Olympic samurai: Japanese martial arts between sports and self-cultivation

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One of the longest-standing debates in the martial arts relates to their being either ‘sports’ or methods of self-cultivation. Traditionalists often ascribe unique spiritual characteristics to the martial arts, while criticising the ‘sportification’ of certain practices. In this view, the martial arts are seen to have declined from ancient ideals and become focused on ‘superficial’ competition and techniques. This paper argues that the supposedly intrinsic connection between martial arts and mental self-cultivation is largely a product of the last 150 years, and developed from the historical context of Japan’s modernisation in the late nineteenth century, as martial arts were codified while experiencing a powerful challenge from the arrival of Western sports. This dynamic was closely related to the development of the nationalistic ideology of bushido, the ‘way of the samurai’, which was frequently invoked by promoters of the martial arts. In this context, intangible elements such as ‘spirit’ were used by martial artists to include and exclude people along lines of gender, nationality, and ethnicity. This paper uses three Tokyo Olympics, 2020, 1964, and the cancelled 1940 games, to examine how the Japanese martial arts were ‘spiritualised’, and to consider the enduring legacy of imperial ideologies.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)328-355
JournalSport in History
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 10 Mar 2020

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© 2020, The British Society of Sports History. This is an author-produced version of the published paper. Uploaded with permission of the publisher/copyright holder. Further copying may not be permitted; contact the publisher for details.


  • Japan
  • Martial Arts
  • Olympics
  • Samurai
  • Bushido

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