Donn Draeger:
An Excerpt from Martial Musings

by Robert W. Smith

In Japan, Donn lived in a rambling house in the Ichigaya section of Tokyo. Big and well made, it nevertheless shivered its timbers when Wang Shujin, the neijia master, would visit and punch anything anchored. By the time of my six-week stay in 1961, Wang had taken the best that several high-ranking Japanese karate, kenpo, and other martial art experts could offer, and hurt the indestructible Jon Bluming with a no-inch punch that the film actor Bruce Lee would have envied. Bluming tried to get even by taking a free hit at Wang's paunch and only hurt his own wrist. In Wang's taiji classes (he would not teach his forte, xingyi, to the Japanese then, but did later), he had many highly placed Japanese executives and a handful of yakuza (Mafia-style low-lifers). When other warriors of the night stalked him for a short time (Wang himself probably never knew this), one of his yakuza godfathers got wind of it, Donn told me, and the stalkers disappeared into the night mists.

While studying for my 3rd-dan in judo, I spent six weeks living in that storied house. Besides Donn, other residents included the aforementioned Jon Bluming, young Jim Bregman (the 1964 Tokyo Olympics 3-rd place winner), Doug Rogers (the Canadian heavyweight champion and a 2nd-place winner in the same Olympics), Bill Fuller, and a dyspeptic Japanese housekeeper with an expression stronger than Wang's punch. Her stony aspect was probably the result of the practical jokes this crew played. On anyone. I awoke my first morning there to find Donn holding a shinai one inch from my nose. Five minutes later I was killed again. As I was returning down the hall from the toilet to my room, Bluming and Fuller fell on me from opposite rooms with bo and kiai. Alertness was all--no one could afford to completely relax in that house. The occasional prank involving girlfriends and water-filled condoms often breached taste and brought a guarded tension to the occupants. As far as I know, it never went beyond that. Nor could it afford to. With those heavy hitters, a punch-out would have severely tested the house, which had survived earthquakes, the massive firestorms created by U.S. bombing in 1945, and Wang's occasional beatings since then.

Jimmy Bregman was the youngest in that house. I had known him in the Washington, D.C. area since he was fifteen, when he tossed me with a shoulder throw to the merriment of Donn and others. He more than fulfilled his early promise by going off to Tokyo and placing third in the 1964 Olympics. Later, he returned to America and a lot of the contest promise died when a freakish accident on the mat injured his leg. At lunch in Washington one day, he recalled what I'd told him about his training at the Kodokan in 1961. I had called it, he said, the judo gray life: "Every day you came to practice in drab surroundings, the air almost astringent with sweat. You doffed your street clothes and winced as you tried to get into your limpid heavy judogi, which never completely dried out from the exertions of the day before. You walked toward the mat and there first up for some rousing randori was the monster you were happy not to see the day before."

I knew Donn well before that time in his house in Tokyo, but there I got to see him more closely. I came to admire not only his high skills, but also how gladly and patiently he assisted foreigners with their problems. It was said that he had more than a hundred black belts in the various martial arts. While that may have been true, it seems excessive. But perhaps not. Douglas Chadwick said in his seminal The Fate of the Elephant (1992), "I wouldn't claim that all elephant stories are true--but with elephants, you don't need to make up all that much."

What I do know is this. In judo when his knees gave out, Donn pursued groundwork. I learned from a good source that he was in the top echelon in Japan in that area. I also learned that Donn taught a few top Japanese swordsmen in a mountain retreat for several weeks each year. As for details, I was never able to corroborate these claims because of the bureaucracy surrounding such things in Japan. But the fact that Isao Inokuma, who won the 1964 heavyweight judo title, told Japanese television journalists that Donn's coaching was the key to his success--an unprecedented acknowledgment by a Japanese judoka--gives one pause.

Donn and the Ichigaya gang were on call for film producers in Tokyo who needed foreign extras. Big Doug Rogers told me he had played every type of foreign soldier in battle scenes. Donn's most lucrative film work was for the James Bond series. In You Only Live Twice (1967), Donn was a stunt double for an out-of-shape, obviously bored Sean Connery. Of the movie, Paul Nurse commented, "Hollywood trashes budo again!"

Out on the bustling Tokyo streets, we would walk, talk, and watch. There were the pipe dreams never come to fruition. Donn was forever urging me to join his weapons safari in Malaysia. Later we were to edit a real martial arts journal. Still later I was to join him on the faculty at the University of Hawaii. These things never happened because our paths diverged. But we did do a book together--this was Asian Fighting Arts (1969), later retitled Comprehensive Asian Fighting Arts (1980).

He wrote a lot, too, even more than me. In all, Donn wrote over twenty books. He pecked away at his small typewriter hours a day, instructing, clarifying, leading. His books were authentic, blending tradition and innovation. Though his prose was centered and vital, his inherent humor was absent.

Outside his books, which had all the wit and humor of Marine Corps administrative memoranda, Donn was always full of fun. I jumped him once for eating on the run. C.W. Nicol, in his excellent Moving Zen: Karate as a Way to Gentleness (1982), hits the same subject. Fourth-dan karate sensei Keinnosuke Enoeda grabbed a foreigner eating a banana in the dojo by the neck and set him down at a table. "You sit!" Enoeda was learning English. "Eat. No stand. Stand and eat no good. Understand?" Donn acknowledged that the Japanese had broached the matter to him before.

"What did you tell them?" I asked. "I told them I'd make a deal with them: we'd stop eating in the street if the Japanese would quit urinating there!"

Donn accepted the ribald as a valid part of life. His limericks and raunchy jokes livened up every party. Here is one he would have liked because it fools listeners into thinking they are ahead of the game when, in reality as in the martial arts, the words are only feints:

There was a young lady named Tuck,
Who had the most terrible luck;
She went out in a punt, and fell over the front,
And was bit in the leg by a duck.

Back during the early Fifties, after returning from Korea, Donn was second-in-command at the Inter-American Defense Fund housed in the pink Marshall Field mansion on 16th Street in Washington. He complained to me about the excessive social role he had to play helping his colonel host parties for the Washington elite. "How do you stand it?" I asked. "Easy," he said. He padded his role and cheated by funning. In the reception line glad-handing the upper crust, when the mighty introduced themselves Donn said he would smile hugely and double-talk amongst the din, "Oh, Mrs. Whitney (or some such), you miserable wretch, still whoring I see." And get away with it.

While Donn played the diplomat role with panache, he could be brusque on occasion. Years ago, the chief editor for Tuttle told me that he once was delicately talking to a famed writer, a Jesuit priest, about publishing his book. They were in a sumptuous office with the door open while half-way down the large outer room Donn was arguing at the desk of an editor about some textual overhaul the editor wanted to make on Donn's book. Donn never took kindly to editing and he was cussing like a Marine as he demonstrated some fighting technique that he didn't want expunged by the editor's blue pencil. The din rose to a crescendo and at its zenith, Donn came down on the corner of the desk with the technique in question, breaking it off while expostulating, "That is how the [obscenity] thing is done!"

Not too many yards away in the chief editor's office, the kindly little priest looked at my friend with some alarm and asked, "Shouldn't we have some police?"

Red as a beet, my friend apologetically said, "Never mind, I'm afraid this is one of our own writers. You can understand, he is an artist and he feels more deeply than most people."

Another example of Donn's humor: one night at the 1955 Nationals in Los Angeles, during a hot-sake-in-a-saucer drinking contest with Kotani and other luminaries, he saved my life by showing me how to drink the stuff without letting too much go down. As in fighting, the trick was to fake with a lot of elbow and then shunt the liquor down your arm, sopping your sleeve and the floor. (But who noticed or cared?) Poor George Wilson, an old buddy from Seattle, never got in on the skinny. He held up magnificently all evening. Then he blinked once, widened his eyes, and fell over as though poleaxed. It took four of us to carry him off to bed that night and onto his plane the next morning.

Thanks to Donn, I escaped that fate. However, remaining sober and feigning tipsy presented another dilemma. The Japanese have the damnable custom of forcing everyone at a party to sing a song or declaim a poem solo. (I think I did James Whitcomb Riley's "Little Orphant Annie," on a previous occasion). Sloshing around on the floor feeling like Gene Kelly in Singing in the Rain, I told Donn I didn't dig that singing and was going to take a walk until it got over. Donn's brow furrowed. "You can't. If you don't show your ass, they'll lose face." I laughed at his attempt to impersonate anthropologist Ruth Benedict and turned to depart. He grabbed my arm. "Listen, I don't like it either. How about we do a duet?" So I sez how about "She'll Be Coming Round the Mountain When She Comes"? "OK by me." So we did, to tumultuous soused applause.

Donn loved to laugh. There was a time at the Meiji Club in Tokyo when we all told such stories that the waiters and other diners came over to our table, not to complain but to listen. At a corner table, the Deputy Chief of the U.S. Embassy in Taipei was host to a dozen party goers, out of earshot I thought. But a week later we lunched in Taipei and he mentioned that his group had enjoyed our party, even the dirty jokes told by the great big guy (Bluming). I told him that this was the expatriate judo crew and that, actually, they had been relatively well behaved that night.

There was another aspect of the man--his hyperbole. While his research was rigorous and abided no exaggeration, he would sometimes stretch a tale to make a point. His safaris into Malaysia and elsewhere were done partly to collect data on archaeological weapon finds. He was trying to correlate these with human migrations. From the jungles he would often write of defeating local champions in free fighting. Some of this may indeed have happened, but the embellishments gave me pause. His tiger stories he never told me (he knew he couldn't con an old storyteller), but did tell friends of mine. There are two versions. In one, he was treed by a tiger, while in the other, he was treed by one tiger in the morning and a different tiger in the afternoon. How could he know they were different tigers? Even this, of course, may be attributed to his ready humor.

Donn and Sir Richard Burton, the legendary English explorer and scholar (1821-1890), shared an expertise in weaponry and neither was a stranger to hyperbole. Burton carried an iron walking stick as heavy as an elephant gun to keep fit. They shared hoplology. Though Burton gave weapons research its name and was its first great articulator, he viewed weapons as an artifact, whereas Donn was the first to study man's use of weapons in a wider cross-cultural context.

Donn treasured Burton's The Book of the Sword, and during his last years he asked me to send him a reprint. (The 1987 Dover reprint is still available.) Like its author, The Book of the Sword was idiosyncratic, strange, and sound. I'm sure Donn was also familiar with Burton's The Sentiment of the Sword (1911), an equally fascinating book. Burton here quotes Arab sources to show the primacy of green work over gray words: "The lecture is one, the practice is a thousand." Here he tells that in teaching a new student, for the first month half an hour a day is ample, provided there's not too much to unteach. After that, three half-hour sessions a week are sufficient. This light schedule seems to contradict his own experience for he writes in the same book that he began sword practice at twelve and sometimes had three practices a day. But the apparent contradiction may simply mean that over the years he found that, with a proper focus, long hours daily weren't required. Germanely, Burton said that he never let the pupil continue once he saw that he was fatigued, but also never let him sit down until he required rest. Burton was cognizant of iaido: "The sensible Japanese, who, holding the scabbard in the left hand, draws his sword with so little loss of time that he opens his man from belt to shoulder."

Burton decried form or ritual when carried beyond reality. "Nothing is bad if it succeeds," said Burton in regard to proper form in fencing. He noted that an overly structured opponent often shouted loftily, "You touched my mask, my back, my arm!" without understanding that the mask touch could have gone through his brain, or six inches into his back. Therefore, he replied just as loftily, "I touch what is before me and I'm amply satisfied with the result!"

There was also a mystery to Donn Draeger. He almost never said anything about his personal affairs. Since I subscribed to Chesterton's philosophy that "the most sacred thing is to be able to close your own door," I never even thought of asking him. His past, his family--he never divulged anything of this, even when we'd sit around and talk about the halcyon past. And we did a lot of that. Almost everyone who'd gone through the Depression played the "Poor Game," for instance. In it, you let the other guy try to top your low-ball. I'd say that when I was a kid we were so poor we used water instead of milk on our corn flakes. To which Donn would say, "What's corn flakes?" So I'd counter that when he was a babe his mom used baby powder on him, but that my mom was so poor she used Old Dutch Cleanser instead. Then he would top it all by telling how one Christmas Eve, his pa hadn't a quarter for presents, so went outside in the dark alley with a gun. (Like Billy Conn, the great light-heavyweight of the 1930's, Donn was twelve before he found out there were streets.) Those inside heard a single shot. A few minutes later, pa returned to tell the family that Santa Claus had just committed suicide.

Donn's fighting priorities changed over time. Early on, judo and kendo were the objects of his effort. After 1965, however, weaponry supplanted the judo. His mentor at the Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto-ryu, Otake Risuke, said in an interview (Honolulu, November 2, 1981) that when Donn entered his school fifteen years before, he was already 5th-dan judo, 7th-dan kendo, 7th-dan iaido, and a 7th-dan in jodo with kyoshi, or instructor's rank. Once he started doing Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto-ryu, he stopped judo and kendo, his old sportive favorites.

Around 1966, Donn relocated to Narita, an hour outside Tokyo, where he remained for the rest of his life. The main reason for the change was to be nearer his new training. I have heard that Kodokan politics and specifically the new director of its foreign section, I. Abe, with whom Donn and some other foreign judoka had problems, may have contributed to his move. Donn still collected his mail and touched base at the Kodokan twice a week, but gone was the historic Ichigaya house and its nexus with the fascinating judoka who lived there.

Illustrative of Donn's giving is this incident told me by one of his students, Canadian Howard Alexander.

In 1968, I went with Donn as a junior member . . . to Indonesia for the summer to study Pentjak Silat. It was a wonderful learning experience for me. Donn and I started out earlier [from the rest of the group] and went by freighter through Hong Kong and Singapore and Jakarta. During the twelve days on that ship, Donn decided to teach me the uke for kusari-gama, jutte, tanjojutsu, and various goshin techniques. We also did many hours of jodo. We practiced about fifteen hours a day, only stopping for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and for a couple of hours at midday when the steel decks were too hot to stand on. Even now remembering those twelve days, my arms ache and pain shoots through my wrists and elbows. One dark night with no moon, he took me on deck to practice jodo. I thought it was far too dark since I could hardly see anything but a shadow. But in true Donn fashion, he said, "It will train your sixth sense and reaction if you can't see your opponent." Needless to say, I couldn't hit him, but got smacked a number of times myself.

Donn had women friends, but they didn't linger when they learned that his entire being was absorbed in the martial arts. I have it on good authority that he was married to a woman Marine once and that there was a son born before the union dissolved, but he never mentioned it.

Donn was a warrior on pain. He had to be. Pat Lineberger, one of his deshi, tells me that Donn had severe allergic reactions to any type of pain-killer. Which meant if he had surgery he could have no anesthetics. In 1978, while he was in Honolulu for a lecture series, he had to have a root canal done. And did it sans pain-killer. Another time, he was on the operating table for surgery on a big toe that had plagued him for years. He insisted on no anesthetic and told them to proceed. The doctors were stupefied, but when Donn stuck to his guns they canceled surgery! That toe was later caught in a door at Tripler Army Hospital that another fellow accidentally slammed. Donn felt intense pain at first, but then it disappeared. He laughed in recalling that the door had corrected what the aborted surgery was supposed to do.

Back to the mystery. Death, of course, is the biggest one. We all know that we must die but deny it will happen to ourselves, despite Saint Theresa's "We are all going to die in a couple hours." In August, 1985, a Chinese-American Army doctor in Hawaii, a student of Donn's, phoned me. His examination of Donn had revealed swollen legs and a carcinoma that, as I recall, had metastasized from his intestines to his liver. The doctor said that Donn thought he had been poisoned during his trip to Malaysia. If true--Donn may have guessed wrong--we will never know whether it was intentionally done or a misadventure of diet.

There can be no mystery, however, in how he benefited America and the world by his contributions. He opened Asian combatives to the full view of the West. He was an authentic warrior able to blend the tough with the tender. He could fight the match, referee it, and then explain the mechanics of it later in his books. He was an unusual American--he never made a dollar with his incomparable skill. All of it went into the more than twenty books we have inherited. Hear his name. Donn Draeger: Don't nod in recognition; Donn Draeger: Bow with admiration and respect.

Copyright ©1999 Robert W. Smith. All rights reserved.

Classical Japanese Martial Arts
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Classical Japanese Martial Arts