By Michael P. 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 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.