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Questions of triviality versus substance are interesting to us as social scientists because they have a cyclic quality to them. We are privileged to live in a time when we can ask that question in earnest.

In , people may have been asking whether kendo was an effective training mechanism for practical swordsmanship [Gainty ]. But no one saw the physical, social or ideological aspects of these systems as trivial.


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During the post-WWII period, the American occupation forces in Japan moved to regulate and even ban some martial arts organizations and activities because they understood that these things create social externalities that reach far beyond the realm of individual practice. These observations were not restricted to discussions of the Japanese martial arts. Consider this photograph, printed as part of an American newspaper report on the Chinese resistance to the Japanese occupation in Guangdong on June 7th, [figure 2].

Acme Photo, Here we see a female Chinese militia leader, silhouetted against a stark sky. While American newspaper readers in the s knew little about the details of the Chinese military, their exotic blades had acquired an iconic status, much like their counterpart, the Japanese katana. We do not need to see an artillery scarred landscape to understand who she is and what is about to happen. A backstory is ultimately unnecessary to grasp the social significance of the martial arts in China during the s.

Indeed, it is fascinating to compare these contrasting images of Japanese and Chinese martial artists, both caught up in the opening stages of the same conflict. While not a modern and disciplined fighting force, such brave individuals should receive more than our empathy. They should also receive our support.

It is the essential simplicity of these images, as well as their direct appeal to group identity, that made their message effective. These images suggest that the answers to this question are not always obvious. We cannot really engage such a question without making explicit our scope and domain conditions. Who is our intended audience? To whom do these arts matter, or not matter? When is this question being asked? Is the year , or ?

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Through what theoretical lens should we evaluate the question of substance? There is much that could be said about each of these conditions.

For the sake of brevity, let us restrict the current discussion to how we can make martial arts studies matter in the current era. Likewise, the audience that we must consider is not mysterious, though it has its complexities.

Perhaps we should start there. In our own writings, we try to imagine ourselves being read by an audience of three different people. The first of these could be any reader of this journal. To succeed, our writing must speak to, and build from, critical conversations that are already happening within the martial arts studies literature. Yet, as the editors of this journal, we frequently encounter scholars who are writing about the martial arts who do not yet know that our field exists, or who cannot quite figure out where the bridges lie between their own projects and those discussed in the larger literature.

It is important that we continue to work to expand the scope of our discussion, bringing more of these voices into the conversation. Second, we imagine writing for a certain type of practicing martial artist. While not a professional academic, this individual generally has at least some university education and a burning passion for their chosen style. They would like to see their art discussed with the same rigor and conceptual toolkit that they were introduced to in school, and yet they want to be able to see their personal experience in the resulting analysis.

Keeping the lines of communication open between dedicated scholars and practitioners is vital as it better ensures that we will continue to have access to the sorts of data that the field needs to develop interpretive or causal theories in the future. The final, and in many respects most challenging, reader that we must consider is a fellow academic who has no long-term interest in martial arts.

What such readers really need is an assurance that our discussion is both factually, theoretically and methodologically sound and helpfully relevant. More precisely, can martial arts studies scholarship speak to the big questions in their discipline?

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At the current moment, our books and articles are likely to encounter all three of these types of reader. And this creates a challenge when asking what we can do to make martial arts studies matter. Simply put, not every reader, academic committee or funding organization is looking for the same sort of thing. Our first conclusion is that we must be increasingly conscious of the complexity and heterogeneity of our audience at every stage in the research process. It is this last aspect of the puzzle that brings us back to our introductory photographs and the title of this work.

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In truth, it has never been difficult to make the martial arts matter in a narrow disciplinary sense. You find an aspect of martial arts history, practice or representation that speaks to these specific questions. This is because every discipline and every department generates and publicizes its own standards of evaluation. Knowing how our work will be evaluated, we know something about how to go about doing it.

And in some respects, this remains a critical exercise. As a purely practical matter, martial arts studies must be seen to make contributions to the disciplines before anyone will be willing to engage with us on a more fundamental level. And success in the disciplinary realm is usually a prerequisite for young scholars seeking promotion and tenure.

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Still, when writing for other parts of our audience, things become more complicated. Martial arts studies draws its strength from the fact that it is a resolutely interdisciplinary exercise [Farrer and Whalen-Bridge ; Bowman ]. As a community, we do not all share the same methodological orientation.

We come from many fields, from all areas of the globe, and we study fighting systems from every hemisphere. That said, how do we make martial arts studies matter in the absence of shared disciplinary or methodological perspectives, or even a shared consensus on what things should be central to an academic discussion? It may be helpful to remember that we are not the first group of writers to face such a challenge.

Lacking an audience with a unified personal perspective, storytellers and filmmakers long ago discovered that the best way to create understanding was to cultivate within their audience a sense of personal investment and empathy. If we want to continue to encourage the growth of martial arts studies, we will need to do the same sort of thing as we increasingly encounter editors, colleagues and funding officers who, while not necessarily hostile to our project, will likely have never heard of nor thought that much about it before.

To draw on the classic piece of advice often attributed to Anton Chekhov: It will never be enough to simply tell these individuals that they should be excited about martial arts studies. Rather, we need to write in such a way that we show them what we can contribute and demonstrate the unique perspectives that will be lost if our voices are not represented at the table.

See a Problem?

Again, the introductory images of the judo dojo and the female militia leader provide some hints for reaching a non-specialist audience. Or perhaps we want to think about some of our favorite martial arts films and what makes for an effective visual story.

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After all, it seems highly unlikely that many of us would be practicing the martial arts today, let alone researching them, if not for the massive explosion of enthusiasm that these films ignited within the global public consciousness starting in the s [Bowman ]. Authorities on screenplays have noted that good stories often share three basic characteristics. First, they feature an active protagonist who reveals their character through the choices they make [Field ]. This is what K. Thirdly, effective writing needs to show that something is at stake.

The audience must feel that the actions of the characters have meaningful consequences both for themselves and for other individuals in society. The images of the judo students and the female militia leaders, while single photographs rather than entire screenplays, draw their audience in and by extension reassure them that the martial arts matter precisely because they hit each of these points in a remarkably effective way. The female militia leader is clearly an active protagonist.