If one seeks links between historical European martial arts and their Japanese counterparts it is often from a confrontational angle. It seems arduous to imagine a meeting between warriors of these two cultures as something else than a clash, each other being uninterested in actually learning anything and only in proving the superiority of their respective arts. That said when one looks at the historical facts very few fights were to be had between them. What we really witness are a series of exchange on both sides by curious scholars of the martial arts wishing to learn more about their respective passion, regardless of their origins. Needless to say, it would be wise to follow their example.
But even before any of the two French officers could enter Sakakibara dojo, a German was the first to open the doors. Dr. Erwin Von Baelz arrived in Japan in 1876 to teach medicine at the University of Tokyo. When he arrived, Baelz found the young Japanese people in a state of poor physical and cultural state. Most were dismissing their cultural heritage, a fact described in his memoirs: “In the 1870s at the outset of the modern era, Japan went through a strange period in which she felt contempt for all native achievements. Their own history, their own religion, their own art, did not seem to Japanese worth talking about, and or even regarded as matters to be ashamed of.” Part of this cultural heritage were, of course, the martial arts, of which Baelz had to say: “The native methods of bodily exercise, Japanese fencing, and jujitsu, and alike were placed under the ban. The older generation would not teach and the younger generation would not learn anything but European science.” Critical of this state of affairs, the doctor found these martial arts to be perfect gymnastic exercises and a worthwhile cultural pursuit. He encouraged students to practice kenjutsu and pushed the authorities to let them practice in the university, but the memories of the civil conflicts were still fresh and the government was considering the art too rough and dangerous.
A former military man and quite possibly a participant to mensur in his student days, Erwin would not let such a warrior art fade into nothingness, and following a demonstration of gekkiken in 1879 he chose to join the dojo of Sakakibara. His efforts at once again popularizing the art took hold and the sport of kendo could slowly emerge. As if it wasn’t enough, Baelz also had contacts with a certain Jigoro Kano who was then busy promoting his new wrestling method. Baelz helped the man and judo eventually became the international sport it is today. He will also take up kyudo or Japanese archery. If it wasn’t for Dr. Von Baelz insistence, perhaps Japan’s martial arts would also have to be learned through surviving literature.
Other European students also joined Sakakibara’s dojo and even participated in the public gekikken tournaments, such as Thomas McCluthie, a clerk of the British embassy. Another German will also join them, Heinrich Von Seibold, a famous archaeologist and an apparently gifted fencer.