Japanese Pluck and American Degeneracy: The Origins of Jiu-Jitsu in the United States

by Adam Park

The Russo-Japanese War sparked American fascination with Japanese culture at the turn of the 20th century. “Japanese things are in fashion nowadays,” claimed one 1904 periodical, but “where does Japan get her muscle and pluck?”[1] They are “an intelligent, wholesome people; strong, clean and moral,” according to one representative source.[2] Indeed, Americans would be served best “to take a few lessons from them, especially in the thoroughness with which they carry out anything they undertake”; and “this feature of thoroughness is strikingly manifested in their system of physical training.”[3]

With regard to physical culture, then, Japan led the way. With the prevalence of hysteria, dyspepsia, feebleminded overbreeding, excessive whiskey consumption, tobacco poison, spermatorrea, and urban squalor in America, the Japanese seemed to have something significant to add. Poor American health was in need of alleviation. Talk of remedy was everywhere. “To increase the size of the gymnast’s muscles, and indirectly, among adults, to aid impaired digestion and circulation, to take on flesh or to remove it,” truly, one author noted, “physical soundness is the watchword of the rising generation.”[4] Progressive Era Americans needed an exemplary—in martial arts as well as in life—and it was not themselves.

Late-nineteenth century European immigrants brought with them various forms of fighting—like French savate kickboxing, English catch-as-catch-can wrestling, Irish boxing, or Russian grappling; but none of these stirred up more interest in discerning the best fighting style than did American exposure to Japanese judo and jiu-jitsu. Questions of supremacy were immediate and ubiquitous. “Whether the Japanese or the American methods of self-defense excel is an interesting question,” one author probed.[1] When the author asked boxing Heavyweight Champion of the world, James J. Jeffries, how he would handle such an opponent, the big boxer exclaimed, “Why, he’d be whipped right there. In a fight of the rough-house variety I could kick his head off as soon as he went down.”[2] Spoken like a thoroughbred American boxer, Jeffries thought very little of Japanese martial arts, and of Japanese head attachments. His craft was better than their craft. Jeffries was just as much a patriot as he was a sportsman. However, the author claimed, “the most effective fighting is done on the ground [i.e. where much of judo and jiu-jitsu can take place]”[3]; and boxers are only proficient when standing. Jeffries’ theoretical head kicks were untested, if not entirely non-existent. In a real-life “rough-house” encounter, which could take place either upright or more horizontal-like, the Japanese were more experienced, more well-rounded. The author concluded: “I would not like to be the boxer.”[4] Many Americans agreed with this assessment. The American means of “self-defense” was not the best.

Japanese martial arts were principled, systematic, and their efficacy was empirically verifiable. As a 1904 ad in the Scientific American proclaimed, “for over two thousand years the principles of JIU-JITSU have been religiously guarded”; but fortunately, the Yabe School of Jiu-Jitsu in New York gives the first lesson free.[1] Ads like this peppered American newspapers and periodicals at the turn of the century. “Use Your Strength Scientifically,” The National Police Gazette claimed, and “make a highly developed man of yourself” by learning jiu-jitsu.[2] Another Gazette article advertised: “The clever little Jap has proven that his method in the art of physical culture is the best in the world,” and that jiu-jitsu was “the science which enables a little man to successfully cope with a big athlete.”[3] The technical superiority of American physical culture was compromised. Touted because “a comparatively weak man, if he is thoroughly versed in its mysteries, can easily overcome and kill, if he please, an opponent greatly his superior in strength,” jiu-jitsu was seen as the pinnacle of skillful display, of brains over brawn.[4] These scientific Japanese men were the manliest.

“Although men of very small stature,” a 1904 article exclaimed, the Japanese “are among the strongest in the world.”[1] Fortunately, about a half an hour is “a long enough time to devote to jiu-jitsu,” and, “any boy of fourteen or fifteen who will faithfully practice their system of producing strength will find himself, at the end of a few months, able to cope in the feats of power with the average man of twenty-five, and all this without the dangerous practice of lifting very heavy weights.”[2] Americans could be (and should be more) like the Japanese; and jiu-jitsu was only one of the many cultural practices that Americans could learn from them. The overall point of the article was that the Japanese simply breathe healthier; they have learned to take air better than Americans. Another article that same year echoed this critique of American health culture, saying that “the Japanese have taught Europeans and Americans a lesson and quenched in some degree the conceit of Caucasian in his superior capacity to do all things.”[3] It went on: “The Japanese are allowed to be among the very strongest people on the earth. They are strong mentally and physically.”[4] And it is their diet “which enables them to develop such hardy frames and such well-balanced and keen brains.”[5] The Japanese ate better. Even their women were better. Japanese women were more physically and mentally robust, less susceptible to hysteria than their western counterparts. Not to be confused with the American woman who is easily shaken with a tendency to “rage inwardly at first,” a 1905 article in The Ladies’ Home Journal touted “the wonderful self-control of Japanese women”; it went on: a Japanese woman “is gentle and quiet, takes adversity without grumbling, makes the best of things, and has no nerves.”[6] Better physical strength, better food, better air, better female psyches—all thanks to Japanese physical culture and jiu-jitsu.

Popular awareness of the might and efficacy of Japan’s physical culture tampered American elitism. As President Roosevelt put it after reading Inazo Nitobe’s Bushido: The Soul of Japan, “Japan has much to teach the nations of the Occident, just as she has something to learn from them.”[7] As a Japanese diplomat, educator, and later, under-secretary general in the League of Nations, Nitobe and his international bestselling book, first published in 1900, did much to disseminate Japanese (physical) culture to western audiences, which contributed greatly to the “bushido boom” in the United States.[8] Translated as “Military-Knight-Ways,” the notion of bushido was “not a written code,” but was rather part of the “law written on the fleshy tablets of the heart.”[9] Ecumenically portrayed as a system of “moral principles”—having very much to do with martial ways and personal comportment—bushido was compatible with American sporting sensibilities. Read by President Roosevelt, who distributed “several dozen copies among his friends,” Bushido offered an eastern source for western physical culture as it facilitated the spread of judo and jiu-jitsu in the United States. As Roosevelt rallied for such eastern disciplines to be taught in American military branches, advocates championed the virtues of these Japanese styles, arguing that such “deadly little wrestlers” displayed the “skill to conquer the strongest of big men.”[10] Jiu-jitsu exhibitions were held in police headquarters, gymnasiums, YMCAs, colleges, churches, and elsewhere across the country. Within this turn-of-the century jiu-jitsu craze, American physical culturalists readily and openly appropriated Japanese physical culture.

In sport as in life, Americans had been outdone. American racism was a compensatory farce. “Justifying the arrogance and domineering spirit of Western nations,” Sidney L. Gulick wrote in his, Evolution of the Japanese: A Study of Their Characteristics in Relation to the Principles of Social and Psychic Development, American’s have far too long appealed to misguided notions of “evolution and survival of the fittest, [and] degeneration and the arrest of development.”[1] Praising Nitobe’s Bushido and thanking his brother, Luther H., for his influence and oversight, Sidney claimed, “the age of isolationism and divergent evolution is passing away, and that of international association and convergent social evolution has begun.”[2] Americans need Japanese culture, and Japanese blood. American size and strength is all but irrelevant; in fact, such physical characteristics were rather brutish. Harmonizing physicality and technique was key, body and mind. Look east for the transmission of the best hereditary traits. Japan held the cultural and evolutionary secrets.

Japanese judo and jujitsu fighters were better, smarter than their American challengers. Their technique was superior. Their upbringing was healthier. What we see in Progressive Era America was a reversal of more common colonial figurations of the “Oriental” other as mystical, primitive, irrational, and the occidental western as rational, advanced, scientific. Here, Japanese fighters were technically advantaged, rational, and scientific. The racial superiority and the physical prowess of the American strongman was tested and effectively undermined. American size and strength suggested primitivity and irrationality.

Hancock.jap

Taken from H. Irving Hancock’s Japanese Physical Training: The System of Exercise, Diet, and General Mode of Living that Has Made Makado’s People the Healthiest, Strongest, and Happiest Men and Women in the World (1903). Hancock dedicates the volume “to one who has devoted the best years of his life to the betterment of American physique and health,” Bernarr MacFadden.

 

Bernarr MacFadden circa 1905.

Bernarr MacFadden circa 1905.

[1] “Strength from Proper Breathing,” Christian Advocate 79:2 (Jan. 14, 1904): 75.

[2] Ibid.

[3] “Japanese Health,” 92:33 Christian Observer (Aug. 17, 1904): 19.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] John Dwight, “The Japanese Woman’s Watchword,” Vol. XXII, No. 6 (May 1905): 50.

[7] Theodore Roosevelt. Letter to Kentaro Kaneko. April 23, 1904.

[8] See Oleg Benesch, “Bushido: The Creation of a Martial Ethic in Late Meiji Japan,” Ph.D. Dissertation, The University of British Columbia, 2011.

[9] Inazo Nitobe, Bushido: The Soul of Japan (Tokyo: Teibi Publishing Co., 1907, 12th edition), 3 and 4.

[10] “Japanese Jiu Jitsu Experts in America: Deadly Little Wrestlers Have Skill to Conquer the Strongest of Big Men,” Salt Lake Telegram, March 18, 1904, 9.

[1] “Jiu-Jitsu: The Japanese National System of Physical Training,” Scientific American (Oct. 8 1904) Vol. XCI., No. 15, p. 255.

[2] “Use Your Strength Scientifically,” 85:1403 The National Police Gazette (July 2, 1904): 7.

[3] “What There is in Jiu-Jitsu,” 85:1405 The Police Gazette (July 16, 1904): 7.

[4] “Jiu-Jitsu: The Japanese Method of Wrestling, Which President Roosevelt is Learning,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, June 1, 1902, 1. Interesting to note is the rhetorical parallel between this skill-over-power narrative and the early UFC tournaments in the 1990s in which Royce Gracie, Brazilian jiu-jitsu artist, wooed the commentators and the audience with his defeat of bigger, stronger, and faster men.

[1] Robert Edgren, “The Fearful Art of Jiu Jitsu,” Outing, An Illustrated Monthly Magazine of Recreation (Dec. 1905) 47:3.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] “Jiu-Jitsu: The Japanese National System of Physical Training,” Scientific American (Oct. 8 1904) Vol. XCI., No. 15, p. 255.

[6] “Use Your Strength Scientifically,” 85:1403 The National Police Gazette (July 2, 1904): 7.

[7] “What There is in Jiu-Jitsu,” 85:1405 The Police Gazette (July 16, 1904): 7.

[8] “Jiu-Jitsu: The Japanese Method of Wrestling, Which President Roosevelt is Learning,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, June 1, 1902, 1. Interesting to note is the rhetorical parallel between this skill-over-power narrative and the early UFC tournaments in the 1990s in which Royce Gracie, Brazilian jiu-jitsu artist, wooed the commentators and the audience with his defeat of bigger, stronger, and faster men.

[1] “The Joys of Jiu-Jitsu for Women,” Current Literature (August 1904, Vol. XXXVII, No. 2), 144.

[2] “Physical Culture in Japan,” Health (May 1910) 60:5.

[3] Ibid.

[4] “Jiu-jitsu, the Japanese System of Exercise,” Current Literature (Apr. 1904) Vol. XXXVI, No. 4, 427.

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