Martial Arts in the Modern World

A number of new scholarly books on martial arts have come across my desk in the last month.  This field is in its infancy and I am exited to be part of the project of defining and inspiring it.  In that spirit, there is much in these works to praise, much to criticize, a yawn here and there, and a few things that need to be stopped dead in their tracks.

So this is the first of a series in which I will discuss individual essays within larger works.  The following essays are from a collection edited by Thomas A. Green and Joseph R. Svinth titled, Martial Arts in the Modern World (Praeger, 2003).


In "Sense and Nonsense:  The Role of Folk History in the Martial Arts," Thomas A. Green notes that most lineage histories and biographies appear to be false, yet they serve important social functions which should be explored.  He also points out that many stories from different schools concerning different teachers are essentially the same story.  I like his take on the problem.  But I would add this; unless and until we achieve widespread acknowledgement of the theatrical roots of these arts we will be forced to physically flip-flop between telling our lineage histories as social glue, as educational flux and as inspirational catalyst on the front end, and transmitting our knowledge of history and how the world actually works on the back end.  The reason we as martial artists tend to be contorted over lineage histories stems from a failure to adequately place those histories within social and intellectual movements.


Joseph R. Svinth's "Professor Yamashita Goes to Washington," is a superb history of the first people to teach Judo in the United States.  The highlight of this account is that Theodore Roosevelt studied Judo at the White House! Over the years the President demonstrated his throwing and flipping skills on many a hearty visitor to the Oval Office Dojo.  While Roosevelt felt that after a period of months he had at least managed to throw Professor Yamashita convincingly, the Professor gave a slightly different account,  "According to a journalist named Joseph Clarke, Yamashita said that while Roosevelt was his best pupil, he was also 'very heavy and very impetuous, and it had cost the poor professor many bruising, much worry and infinite pains during Theodore's rushes, to avoid laming the President of the United States.'"  It's a brilliant and fun read.


To be continued...