Here at the frontier, the leaves fall like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians, 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 ~

Sunday, April 25, 2021

Donn Draeger, the Pioneer

I've posted about Donn Draeger previously. Below is an excerpt from an article about this giant in bringing Asian martial arts to the west that appeared in Budo Japan. The full post may be read here.

It must have been around 1977. I was only ten years old and my fascination with Japan was already going strong, with all the strength a child of 10 can muster and I was always pressuring my father to buy me any books related to it and its culture (I didn’t call it “culture” back then –it was just “anything about Japan”). Knowing that I was enthralled by the stories of an old war buddy of his, a war correspondent in the Korean War and one of Greece’s judo pioneers regarding the martial arts, one day he brought me 3 slim tomes from a series titled “Practical Karate” filled with pictures of a middle-aged rather plump Japanese and a big, tall Westerner showing self-defense applications of karate techniques; the two men were the books’ authors and they were Masatoshi Nakayama and Donn Draeger. 

This was the first time I came across the name “Donn Draeger”; with time, I would see it again and again in English-language publications related to the martial arts of Japan. But it would take another 10 years until I discovered in a martial arts’ bookstore, the only one in Athens, the work that I later found out was considered by most his “magnum opus”: the trilogy Martial Arts And Ways Of Japan comprising of Classical Bujutsu, Classical Budo and Modern Bujutsu & Budo. Like most people outside Japan, this was my first exposure to a systematic chronicle about the martial arts ofJapan and their development from the times of the Hogen Monogatari and the Heike Monogatari to Shorinji Kempo, the most modern style recorded by the time the books were written (i.e. early 1970s). And like many people outside Japan, I was captivated.

As captivating as his subjects were, was Draeger himself: he wrote with an authority displaying a knowledge of his subject far deeper than that of most academic researchers –and if those pictures of the “Practical Karate” books were any proof, it looked as if he had done some training himself so I knew I had to find out more (remember, this was pre-Internet and I was living in Greece so I believe I’m allowed some ignorance). So I started searching in books’ databases and libraries and martial arts magazines and slowly and painfully an amazing story started unfolding: this man was so much involved in pretty much everything related to the martial arts –and not only of Japan, even though he seemed to have specialized in those- that it was impossible to have trained in all of them to the extent and depth his writings suggested.

With time I came to realize that he had. Although he never went for the spotlight, others wrote about him –among them his friend and collaborator Robert W. Smith (1926-2011) an ex-marine, ex-CIA employer posted in Taiwan in the early 1960s, a prolific writer in the subject of Chinese martial arts and one of Tai-Chi’s most strong supporters and evangelists in the eastern US. Despite being very emotional (not to mention loquacious) in his writing –they were close friends, after all- his account of Draeger as narrated in his 1999 martial arts autobiography Martial Musings gives a quite detailed sketch of the man and his numerous accomplishments. And when I say “numerous” it is not a figure of speech: if it wasn’t for many eminent martial arts’ teachers and practitioners, Westerners and Japanese corroborating the facts, it would be hard to believe that one man could have done so much in just 30 years.

Sometime along the way the Internet came and access to information became much easier; in the meantime I had also developed a personal network of people who had lived or were still living in Japan so I had the opportunity to ask more about this remarkable man, Donn F. Draeger (this was how he signed most of his work and this is how he is usually mentioned in writing). And more begat more and with time I came to realize that there was little exaggeration when it came to Draeger’s life in the martial arts: he had indeed been there and done that –whatever “that” was. Moreover, he had done it well enough and earnestly enough to earn the respect of pretty much anyone who met him. In a world as subject to pettiness and small-mindedness as any, I have yet to hear one bad word for Donn F. Draeger.

When I came to Japan I started looking for him; not the man himself of course since he had been dead for over 25 years but for his footprints in bookstores, libraries and dojo. And while in the beginning I was astounded by the fact that there weren’t any, with time I came to realize that it made sense: by all accounts, Draeger was a very private person and really devoted to his work researching the martial arts and his training. His closest collaborators in his martial arts’ research were also foreigners who with time (before or after his death in 1982) had returned to their countries and even though most of them made sure to keep his memory alive in stories told to their students or in publications, online or paper (like Smith’s) he didn’t leave any students in Japan while the organization formed to function as a focal point for his research, the International Hoplology Society, was also based in the US.

So apparently little has been left of him in Japan, the country that was his home for half his life and to whose martial traditions he had dedicated his life. There are memories of him still surviving in the minds of some of the (now elderly) Japanese budoka who met him and trained with him in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s but not a record of his actual trip. This article as well as the one that will follow in a future issue is an attempt to collect some of these memories and introduce to a younger generation of Japanese this really important man.

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