Don’t Feed the Trolls: Tradition and Authenticity in Martial Arts

Tradition and authenticity are big topics in martial arts, obviously. The closer any school can prove to be to the “authentic origins” of its martial art, the more legitimate and recognised it tends to be in any martial arts community. If teacher X of a certain school, for example, has spent a few years in Asia and learnt from important masters there, this will hugely increase recognition for her school, and decrease any delegitimising attacks from detractors or competitors.

In this post, I want to trouble some of these commonly recognised notions of tradition and authenticity. This is partly because in the past few years, or in the case of some researchers, decades really, a lot of interesting contextualising and deconstructing work has been done when it comes to the origins of martial arts. Another reason for this exploration is that our school itself has been the target of attacks and trolling based on notions of authenticity, which has led me to explore these notions further and look for answers where previously, there did not seem to be any.

This is how I first came across the field of martial arts studies. Paul Bowman, a professor at the University of Cardiff, along with a few collaborators, has been a key figure in establishing martial arts studies as a discipline in its own right. Combining approaches from sociology, cultural studies, ethnography, sports studies, area studies, postcolonialism and poststructuralism, martial arts studies takes a closer look at the supposed origins of martial arts, where they come from, their founding myths, interpretations and instrumentalisations over time, and what this often has to do with a particular political, cultural or other agenda. Results from and contributions to martial arts studies are published across a wide range of journals, but many can be found in the University of Cardiff’s open-access journal “Martial Arts Studies” – all articles are free to read.

For me, this discovery roughly coincided with the founding of my own martial arts school in Berlin – Yanagi Jutaijutsu e.V. The journal, along with the many other interesting reads I embarked on based on its articles, sparked a whole journey of insights for me. At the same time, the newly-founded Yanagi school came under some trolling attack from people in a martial arts online forum as well as on Facebook groups. People in these contexts read the texts on our website, watched our videos and then decided that we were inauthentic, incompetent and should not really be calling ourselves a traditional martial arts school. They published a quite detailed post about it listing all our faults and shortcomings and published it on their forum, where it sparked a comment thread with further derision and abuse.

I do not want to go into the details of the post here, but am mentioning it merely as an important starting-off point for me in developing a position towards such critiques, which are quite frequent in different martial arts communities. Rather than just dismiss the critiques out of hand as mean-spirited, harmful criticism and trolling by people who had never been in direct contact with us, never bothered to reach out, never attended any of our events – which would certainly have been a legitimate reaction – I decided to engage with this challenge differently. I wanted to have the full arsenal of research at my disposal when it came to dealing with trolls, even if I was not talking to them directly, as I am well aware there is no use in talking to trolls and the conventional wisdom is not to feed them. So based on my initial readings around the topic of traditions, mostly Eric Hobsbawm’s “Invention of tradition,” I explored more of the literature around this.

Hobsbawm, a British historian, had first widely established the notion that many traditions are quite plainly invented, when he co-published the above-mentioned edited volume in 1984. Focusing on the British monarchy and empire, the authors showed in different case studies that traditions that are often thought to be centuries or even millenia old, are often much more recent and were invented with particular goals in mind. Paraphrasing Hobsbawm, invented traditions are a set of norms and practices that attempt to inculcate certain values, and normally attempt to establish continuity with a – usually quite distant – past, when in fact, they are often recent.

If you take this idea and apply it to martial arts, you have found yourself a really interesting research subject and, at least for me, a very entertaining conundrum. So the thousand-year-old tradition of Tai Chi – merely a 150-year-old invention by certain Chinese elites to propagate nationalist ideas? Many schools in the “Samurai” tradition: not 500 years old but really dating from the late 1800s or early 1900s, when Japan experienced a re-invention and re-branding of Samurai ideas? Tae Kwon Do: not the ancient Korean martial art we thought it was, but really invented in the 1950s as a way of resisting Japanese colonialism? The questions don’t end, and pursuing them really leads you to interesting and often sometimes quite unsettling answers. The field of martial arts studies and its ongoing deconstruction of martial arts traditions is questioning some of the fundamental founding myths underlying many martial arts. If you have been practicing martial arts for a long time, this can be disturbing: what if what you thought was an ancient, established tradition handed down from one master to another is not that at all, but is rather the product of certain political-minded or profit-seeking individuals’ imaginations that just wanted to create a ‘tradition’ in order to influence people, make some money, or both? It could lead you to question all the things you have learned through your martial art, and make everything seem pointless – but it shouldn’t have to. It could also just change your perspective, and ultimately enrich it with a new layer of realisations and reflexivity, which is never a bad thing.
Paul Bowman neatly outlines some of the conundrums he faced as both a martial arts practitioner and a researcher. In his 2016 article ‘Making Martial Arts History Matter,’ he discusses his own disillusionment at discovering that many of the myths he had been told about various martial arts he practiced were actually invented: “I cannot say that I was delighted when I first learned that the kung fu and taiji that I loved and practiced religiously in my thirties was not in fact aeons old, but effectively germinated and elaborated in the chaotic nineteenth century, and regularly reconstituted in the twentieth; that the Shotokan karate I studied as a teenager was a twentieth-century formalization; and that the taekwondo of my twenties is considerably younger than my own parents (By the time I met escrima in my forties, I had learned neither to ask nor to expect too much of history). “

It is disorienting to realise these inventions, which explains the pervasive nature of popular martial arts myths, such as the Shaolin Temple stories, or the idea that Taekwondo’s high kicks were invented in order to kick Samurai off their horses. These kicks, however, were in fact a 1950s invention meant to distract from the fact that Taekwondo is actually mostly Shotokan Karate, but the founders of Taekwondo were at pains to conceal these Japanese origins and hence invested a great deal of energy into making techniques look different to Karate.

I want to end this excursion into traditions and authenticity by briefly returning to Japanese martial arts, and coming full circle back to Jutaijutsu. Japanese martial arts have their own share of invented traditions, of course. Oleg Benesch has demonstrated that the famous “way of the Samurai,” or at least a substantial part of it, is actually an invention of the late 19th and early 20th century based on the revival of chivalry in Britain. As increasing numbers of Japanese officials and scholars were able to travel to Europe in the late 1800s, they noticed how the British were employing stories of knights and their lineages in order to legitimise and construct the tradition and institution of the British monarchy.

Based on this model, a discourse of Samurai knights and their superior ethical codes and traditions was mobilised in order to lend legitimacy to the Japanese empire and its expansionist tendencies of the early 20th century, as well as to the institution of the Japanese monarchy and the emperor. This led to an upsurge and re-popularisation of tales of Samurai greatness in Japan, leading in turn to the formalisation of certain martial arts traditions, and the establishment of a number schools that were more modern creations than actual continuations of Samurai traditions from the middle ages. Benesch points to the focus on swordsmanship that many Japanese schools from this period have as a proof for their re-invention: in actual Samurai warfare, the sword was only a weapon of of last resort. Archery and other weapons were far more important on battlefields, and the relatively recent (e.g. 19th-century) focus on swords was itself the result of several waves of re-inventions of Samurai traditions. Many of the Japanese traditional schools in existence today in Japan and around the world are fruits of this re-invention of Samurai honour and chivalry. In fact, there are also schools set up by Japanese masters with the sole intent of capitalising on this re-invention, and creating styles and traditions that could be easily transferred within Japan and internationally, in order to bring fame and fortune to their founders. Stephen Chan calls this trend a ‘self-orientalization’ by the Japanese, which is then marketed to the West as an ancient and immutable tradition.

So what does this all mean for Jutaijutsu, for our own practice of whatever martial art we’re interested in? Is it all invented and therefore meaningless and pointless? The short answer is: no, it is not. The fact is that we give meaning to our practice, and most often, the actual physical practice is what counts, the (his)tories and traditions that go back centuries (or not) are less important for us in our regular training. We shouldn’t let this academic journey of discovery and decolonisation take away from this positive and beneficial aspect of practising a martial art. However, this is not to say that these things are unimportant. On the contrary, history does matter, to paraphrase Paul Bowman again. These insights should make us aware that many things in life are constructed in one way or another, and we should first own up to this, work to decolonise this knowledge and make transparent how hierarchies and power play into it, and THEN decide how we act upon this newly gained knowledge. It might take away some of our favourite myths, but it also helps us be more reflective and honest. As for Jutaijutsu, we have currently no precise way of knowing when and how it was formed and transmitted, beyond its traceable past that reaches back to the early 20th century. The only things we know for certain are that some Japanese army officers taught Jutaijutsu to an Italian army officer who was stationed in Japan during the Second World War for a time. The latter brought his knowledge back to Italy, and one of his disciples eventually set up the Yoshin Ryu Jutaijutsu school in Turin, Italy, in 1978. Beyond that, we know very little. We can guess that the broad repertoire of Jutaijutsu, which includes Kobudo weapons that originate in Okinawa but also archery as well as a range of physical and esoteric practices associated with the Ninja or Shinobi, points to a longer-term history than the reconstructions identified by Benesch in ‘Inventing the Way of the Samurai’ and other publications. So it may be that the tradition of Jutaijutsu actually harks back to the middle ages. Or it may be that it is also an invented tradition using various influences, as are many other martial arts. In both cases, using a more reflective and deconstructed lens to look at Jutaijutsu history will change little in my practice, but make a big difference in how I can confront trolls and mean-spirited critics: sometimes, the more knowledge you have, the less you actually know. And maybe that is ok – it is always ok to admit to what we do not know, rather than to try and to legitimise ourselves by inventing additional traditions.