Conquering the World: The “Martial” Power of Japan Goes Global

Evgenia Lachina. International Journal of the History of Sport. Volume 35, Issue 15/16, Sep/Oct 2018.

Japanese martial arts, or budo, in the West have come a long way from a hardly visible physical activity mostly for Japanese immigrants and a few Western Japanophiles, to a counterculture, to the realm of the mainstream in the form of subculture. They started in the late nineteenth—early twentieth century mainly as a tool for Japanese diasporas to maintain links with their cultural heritage to grow into a passion for millions of people around the world by the close of the twentieth century. Today, when the presence of budo in the West has been joined by flows of other cultural products from Japan, and the additional martial sport of Japanese origin, Karate, now stands among the official games in the Olympics, the question of what forces create such powerful cultural ‘waves’ arises again.

There has been much academic research done on various aspects and implications of the global diffusion of Oriental martial arts in general and Japanese styles in particular. For example, explaining the popularity of Asian martial arts in the West, Max Skidmore identifies the following reasons: their frequent appearance in the media; the rise of tournament culture; their self-defense and aesthetic appeal; the search for identity, which can be assisted by the practice of martial arts; a strong sense of accomplishment and of control over personal destiny that they can provide; and finally, ‘the mystic element’, which expresses itself in the phenomenon of ki-energy. JeongMyung Gim explores the attributes Eastern martial arts have gained and lost in the process of their adaptation to American culture. Wojciech J. Cynarski, Lothar Sieber, and Artur Litwiniuk analyze the perception of Asian martial arts in the West and their adaptation to Western culture from the perspective of cultural and sport sociology. They show how ‘traditional’ budo are commercialized, sportified, and mythologized while being consumed by Westerners, paying special attention to the styles born within Western culture under the influence of Eastern tradition. Examining martial arts as a popular culture product in the global market, Yong Jae Ko and Jin Bang Yang discuss the economic, political, and cultural implications of their globalization for the martial arts industry. Finally, in his numerous works in the field of martial arts studies Paul Bowman addresses various issues, one of them being the role of mass media and popular culture in the dissemination of martial arts. There are also a number of scholarly works on specific styles, such as Judo, Kendo, and Karate. These and many other studies, however, focus on either specific implications of the global dissemination of Asian martial arts in general or on the spread of singular fighting systems without drawing comparisons between styles in terms of their internationalization. Thus, even though much is already known on the subject of export of Japanese Martial Arts to the West, the actual socio-cultural mechanisms behind this phenomenon remain to be discovered. To fill this gap of cultural knowledge and to structuralize the whole process, the present study aims to identify and systematically represent the most significant forces behind the spread of Japanese martial arts beyond the shores of Japan since the second half of the twentieth century. By doing so it seeks to answer the question: are there any repeating patterns that form a unique mechanism of Japanese ‘martial’ expansion to the West?

Three martial arts of Japanese origin were chosen for analysis: Judo, Kendo, and Karate-do (hereafter shortened as Karate). Judo is the martial art that not only had a deep impact on the fighting tradition of Japan and many other countries, but also became the first sport of Asian origin to be introduced into the Olympics; Karate is arguably the most popular Japanese martial art in the world and has currently become an Olympic sport as well. Kendo was included as an example of an essentially different martial art which has a similar history of interactions with the Japanese state, and has been present outside Japan as long as Judo, but is far less popular today. Nonetheless, according to estimated numbers of practitioners to be shown later, Kendo can be conditionally qualified as the third popular Japanese martial art worldwide, albeit well behind the former two.

As Max Skidmore and other scholars have shown, the factors which have enabled the globalization of Asian martial arts in general and Japanese styles in particular are numerous, but at a closer look it can be seen that some of them originate from Asian culture and society, the ‘transmitter’, while others have to do rather with socio-cultural processes in the West, the ‘receiver’. Therefore, to systematize the whole process I suggest dividing this variety into two basic types: ‘pushing’ and ‘pulling’ forces. The first group comprises forces which ‘push’ one’s cultural heritage beyond the initial boundaries of its influence or national borders, such as the attractive potential of this heritage itself (cultural content), institutional architecture and state policies aimed to facilitate its domestic and international promotion. The ‘push’ of the cultural content originates from the inherent ability of a cultural phenomenon to generate people’s interest and create following. Its degree of integration into various national and international institutions and structures creates unique institutional architecture which shapes its wider dissemination. Finally, as the most resourceful actor, the state possesses the highest decisive power to foster or deter cultural promotion. There are no distinct boundaries between these forces, they are overlapping and interdependent. Cultural content can be and very often is shaped by institutional architecture constructed by the state, especially in authoritarian regimes; state policies can be and frequently are influenced by the former two, especially in democracies. However, this nominaln division is essential to the understanding of the main forces behind Japanese ‘martial’ expansion since the second part of the twentieth century.

The second group includes forces related to the processes within the receiving society that inspire the consumption of an alien culture, such as new cultural demands, reproduction of otherness and previous ‘waves’ produced by the same alien culture in the host (Western) society in the past. Cultural demands are shaped by numerous factors, one of them being social, political, or economic crises that cause dissatisfaction with the existing values and conventions, inspiring the search for new ideas and meaning systems in alien cultures. Reproduction of otherness is often fuelled by commercial forces striving to maximize profits by imitating the exotic character of an alien culture, therefore making this culture more ‘native’ and comprehensible. Finally, previous ‘waves’ facilitate the indigenization of new elements from the alien culture in the host society. All the above forces are interconnected and interact with each other in multiple ways, which makes it hardly possible to draw clear distinctions between them. The purpose of this paper, however, is not to delineate distinct boundaries, but to outline the main forces that gave birth to the first post-war wave of Japanese cultural expansion, which cannot, and should not, be examined independently.

In addition, there are so-called channels of cultural diffusion, namely, migration, tourism, trade, mass media, etc., which deliver one’s culture to different parts of the world and promote its further consumption. Hence, I will first discuss the ‘pushing’ forces separately for each martial art under examination and then the pulling forces, which are grouped together due to their universality not only for martial arts, but for other Asian physical and spiritual practices as well. Finally, I draw conclusions as for what constitutes the mechanism of Japanese ‘martial’ expansion and which forces have been more central than others to producing such a powerful cultural ‘wave’.

Pushing Forces

Humiliated by the disgrace of defeat in World War II and the subsequent occupation, the Japanese not only had to rebuild the country economically and physically, but also to restore their shattered sense of national dignity. Martial arts turned to be instrumental in serving this purpose: they played the role of a spiritual tool to help Japanese society recover from economic and social devastation, which required from its people, exhausted by war, much energy and new sacrifices. Thus, Judo, which was regarded as the embodiment of the Japanese soul, became the source of inspiration and one of the media to channel this ‘patriotic’ spirit. In a similar vein, Karate ‘grew to become part of efforts by a Japanese national identity that sought to reassert itself by reimagining its past’, which projected itself domestically and abroad in the form of mythical representations of Japanese martial tradition associating it with ‘a former golden cultural age’. Thus, even though Japan was defeated, it maintained its glorious warrior tradition, albeit in a metaphorical way. This spiritual drive can be seen as an underlying force that nourished Japan’s postwar desire for cultural promotion.

It must be also noted that the martial arts as an element of Japanese culture were taken beyond Japan and brought to the West by people, primarily by martial artists or at least martial arts practitioners. The state policies towards physical education in Meiji—early Showa Japan made it possible, if not desirable, for every young man, and sometimes women, to practice budo. As a result, there was a large concentration of martial artists in pre-World War II Japanese society, which potentially increased the ratio of people experienced in martial arts among Japanese nationals residing elsewhere. Indeed, prior and after World War II many Judo masters arrived from Japan in the United States in search for better life than they would have had at home, to say nothing of those who were dispatched by martial arts organizations, such as the Kodokan or the Dai-Nippon Butokukai. To maintain links with their cultural heritage they practiced or taught martial arts. It is therefore not surprising that the majority of early practitioners was made up of people of Japanese origin. The conspicuous growth in immigration from Japan, especially following the decision of the US government to repeal the Asian Exclusion Act in 1965, only facilitated the indigenization of Japanese martial arts in the States.


Cultural Content

Judo, ‘the gentle way’, is a wrestling-oriented combat style, founded by Jigoro Kano (1860-1938) in the late nineteenth century on the basis of different jujutsu, or ‘soft techniques’ that had existed in Japan earlier, and Western approaches to and concepts of sports. However, it took several decades before a clear distinction was drawn between Judo and the traditional Jujutsu styles.

Judo was introduced to the West in the early twentieth century, but it wasn’t until the 1950s that its popularity started to grow rapidly, culminating in Judo’s inclusion in the Olympic Games in 1964, which in itself is an indication of the highest level of international recognition as a sport. Since then the number of Judo practitioners and athletes has been constantly increasing, and although the exact figure is hard to determine, on November 6, 2017 the CNN reported that there were about 28 million judoka in more than 200 countries. More often than not Judo is included in various rankings of the best, most popular, most effective, etc. martial arts styles. For example, AskMen ranked Judo third after Kung Fu (2) and Karate (1) on its list of the most popular martial arts in the world with a Google search producing 43,700 websites dedicated to it. While such rankings may be subjective, they demonstrate that Judo is a highly preferred martial art. In many countries it has long become common practice to send children to learn Judo as a form of physical activity. Moreover, since very early on books and articles on its various aspects have been constantly published or translated in Western countries, not to mention a large number of films featuring Judo masters and techniques being popular with the audiences.

Institutional Architecture

At the initial stage Judo was only one of a large variety of Japanese Jujutsu schools both within and beyond Japan, therefore it would be misleading to reduce this diversity exclusively to Kano’s system, for other Jujutsu schools had also contributed to the subsequent international success of Judo by sending their representatives abroad to promote their arts in any possible way. Nonetheless, Judo had a crucial advantage over other Jujutsu styles: not only Kano himself was an influential sports administrator and politician in Japan, his system was also highly organized and centralized, and its promotion strategy was well-thought out and far-sighted. That is why Judo became dominant first in Japan and later in the US and Europe. As Sabine Frühstück and Wolfram Manzenreiter put it, ‘with numerous schools, ideologies, and masters striving hard to coexist, Jujutsu could never establish the kind of strong following that Judo did’.

Overall, throughout its history, Judo has established a developed infrastructure both in Japan and worldwide. Beginning with the foundation of the Kodokan Judo Institute in 1882, Judo has entered the Japanese police, military (to a certain degree), schools, universities, and business sector. Although in the first post-World War II years it was forbidden from practice by civilians, the prohibition did not last long—from 1945 to 1949, when the All Japan Judo Federation (AJJF) was founded—and Judo continued to be practiced half-legally. In addition, four years of non-practice were by no means enough to exterminate the sound infrastructure that had been developed over more than half a century. When Risei Kano, son of Judo founder Jigoro Kano, was elected the president of the AJJF in 1949, the Kodokan was able to regain control over the development of Judo in Japan.

While in Japan Judo practitioners had a hard time, the situation in Europe was opposite: as early as 1948 enthusiasts from four European countries established the European Judo Union (EJU) to be replaced by the International Judo Federation (IJF) three years later. After Tokyo hosted the first two World Championships in 1956 and 1958, and especially after it hosted the 1964 Olympic Games, where Judo was included as an official sport for the first time, Japan’s dominant position seemed intact. However, after the IJF established its own refereeing rules in 1967, Japan’s monopoly on Judo came to an end, which made it an asset of the world’s culture and sports. Today Judo is well institutionalized globally as an Olympic sport through numerous national and international bodies, in many countries it can be studied at an academic level and it is a part of physical training in the schools, armed forces and police.

State Policies

After the government of Japan established a modern conscript army in 1873, traditional martial arts seemed to have lost their relevance, giving way to modern methods of warfare. However, in the first decades of the twentieth century they were given a second breath, especially in the 1930s and 1940s, when their promotion in Japan and its colonies became a part of ultra-nationalistic government policy to turn the population into loyal subjects of the empire, ready to serve its cause.

Immediately after World War II, due to Judo’s direct involvement in the promotion of militarism among schoolchildren, its practice in schools was temporarily forbidden. Overall, in the first postwar decades it was quite problematic for budo organizations in Japan to obtain the support of the state. There is also no evidence that it was in any manner involved in the international promotion of national martial arts, at least not directly, for such an attempt might evoke negative associations with Japan’s imperial past domestically and abroad. In the longer term, however, the Japanese government was not as uninvolved as it might seem at first glance. The inclusion of Judo into the Olympic programme could never happen without its supervision, although it was by no means the only force behind the drive. Technically it was the IJF’s motion to list Judo as an optional Olympic sport, but it was also strongly supported by the then Tokyo governor, Azuma Ryotaro, the members of the Ministry of Education, and the Judo Federation of Japanese Diet Members formed in 1961. Ahead of the 1964 Tokyo Olympic games, ‘the Nippon Budokan’ (‘the Martial Arts Hall of Japan’)—an indoor arena for the Olympic Judo competitions—was built near the imperial palace. The official webpage of the Nippon Budokan states that its ‘construction… was aided by a financial donation from His Majesty the Emperor. The Nippon Budokan has continued to serve as the central organization for the promotion of Japanese budo‘. It was the first state-sanctioned martial arts institution, opened in Japan in the postwar period. Since the late 1980s—early 1990s, the Budokan has held international seminars on budo culture, partially sponsored by the Japanese Ministry of Education. Today the Nippon Budokan Foundation (NBF), the managing organization of the Budokan, annually dispatches a ‘Budo Delegation’ to a different country to demonstrate national martial arts, hold seminars, and advance their greater understanding abroad. This event is sponsored by Japan Sports Agency and Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA).

Besides, established in 1972 by an Act of the National Diet as a special legal entity to facilitate overseas diffusion of Japanese culture, the Japan Foundation (JF) to a certain extent assists in the worldwide promotion of Japanese martial arts as it organizes various exhibitions in different countries, one of them being ‘The Spirit of Budo: The History of Japan’s Martial Arts’. In addition, the MOFA under its programme of Official Development Assistance (ODA) to developing countries provides Cultural Grant Assistance, aimed at, among other things, the ‘promotion of sports, such as traditional Japanese martial arts like Judo, etc.’ Nevertheless, since the latter part of the twentieth century the Japanese government has been involved in the global popularization of national martial arts much less than, for example, the Chinese or South Korean governments.


Cultural Content

Kendo, ‘the way of the sword’ is a modern descendant of traditional Japanese swordsmanship, Kenjutsu, which is ‘the method, technique or the art of the sword’. Throughout history numerous Kenjutsu styles had developed in Japan, eventually uniting under the name ‘Kendo’ in the early twentieth century. Some of them, however, preferred to keep the old tradition and continue to exist as Kenjutsu today.

Kendo found its way to the West approximately at the same time as Judo and, unlike the latter, has been the embodiment of the noble culture of the sword—the very heart of the samurai tradition—which was especially appealing to Western audiences in the 1970s and 1980s. However, from the very beginning Kendo aroused much less interest among Westerners than Judo primarily due to the practical orientation of the latter and the zealous efforts of Kano to spread it around the world. Over the century the situation does not seem to have changed much, and even today Kendo is generally less popular than Judo or Karate for the following reasons: firstly, Kendo is not an Olympic sport; secondly, for many people the affordability of Kendo can become an important consideration because its practice requires special equipment; thirdly, since today people do not normally use swords, Kendo is practiced rather for the sake of Kendo itself, while weaponless styles are believed to have more practical applications; finally, as it will be shown in the following section, the contradictory policies of the Japanese government and the All Japan Kendo Federation (AJKF) aimed at controlling the spread of Kendo may have prevented increased numbers of people from taking interest in it.

As for the numbers, when the International Kendo Federation (FIK) was formed in 1970, it was represented by 17 countries and regions; by 2008 there were almost 50. Today the FIK has about 60 member countries, with about 40 member countries in Europe. As it joined the General Association of Sports Federations (GAISF) in 2006, Kendo formally affirmed its status of an international sport. According to Japan Times, ‘overshadowed by Judo and Karate abroad, Kendo is practiced by about 1.5 million people of all ages and genders in Japan’. Globally Kendo is practiced by 7-8 million people. Furthermore, Kendo appears in online rankings much less than other martial arts under examination, and there are rather few movies where Kendo is the main theme.

Institutional Architecture

Swordsmanship, along with other traditional military practices, fell into decline after the establishment of a conscript army based on the European model in 1873. However, by the end of the Meiji period it regained and even multiplied its popularity as, in common with Judo, it was gradually introduced first into the police and later into the national education system. By the early 1940s nationalistic policies in Japan made Kendo, as much as other budo and sports, a major channel for nurturing the national spirit and loyalty to the emperor and to the state in school students. That is why after Japan’s surrender the occupation authorities treated Kendo with the most suspicion under their ban on budo.

Overshadowed by its problematic past, Kendo by no means could be reestablished in its former militant capacity, therefore it had to undergo the process of sportification to suit the needs of a contemporary democratic society. As a modern sport it returned to the physical education curriculum, first as shinai-kyogi—the hybrid of Kendo and Western fencing—and later as Kendo. Sporting events started to be held and in 1952 the AJKF was established. By the late 1980s Kendo almost fully resumed its prewar, pre-militarist position in the national curriculum.

Overall, Kendo, like Judo, is well established in Japan. In fact, today Kendo is one of the most popular sports in Japan as it is practiced in schools, universities, company clubs, police stations in all the 47 prefectures, as well as the Imperial Guard. Internationally, Kendo is represented by numerous national and international organizations and managed by the FIK. Practically, however, the FIK is fundamentally administrated by the AJKF, which makes it essentially different from the IJF. While the IJF took over the administration of Judo from the AJJF in the late 1960s, therefore depriving Japan of its former monopoly on Judo, it did not happen in the case of Kendo, and the AJKF continues its efforts in spreading Kendo around the world, at the same time trying to preserve its purely Japanese nature and character, which in itself is at odds with the notion of internationalization. In other words, although it is the AJKF and Japan’s interest to further popularize Kendo, it is tolerable as long as they ‘dictate the rules’, for ‘its form and spirit should not be compromised in any way by foreign influence’.

State Policies

The policies towards Kendo (as well as Judo) from the Meiji Restoration to Japan’s defeat in World War II were a part of a more general approach of the state towards physical education and can be summarized as follows. After a short period of decline, Kendo gradually regained its popularity, especially as it became more and more sportified under the influence of Westernization. This trend was frown upon by militarists and ultranationalists, who insisted on the purification of the budo tradition for they saw it as the embodiment of the Japanese spirit. As Japan was preparing for war in the 1930s, the Japanese state increasingly used this tradition to cultivate patriotism, militarism, and the ideology of the Emperor System, which manifested itself in the ritualization of Kendo competitions. Moreover, the government ordered to erect Shinto altars in Kendo training halls in schools. In the late 1930s the match rules and teaching methodology of Kendo were modified so that it became more combat-oriented. Further measures included the formation of Martial Training Division in the Ministry of Public Welfare in 1941, which took over administration of all budo activities excluding university clubs; the transformation of the Dai-Nippon Butokukai into a government-controlled organization in 1942; introduction of Kendo and other budo into primary schools in the same years; and, finally, other policies to fortify Japan’s war effort by enforcing the practice of fighting arts.

Although Kendo was banned from being practiced after Japan’s defeat in World War II, eventually it made a comeback to the mainstream, albeit somewhat later than other martial arts for the occupation authorities viewed it with the most suspicion. As in 2006 the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) made martial arts compulsory for first- and second-year students in all junior high schools beginning in 2012, Kendo reinforced its status of a school subject.

As budo grew more and more popular from the 1960s on, ‘organizations like the Japan Foundation dispatched national coaches abroad, helping to raise both the level of awareness of and skill in Kendo, especially outside former Japanese colonial territory’. Even today the Japanese government is to some extent involved in the promotion of national martial arts in general and Kendo in particular in developing countries. For example, on May 22, 2015 Modern Ghana reported that the Embassy of Japan in Ghana had supported the organization of a Kendo demonstration, by doing so introducing the martial art into the country. Overall, however, the Japanese state has played a relatively minor part in the overseas promotion of Kendo.


Cultural Content

Karate, ‘the empty hand’, is a striking-based fighting style and one of the cultural products of Okinawa, which comprises the indigenous Ryukyuan, Chinese, Japanese and other martial traditions. In the early twentieth century it was brought to mainland Japan, where it underwent the process of standardization and institutionalization to be later introduced to the West in its modern form. Represented by a wide range of styles, Karate is anything but a homogenous entity, which makes it extremely hard, if possible at all, to count the precise number of its practitioners. Nevertheless, according to the estimated values, which vary from 100 million to 130 million people in 192 countries, Karate seems to be the most popular Japanese martial art in the world. In 2016 it was included in the Olympic programme since 2020, thus becoming the second Olympic sport of Japanese origin.

While some Okinawan masters were involved in spreading Karate in Hawaii, and many fewer in Americas, prior to World War II, their number was insufficient to attract any significant following on the continent, and it wasn’t until after the war that the art started its ‘triumphal march’ across the West. Already in the 1950s a number of Karate masters from Japan toured the mainland U.S. demonstrating the art, opening dojos and organizing tournaments. Perhaps, the most notable figure was Masutatsu Oyama (1923-1994), whose spectacular performance during his 1952 U.S. tour earned him the nickname of ‘God Hand’. However, back in those days the key role in spreading Karate across the country belonged to American-born promoters.

Throughout the 1970s-1980s Karate grew so popular in the English-speaking world that in the martial arts literature the word itself came to refer to any striking-based Asian martial arts. By the end of the century it was featured in countless cult movies and video games popular in the West. Today Karate more often than not occupies high positions in various rankings of martial arts available online. For instance, with 101,000 results produced by a Google search it is ranked first by AskMen. Needless to mention, the existence of large variety of Karate clubs allows to choose the most appropriate style and method according to one’s preferences, and like Judo, it has become a perfect afterschool activity for children across the world.

Institutional Architecture

Before it was introduced into Japan, Karate came to be taught under physical education in Okinawan schools. The institutionalization of Karate in the mainland began in the 1920s, after a number of Karate demonstrations were held before Japanese state officials. Since the Dainippon Butokukai was growing more and more influential as a martial arts society, the membership in this organization would not only make Karate symbolically equal to native Japanese styles, but would also grant it the official recognition of the Japanese state. In order to be recognized by the Dainippon Butokukai, Karate had to conform to contemporary Japanese practice, and therefore needed to undergo formal changes, which was successfully done in the 1920s. During that time Karate adopted the white training uniforms resembling traditional Japanese kimono and coloured belts to reflect progress made in the study of the martial art, introduced earlier by Kano into Judo. Thus, in 1933 it was finally recognized by the Butokukai. Besides, Karate was enriched with the ending ‘-do’, at the same time changing its meaning from ‘Chinese hand’ or ‘Tang hand’ to ’empty hand’ to eradicate its Chinese origins.

Although it was never successfully integrated into the Japanese military, the demonstrations of the martial art on the mainland made it possible for its Okinawan promoters to establish it in several Japanese universities, which indicated its growing recognition and indigenization in mainstream Japanese society. The efforts to institutionalize Karate in Japan continued throughout the 1930s and 1940s. By the end of World War II, however, its status was still relatively marginal in comparison to ‘hardcore’ Judo and Kendo. In the post-war years Karate not only was not forbidden by the Allied Forces but, along with Judo, began to be taught to the personnel in American military bases in Okinawa. The rapid development of Karate in Japan resulted in the formation of the Japan Karate-do Federation (JKF) in 1964, which became an umbrella organization of several major styles. By that time Karate was practiced outside Japan. National and international Karate organizations began to appear in different parts of the world, eventually integrating into The World Karate Federation (WKF) in 1992, which currently includes about 190 national federations and is the only Karate organization recognized by the International Olympic Committee. Interestingly, in a similar vein with the case of Judo, much credit for the global institutionalization of what has now become Olympic Karate must go to European enthusiasts. In addition to the WKF, there are a number of international Karate bodies with no representation in Japan. Such organizations, however, are usually smaller than those having Japan as their member.

State Policies

As can be seen from the above, in the early period it was rather the aspiration of Okinawan masters to introduce Karate into the Japanese state systems, than the opposite. The fact that they succeeded not only to spread Ryukyuan cultural heritage all over Japan, but also to bring it in one line with the indigenous Japanese tradition in the eyes of the state, can be seen as a response of Okinawa to its former ‘invader’.

Karate escaped the fate of Judo and Kendo both in the prewar and postwar periods. The fact that it was always represented by a myriad of styles and schools and was never fully incorporated into force structures saved it from being militarized in the 1930s and 1940s, therefore after Japan’s defeat its practice was not forbidden as the occupying American forces viewed it merely as a form of physical education, and thus deemed it ‘harmless’. That is why it could continue its expansion in Japan without much disruption and be exported to other countries, especially Western, without being associated with the Japanese war machine.

Karate’s worldwide journey started immediately after the war was over—particularly as American soldiers were returning back home following their service in Japan, where some of them had an opportunity to learn martial arts—and was anything but state-guided. The Japanese state should be credited, of course, for creating favourable conditions for the development of martial arts in general in the pre-World War II period, which also affected the systematization and Japanization of Karate, for only this way it could be incorporated into educational structures of Japan. Another far-reaching implication of this interaction is that in its modernized form Karate perhaps had more potential for its postwar global dissemination. Apart from that, however, the state neither actively assisted its internationalization, nor restricted it. Discussing the success of Taekwondo’s Olympic bid, Udo Moenig notes that the strong political and financial assistance of the South Korean government not only played a crucial part in it, but ‘would also prevail over a similar bid by Karate which lacked a commensurate degree of strong support from the Japanese government’. Indeed, when Karate was allowed a second chance to be included into the Olympics, as in the case of Judo, it was with the support of the state that this became possible. In 2014, Karate’s candidacy for the Olympic Games was supported not only by a number of influential Japanese public organizations, but also by the All-Party Parliamentary Group for the Promotion of the Tokyo Olympics 2020. Finally, in 2017, 400 pieces of tatami mats were donated to the Rwanda Karate Federation by the government of Japan as a part of its cultural exchange and promotion programme. However, these are recent developments; throughout the second part of the twentieth century the state largely stayed aside from the Karate business.

Pulling Forces

Alfred L. Kroeber observed that

… in the inter-influencing of cultures, it must frequently happen that a new item or specific trait fills some need or is of obvious advantage in a culture which has not previously possessed it; or at any rate that there is nothing already established with which it would have to compete for acceptance.

In other words, one of the primary forces behind the spread of a cultural element (cultural innovation) is demand on the receiving side. What might create the demand for Japanese martial arts, the element of an alien culture associated with the disastrous Pearl Harbor attack, fanatic kamikaze pilots and numerous war atrocities, among Westerners? Is it the lack of effective fighting styles or spectacular martial sports in the West? Hardly so. Boxing has been an Olympic event since 1904, and professional boxing was flourishing throughout the 1960s to 1990s. By the same token, Freestyle and Greco-Roman wrestling have been a part of the Olympics since early 1900s, and throughout the twentieth century professional wrestling experienced two periods of great popularity: in the 1950s and 1980s. Furthermore, various schools of fencing, one of the original sports in the modern Olympic Games (since 1896), have existed across Europe for centuries. Finally, some Western nations developed their own fighting systems, such as French kickboxing, Savate, which was revived after World War II. Is it then the lack of philosophy or some spiritual foundation characteristic of Asian martial arts? It might be the explanation, but only partial. The Western world did not lack philosophic concepts or chivalric codes which could be incorporated into martial arts, as it happened in the case of Japan, where the elements of existing philosophic and religious teachings in association with the Bushido code were integrated into modern styles. Therefore, below I will examine the forces that inspired Westerners to adopt those elements of an alien culture and take them to the level of international sports.

First of all, it should be mentioned that during and following the years of American occupation of the Japanese islands and South Korea, the US military personnel stationed there had the opportunity to learn Japanese fighting systems, and to bring them back home. In some cases, afterwards they invited their instructors to come to the US to teach. Meanwhile, major changes in the later part of the last century led to the unprecedented growth in international tourism, especially to East Asia and the Pacific Region. This trend affected Japan as a tourist destination as well: the number of foreign visitors to the country increased from 352,832 in 1964 to 4,757,146 in 2000. Concurrently, some Westerners went to Japan to study martial arts. Thus, among the early people to visit Japan for this purpose were Steve Arneil (born 1934), 10th degree black belt in karate and the founder of the International Federation of Kyokushin Karate who travelled to the country in 1962, Donn Draeger (1922-1982), the author of numerous books and articles on Asian martial arts and the founder of the International Hoplology Society (IHS) who ‘took up permanent residence in Japan in the mid-1950s and became thoroughly occupied with the study and practice of Japanese martial and related disciplines’, and other prominent Western enthusiasts of Japanese martial arts.

Besides, the rapid development of mass media technologies in the second part of the twentieth century undoubtedly became a powerful channel for promotion of martial arts in the world. It should be, of course, noted that demonstrations of different styles were reported in the Western press since as early as the late nineteenth—early twentieth century, but what can be compared to the breathtaking martial arts scenes one could enjoy watching in the cinema or at home, especially from the 1970s on? The Kung Fu movies of the early 1970s started what became known as the ‘boom’ of martial arts cinema as a genre, exposing Western audiences to different fighting styles of Asian origin and raising their awareness of and familiarity with the phenomenon. At the peak of this ‘boom’ came the release of The Karate Kid, American Ninja, Three Ninjas franchises, and many other cult movies, which fueled further interest to Japanese martial arts and inspired people of all ages to sign up for martial arts lessons. This ‘logistics’ of cultural expansion contributed greatly to the worldwide dissemination of Japanese budo.

Previous ‘Waves’

As it is shown in previous sections, two martial arts, namely, Judo and Kendo, were brought to the West long before World War II, and therefore their postwar ‘triumphal march’ can be partially attributed to the fact that they were already known in certain parts of the world, especially in several East Asian countries, such as Taiwan and Korea, Europe (Great Britain, France, Germany), and North America (the US, later Canada). As Japan was ‘opened’ to the West in the middle of the nineteenth century, many Europeans and Americans were introduced to Japanese culture, some of them falling in love with it. They collected Japanese art and sometimes practiced Japanese martial arts, especially those who visited or lived in Japan. Among such people was a German physician Dr. Erwin Baelz (1849-1913) who spent more than 20 years in Japan teaching and practicing medicine. In addition to his professional duties, he studied Kenjutsu, Kyudo (Japanese archery), and Jujutsu. There were also several European Japanophiles who introduced Kendo to Europe after they had developed an interest in Japan and its spiritual and sporting culture while they resided there. Even US president Theodore Roosevelt took Judo lessons from Yoshitsugu Yamashita, an instructor sent especially for him to the White House from Kano’s Kodokan in 1904. Although sometimes Roosevelt’s studies of Judo are described as being helpful in igniting the first Oriental martial arts boom in the English-speaking world, such a view seems to be exaggerated. In fact, the Roosevelt experience left little lasting impact on the direction of Judo in the US; it wasn’t until much later that Judo became firmly entrenched there, as well as in the West in general. This initial exposure of the Western world to Japanese martial arts was, of course, a part of a bigger phenomenon—the first wave of Japanese cultural expansion which started in the late nineteenth century—and when the second wave came after World War II, Japan was still exotic, but already familiar to the West.

Cultural Demands

According to Collin Campbell, ‘in order for any group of people to be influenced by ideas or practices emanating from outside their own civilization they have to be open to such influences’, which is usually the case when there is a certain lack of satisfaction with their own culture or way of life. This is exactly what happened to the Western world after World War II, as it was the time when all the three major strands of Western culture—religion, secular political ideology, and science were undergoing revision. The principal reason for this was that they could no longer provide the Western world with a ‘coherent, credible, visionary and morally satisfying comprehensive meaning system or theodicy, for not only did Christianity obviously fail to meet almost any of these requirements, but so too did the secular, Enlightenment-based, progressive tradition in its then-dominant form of Marxism’. As a result, the post-war ‘boomer’ generation who came to maturity in the 1960s turned to the geographical East for new meaning systems, values and ideas, and for many people Zen Buddhism and martial arts became the source of inspiration for a new spirituality. This was the time when, and the reason why, the widespread confusion linking nearly all Japanese martial arts to Zen Buddhism occurred: it would allow to connect the two in a new meaning system Westerners were seemingly so desperately looking for. Therefore, it can be safely assumed that Japanese martial arts, as much as spiritual practices, became available in the West exactly when it needed them most.

Reproduction of Otherness

In his 1928 overseas travel diary Jigoro Kano mentions that during his visit in Berlin he was shown an illustrated book titled Kano Jujutsu which was being used at the Berlin Police Academy as a primary text for the study of Jujutsu. The book contained the photograph of Kano himself and a foreword written by the above-mentioned Dr. Baelz. The only problem with Kano Jujutsu was that, according to Kano himself, he ‘had never before seen or even heard of this book’. In his diary he asserts that it wasn’t his work. This example is a vivid demonstration of how Japanese-ness has been reproduced in the West regardless of the will of the ‘producer’. Another example is the fighting art of Bartitsu, which is based on French, Swiss, English, and Japanese styles, including Jujutsu and Kodokan Judo, and was immortalized as ‘Baritsu’ by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in his stories about Sherlock Holmes in the early twentieth century. Apart from Bartitsu, Jujutsu and Kodokan Judo gave birth to Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and Sambo wrestling in Soviet Russia, which are now independent combat sports.

The most important contribution of Japanese martial arts, however, is that the introduction of the concept of ‘do’ to fighting practices, which occurred in 1919 when the Dai-Nippon Butokukai officially replaced the suffix ‘-jutsu’ (techniques) with ‘-do’ (way) in their names, has changed their meaning forever from the idea of practicing pure techniques to something more inclusive and significant. According to Alexander Bennett, the reason behind this change was to stress the spirituality of Japanese martial tradition, by doing so asserting the superiority of Japanese physical culture over Western sports. While in prewar and wartime Japan this innovation served militaristic and nationalistic purposes and was associated with cultivating fighting spirit and nurturing loyalty to the empire in its subjects rather than anything else, after the war it was deliberately detached from any militaristic connections and incorporated the idea of martial arts as a way of spiritual development. It had a crucial impact on the perception of Japanese fighting styles in the West as well: it transformed the very idea of martial arts from a pure practice of violence to a way of life. Even Jeet Kune Do, the fighting system developed by Bruce Lee in the US in the late 1960s, which has nothing to do with Japan or Japanese martial arts technically, has the same ‘-do’ in its name. Korean styles were arguably affected most not only technically, but also conceptually. Today a big number of Korean external hand-to-hand systems have ‘-do’ in their names: Hapkido, Hwa Rang Do, Han Moo Do, Tang Soo Do, Soo Bahk Do, and, of course, Taekwondo. Interestingly, when the first Korean enthusiasts arrived in the US in the latter part of the twentieth century to advance what later became known as ‘Taekwondo’, they reproduced Japanese-ness by using the name ‘Korean Karate’ to attract more students, as at that time Japanese martial arts were generally much more popular. Finally, although the reproduction if Japanese-ness in popular culture is another vast topic beyond the scope of this paper, it should be mentioned that representations of Japanese martial tradition in Western cinema have provided a broader familiarization with it.

In sum, some reproductions are still identified as having links to Japanese tradition, while others have completely blurred their non-native origins. In any case, they indicate the great interest Westerners have had towards Japanese martial culture since the beginning of the twentieth century. At the same time, these reproductions assisted its further promotion for the more Japanese-ness is reproduced the more presence Japan, albeit rather imagined than real, has in the host society.

The Japanese ‘Wave’ and the Export of Martial Arts

In this paper, I attempted to theoretically construct a coherent mechanism of Japanese cultural expansion in the part where it concerns martial arts. The mechanism I propose consists of pushing and pulling forces of cultural expansion and its channels, through which the Japanese martial ‘wave’ has been carried out. Perhaps the main channels have been intensified migration and travel between Japan and Western countries and international mass media whose rapid development in the second half of the twentieth century has dramatically accelerated the global dissemination of Japanese budo. Although these channels have been equally available to all the three martial arts under examination (as well as to many others), Karate has arguably benefited most from the effects of mass media as at some point the word itself became generic for any striking-based Asian martial arts in the relevant media, not to mention the impressive number of cult movies featuring Karate.

The examination of three martial arts—Judo, Kendo, and Karate—revealed that since the moment of their initial exposure to the Western public they have followed sometimes identical and sometimes divergent trajectories. Thus, by the end of World War II Judo and Kendo, due to their incorporation into the system of public mobilization, were well institutionalized in Japanese society. Moreover, unlike Karate, they were already known in Western countries and were practiced by local people, albeit mainly of Japanese origin. Introduced to the Western world much later, Karate, however, experienced unprecedented growth outside Japan throughout the latter part of the twentieth century, culminating in achieving the status of the most popular martial art of Japanese origin in the world. Nevertheless, a number of repeating patterns in the balance of forces responsible for the postwar expansion of these styles can be identified.

All three martial arts appear to possess a combination of inherent qualities that endows them with a high level of attractiveness. They are not only practiced globally by millions of people and are recognized as international sports, but have also enriched, and sometimes even created, martial traditions of many nations all over the world. In the process of their internationalization, all three have been sportified and have incorporated Western practices, ideas and interpretations of martial arts. However, the fact that from the very beginning Judo was conceived as a modern sport based on Western principles of sports and education, and Karate comprised elements from different martial traditions made them more comprehensible to Westerners and therefore more popular among them. Kendo, on the other hand, due to its stronger dependency on Japanese instruction and seemingly lesser practical applicability turned out to be less popular internationally. This leads to the conclusion that, in terms of international popularization, a cultural product (martial art) from Japan needs to be ‘Japanese enough’ to be associated with it, but overstressing Japanese-ness can distract non-Japanese populations from taking interest in it.

All three styles are well institutionalized both in Japan and worldwide, which allowed two of them to enter the Olympics and the third to reach the status of an international sport. However, the role of Japan in creating this institutional architecture at a global scale in two cases out of three doesn’t seem to have been determinant. While the worldwide institutionalization of Judo and Olympic Karate to a great extent has been driven by Europeans, the fate of international Kendo has been essentially controlled by Japan. This may be another reason behind relative unpopularity of Kendo as compared to the former two. Therefore, it can be assumed that, while maintaining links with Japan is necessary for the successful internationalization of its cultural heritage, its guidance should not be too obtrusive.

Overall, although in the latter part of the twentieth century the assistance of the Japanese state has existed, state policies do not seem to have contributed much to the global dissemination of the above martial arts. While the prewar involvement of the Japanese state in the domestic development of budo facilitated their systematization and structuralization, which turned to be essential for their worldwide popularization after the war, in the latter part of the twentieth century its promotional efforts were not decisive for the Japanese authorities could not allow the country to be associated with its militaristic past and cultural imperialism again. Besides, the establishment of a democratic form of government immediately after the war made it harder for the Japanese state to influence its cultural exports.

The fact that some structures were created by Westerners independently of Japanese initiatives explicitly shows that strong pulling forces were also at play. First, by the time the postwar wave of Japanese cultural expansion reached the West, it had already experienced the presence of Japanese culture, the previous ‘wave’ from Japan, which started in the late nineteenth century. According to Anna Naimushina, ‘the diffusion of an integral cultural complex will be more successful than the diffusion of a single cultural element’. Thus, certain cultural phenomena of Japanese origin were already present in the West, but they were ‘single elements’, and to form a ‘cultural complex’ they ‘pulled in’ the elements they were lacking.

Second, cultural demands of the receiving society turned out to be instrumental in encouraging Western interest towards Japanese martial arts. The dissatisfaction with the existing values characteristic of the baby boomer generation in the West stimulated the search for new spirituality in the Eastern cultures, making them ready to accept what the latter had to offer. This drive was reinforced by the desire to understand how the tenacious fighting spirit demonstrated by the Japanese soldiers during World War II came into being. Numerous reproductions of Japanese-ness, that is, the creation of new styles on the basis of Japanese martial arts and their representations in Western popular culture vividly illustrate how satisfied Westerners were with what they found. Moreover, these reproductions attracted new aficionados who, by joining the excitement of experiencing other ‘things Japanese’, expanded the presence of Japan in the West.

Thus, in all three cases the ‘pulling’ forces appeared to be just as, if not more, powerful, than the ‘pushing’ forces. Previous ‘wave’ of Japanese cultural expansion in the West, cultural demands of baby boomers and reproduction of Japanese-ness within Western culture can be seen as having contributed greatly to the global diffusion of the postwar Japanese ‘martial wave’. As for the pushing forces, cultural content seems to be the most salient of them, although the significance of other two should not be neglected either. The internationalization of national martial arts was a perfect tool for Japan to reassert its national identity in its own eyes and in the eyes of the world after the humiliation of defeat and occupation. Thus, after Japan’s hard power suffered a defeat, it was transformed into soft power which enabled Japan’s presence all around the world, not physical, but cultural.

The results of this study have practical and theoretical implications. They are likely to be helpful to both Asian and non-Asian decision makers and entertainers in developing strategies of cultural promotion based on the Japanese model. From a theoretical perspective, the above analysis enables a deeper understanding of cultural processes in the region and of their influence on the interactions with the rest of the world. Finally, it provides insights for further research of Asian cultural expansion and forecasting possible ‘waves’ in the future.