Donn F. Draeger’s personal life remains a mystery, if not actually mysterious. It’s fairly well-established that he was once married, possibly to a fellow Marine, and that the couple had a son before the union ended, but to date nothing more is known of that part of his life. Lady friends came and went, but not one remained long after she realized that his ultimate devotion in life was to martial arts training and study. Focused like a laser, he was too self-directed for permanent or, apparently, even long-term relationships.
While that would make it appear that he was somewhat self-absorbed, anecdotal evidence indicates something very different. Practically all those who came in contact with Draeger recall his essentially gentle and easy manner — quick to advise, help or educate without thought of personal benefit. As one of the earliest postwar foreign budoka in Japan, he seems to have acted as a true anchor and one-man support system for the many foreign martial artists who came to study in the 1960s and ’70s, helping them adjust to life in an unfamiliar culture.
During his own early years on the Japanese islands, Draeger began training in the classical martial arts and was permitted to join the Kobudo Shinko Kai, the Classical Martial Arts Preservation Society, a research organization in which he was the sole international component. Believing the society’s focus too narrow, however, he eventually broke away to form what became known as the International Hoplology Research Center, now the International Hoplology Society.
Well-read in a variety of disciplines, particularly history, anthropology, engineering, sociology, physical education and cultural studies, Draeger nevertheless found his attempts at establishing hoplology as an academic discipline to be an uphill struggle. He faced a generally hostile scholarly fraternity that was aghast at the idea of formally studying combative behavior in human activity, and as something of a “jock” personality — a typical Marine, he was fond of ribald puns and bawdy limericks — he was not taken seriously by the professional scholarly community, which viewed him as nonintellectual. (However, witnesses to the occasional debates Draeger had with professional academics maintain that he acquitted himself extremely well. In addition, his books are soberly written treatises on what even for many Asian specialists are esoteric subjects.)
In the meantime, Donn Draeger continued his career in the Marine Corps. Some time in the early 1950s, he was sent to South America on behalf of both the USMC and the State Department on some sort of intelligence duty before returning to regular service. As second in command at the Inter-American Defense Fund in Washington, D.C., he practiced judo regularly at the Pentagon dojo with such stalwarts as Robert W. Smith and Capt. John Denora. He also continued his weight training and pioneered the postwar establishment of judo associations in the Americas.
A career as an officer would be a full enough plate for anyone, but Draeger’s involvement with his chosen arts hardly ended with training. In America, he co-founded the first national judo body, the Amateur Judo Association, and later played a role in establishing the Judo Black Belt Federation, which became the United States Judo Federation. He also co-founded the Pan-American Judo Federation and either founded or helped develop several Eastern U.S. judo clubs as well as the East Coast Black Belt Association. For many years, he acted as the liaison between Japan’s Kodokan Judo Institute and the United States Judo Federation. Later, he introduced the Japanese stick-fighting art of jodo to Malaysia and America, helping establish that system’s international federations.
(Photo courtesy of Paul Nurse)
A reduction in U.S. forces in the postwar period meant that Draeger wouldn’t enjoy a full career in the Marines. Possibly riffed out in 1955 or 1956 (rather than resigning his commission, as is generally assumed), he took his discharge after roughly 16 years of service to end with the peacetime rank of captain and the wartime rank of major.
Thereafter, he moved to Japan and commenced a career as a student, teacher and writer of the martial arts, penning a series of articles for Strength and Health and Muscular Development magazines and writing the first Western, nonpopular pieces on shindo muso-ryu jodo and Mas Oyama’s kyokushinkai karate-do. His first book Judo Training Methods: A Sourcebook, co-authored with Ishikawa Takahiko, was published in 1961 and has recently been reissued by Kodansha.
A yondan in judo by the time he arrived in Japan, Draeger spent his years in the Pacific Rim living a life that would later read like an entry in a who’s who …