The autumn leaves are falling like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians and you, you are a thousand miles away, there are always two cups at my table.

T’ang Dynasty poem

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter. If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life.

~ Wu-men ~

Friday, October 10, 2008

Donn Draeger

Below are excerpts from an article in Black Belt magazine on the late Donn F. Draeger, who was a legendary American martial artist. He was an early pioneer. His three volume "Martial Arts and Ways of Japan" remains a classic. You can read the entire article by clicking on the title of this post.

Donn F. Drager: The Life and Times of an American Martial Arts Pioneer by Paul Nurse

Almost 25 years ago, the martial arts world lost one of its most dynamic and charismatic figures. On October 20, 1982, Donn F. Draeger, USMC (retired), budo kyoshi (full professor of Japanese martial arts and ways) and ranked martial artist in perhaps a dozen combative systems, passed away from cancer at age 60 in his home state of Wisconsin.

Draeger is remembered today chiefly as the author of more than 30 books and numerous articles about the Asian martial arts, as well as for being one of the best-qualified and most experienced Western exponents of the combative arts. The oft-repeated legend that he either had or possessed the equivalent of some 100 black-belt ranks is perhaps apocryphal, but he no doubt was among the most accomplished martial artists of his generation, perhaps of all time. He held a sixth-degree black belt in judo; a seventh degree in jojutsu (Japanese stick fighting), kendo and iaido; and a menkyo license in the tenshin shoden katori shinto-ryu of bujutsu.

During the Great Depression, the 15-year-old Draeger joined the U.S. Marine Corps, continuing his education—and eventually earning a master’s degree in electrical engineering—so he could become a career officer. He saw combat in the Pacific and Korean Wars and served for a time in Manchuria. He was also in the Shanghai area of China, although his mission there is unclear. From a mention in C.W. Nicol’s classic 1975 memoir Moving Zen, it seems a virtual certainty that Draeger was on Iwo Jima during the celebrated February-March 1945 battle that saw almost 26,000 American casualties and more than 22,000 Japanese killed.

After the war, as a young Marine lieutenant and judo black belt, Draeger made his first visit to Japan as part of the occupation forces. Although most Japanese martial arts were proscribed in the immediate postwar period, he sought out highly regarded exponents such as the legendary judoka Kimura Masahiko, with whom he hoped to train. Years later, he studied directly under Mifune Kyuzo, Sato Shizuya and Ito Kazuo (becoming the uke in the illustrations for Ito’s famous English-language book, This Is Judo).

His judo background also led to his being on the official military board of the Supreme Command of Allied Powers in Japan, where he helped decide the status and political responsibility of the various Japanese martial systems. Most of the arts that were demonstrated were banned for having been associated with militarism, although karate-do, curiously, seems to have been exempt.

An anecdote tells that while a member of this board, Draeger watched as karateka under Gichin Funakoshi demonstrated their kata at a deliberately slow pace to make it seem like a form of exercise along the lines of Chinese tai chi chuan. As the only member of the board who understood karate-do’s true nature and intent, Draeger later claimed he allowed it to pass without the other board members’ knowledge.

During his own early years on the Japanese islands, Draeger began training in the classical martial arts and was permitted to join the Kobudo Shinko Kai, the Classical Martial Arts Preservation Society, a research organization in which he was the sole international component. Believing the society’s focus too narrow, however, he eventually broke away to form what became known as the International Hoplology Research Center, now the International Hoplology Society.

A yondan in judo by the time he arrived in Japan, Draeger spent his years in the Pacific Rim living a life that would later read like an entry in a who’s who of martial arts accomplishments. Delving more deeply into the Japanese combative ethos than any Westerner before or since, he became the first non-Japanese judo instructor at the Kodokan Judo Institute (Foreigners Section); the first non-Japanese to demonstrate kata at the All-Japan Judo Championships and the 1964 Tokyo Olympics; the first non-Japanese to compete in the All-Japan High-Dan-Holders Judo Tournament; and one of the first non-Japanese—and definitely the first Caucasian—allowed to enter the koryu. He also became the first foreigner permitted to compete in Japanese jukendo (mock bayonet) tournaments, eventually winning so many events that he was no longer allowed in.

But Draeger was more than a highly trained and skilled martial artist. As an author and researcher with several dozen books to his credit, he crafted works that are considered the most reliable and often the only texts on Asian combative systems in foreign languages. His most famous books are Comprehensive Asian Fighting Arts (co-authored with friend and colleague Robert W. Smith) and his celebrated three-volume Martial Arts and Ways of Japan (a series composed of Classical Bujutsu, Classical Budo, and Modern Bujutsu and Budo). At different times, Draeger also served as a contributing editor for Judo Illustrated, published several issues of a journal called Martial Arts International and established Hoplos, the official organ of the International Hoplology Research Center.

While in Japan, Draeger made ends meet by living on his military pension, teaching English conversation, instructing at the Kodokan and occasionally serving as an extra, stuntman or stunt coordinator for Japanese and foreign films. While his most famous “role” was as Sean Connery’s stunt double in the James Bond opus You Only Live Twice (1967), he also took some falls for John Wayne during the comic jujutsu scene in John Huston’s Barbarian and the Geisha (1958).

While trying to establish hoplology as a recognized academic discipline, Draeger taught as a guest lecturer at the University of Maryland and the University of Hawaii. He also spent approximately four months a year on field trips in Asia teaching, visiting schools and studying combative methods, which he subsequently analyzed, recorded and sometimes published.

During the last of those journeys in 1979, misfortune struck Draeger and his team on the island of Sumatra. Visiting the Atjeh tribe, it appears that the entire group was somehow poisoned—perhaps deliberately—and as a result developed severe amebic dysentery requiring hospitalization. Although he recovered from the illness, Draeger began losing weight and grew increasingly weak. His legs swelled, causing great pain, and he found it difficult to walk or stand for very long. Serious training became difficult, then impossible.

After repeated visits to Tripler Army Medical Center in Honolulu, it was discovered that Draeger had cancer of the liver. Returning to his home state to die, he stayed first with his half brother before moving into a veteran’s hospital. It was there, on October 20, 1982, exactly 92 years after his hero, Sir Richard F. Burton, died, that Donn F. Draeger passed away from metastasized carcinoma. He was buried at Wood National Cemetery in Milwaukee, a 50-acre final home to more than 37,000 American veterans. Draeger’s grave lies in Section 4, Site 377.

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