Martial Arts and the Korean Colonial Police in 1938

The relationship between Korean martial arts and Japanese martial arts is usually a touchy one. This is because, like the history of so many other things in modern Korea, it is susceptible to what I like to call the “Colonial Death Touch.”

The Colonial Death Touch works like this. Any practice which can be demonstrated to have its origins in the Japanese colonial period, was reborn during the colonial period partly out of inspiration or imitation of some Japanese practice, or was significantly influenced by similar Japanese practices is ruled to be inauthentic. Inauthentic things, of course, cannot be authentically Korean, and thus risk, at the very least, losing its place in the national cultural or historical repository. At most, it can destroy any popularity such practices might enjoy.

The Colonial Death Touch is sometimes delivered by, for example, Japanese nationalists who want to anger their Korean neighbors. However, it is also often used domestically. For example, practitioners of Korean martial art X might claim that they are superior to martial art Y because they are “pure” Korean while martial art Y is soiled by its evil Japanese roots. I’m sure many readers familiar with Korean martial arts can think of some examples of this.

These sorts of exchanges, whoever their participants might be, are silly childish games of nationalist mudslinging. They depend on a simplistic idea of authenticity, a laughable faith in cultural uniqueness, and a conception of the colonial period as cultural and economic black hole out of which only the bright shining light of Korean national resistance can possibly shine.

One martial art that became popular during the colonial period which remained popular in the postwar period is 검도(劍道, J: Kendō) or swordsmanship. In recent years, perhaps partly due to the ever present threat of the colonial death touch, the martial art has undergone some degree of “Koreanization” while other innovations in technique, uniforms, etc. probably are more simply attributable to the evolution of all such arts across time.

Reaching back to the time of liberation in 1945, however, I did find it remarkable that 검도 seemed to remain particularly popular among the Korean police. Like the popularity of Kendo among the Japanese police down to this present day, Korean police publications from the late 1940s and 1950s show pictures of 검도 practitioners gathered in huge numbers. This is somewhat surprising since the sword of the police in the colonial period was one extremely hated symbol that often gets mentioned in anti-police newspaper articles. The post-Liberation police stopped carrying the sword after a reform of November 8, 1945 and replaced it with a police stick. Admittedly, one could argue that the symbolic weight of a sword carried is different from that of the bamboo 죽도(竹刀 J: Shinai) used by 검도 practitioners, but I find the resilience of 검도 to be impressive and admirable all the same. Others, however, might point to this as yet another expression of the “pro-Japanese” tendencies of the police.

It is not surprising to learn that many Korean police during the colonial period were also working hard at various martial arts. In a 1938 Japanese imperial government report on the colonial police, there is an interesting table listing the number of Japanese and Korean police holding various degrees of skill in three martial arts: Judo (유도), Kendo (검도), and Kyudo (궁도, Japanese archery).1 The degrees are listed by dan beginning with shodan (in some martial arts this is often now called the first degree “black belt”). Below are the number of police holding first degree or higher in the three martial arts for 1938:

  Judo Kendo Kyudo
Japanese 105 126 8
Koreans 114 88 70

While there are more Japanese degree holders in Kendo, there are more total Korean police with first degree or higher in both Judo and Kyudo. In the latter case this is true by a huge margin. The reason that this is especially remarkable is that these numbers are absolute, but in fact, the Japanese police outnumbered the Korean police by 2:1 even in the later war period when many Japanese police were drafted into the military and Koreans began to assume higher positions within the police hierarchy. Despite the fact they were well outnumbered, they have higher numbers of degree holders for 2/3 of the listed martial arts.

What’s more, if you look closer at the chart in the original document, one can note that while the highest degrees held in Judo were limited to the Japanese (1 sixth degree, 2 fifth degree) for both Kendo and Kyudo the highest degree holders are held exclusively by Koreans (fifth degree).

On a geographical breakdown Kwangju seems to have been a center of martial arts for police in the colonial period, with large numbers of degree-holding Korean police for Judo (45 vs 11 Japanese) and Kendo (28 vs 11 Japanese).

This chart has no explanatory text attached and I haven’t yet seen other references to the degree of popularity of the martial arts among Koreans either in the police or in the population at large, or information on the Japanese policies to promote their practice, but someone more interested in the topic might want to have a closer look at what is out there.

The Korean degree holders outnumbered their Japanese practitioners among the police, especially in terms of percentage of their total numbers, despite the fact some Japanese might have thought these arts to be their own traditional cultural territory. Their ability to effectively compete with their Japanese superior officers within this realm of physical ability must have been a source of pride, in the same way that Korean students competing successfully in various school sports with the children of their Japanese rulers could stir considerable competitive spirit and increased self-confidence. However, from the perspective of Japan, this could just as easily be seen as good for imperial hegemony, as Korean subjects funneled some of their energy into less revolutionary outlets.

I hove uploaded the original chart to the Frog in a Well 문고 which you can download from its library page:

武道有段者 昭和13年6月

  1. 日帝下 戰時體制期 政策史料叢書 第67卷 警察과 思想統制 4(昭和13年 警務要覽 外) p.45 (40 in original report)  


  1. Hello kabbala, thanks for dropping by. The Frog in a Well library (문고) is a a website where we sometimes upload original documents for you to read. Click on the link to see the original document. The reference is in my posting, under footnote number 1.

  2. “The Colonial Death Touch is sometimes delivered by, for example, Japanese nationalists who want to anger their Korean neighbors. However, it is also often used domestically. ”

    Japanese nationalist is a term that Koreans like to use to undermine any Japanese view, that is different then the Korean view. However, even if you are right here, the Colonial Death Touch view is held by almost all the Koreans.

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