Interview with Martial Arts Historian Joseph Svinth: Martial History and EJMAS

Joseph Svinth began studying African and Middle Eastern history. He joined the Electronic Journal of Martial Arts and Sciences (EJMAS) as a writer and editor. In 2003, he released Getting a Grip, focusing on judo in the Japanese American communities of the Pacific Northwest. Similarly, Svinth worked with Martial Arts Studies proponent Thomas A. Green releasing two books. Today, Joseph Svinth talks about his research and journey into American martial arts history. All images provided by Joseph Svinth.

Martial Arts of Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow: Thank you for taking the time to talk about your martial arts history endeavors, Mr. Svinth!

Joseph Svinth: I’m glad to be here. Thank you for having me!

MAYTT: What first piqued your interest in history? How has the study of history played a major role in your life? Has its study given you a different perspective on the present?

Joseph Svinth taking in the outdoors.

JS: Growing up, I read a lot, so after I got off active duty in the military, I went to college on the GI Bill. I did not really have any plan in mind, except that I did not want to be a schoolteacher. So, I started taking upper-division history classes as a freshman because they looked a lot more interesting than the general studies courses that a freshman was supposed to take. Eventually I ended up with enough courses for a major, so it became a major in history.

I studied sub-Saharan Africa in the colonial era as an undergraduate, and the history of North Africa and the Middle East as a graduate student. There are lots of political and social issues involved in multi-cultural imperialism studies. The important part, I suppose, is that you start doubting all sources.

Sometimes the sources are directly fabricating the stories. Government documentation is a definite case in point. For everyone else, it is less that the sources are lying to you, as the governments do. Instead, they are telling you their story from their perspective. The hero in one tale is often the villain in another account.

The accounts of travelers are important. Travelers may not know much about what they are describing, but simply observing something taking place documents that it existed in that time and place.

MAYTT: What drew you to focus on martial arts history in North America, mainly the United States and Canada? Were martial arts already an interest of yours, thus, combing the two seemed natural?

JS: I focus on North America because I live in North America and read English. Advice I got early was do what is in front of you, and it is still sound advice.

MAYTT: That is sound advice! How did you come about establishing the Electronic Journals of Martial Arts and Sciences (EJMAS)? Do you feel such a publication was needed because the specific subject matter was not being properly represented to both the researcher and readership?

JS: Kim Taylor is the one who started EJMAS. I just tagged along as a writer and editor. Martial Art Studies was not a concept yet. The idea was to replace the cost of photocopied zines with an essentially free online publication. The purpose was mostly to provide a place to stick all these articles and essays that publishers did not want. I mean, it seemed a waste to write solely for the drawer. So, why not give it away online? If the work was any good, it would grow legs, and if it was not any good, then perhaps the feedback would be useful.

MAYTT: In writing about various topics in martial arts history, i.e. kendo, aiki-jujutsu, judo, boxing, and military combatives, what do you seek to convey to the reader? Do you wish to preserve and illustrate an almost unknown narrative of an ignored topic or is it more of a way to demonstrate something much deeper, like overcoming struggle and adversity through martial arts as it pertains to a modern society?

JS: Usually I try simply to document what I found while reading old newspapers. Structurally, I write pointillist history. This happened on this date in this place for this reason. I try to avoid generalizing much farther from that event because one town over, similar events may have happened for entirely different reasons.

Okay, sure, if you do enough digging, eventually patterns emerge. Likewise, if there are holes in the traditional story, eventually when you stand back, the holes stand out. But, if you go in the other way, telling stories, with an agenda, then you will probably skim right over those holes in the story, and in the process, miss what actually happened, and why.

As to the purpose of martial arts, every practitioner and organization has their own purposes. If I generalize, I will probably end up telling you more about me, and my time and place, than about the events I am recounting.

MAYTT: I see. Martial arts history has a very varied history interpretation; sometimes even reconstructed to fit the specific narrative needed at the time. How do you feel your research and publications have contributed forming a more cohesive and balanced retelling of its history?

JS: Most history fits into a specific time and place. As I said, the author often tells the reader more about the time and place and attitudes of the author than of the people or events that the author is describing. I have no doubt that my writing will end up being seen the same way, as representative of an era, and that in a generation or two, it will be viewed, at best, as quaint.

MAYTT: As listed on EJMAS, you have published many more online and popular articles than just peer-reviewed articles. In your opinion, why do you think many martial art historians, with or without a degree in history, take to publishing their work and research online as opposed to peer-reviewed sources? Is there a lack of interest for the subject matter with regards to peer-reviewed outlets, or is it a matter of ease because of the number of outlets available on the internet?

JS: Peer-reviewed publications historically did not have much interest in sport, of any kind except perhaps heavyweight boxing. It has to do with who goes into academia. In judo, for instance, one reads that pre-WWII Japanese American youths did judo because they were too small to play football. The sociologist who wrote that was a respected Japanese American, and for him, that was literally correct. He was in the radio club in high school, not the football team. But that was him. Lots of the kids in that same school who were very good at judo played varsity football in the fall and baseball in the spring. Basketball was not played in the local high schools in those days, so during winter, the athletic kids, the ones we would have called jocks in my day, did judo.

I mention this because you have to remember who the peer reviewers are. To me, people who were there are better peer reviewers than are most professors. But that is just me. Your mileage may vary.

MAYTT: From the mid-1990s to the early 2000s, you had the opportunity to edit for the now-defunct Journal of Asian Martial Arts as well as Robert Smith’s book, Martial Musings. Were the experiences of the two similar in any capacity? How did your time working on these two projects influence or come to benefit EJMAS?

JS: I never edited for Journal of Asian Martial Arts. I wrote some articles, and that was it. I did work on Martial Musings. How do you turn handwritten notes into a story? The same way that you turn newspaper clippings into a chapter, actually – one sentence at a time.

MAYTT: In the last twenty years, you authored three books, the first being Getting a Grip: Judo in the Nikkei Communities of the Pacific Northwest, 1900-1950. What inspired you to take on the task of documenting judo in that region? Any chance a “sequel,” detailing judo in the last fifty years in that region is being considered?

JS: Getting a Grip, EJMAS, and Martial Arts in the Modern World were essentially one concurrent project. In 1996, I retired from the Army. Nobody wanted to hire me, so I went to the library and started reading old newspapers on microfilm. Sitting in cheap chairs, looking at microfilm eight hours a day, is hard on the eyes and the back, I assure you. Finally, in 2002, I got a day job, and that took care of that. Much less fun, but on the other hand a job allows one to pay the bills rather than run them up.

MAYTT: Very interesting. Additionally, you also co-authored two other books with fellow martial arts historian, Thomas A. Green: Martial Arts of the Modern World and the encyclopedia Martial Arts of the World. What was it like working with another author, especially one who has promoted martial arts and its history within academia?

JS: I got introduced to Tom through Kronos, which is part of EJMAS. He wondered about a reference, and I provided it. After that, we were off to the races. We only talked on the phone a few times. Everything else was done via email.

MAYTT: Can readers expect a new title from you in the near future? Are there subjects you have hopes on covering?

JS: I am not working on anything in particular. Okay, there are a few long-term projects such as the boxing death collection, but that is, by definition, a never-ending process. These days, I mostly lurk.

MAYTT: Last question. With over twenty years of writing, research, editing, and publishing, what advice would you give to someone who wants to do the same? What were some of the aspects you know now that you wish you knew then?

JS: Writing and researching has to be a calling. If it is your calling, then do what is front of you. Pursue that story to the end. On the other hand, if the writing and researching is not your calling, then go do something else. It is hard work.

MAYTT: Thank you for taking us through your historical endeavors!

JS: Thank you again for having me.


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