument is of course quite valid and the prejudice is certain but one should not forget that it is precisely this mutation that allowed the incredible spread of arts like Karate and Judo to name just two. It is actually funny to see that the people who most happily castigate what they call the "average practitioner" or those who adhere to "mass culture" often forget that the great majority of us are "average practitioners" who would most probably never have set foot on a tatami if it was not for this democratization. Whether these grumpy individuals, samurai wannabes like it or not, we are pretty much all weekend warriors. This is all the more obvious that most of the greatest budoka went down that route of sport mutation. One proof is the cordial relationship between Jigoro Kano and the baron Pierre de Coubertin with the former, even modifying the rules of the randori in 1909 after a meeting with the baron, presumably in the aim of turning Judo into an Olympic discipline. And what can we say about master Ueshiba who adopted in his Aikido the belt ranking system developed by Kano?
I would like to finish by talking about an aspect that could be easily overlooked or simply ignored, the religious message of martial arts. Whether they are rooted in Shinto or Buddhism, all Japanese martial arts have this common moral and religious undertone. At a time when the fervor and credibility of monotheistic religions started to steadily decline in Europe, it seems logical that people tried to find answers to the essential existential and metaphysical questions somewhere else. Since man seems to have the greatest difficulties to credit himself with intrinsic moral qualities (although unquestionably evolutionarily inherited), it was necessary to replace the rules imposed by religion by something else, probably out of a fear that the beast within us beaks out in absence of dogmatic shackles. One of these ersatz of religion is the ideal of budo. That being said, one could consider as a great moral breakthrough the fact that in Japanese martial arts, it is not the fear of a divine retribution that motivate the individual to do good, but a true desire of harmonizing himself with others and the universe. A bit of a tree hugging approach if you ask me but a progress nonetheless if it help parting away from a celestial dictator... Budo became education systems.
Strangely enough, we are now witnessing the apparition of new combat systems that feel obliged to buy themselves respectability through a claim to religion. I remember the words of Mikhail Ryabko, one of the great promoters of Systema, the Russian martial art: "There are no atheists in the battlefield". I would argue that there aren't many, doctors or Nobel Prize winners either... The point is that the influence of Christianism on Systema is very obvious, especially if we get closer to the instructors who are still living in Russia. Is religion necessary to appreciate what Systema has to offer? I don't think so. I don't think either that Mr Ryabko would be the sort of people to turn the other cheek... But this is a different issue which I will address soon...
To conclude, I would like to stress that even though Japanese martial arts arrived quite late in Occident, they have managed to influence our culture very significantly and living in Japan, I can say that the opposite is quite true too. Individuals like Ueshiba, Funakoshi and Kano had themselves been quite influenced by the occidental humanist thought system and by the modern vision of sport while they were working at refining their own disciplines. The development of the budo in the first half of the 20th century has achieved its mutation towards a more accessible, more universal practice, richer mentally and reaching beyond the simple technical syllabus. This perhaps why the message of Japanese martial arts such Aikido seems to us so relevant, perhaps resonating even more strongly within us than within practitioners in the Far East. Finally, even though Japanese martial arts served as precursors to a new martial research in Occident, a large number of other disciplines, coming from all over the world are now spreading in our countries (Kung Fu, Taekwondo, Viet Vo Dao etc.). I think it is going to be very interesting to see how these martial arts evolve in the coming decades now that the best of the west and the east can be put together in the same crucible. During these evolutions, we might lose a bit of the technical content, maybe also a bit of its "purity", but I sincerely believe that the benefit for Man will be well worth it.