Here at the frontier, the leaves fall like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians, and you, you are a thousand miles away, there are still two cups at my table.

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, September 15, 2020

The Katana in the Western Imagination

Below is an excerpt from an article that appeared at Kung Fu Tea that describes that moment in time when the Japanese Katana captured the West's imagination as the sword of choice and why other swords, such as the Chinese Jian, never caught up. The full post may be read here.

Why is the Katana more popular than the Jian

A good friend recently sent me a link for a YouTube video asking why Chinese swords are not as well known in Western popular culture as their Japanese counterparts.  As the narrator noted, everyone knows the word ‘katana.’ Very few people, other than dedicated martial artists, are familiar with ‘jian’ or ‘dao.’  The video was thoughtful and well produced.  It also seems to have missed all of the most obvious answers to the question.
Its fundamental mistake actually emerged from one of its strengths.  The nice thing about the video was that it dove into Chinese folklore and storytelling about the sword.  To summarize too quickly, while there are a handful of famous swords in Chinese martial lore, in general these discursive traditions were more concerned with how a blade was used (or not used) than the intrinsic qualities of the weapon itself.  Power always rested firmly in the virtue of the wielder and not the weapon.  That makes even famous Chinese swords a bit different from something like Excalibur.
All of which was thought provoking, but ultimately pointless, if one was really trying to think about the cultural recognition of different swords (or fencing traditions) in the West.  It should go without saying that those same English-speaking audiences that are unfamiliar with the term ‘jian’ are also going to have missed most of the nuanced storytelling and literature that the author explored.  Rather than focusing on the history of Chinese swords, we need to consider the audience.  Specifically, how does a sense of cross-cultural desire emerge across generations?
John Maynard Keynes once observed that even the most action-oriented officials, the sorts of people who would recoil at the suggestion that what they did was even passingly “theoretical,” were always in the thrall of some half understood, long debunked, economy theory.  They were still “doing” theory in their daily jobs, but by insisting that they relied only upon “common sense” and personal experience, they were doomed to do it quite badly.  I have always liked this observation as it emphasizes the degree to which unconscious beliefs and biases shape the way that we approach the world.  The same holds true with swords. We cannot understand how people imagine the martial arts today without engaging in a bit of intellectual archeology.
If one wishes to understand why the katana is ‘cool’ whereas the jian is not, one must start by exploring Japan’s miraculous rise from isolated island nation to great power during the late 19th and early 20th century.  Japan’s defeat of Russia in 1905 sent shockwaves through Europe as people were forced to rapidly rethink everything that they thought they knew about racial politics and the military balance between great powers.  Japan’s continued rise during the 1930s, and eventual attack on Pearl Harbor, had an even greater effect on American culture.
Since the earliest reporters and writers to travel to Japan noted that the custom of wearing swords was still in effect, swords became closely associated with the Japanese people in Western popular culture at an early date.  At first these weapons were often invoked as being quaint, backwards or a reminder of difficulties of dealing with the residual Samurai class.  Occasionally they were a point of derision.  

But as Japan’s power in the Pacific began its miraculous ascent, the sword was reimagined as a symbol of cultural power, and hence it became the key symbol to understanding the new cultural mythology surrounding Japan.
It is important to understand that this mythology was something of a joint project.  Japanese intellectuals were acutely aware of how they were described and discussed in the West. Thus ideas tended to be passed back and forth between global audiences and their counterparts in Japan.  Oleg Benesch has demonstrated at length that the concept of Bushido (the supposed ‘soul of Samurai’) that arose during the Meiji period (and would go on to have a huge impact on all modern Japanese martial arts) had almost nothing to do with medieval Japanese warrior culture.  On the contrary, it was highly influenced by English notions of what it meant to be a gentleman. This probably goes a long way towards explaining the concept’s immediate popularity in the West. Likewise, Japanese and Western writers conspired together to reinforce the primacy of the sword in the national psyche.
Nor can we ignore the fact that America came into direct military conflict with the Japan.  As such, the “soul” of this nation had to be reimagined as something other than a typical national culture for domestic political purposes.  It had to be seen as both mysterious and dangerous, befitting the massive sacrifice of lives and material that was about to thrown into the war machine.  American propaganda extolled the deadly threat of Japanese swords as a material extension of the equally threatening Japanese culture.  Naturally, people were inclined to believe it as such notions legitimated the conflict and made American forces seem all the more heroic in victory.
Chinese swords, which also made many appearances in period newspapers during the 1930s-1940s, were a different matter.  They were not held up as the soul of a nation, so much as they were pointed to as proof of the backward state of the Chinese military.  While GMD propogandist tried hard to place the dadao and the katana on the same level, no such equivalency ever emerged in the Western imagination.  When we saw a poorly equipped Chinese soldier holding a sword and a satchel of the grenades the only message that ran through the collective American psyche was “Buy more war bonds!”
These images and associations would not vanish after 1945.  Rather, they continued to inform the following generation’s films, comic books and radio dramas.  The existence of Chinese swords seems to have been quickly forgotten, but their Japanese counterparts needed to remain to remind us of the nation’s heroic sacrifices in the Pacific and superior spiritual strength.  We needed the Japanese martial arts to be dangerous so that we could be great for overcoming them.
It goes without saying that these sorts of background ideas would have a huge impact on the global spread of the Asian martial arts.  GI’s were stationed all over Asia, and they were exposed to all sorts of stuff.  A few individuals, like R. W. Smith (working for the CIA in Taiwan) became interested in the Chinese fighting systems.  But a much greater number of veterans seem to have followed the example of Donn F. Draeger and thrown themselves into the Japanese fighting arts precisely because these had been “proven on the battlefield.”  Again, one could spend an entire book chapter unpacking exactly what that means as the Chinese probably used martial arts on the modern battlefield more than anyone else out of sheer necessity. Yet in the 1950s it was too easy to just accept it all as common sense.  After all, even the American military had adopted Judo as an official training tool in 1943.  Japan’s martial spirit thus became an important element in the creation of America’s postwar sense of self.
All of which brings us back to Keynes and his ever-practical officials toiling away in ignorance of the past.  Just because we are personally unsure as to how we got here, it does not follow that the past has no influence on us.  This is precisely why martial arts studies must deal with intellectual history as well as the intricacies of practice.  Consequently, it’s also the reason why Leonardo was carrying a set of katana rather than jian when the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles first emerged from the sewers in 1988. The presence of Japanese weaponry automatically conveyed something important about these characters to the audience.

This is not to imply that there is anything automatic or inevitable about such developments.  

Intellectual history is as full of contingency, happenstance and construction as anything else.  This brings me to the subject of the news clipping which follows.  A number of posts on this blog have asked how China’s government during the 1930s sought to use their martial arts as a way to increase the state’s ‘soft power’ in the global sphere.  This got me wondering about Japan’s campaign, and how it had been received by the press at a time when tensions between the two countries were escalating.
The following article examines the visit of a Japanese Kendo teacher to Los Angeles in 1936.  Joseph Svinth has already shown that by this point the Japanese American community had all of the domestically produced instructors that they needed.  This visit seemed to be part of a formal visit.
What is very interesting is to see the gravity with which the reporter from the Los Angeles Times responds to a public Kendo demonstration.  Even a children’s event where youngsters were trying to pop balloons tied to one another’s helmets was treated as a deep cultural mystery.  Clearly the cult of the sword was already a part of the American image of Japan long before this article was written. Enatsu Sensei’s interview attempted to further the Japanese American community’s effort to build bonds of trust and understanding with the surrounding city.
The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 would destroy all of this.  The myth of the Katana would remain intact, but the LA’s kendo classes would be shut down by the government and many of the people and students in this article would probably end up in internment camps.  Feeling that Kendo was too closely tied to Japanese militarism most Japanese American would destroy their training equipment and forsake any practice of the art.  Very few were interested in returning to it after the end of WWII.  Ironically, it would be returning GI’s, instructors from Japan, and a handful of holdouts who would be forced to reintroduce the sport to American soil during the post-war period.
I like this article on a number of counts.  While the history of Kendo that it offers is totally unreliable, it does help to answer our initial question.  As a historical document it illustrates a vibrant regional martial arts community in the late 1930s, just a few years before its demise.  Finally it reminds us of the often-paradoxical relationship between the hard power of military might, and soft influence of cultural desire.  Enjoy.

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