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 ~


Tuesday, November 06, 2018

A Traditional German Martial Art

Below is an excerpt from Kung Fu Tea. The full post may be read here.

Making Jiu-Jitsu German
Sarah Panzer, who recently finished her PhD in History at the University of Chicago, authored a chapter in J. M. Chao et al.’s edited volume Transnational Encounters between Germany and Japan (Palgrave, 2016).  I decided to skim the collection on the odd chance that it might have some discussion of the early history of the Asian martial arts in Europe, and it did not disappoint.  Readers will want to check out Panzer’s paper “When Jiu-Jitsu was German: Japanese Martial Arts in German Sport and Korperkultur, 1905-1933” (91-106).

The article is just as evocative as the title suggests.   While historically, rather than theoretically, oriented, it chronicles the initial introduction of the Japanese jiu-jitsu into Germany, and its steady rise in popularity through the middle of the 1930’s.   At first blush this success might not appear surprising.  Historians of sports and popular cultural have already commented on the global spread of jiu-jitsu during the early 20th century.  When you have Teddy Roosevelt literally promoting a Japanese fighting system from the Oval Office, it is not hard to understand why a variety of scholars would take note.

Yet Panzer notes that the German case suggests some unique paradoxes.  Rightly or wrongly, German society during the early 20th century had a reputation for being hostile to foreign sports.  Given that this was the great age of nationalism in Europe, that trait was not entirely unique.  In the period rhetoric that surrounded these discussions, great emphasis was often put on the local “rootedness” and cultural value of a given activity.

Given that context, it would be hard to think of any more exotic a physical practice than Japanese jiu-jitsu during the 1910’s.  One might suspect that this art would have enjoyed only a modest degree of success.  That was not the case.

Jiu-jitsu took off at a pace unmatched in most places in the West.  Indeed, the early success of the Japanese grappling arts in Germany seems to be an almost textbook case of cultural borrowing and acculturation.  Panzer notes that by 1937 Nazi leisure organizations could, with no sense of irony, advertise their jiu-jitsu programs as “typically German” types of recreation along with swimming, horseback riding and calisthenics.

German’s fascination (and later close political relationship) with Japan was a critical aspect of this story.  As in other places, Japan’s victory over Russia (1904-1905) set off a wave of admiration and questioning.  Germans were fascinated by the stories of the surprising strength, endurance and mental resilience of the Japanese troops in Manchuria.  In this environment certain individuals came to see the Japanese as ‘kindred spirits’ and perceived in them an alternate model of the link between hyper-masculinity and nationalism.

Jiu-jitsu came to be seen as the secret code that would allow the outsider to unravel the mysteries of Japan’s military strength, won in seeming defiance of the strict racial hierarchies of the day.  To those whose interest were broader, it was also taken as a key to the island nation’s success in rapid industrialization, a mirror revealing its perceived quality of spiritual equanimity, and even a clue to the excellence of Japan aesthetic sensibilities.  As always, the Asian martial arts seem to have thrived when they were accepted as the key to unlocking an entire range of values stretching from the realms of masculinity and militarism to culture and spirituality.

In this environment, it is no surprise that pioneers like Eric Rahn would begin to train themselves in these techniques, or that the demonstrations performed by Japanese sailors on a goodwill tour would win an elite audience and result in the art’s introduction to police and military academies.  Panzer notes that the first dedicated jiu-jitsu club opened in Berlin in 1906.  By 1923 there were no fewer than 13 established schools in the country.

Still, by the 1920s the first flush of “Jiu-Jitsu Fever” had cooled off in much of the rest of the West.  Jared Miracle has noted how the art’s introduction fit with changing notions of masculinity in North America.   Yet Wendy Rouse has argued that the critique of traditional masculinities which drove much of the initial enthusiasm for the art never quite fit with the overall trend of the progressive era in the US.  Thus one suspects that additional forces might help to explain the success that the art enjoyed in Germany.

Panzer notes some key differences in this process of acculturation.  At the most basic level German students did not simply take up ‘Japanese’ practices.  Rather, they sought to transform them in such a way that they could legitimately be understood as extensions of German, rather than Japanese, values.  Some thinkers went even further, formulating an argument that jiu-jitsu had, at heart, always been German, and may have emerged from the nation’s brutal medieval battlefields.  In that sense, there was nothing uniquely Japanese about the art at all.  It was simply another example of the knightly cultural traditions that were revered in so many other places within Western society.
Panzer states:
“Indeed, one of the first scholarly works on the discipline [of Ju-Jitsu] was an explicit attempt to redefine it as fundamentally German.  Martin Vogt, an instructor at the Theresien-Gymnasium in Munich. Published his own findings on the cultural heritage of jiu-jitsu under the title Dschiu-Dschitsu der Japaner—das alte deutsche Freiringen.  In this meticulously illustrated pamphlet Vogt juxtaposed images of standard jiu-jitsu holds and grips with woodcut images from medieval German texts on wrestling, including one illustrated by Albrecht Durer.  Vogt claimed that he had felt compelled to write the book in response to the growing visibility of jiu-jitsu in Germany following the Russo-Japanese War; his work was meant to be a response to the growing suspicion among Germans that the Japanese possessed some secret or special knowledge about combat and self-defence that made them especially formidable opponents. Vogt attempted to dispel any existing anxiety about jiu-jitsu by making it more immediately familiar and recognizable thereby effectively recovering it as a forgotten piece of German cultural inheritance.

In the text that accompanies his elaborate pictorial comparisons of jiu-jitsu and medieval German wrestling Vogt argued that jiu-jitsu was, quite simply, a system of practical techniques paralleling those used by medieval Germans, preserved and formalized in Japan.  He never went so far as to suggest that one evolved out of the other, but instead argued that any logical study of the human body and its weaknesses in hand-to-hand combat, unencumbered by the demands of chivalry or rules of combat, would have yielded similar and practical strategies.” (p. 95-96)

A uniquely German approach to jiu-jitsu emerged in more practical venues as well.  Panzer documents the shifts that occurred within the German umbrella organization as the “self-defense” aspects of the art (often those that would be of the most interest to law enforcement or military personnel) fell out of favor and were replaced with training regimes that placed much more emphasis on the basic movements that would be useful in competition.  Indeed, this debate on the value of competition defined the evolution of the art in the post-WWI period.

Given the success of the art’s sporting wing, one might be forgiven for assuming that judo, which also shed many of its militant techniques in favor of those that could be used in more sporting settings, would have been a great success.  This was not the case.  The cultural and moral aspects of the practice that Kano went to such great lengths to promote rubbed many of these early German practitioners the wrong way.  They sensed within them the inescapable presence of Japanese nationalism and identity.  In their view none of that was really essential to jiu-jitsu, which at its core was an expression of universal truths about human combat, and (under their guidance) had evolved into a uniquely German system of physical training and competition that did not closely resemble daily practice in the Kodokan.

Nor were they swayed by appeals to judo’s greater ‘internationalism.’ Defenders of the emerging discipline of German jiu-jitsu pointed out that none of these arts had developed as successfully in other Western countries as they had in Germany.  And in any case, it was the expression of uniquely German values transmitted through specifically developed bodily technologies that gave the practice its intrinsic values, not Japanese moralizing.




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