Donn F. Draeger’s research analyzed in lectures in Japan
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artial artists from all over Japan recently assembled in Tokyo for a series of lectures on the life and legacy of Donn F. Draeger. The American martial arts researcher and writer is best-known for his book Comprehensive Asian Fighting Arts, co-written with Robert W. Smith and published in 1969. The text was the first serious primer on the subject to reach a mass audience.
Draeger’s most influential work, however, was his three-volume set on the martial arts and ways of Japan: Classical Bujutsu, Classical Budo, and Modern Bujutsu & Budo. Those books inspired a generation of martial artists and still define the Western world’s understanding of the Japanese fighting arts.
In addition to writing, Draeger revived the dormant field of hoplology, the study of human combative behavior and performance. The lectures that took place in Japan explored this legacy and gave new insights into the man’s life.
The speakers were uniquely qualified to discuss Draeger’s impact. Three of them were his students and friends: Hunter “Chip” Armstrong, Liam Keeley and Phil Relnick. The fourth was Dr. Alex Bennett, a leading budo/bujutsu expert in the current generation of martial arts researchers and one of the many people inspired by Draeger to go to the source.
The first to speak was Armstrong, an expert in many Japanese martial traditions and Draeger’s successor as director of the International Hoplology Society. His lecture focused on how Draeger took the lessons of koryu martial arts and generalized them into the more global perspective of hoplology. Armstrong talked about all human combative behavior being either civilian (for self-defense, defending a village, sport competition, etc.) or martial (for military use), and he drew comparisons with Draeger’s distinction between budo and bujutsu. Armstrong also pointed out that although Draeger was a high-level judoka, it was his combat experience in World War II that drove his interest in koryu martial arts and hoplology.
One thing Armstrong emphasized was that the civilian/martial categories were not about ranking the effectiveness or status of fighting arts. The categories were purely for understanding what a fighting art was meant for.
Keeley was the second speaker. He’s also a koryu martial arts expert with advanced rank in the 600-year-old tatsumi-ryu and the naginata-focused toda-ha buko-ryu. In addition, he was part of Draeger’s hoplology field-research group in the 1970s and learned his approach during research trips to Malaysia and Indonesia. After Draeger’s death, Keeley continued this work through graduate study in anthropology and fieldwork in South Africa that involved a Zulu stick-fighting style called mhlabatini. He continues his hoplology work through the Koryu Collective, a research group that was created to inspire, educate and support fellow practitioners of koryu.
Keeley’s lecture emphasized Draeger’s place in history and detailed his research methods. It started with the origins of hoplology in the 1800s and traced the study of the Japanese martial arts by Westerners from then until Draeger’s work in the 1970s. Next, Keeley detailed what modern hoplology is and outlined the requirements for becoming a hoplologist. Key among them is working from the “emic,” or in-group point of view, instead of just remaining an outside observer. To drive home his point, Keeley showed video of himself in a Zulu stick-fighting challenge match.
Bennett was the third to speak. A professor at Kansai University and a leading martial arts practitioner, researcher and translator in Japan, he was the only presenter who didn’t know Draeger personally. But given his high rank in seven Japanese martial arts and his multiple scholarly works on them, no one is better qualified to explain Draeger’s impact and his place in history.
First, Bennett talked about Draeger’s division of Japanese martial arts into classical bujutsu, classical budo, modern bujutsu and modern budo. Because of his work, those categories define Japanese arts for non-Japanese practitioners — although most Japanese don’t use the terms. To make his point, Bennett said, “The word ‘budo’ actually meant bushido, the warrior ethos, and not martial arts as such” for much of its history. Although Draeger was criticized for the way he used Japanese terms, B
ennett argued that these definitions brought a much-needed clarity where there was none, even in Japanese.
Bennett also stressed that Draeger’s divisions accommodated the facts of history better than simply classifying everything as an old war skill (jutsu) or a modern means of character development (do), pointing out that many koryu martial arts were developed during peace and were seen as character building in their time, while the supposedly civilian budo training of the early 20th century was used to support the Japanese war effort in World War II.
Second, Bennett showed how Draeger’s work was a vital part of the continuous reinvention of Japanese martial traditions throughout history and how he helped unmoor budo from ethnocentrism and make it a worldwide phenomenon. Bennett did this by explaining that the period when Draeger was most active as a writer and practitioner — the late 1950s through the late ’70s — were the years when the Japanese martial arts reached the height of their popularity outside Japan. Also, Bennett credited him with being one of the people most responsible for the fact that “there are far more budo practitioners in total outside Japan than there are in Japan.” He pointed out that Draeger actively worked to get many non-Japanese into different budo and koryu arts so they would be spread far and wide outside Japan and have a better chance of surviving.
The final lecture was given by one of Draeger’s oldest and closest students, judo and koryu martial arts master Phil Relnick. It was delivered on a different level than the others because, in spite of his fame in martial arts circles and his many books, Draeger revealed little about himself. What Relnick gave was the first real account of what the pioneering martial artist was like as a person.
Relnick started by describing the end of his 20 years with Draeger. It was an emotional account of accompanying his mentor and friend to Narita Airport so he could fly to Hawaii for medical treatment. The martial arts icon had been experiencing persistent pain in his gut after a research trip to Indonesia, and he was later diagnosed with cancer. At first, he was in denial about his illness and tried to carry on as usual. “In some ways, he was a very stubborn man,” Relnick recalled.
But after six months of physical deterioration, Draeger finally accepted the doctor’s diagnosis and made arrangements for treatment. While planning the trip to Hawaii, he asked Relnick to be the executor of his estate. “We didn’t say it to each other,” Relnick said, trying to keep his emotions in check, “but I knew and he knew that it would be the last time we saw each other.”
After detailing how Draeger’s life ended, Relnick went back to the beginning. He talked about things he learned posthumously through contact with Draeger’s relatives, about him setting local swimming records as a child — records that still stand — and about his introduction to judo at age 8 courtesy of a Japanese neighbor. Then he segued into Draeger’s lifelong interest in weight training, underlining that he possessed a supple strength and likening judo mat work with Draeger to trying to grapple with a snake. In addition, Relnick credited him with introducing weight training to competitive judo in Japan, pointing out the strength coaching he did with 1964 gold-medalist Isao Inokuma.
Next, he talked about Draeger’s post-military life in Japan. The American lived a frugal life, inhabiting a two-room apartment without heating or air conditioning. This frugality was partly out of necessity. “Donn was not financially well-off,” Relnick recalled. “He had probably three sources of income. That was a partial military pension, teaching English and what he earned from his books.”
But Relnick also attributed the Spartan lifestyle to the fact that the military way was ingrained in Draeger’s personality. “He had the presence of the U.S. Marine officer he once was … and he was a person who probably would have fit in well with the samurai of the past,” he said. “He was very strict on manners and warrior etiquette, which he had learned from the Japanese teachers, and that was inside of the dojo and outside of the dojo. He was a Marine [and] he was like a samurai, seven days a week and 24 hours a day.”
That presence, combined with his deep knowledge of the martial arts, drew people to him. “When Donn did talk to us, it usually had meaning,” Relnick said. “He had an air of confidence … but he wasn’t arrogant … and he never acted as a teacher to us. You followed him and did what he did and listened to what he said.”
Relnick pointed out that none of the stories about Draeger’s fighting ability were exaggerated: “He had highly technical fighting skills, both armed and unarmed, and never neglected minor details.”
In spite of his perfectionist tendencies, Draeger wasn’t perfect. “Donn told me a number of times that his books are the first generation of books in English on the martial arts and that he was sure he had made mistakes in them,” Relnick recalled. “He said that he [was] depending on the next generation of committed martial artists — us — to make any corrections necessary.”
Draeger also made mistakes in the dojo, and Relnick said that Draeger had told him many stories about them. He shared one in which Draeger interviewed a koryu master in his dojo and noticing some bo leaning against a wall. When the master excused himself for a moment, Draeger took the opportunity to put the bo on some empty racks. When the master returned, his good humor vanished. He demanded to know how the bo got on the racks. Draeger confessed to having put them up because he was afraid they’d warp. The master looked scornfully at him and said, “Those bo have been leaning against that wall for 100 or 200 years. If they haven’t warped yet, I don’t think they’ll warp anytime soon.”
— Keith Vargo