My Sensei – Donn F. Draeger – The Self Defense Company

My Sensei – Donn F. Draeger

My Sensei – Donn F. Draeger

By Michael P. Belzer

Donn Draeger on the set of “Thunderball”

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.

Michael P. Belzer receiving promotion from Sensei Draeger
Michael P. Belzer with his sensei.
Sensei Draeger demonstrates Iaido.
Donn Draeger with the katana.
Donn Draeger during kenjutsu demo.
Sensei Draeger being uke.
Donn Draeger – Kenjustsu

Later, I obtained Draeger 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. 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 “When he takes off his shirt, you won’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 over power 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!” That put a smile on their faces.

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 is 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 barely 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 to get 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 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 did to him. He said that he liked the waterproof and floatable camera I brought him, but what he really liked were the homemade chocolate chip cookies (from my mom)!

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’s 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 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.

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.

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?”


Donn Draeger Bibliography (Books Only)

written by Mike Belzer Draeger, Donn F. (1972).

Weapons & Fighting Arts of the Indonesian Archipelago. Charles E. Tuttle Co., Inc. 254p.

Draeger, Donn F. (1973).

The Martial Arts & Ways of Japan: Vol. 1, Classical Bujutsu. Weatherhill. New York & Tokyo. 111p

Draeger, Donn F. (1973).

The Martial Arts & Ways of Japan: Vol. II, Classical Budo. Weatherhill. New York & Tokyo. 128p.

Draeger, Donn F. (1974).

The Martial Arts & Ways of Japan: Volume III, Modern Bujutsu & Budo. Weatherhill. New York & Tokyo. 190p.

Draeger, Donn F. (1977).

Ninjutsu: The Art of Invisibility. Lotus Press Limited. Tokyo, Japan. 118p.

Draeger, Donn F. (1980).

Japanese Swordsmanship. Weatherhill. Tokyo & Japan.

Draeger, Donn F. & Ken Tremayne (1965).

The Joke’s On Judo.

Draeger, Donn F. & R.W. Smith. (1969).

Asian Fighting Arts. Kodansha International Ltd. Tokyo, New York & San Francisco. 207p.

Alexander, Howard, Quitin Chambers, & Donn F. Draeger. (1970).

Pentjak-Silat: The Indonesian Fighting Art. Kodansha International Ltd. Tokyo, New York & San Francisco. 143p.

Leong, Cheong Cheng & Donn F. Draeger. (1977).

Phoenix-Eye Fist: A Shaolin Fighting Art of South China. Weatherhill. New York & Tokyo. 170p.

Kiong, Tjoa Khek, Donn F. Draeger & Quintin Chambers. (1976).

Shantung Black Tiger, A Shaolin Fighting Art of North China. Weatherhill. New York & Tokyo. 150p.

Chambers, Quintin & Donn F. Draeger .(1978).

Javanese Silat, The fighting Art of Perisai Diri. Kodansha International Ltd. N.Y., S.F., & Tokyo. 128p.

P’ng, Chye Khin & Donn F. Draeger. (1979).

Shaolin, An Introduction to Lohan Fighting Techniques. Charles E. Tuttle Co. Rutland, Vt. & Tokyo, Japan. 169p.

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Join the Conversation


  1. Mike,

    Thanks again for writing this – I have so many questions and comments, but I’ll start with what is “Kodenkan Jujutsu”? (BTW the only way to spell jujutsu). Is that what they were calling Kodokan Judo back then, or is it something different?

  2. Hi Damian,
    Thank you for publishing my “peak experience” with Donn F. Draeger. I hope it will continue to inspire people to read his books and learn more about him. Perhaps that others who have known him personally, will do the same!

    Kodenkan jujutsu was what we called the style of jujutsu I was learning from from the age of nine years old. The correct term is really Danzan-ryu jujutsu and it was originally taught at “The Kodenkan” (the School of the Ancient Ways). The “Hombu Dojo” was located in Honolulu, HI and the style was created by Seishiro “Henry” Okazaki back in the 1920’s. It is really a Hawaiian Style of goshin (self defense) jujutsu. The name itself refers to the “Sandalwood Mountains” found in Hawaii. The system is an eclectic mix of Yoshin-ryu (the style Okazaki originally learned on the Big Island in Hilo,starting when he was 17 years old. Okazaki was diagnosed with a pulmonary condition ( possibly tuberculosis) and his sensei also treated him with Seifukujutsu (restoration massage) in addition to requiring regular training at the dojo – six days a week. Okazaki said that he “developed a body like iron” from his training and since the study of jujutsu and seifukujutsu had saved his life, he decided to to dedicate his life to the study of all martial and healing arts. Since Hawaii was a melting pot for many Asian cultures, Okazaki had access to teachers of many styles including Okinawa-te, Gung-fu, Filipino Escrima and Hawaiian Lua. Danzan Ryu is an eclectic mix of these arts based on the jujutsu model.

    1. Oh, sure I’m familiar with Danzan Ryu, Carl and I used the syllabus when setting up the jujutsu section of Tekkenryu since it installed the techniques in a progressive manner.

      I’ve heard from others about Donn’s travels that eventually lead to his death due to the poisoning. Those times are of particular interest because I don’t think people realize that he wasn’t going around glad handing people he met.

      He was researching indigenous fighting methods which several times lead to challenge matches.

      Am I correct?

  3. That’s a great article I learned so much just by reading it. It sounds like you had a great experience and developed insight into real martial arts ideas and culture and a growth of personal development. Which I see has help with your progression self-defense as well as life lessons. Thank you for sharing.


  4. This letter is a treasure. Thank you. Looking at you from heaven, I’ll bet Carl is very pleased with you.

  5. Greetings from Kajaani town from Finland. Just awesome story. Thanks for Sharing this article with us.

  6. Great article and sounds like interesting guy.

    The lesson that jumped out at me was the poisoning. How bad ass or skilled do you have to be to poison someone?

    And therein really lies the heart of the matter. Which is that ultimately our opponent is evil. Evil is not honorable. Evil is inherently weak. Therefore evil is inherently sneaky and under handed.

    What self defense techniques work against… poison?

    Knowing your enemy. Because to be poisoned your enemy has to have access to your sustenance. Whether they give it to you as a gift or surreptitiously pollute your own supply.

    Again I say, your only weapon is your mind and everything else is an attachment. Poison is just as effective as a chin jab. But much easier.

    The lesson here is that if you do not understand the nature of evil and of people of low to no character, then all the training in the world will fail you. Wisdom is the ultimate weapon.

    Evil is feminine. Meaning it’s inherently weaker than good. Like women training self defense, evil must rely much more on surprise and deception.

    Not to insult women: a good woman is inherently stronger than an evil man, if she believes so. I’m just making an analogy.

    So, how much fancy eastern and unpronounceable martial arts training do you need to keep from being poisoned?

    In most Cases, I feel that people who obsess with mastering every martial art known to man are secretly motivated by fear and by the desire to become invincible. It’s a position of insecurity. The house built on sand which Jesus spoke of. Could be the most bad ass house ever built. But it’s sitting on sand.

    We’re all human. A twelve year old girl is capable of killing the most bad ass amongst us. With ease under the right circumstances. So humility and honesty and moral correctness and faith in God – not your skills – is your ultimate protection.

    I mean, I have had brief moments of clumsiness carrying in my damn groceries from the car. And I’m quite coordinated and balanced, etc. Your skills mean jack shit in an actual fight. They can’t become the object of your faith. Very dangerous if that it so.

    I had a friend who had a gun stuck in his face and the trigger pulled. The gun didn’t go off. Why? Who knows. Then my friend beat this guy so badly in any other reality the guy should have died. He didn’t. Why? Who knows. So both those guys should be murderers and prison inmates right now.

    The point is that clearly there are principles at work beyond physical skills and physical situations.

    And pride goes before destruction. And the worst Pride is often cloaked in the greatest piety. Just check out any religion. Pride IS your greatest weakness.

    I’m not judging the guy in the article – I’m making a broader point by way of example. You could use Bruce Lee, who was one of my greatest influences, as a similar example. All that skill and training only to die unnaturally or whatever happened, deliberate or accidental.

    You will never achieve god like invincibility. And I really believe that is the driving insecurity behind so many who pursue self defense and martial arts training. Which is also why the they’re so easily deceived by promises of easily defeating 20 roid heads simultaneously, etc.

    Much the way the financially insecure are constantly sucked into financial scams. Orthe overweight into pills and diet scams.

    There is NO substitute for discipline. And discipline without honesty is a delusion. Discipline is first internal. I tell people that I specialize in Ruthless Honesty.

    Physical self defense is fairly simple and can be learned in like two days. Ongoing training really just serves to improve your balance, movement, power and athleticism and coordination. In other words, training is just perfection of fundamentals. There is no magic.

    I can simplify it further to the purpose of training being the practice of maintaining perfect balance in any position.

    This is also true spiritually and mentally. No matter the situation, you must practice maintaining inner balance and peace. Which is rooted in truthful beliefs. Fears are false beliefs. Etc etc.

    So all this from the lesson of poison. Because think of all the training this guy put in only to be taken out by poison. Not at all to disrespect the guy, but a lesson of this magnitude is too critical to ignore.

    A weaker opponent MUST sneak attack you. Think about that. Your actually make you MORE susceptible to MORE dangerous threats, IF you’re not wise to the nature of your enemy.

    The mind is the ONLY weapon and all else is an attachment.

    1. Great stuff Paul – a lot of stuff to comment on, but I’ll stick with one. The pursuit of perfection is just the…pursuit. “Control over one’s self” through discipline and sacrifice to reach a higher form of self, which is better than any food or drug.

      But like all things, it gets perverted, twisted and leveraged.

      Draeger was a seeker of truth and self perfection. A bushi (not that you said anything disparaging agains him – you didn’t). But it was his love of seeking the truth through martial arts.

      You can seek the “truth” through anything. Religion is the obvious, but anything you seek the simplest, most efficient and reasonable execution that enables you to live a better life and be a positive contributor to society through will do the trick.

      And – yes, most of us run the risk of being poisoned…

      However the person being poisoned…usually knows why.

  7. Well…. poisons…. the philosophy of good vs. evil. The waxing of poeticisms of martial truths….. sanders thing though…. you never see guys gabbing about the greater philosophical truths of a firearm, why? Because we all know what a firearm is made for, apparently though too many in the self-defense and martial arts world have forgotten what they were designed for. It wasn’t for greater peace and enlightenment. Why train? If it’s all about ego, why train? Why do any of it, if none of it will make any difference? Why didn’t the gun go bang? Bad primer? Bad firing pin? God intervened? Your right who knows, does it matter? It didn’t go bang. Why didn’t the guy die? Because he didn’t get beat as bad as everyone thought that’s why. But why train if your training means nothing and won’t protect you? It’s all left up to whether God’s paying attention to you in that moment? Talk about ego. Didn’t Jesus say, “Let him who does not have one also go and sell his coat and buy a sword.” So thank you for trying to tell me and everyone else here how useless our studies have been, but I think if I wasn’t supposed to protect the one life I’ve been given the best I can, I wouldn’t have been told to but a weapon to do so. Thank you for your thought though. I’ll file it right where I filed most of the shit I learned from the Jehovah’s Witnesses as a child…. right in the gutter.

    1. Hey Nick – that was a completely different takeaway that I got – and I see your point…”Why bother doing anything if anyone can just take you off the count?”

      I took it to mean – no matter what you do, there’s always a chance anyone can end it all.” Which is true. But at the end of the day it’s about probability – decreasing your chances of exposure and increasing your chances of survival, all the while balancing safety between quality of life.

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