Remembrances of Donn Draeger
By Michael Belzer
Most people involved with the study of fighting arts are familiar with the name Donn Draeger. For some, they only knew him as that guy who wrote all those martial art books. To others he was one of the most highly trained, knowledgeable and experienced professional warriors they ever met. Throughout his life he focused his energies on the fighting arts. In fact, Donn Draeger became known as the founder of modern hoplology.
Not to be confused with the study of bunnies, the term hoplology is derived from the Greek warriors known as Hoplites. The current definition of hoplology is: the study of the evolution and development of human combative behavior and performance.
Donn Draeger was recognized as a world authority on Asian martial culture and human combative behavior. As a research historian, author and lecturer; he was considered the leading exponent of the Japanese martial disciplines. He held a large number of expert ranks and teaching licenses, and investigated Japanese martial culture more deeply than any non-Japanese in history:
– Draeger was the first and only non-Japanese to hold the
rank of Budo Kyoshi or full Professor of the Classical Martial
Arts and Ways.
– He was designated as the first non-Japanese Judo
Instructor at the Kodokan Institute in Tokyo, Japan.
– Draeger was the first non-Japanese to demonstrate kata
(as tori) at the All Japan Judo Championships and the 1964
– He was also the first non-Japanese to compete in the All
Japan High Rank Holders Judo tournament at the Kodokan.
Born on April 15, 1922, Donn grew up in Wisconsin and began his martial training in the art of Jujutsu at a very early age. He soon switched to the practice of Kodokan Judo and received the rank of nikyu by the age of ten. He continued his involvement with Judo throughout his life.
During the summer months Donn was able to hunt, fish and live with the Chippewa Indians who lived in the Wisconsin wilderness. The older tribesmen accepted him because of his skill in grappling and his ability to handle youths older and larger than himself. His fascination with weapons developed at an early age, along with his skill in unarmed encounters.
Saving money from a variety of odd jobs, Donn bought his first .22 rifle around the age of 11 or 12. He roamed the woods plinking and hunting small game. His skill eventually developed so that he could usually shoot from the hip more accurately than those who followed the usual sighting procedure.
At the young age of 15, Donn joined the United States Marine Corps and eventually rose through the ranks as a regular officer. He served in Japan, Korea and Manchuria. While in the Marines he continued his formal education and received his masters degree in electrical engineering.
His interest in hunting also continued while he was in the Marine Corps. Donn hunted big game on all of the major continents. He accumulated 44 heads including the Grizzly and the Alaskan Brown Bear. Later however, Donn grew to detest the idea of hunting animals other than for defense or subsistence.
After retirement from the service, Donn made his home in Tokyo, Japan. From this base he pursued his interests in martial training and research. Approximately four months out of each year was spent conducting expeditions in various countries to study and document their diverse combative traditions. Southeast Asia was an area of special interest to him.
Donn followed a simple and natural lifestyle. He neither smoked nor drank and he had no heat or air conditioning in his small Japanese style apartment. He got up with the sun and usually jogged around his hometown of Narita. The rest of the day was spent training, teaching and conducting research.
A significant contribution was made to the art of Judo when Donn introduced systematic weight training at the competitive level. The impact was such that now all Judo champions utilize weight training as an integral part of their overall program.
Politics at the local and international level within the Judo world spurred Donn on to pursuing and eventually gaining acceptance into Japan’s koryu, (ancient disciplines). He was the first Caucasian allowed to enter the koryu and eventually became a licensed instructor of Shindo Muso Ryu Jodo (Stick Art) and Katori Shinto Ryu Kenjutsu (Sword Art). Later, Donn introduced Jodo training to Malaysia and also began the U.S. Jodo Federation.
A prolific writer, Donn would spend up to 15 hours a day typing. He authored many books and was a contributor to numerous scholarly journals and magazines. His most well known books include Asian Fighting Arts and his three volume series on The Classical Martial Arts and Ways of Japan.
Donn was a contributing editor to the publication known as Judo Illustrated and he also published a magazine titled Martial Arts International. Later, he also published the official newsletter of the International Hoplological Research Center.
As time went on, Donn became increasingly locked into his chosen profession as a researcher and exponent of martial culture. When he would return from his annual expeditions he would have up to 100 lbs. of mail waiting for him in letters relating to the study of combatives; and he answered them all.
The final goal of Donn Draeger was to reformulate the study of weapons and fighting systems into a recognized academic discipline known as Hoplology. He was the one that could accomplish the task because of his lifetime of training and personal experience in the area of combatives.
His scholarly research provided the historical and cultural context for his hoplological conclusions. He founded the International Hoplological Research Center and developed ambitious plans for a permanent facility to be constructed on the Big Island of Hawaii.
The center would serve as a training site for a variety of combative traditions and also house facilities for analyzing the hoplological data gained through fieldwork. In addition, the archives of the center would house the most extensive collection of representative weapons in the world. Over 10,000 separate books would be the start of a library for the center. Donn maintained the world’s most extensive collection of wood block prints depicting the warriors of Japan. These prints would very likely be on display in the archives.
The development of hoplology continued with Donn serving as a guest lecturer at the University of Hawaii, the University of Maryland and the East-West Center on a regular basis. He trained a variety of individuals scattered throughout the world in hoplology theory and methods. He took a number of individuals with him on his annual expeditions so they could be oriented to the foundation of hoplology in fieldwork.
Fieldwork into the remote areas of the world carries a significant degree of risk. Bad luck finally found the 1979 research team while they were in Sumatra. While studying the Atjeh tribe, the entire team was poisoned and developed severe amoebic dysentery which required hospitalization.
The team eventually recovered but Donn continued to develop health problems. He had severe swelling and pain in his legs. His health gradually deteriorated to the point where he was diagnosed as having cancer. On October 21, 1982
Donn Draeger passed away at the age of 60. The development of hoplology has continued through the efforts of several hoplologists who were personally trained by Draeger while on extended field expeditions, primarily in South East Asia. The International Hoplology Society (IHS) is directed by Hunter B. Armstrong who was a senior researcher under Donn F. Draeger and accompanied him several expeditions, including the fateful one to Sumatra in 1979.
A detailed biography of Donn Draeger is in the process of being published and will be released soon. For more information on Donn F. Draeger and hoplology, please contact The International Hoplology Society website at: www.hoplology.com
1965 – Began training in Kodenkan Jujutsu at age nine.
1974 – Lived in Japan for nine months training in Shindo Muso Ryu Jodo and Uyeshiba Aikido
1979 – Traveled to Malaysia with Donn F. Draeger for three weeks studying hoplology (the study of weapons and fighting systems).
1980 Began training in the weapons based art of Filipino Kali under Guro Dan Inosanto
1984 – Traveled to the Philippines for a three-month expedition to research Filipino Kali, Escrima and Arnis using the hoplological methods I learned from Donn F. Draeger.
1989 Became apprentice instructor of Filipino Kali under Guro Dan Inosanto.
1989 – Returned to Malaysia for the second time to revisit the original teachers that Donn Draeger Introduced me to in 1979.
1990 Began training and teaching, full force self defense using complete protective gear. The focus is on adrenal stress conditioning using realistic scenario training.
2007 – Traveled to Thailand, Malaysia and Japan for three week research tour.
Currently: Director of Training for The Realistic Scenario Training Corp. RST acts as a consultant for the Los Angeles Police Department as part of the LAPD’s Civilian Martial Art
Advisory Panel (CMAAP).
Personal Diary with Donn Draeger
By Michel Belzer
I saw Donn Draeger for the first time when I was 13 years old. My father had heard that some top ranked martial artists from Japan were coming to Bethesda, Maryland to give a demonstration. Since my father, my older brother and myself were all exponents of Kodenkan Jujutsu at that time, we were all looking forward to seeing this demonstration.
The year was 1969 if I remember correctly. All I really remember of the demo was an old Japanese man (Shimizu Takaji) and a big Caucasian (Donn F. Draeger) who was wielding a strange looking weapon called a kusarigama (a combination weapon with a sickle and weighted chain), which fascinated me. I had no idea who these men were besides experts from Japan. This was one of the first times both classical budo and bujutsu were shown outside of Japan. I wasn’t aware of it at the time, but I saw Shindo Muso Ryu Jodo and Katori Shinto Ryu Kenjutsu demonstrated for the first time in Maryland.
Later, I obtained Dreager and Smith’s book Asian Fighting Arts. This book was amazing to me. All these styles and systems from all over the world looked so interesting to me, I wanted to learn them all. My next encounter with Donn Draeger occurred in 1974 at age 18. I had just graduated from high school and I had the opportunity to travel to Japan and train. My father suggested that I write to Donn since he was based in Tokyo. I sent a letter to him in care of his publisher and had no idea if the letter would even get to him. A couple of months before I left, I received a polite response from him: Your letter has finally sifted down to me from my publisher. What did you have in mind? I await your reply. Signed Donn F. Draeger.
I immediately returned a letter stating my intention to go to Japan to study the martial arts. In his reply he told me that he would help me in any way that he could. He wrote: Keep in mind that what you are doing in the U.S. is probably very different from the way things are done in Japan. All you have to do is keep an open mind and let the Japanese show you their art. He told me that he would be doing research in Borneo when I arrived in Japan but he gave me the number of Howard Alexander to contact when I arrived.
I arrived in Japan, contacted Howard and was taken to his stick fighting dojo. This was the Rembukan dojo where Shindo Muso ryu jodo was taught as a koryu with Shimizu Takaji as the headmaster. At that time I did not make the connection that this was the same man I had seen demonstrate with Donn five years earlier in Maryland. I trained in jodo at the Rembukan dojo for about three months before I heard Donn is back from Borneo and will be here next week.
Someone also had mentioned that when he takes off his shirt, you wouldn’t believe it. Even at age 53 (or so) his muscle development is awesome. Well, they were right. Donn showed up, peeled off his shirt to get into his keiko gi and I am sure my mouth fell open.
That day we trained a bit together in jodo. I was impressed at how this big strong guy moved so smoothly with power. He always provided just the right amount of resistance for me. He didn’t overpower me and he didn’t give it away either. He made me work, but the work was efficient.
After the training session ended, I introduced myself and told him I’m the guy who wrote you from California. He smiled and said that he was glad that I had indeed come to Japan and was studying Jodo. Then a funny thing happened. I saw Donn and Shimizu-sensei together for the first time side by side. I finally made the connection and blurted out Hey! I know you guys! You were both at the demonstration I saw in Maryland in 1969! They both got a smile on their faces from that one.
Another funny incident that happened at the dojo was also at the end of a training session. Several of the guys who trained at the dojo were into health food, brown rice and were vegetarians. Donn took off his gi (muscles rippling) put on his street clothes and looked around at the people in the dojo. He smiled and said, All right, who’s ready for some garbage? We all got on a bus and headed out for pizza.
I saw Donn at the dojo several times, trained with him and listened to stories from his latest expedition. I heard about a tussle he had with a combat tai chi man he called The Butcher. Apparently the tai chi butcher had started to push Donn, so he responded with a foot-sweep that unbalanced him and got his attention.
I heard later that the two of them ended up in another skirmish that knocked a sink off the wall. The thing I remember most was that I was unable to really look at his eyes. His whole presence was very intense for me and I counted myself lucky to just ride in the same bus with him.
In May of 1975 I left Japan after nine months of training in Jodo and Aikido to return to Los Angeles for my university education at UCLA. It was at that time that Donn first told me about hoplology and that its development would need young men like yourself. I told him I was interested and that I would write to him when I returned to L.A.
Over the next five years I corresponded with Donn either asking questions about hoplology or helping him with his courses at the University of Hawaii by writing letters of interest to the appropriate departments. In 1979 I received an invitation to attend the First International Jodo Jamboree to be held in Malaysia. I had in my mind that I would be at the end of a crowded football field filled with martial artists from all over the world.
I’m sure I would barley be able to see him from where I would be but I was also sure that I wanted to go to this jodo camp. I wrote to Donn that I wanted to attend and told him of the travel plans I would make it to Malaysia. He wrote back that if I wanted I could come to Japan instead and travel the cheap way like I do. We will fly to Thailand and then take the 25 hr. train ride from Bangkok to Penang, Malaysia. I thought Wow! I just received a personal invitation to travel with him to Malaysia! This is a must trip!
Donn met me at the airport in Narita in July of 1979. This time I was able to look him in the eyes. He knew I was there because of my interest in Judo and Hopology. We had some dinner and I then conked out in one of the two rooms (61 D2 and 4 mat rooms) of his small Japanese apartment. I learned that he has no heater and no air conditioner in his apartment.
He trained in Katori Shinto Ryu Kenjutsu every day and walked six to eight miles a day. He did not smoke drink alcohol or even coffee. Not because of any hang-ups, he just didn’t like what they do. He said that he liked the waterproof and floatable camera I brought him but what he really liked were the homemade chocolate chip cookies!
I woke up early and looked through some of his books as well as a lot of photographs from previous expeditions. He told me that he was working on a two-volume book about Penjtak Silat of Malaysia and Indonesia. He said that it would go into much more depth than the other book he had written on Petjak Silat with Howard Alexander and Quinten Chambers.
Donn took me to a hospital in Tokyo to visit with Watatani- Sensei. Watatani was probably the most knowledgeable budo historian living at that time. He had completed a 900-page book delineating over 10,000 ryu and headmasters. Watatani was very ill and Donn was afraid it would be the last time he might see him. Watatani-sensei was sitting up in bed cross-legged and his eyes lit up like a little kid when he saw Donn walk in. He really made his day!
After two days in Japan we flew to Bangkok and boarded a train for a 25 hr. trip to Butterworth, Malaysia. It was just the two of us and I took the opportunity to interview him about hoplology. I had a list of 28 questions and I asked him if he minded answering some questions. Fire away he said. I made notes on the topics he covered: The macro analysis of a weapon and a system; the typology and descriptions, the group, genus, type and subtype of weapons and systems. Then he gave me a field notebook and told me to memorize as many weapons and names as possible because we would be seeing these weapons on this trip.
We also discussed the four ends of a system:
1. Shiai Competition
2. Goshin Self-Defense
3. Satori Enlightenment
4. Shobu Killing/Lethal
Donn made it clear that you can really have just one end, One of the four. If you claim to have more than one of them you end up with none. We talked about fear, confidence, experience and fudoshin (immovable mind). He said that knowing yourself is a product of proper training under a qualified teacher for a protracted length of time.
The head of Malaysian Jodo Karunakaran, met us at the train station in Butterworth. He had been a student and friend of Donn for many years. We had some dinner and got situated and the next day we were off to Taiping to begin the Jodo Jamboree. There were representatives from Switzerland, New Zealand, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore and I represented the United States for that year.
Training at the 5-day camp consisted of three training sessions a day plus a lecture portion and then some evening activity like a demonstration from local martial artists from different styles. My concentration was in the omote or first level of the jodo curriculum. I met many great people during the camp and I saw how Donn trained the instructors as well as the beginners. He met each of us at our own level and then pushed us just a little farther then we thought we could go.
At one point he surprised me by telling me I would be tested for my sankyu rank the day before the test. Everyone else had been preparing for the test for days. I heard later that one of the things Shimizu-sensei would do to Donn is change the kata he was to demonstrate on the day of the demonstration! Be prepared at all times was his message to me.
After the camp Donn took me to see several master teachers so I could observe their styles and training methods. We visited:
1. Chy Kim of the Sao lim.
2. Master Leong and Master Tan of the Pheonix Eye Fist.
3. Master Rahman of the Silat Seni Gyung.
4. Master Lee Pit Lai (The Butcher) of Combat Tai Chi Chuan.
5. Master Abananthan of Indian Silambam.
What can I say about the opportunity I had to travel with Donn Draeger? It was simply the greatest experience of my life. I made a promise to myself that within three years I would return to participate in the three month expedition that Donn made each year to continue his hoplological research and train new hoplologists out in the field.
I found out four months later that the whole team that left with Donn after I returned to Los Angeles, was poisoned in Sumatra by an Atjec tribe. The entire team had severe intestinal problems and were all on antibiotics. The rest of the team recovered but I guess that was the turning point for Donn’s health. Things went downhill from there.
I formally requested that Donn become my sensei and made the decision to follow him and what he had to teach. My interest in hoplology was turned on and I was looking forward to more Travels with Donn Draeger. Throughout my life I have looked for guidance and direction. I think the happiest day of my life was when Donn accepted me as one of his personal students. He simply signed his reply to me as Your Sensei. Here was a man who impressed me enough with his style, his interests and his ethics to follow him and I was willing to make whatever adjustments that were necessary in my personal life that were necessary.
Donn Draeger taught me many things as my sensei besides technique. He taught me to always go as close as possible to the source of knowledge, whether it be a country, a system, a book or a person. He taught me to know what I was doing and look inward and not fool myself. He taught me to keep an open mind and let people show who they are by their actions.
Donn Draeger gave in terms of time, energy, money, knowledge and patience. All anyone would have to do to be accepted by him is have an open mind and be willing to work. What he did for me was special. But what is really special is that he had this same effect on hundreds of people. His standard operating procedure was to share his knowledge and experience.
The last time I saw my sensei alive was in Hawaii in 1980. We trained in Jodo and I have a great photograph of him looking strong and ready to go even though I knew he was in a lot of pain at the time. He seemed to be saying I am ready, are you?