The Indirect Effects of Martial Arts on Community Development and Urbanization: A Look at West Coast Communities of the United States, Part II

Originally written for an Urban History course during my graduate career, the following is the second part of a study that explores the connection between martial arts and community development/urbanization. This is the second part of a two-part article. Read the first part here.

Martial Arts in Different Communities

Judo to the Japanese immigrant communities, on the contrary, was already in everyone’s awareness; the martial arts as a whole were a major part of Japanese culture. In the early twentieth century, many Japanese citizens began traveling abroad to find work and slowly formed their new homes in the United States, among other destinations. These citizens, who would be termed issei (first generation Japanese American), learned martial arts at a young age – some of them even learned through the country’s public-school system. Learning at such a young age was to expose and instill cultural values to the younger generations. These citizens with martial arts knowledge began to teach their children (nisei), who were now removed from Japanese culture almost entirely, as a way to learn about their heritage and cultural customs and traditions. Those issei who did not have either the time or knowledge of teaching martial arts, enrolled their children under instructors at community centers, who were normally issei as well.[1] Learning martial arts, however, was not the only way the Japanese communities created or formed group solidarity.

Watching and cheering on the traveling judoka in the ring was another way that the Japanese communities came together to create unity. As Japanese martial artists slowly introduced the arts of judo and jujutsu to the American public, many an American wrestler or boxer would face off against a Japanese judoka to prove which martial art was better. Though Wendy Rouse concludes that the matches and endless newspaper debates did not provide a clear winner, Joseph Svinth points out the career of Tokugoro Ito and how he went toe-to-toe with a plethora of American wrestlers and boxers. Ito soon became a symbol to his ethnic communities, as many Japanese immigrants were feeling the brunt of discrimination of the West Coast’s anti-Japanese laws. Whenever Ito was in town, the Japanese communities would rally behind the judoka as he demonstrated to American spectators and athletes that judo can rival that of Western martial arts.[2]

Judo Match in Heart Mountain Wyoming 1943
Judo Match in Heart Mountain Internment Camp, Wyoming in 1943. Source: Densho digital Depository.

The demonstration of martial arts being a vehicle of cultural learning and of community pride and solidarity continued into the Japanese communities’ darkest chapter in their American history. In early February 1942, two months after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, the United States government forcibly removed over 100,000 Japanese Americans from their West Coast homes into ten Internment Camps for the duration of the Second World War. Within this dark time, the Japanese Americans, both issei and nisei found common ground and cultural solace within the martial arts, specifically judo. The judo training offered a sense of semblance of order and normalcy as the art reinforced cultural heritage. It was also from their time in the Internment Camps that the Japanese Americans formed a better sense of cultural solidarity, which allowed judoka from the West Coast to begin forming connections with other practitioners from outside communities and states, resulting in the formations of national judo organizations in the postwar period and beyond.[3] Quite similarly in the Chinese communities, the immigrants and descendants too found a semblance of order, normalcy, and solidarity in their martial arts and cultural traditions when, during the 1960s in San Francisco, people outside the Chinese community began critiquing the cornerstones of kung fu training. These critics, much like the Chinese practitioners they were critiquing, formed their own heterogeneous community, made up of different ethnic and cultural backgrounds.

San Francisco’s Chinatown, like many of the nation’s other Chinatowns, was a sectioned off part of the city that other residents felt was undesirable. Within that section of the city (it was the city’s center square in San Francisco’s case), the Chinese residents continued to keep their traditions and customs alive, despite living on the fringes of American social society. As mentioned before, the martial arts were a major part of the Chinese traditions. Centered around schools and instructors like Lau Bun, Wong “TY” Tim Yuen, and Choy Kum Man who all had some background in either street fighting or gang violence, the martial arts in Chinatown were a method to continue the Chinese community, culture, and solidarity and instill morality in their students, so such brutal gang violence and street fights did not occur within the grounds of their Chinatown.[4] It was within this network of schools, instructors, and moral philosophies that the Chinese martial artists found unity when they felt threatened by outsiders.

These outsiders, led by the famed martial artist Bruce Lee, formed their own heterogeneous group solidarity across the Bay in Oakland. Within Bruce Lee’s community, he enlisted James Lee (no relation of Bruce), who helped push the term “kung fu” in American vernacular; Wally Jay, the Hawaiian-born founder of Small Circle Jujitsu Theory; Edmund Parker, founder of American Kenpo Karate; and Al Novak, the first white American to learn kung fu from Chinese instructors in Chinatown. According to Charles Russo, in his 2016 biography of Bruce Lee, the Oakland group wanted to modernize martial arts training methods and wanted to phase out the older, archaic training methods. One of the methods was the horseback stance, the cornerstone of all striking martial arts to these Chinatown instructors.[5] This need to not only modernize martial arts training methods but to teach martial arts to all ethnic and cultural backgrounds, not just one, brought together like-minded individuals, forming a heterogeneous community around the martial arts.[6]

The famed Bruce Lee discussing martial arts and methods to evolve the systems with American Kenpo founder Edmund Parker (center right) and Parker’s student, Ralph Castro. Source:

There, within their own communities, those martial artists wanted to modify martial arts to their own goals. To do so, one would have to evaluate what martial art system they have learned and see where improvements could be made. This endeavor would result in rejecting some aspects and adding or replacing others with new, reimagined, or inspired aspects from other martial arts systems. As leisure professor Jeong Myung Gim points out in his 1998 article, both martial arts communities found education, critical thinking, and comradery through the physical training of the arts. Furthermore, the Japanese Americans before, during, and after Internment found such benefits participating in martial arts and martial arts related events. In addition to Gim’s point, educational policy and leadership professor Hal Lawson stresses that sports, and thus martial arts, contributed to each of the aforementioned martial artists’ surrounding communities. In Lawson’s terms, the martial art schools in the Japanese American communities, Chinatown, and Oakland created a social network for their participants, which helped develop a collective identity. For both the Japanese and Chinese communities, the martial arts became an activity for both communities to rally behind during times of need, while learning and discovering their cultural traditions, customs, and heritage. For those in Oakland, the martial arts were not only an activity, but an intellectual and physical workout to revolutionize the training methods of the times – a goal that brought them together to experiment and test theories. In addition, these schools and clubs created a space to improve not only one’s health, but also their well-being or overall character through training, critiquing, modifying, and adapting the martial arts to their specific needs. This building of character and putting one’s self through the “toils” of not only learning but also expanding and developing what one already learned, or believed, is what Roosevelt wanted to see when men participated in masculine sports. To this end, as Lawson states, the well-being of a person fosters community, and thus, urban development.[7]

Furthermore, much like how religious institutions can help build and maintain similar and diverse communities, so too can the martial arts within its schools and, by large, the immediate community. The martial artists of the past gravitated towards a community that better shared their goals and values, whether it was from their ethnic and cultural community or their geographical community. As Joseph Yi states, in more recent years, martial arts can draw a variety of student demographics into one place and create a community based on physical education. Whether these demographics are homogeneous, like those martial art schools in Japanese American communities and San Francisco’s Chinatown, or heterogeneous, like those mentioned in the Oakland group, Yi asserts that the practice of martial arts helps build friendships while reinforcing individual betterment and community solidarity.[8]

Lau Bun (center) training students in his Chinatown school. Source:

In creating community solidarity, Stephen Hardy mentions that sports, and by extension, martial arts, act as community builders, serving mainly as identity and support groups/clubs for their participants. To Hardy, such sports clubs were essential for minority groups, much like the Japanese martial artists in their communities and their Chinese counterparts of Chinatown, as they are a means to gain ethnic pride and? solidarity. Both the Japanese and Chinese martial artists found support and solace in their arts, schools, and teachers in their respective time of need, i.e. Internment and Bruce Lee’s training critiques. To further this, John Donohue also asserts that the group identity associated with martial arts school can help build one’s own identity. In the Chinese’s case, this is best demonstrated with Wong Jack Man, Chinatown’s hero who was going to teach Bruce Lee a lesson with his traditional Chinese martial arts fists against the latter’s more modern martial arts training methods in 1964. Though the outcome of the duel was a loss for San Francisco’s Chinatown and a major blow to Man’s reputation, the martial arts in the ethnic area were still a community staple. In the Japanese’s case, it was judo that helped communities through the uncertain times of Internment. Therefore, community participation in a martial arts school helps supply the community with another place for people to gather and partake in a community building activity.[9]


While Bruce Lee wanted to better “navigate” street fights and how he and his associates could cause an evolution and revolution in the martial arts, his Chinatown counterparts wanted to maintain a sense of tradition that linked back to their Chinese heritage, to which helped build better individuals for their communities. To reference Yi again, he puts forth that training in martial arts can help a practitioner find purpose in his/her life. With this, one can make a difference in their own community, either giving back to it or building it back up. Therefore, both Lee and the Chinatown instructors believed their ideas and methods would build a better person and strengthen the community. Moreover, according to sports marketing professor Lynn Kahle’s and advertising professor Angeline Close’s 2010 book, amateur sports tournaments bring people and tourists from outside of the community, helping both the economic development and urban core revival. They further state that such gatherings and events result in positive effects for the surrounding urban area, creating a sense of community between the locals. Still, as stated before, martial art schools, related studios, and their events do not directly impact in terms of the development and building of new structures, nor do they provide jobs to members of a given community, outside of the head instructor.[10]

Still, the martial arts in all three communities examined offered a grounding for its practitioners not only in the physical, but in the moral sense as well. As philosopher Carl Becker points out in his 1982 article, martial arts can allow practitioners to not be aggressive outside of the training hall. Since then, there has been an expanding amount of literature that demonstrated the positive effects and reduction of aggression in and through martial arts training. Becker further points to judo as his case study, asserting that one of the art’s “fundamental principles” is self-control, to which the practitioner relies on minimal effort through the skills gained as opposed to the Westerners’ usage of strength and brute force. Additionally, judo’s founder, Jigoro Kano, demonstrated the artistic aspect of his art, rather than the aggressive aspect, to further his point of discipline and self-control in a practitioner and a martial artist.[11] Even separated by an ocean and by history, the Japanese American communities, Chinatown’s martial arts authority, and the martial artists in Oakland followed the theme of reducing aggression and creating a moral foundation for their students, much like how Kano wanted to portray judo.

Building better people through community activity, like martial arts, can help those participants better function in the greater society. These community activities can help create, form, and maintain both a group’s and individual’s identity, thus creating a sense of solidarity between participants. It is then from this sense of solidarity that such activities can have an effect on urbanization, though it is a more of an indirect influence on the process. Those who teach and those who benefit from martial arts training, as we have seen from the martial arts students of the Japanese American communities, San Francisco’s Chinatown, and Bruce Lee’s martial arts community in Oakland, can help build up a community on a personal level. By instilling characteristics that foster the ability to face the “danger, hardship, [and the] bitter toil” that are the challenges one encounters, martial arts can, in turn, assist the process of community development, thus, urbanization.

This is the second part of a two-part article. Read the first part here.


[1] Svinth, Getting a Grip, v, 22, 24; Thomas A Green and Joseph R Svinth, “Asian Martial Arts in the United States and Canada,” in Martial Arts of the World: An Encyclopedia of History and Innovation, vol. 2 (Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-CLIO, 2010), 448; Joseph R Svinth, “Kendo in North America, 1885-1955,” in Martial Arts in the Modern World (Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2003), 149; Andreas Niehaus, “‘If You Want to Cry, Cry on the Green Mats of Kôdôkan’: Expressions of Japanese Cultural and National Identity in the Movement to Include Judo into the Olympic Programme,” International Journal of the History of Sport 23, no. 7 (November 2006): 1179.

[2] Rouse, “Jiu-Jitsuing Uncle Sam,” 468; Svinth, Getting a Grip, 52–56, 60.

[3] Antonio Aloia, “Preserving Culture: Judo Inside the Manzanar War Relocation Center” (Paper, West Chester University, 2019), 3, 6–7, 15–16; Michel Brousse and David Matsumoto, “From Jujutsu to Judo,” in Judo in the U.S.: A Century of Dedication (Berkeley, Calif.: North Atlantic Books, 2005), 67–69, 71–73, 76.

[4] Russo, Striking Distance: Bruce Lee and the Dawn of Martial Arts in America, 14, 37–38, 61–62; Wilson, “From Bachelor Enclave to Urban Village,” 14.

[5] Russo, Striking Distance: Bruce Lee and the Dawn of Martial Arts in America, 16–17, 68, 119–20.

[6] The Chinese and Japanese instructors in America were not keen on teaching their respective martial arts to Americans, as they wanted to keep their arts to their own ethnic and cultural members. Such reasons include prejudice, strong ties to tradition, and ideas of nationalism.

[7] Jeong Myung Gim, “Leisure in Fighting Arts: American Adaptation of Eastern Martial Arts,” World Leisure & Recreation 40, no. 4 (January 1, 1998): 11; Lawson, “Empowering People, Facilitating Community Development, and Contributing to Sustainable Development,” 138–39, 141.

[8] Yi, God and Karate on the Southside, 109, 111, 118, 133–35, 144–45; Crawford, “The Martial Yen: American Participation in the Aikido Tradition,” 33–40; Aloia, “Preserving Culture: Judo Inside the Manzanar War Relocation Center,” 15–16; Brousse and Matsumoto, “From Jujutsu to Judo,” 70–71, 73; Svinth, Getting a Grip, 52–56.

[9] Russo, Striking Distance: Bruce Lee and the Dawn of Martial Arts in America, 16–17, 124, 134, 139; Hardy, “Sport in Urbanizing America: A Historical Review,” 682–84; Donohue, Warrior Dreams, 101–2, 105; Aloia, “Preserving Culture: Judo Inside the Manzanar War Relocation Center”; Brousse and Matsumoto, “From Jujutsu to Judo,” 67–69, 71–73, 76.

[10] Sutton, “Rethinking Commercial Revitalization,” 362–63; Lynn R. Kahle and Angeline G. Close, Consumer Behavior Knowledge for Effective Sports and Event Marketing (London: Routledge, 2010), 195, 198.

[11] Brousse and Matsumoto, “From Jujutsu to Judo,” 67; Carl B. Becker, “Philosophical Perspectives on the Martial Arts in America,” Journal of the Philosophy of Sport 9, no. 1 (January 1982): 21–24; Jikkemien Vertonghen and Marc Theeboom, “The Social-Psychological Outcomes of Martial Arts Practise Among Youth: A Review,” Journal of Sports Science and Medicine, no. 9 (2010): 528–37; Damon A. Young, “Bowing to Your Enemies: Courtesy, Budō, and Japan,” Philosophy East and West 59, no. 2 (2009): 188–215; Jim Lantz, “Family Development and the Martial Arts: A Phenomenologocal Study,” Contemporary Family Therapy 24, no. 4 (2002): 565–80; Tamara Kohn, “Bowing onto the Mat: Discourses of Change Through Martial Arts Practice,” in The Discipline of Leisure: Embodying Cultures of “Recreation” (New York: Berghahn Books, 2007), 171–85; Bin Bu et al., “Effects of Martial Arts on Health Status: A Systematic Review,” Journal of Evidence-Based Medicine 3, no. 4 (2010): 205–19.


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