For Context: Judo and Japanese American Internment

In any situation, context is key to understanding what is currently happening or what has happened. Context is important to a historian as history is a study and a field that deals with change over time and how the perspective on context affects people, ideas, locations, and things. Why am I bringing up context and what does this have to do with martial arts history? Firstly, I finished reading Richard Reeves’ 2015 book Infamy: The Shocking Story of the Japanese American Internment in World War II. This is only one of the many sources covering the historical backdrop that pervaded an earlier article about judo’s role in the Manzanar Relocation Camp. Secondly, activities like martial arts do not happen in a vacuum, where there is no causation to force or persuade people into participating in them. Rather, as stated in the aforementioned article, judo, along with the many cultural activities within the camps, was a reaction to the reality of individual lives being completely uprooted from their previous communities and transplanted into a completely restrictive and foreign environment.

While the number of judoka who participated in training and tournaments was a small number compared to the total number of the Manzanar’s population (roughly 10,000), the fact of the matter remains that both issei and nisei gravitated towards judo as a means to ground themselves in an unstable and everchanging time of their respective lives. As mentioned in the article, Manzanar, and the rest of the Relocation Camps, were situated and constructed in complete deserts – in the middle of nowhere in some cases – with the inmates confined in facilitates that were so underequipped especially since no one from the organizers and planners thought the inmates would be staying there until the end of the War, three years later. With everyone trying to adapt and cope with their new lives, each individual attempted to create a semblance of what their lives were like before the fences and barbed wires.

The martial arts, as many already know, means something different to each practitioner. I would hazard a guess that a good majority of those who are reading this and who currently participate in martial arts, do so more as a hobby or extra-curricular activity, physical exercise, socialization, and/or a way to improve physical and mental coordination, rather than a way to retain a large part of their own personal and cultural identity in the face of massive social upheaval. This is where context matters. The modern martial artists’ causation or reason to participate in the arts differs completely from those who came before – the judoka in the Relocation Camps, the doughboys in the First World War, and the British and French soldiers during the Seven Year’s War (the French and Indian War). To forget why one group of people practices their arts in any given time period is to throw away the context and their own reasons to participate and engross themselves in said arts. With that statement in mind, Martial Arts of Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow strives to bring further context and motivation to the often unclear and limited history of martial arts within the United States and beyond; because without context, all we have are a collection of facts that somehow may or may not relate to one another without any real meaning. Without context, we forget why certain individuals within Manzanar and the other Relocation Centers embraced judo to find themselves in the shared social cataclysm they experienced in 1942. Without context, we do not have history.


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