Amateur Boxing in Pre-World War II Japan: The Military Connection

by Joseph R. Svinth
Copyright © 2000 All rights reserved.

Journal of Non-lethal Combatives, January 2000

In the February 1922 edition of The Ring, Nat Fleischer wrote that before World War I:

It was not easy to speak more than just a kind word for the game [of boxing]. It was classed as brutal, as debasing, followed only by the rough, the uncultured, the vicious. It was no easy task to dispel this vision of boxing, and it is likely that the game would long have felt this unjust stigma but for a concurrence of events that in bold strokes wiped away for all time this stain.
Then, said Fleischer, along came the World War, in which boxing proved "the greatest foundation a military machine could have had. It worked two-fold -- it provided the physical development sought and mental relaxation, both of prime necessity in the case at hand." Furthermore -- and here he exaggerated mightily -- Fleischer said that boxing had been baptized in blood at Cambrai and the Marne when the American soldiers threw "aside the cumbersome rifle, the unwieldy bayonet, struck out with their fists and never missed a target aimed at, nor ever failed to drop the target."

Although Japanese officers never had any intention of doing anything so stupid as encouraging their soldiers to throw away their rifles during combat, the theory that boxing turned civilians into fighting men intrigued the Japanese general staff enough to send observers to watch US and British recruit training. As the Japanese paper Yomiuri said in March 1919:

During the war no people demonstrated so well as the English the truth that healthy spirit and lofty aspirations live in sound bodies.

The paper thinks this country must take lessons from the British, who not satisfied with the hoarding of wealth would ensure the physical robustness of the nation.

So, toward learning the truth about boxing the Toyama Military Academy in Tokyo organized a class during the winter of 1923-1924.

There are different accounts about how this came about. According to an article published in Readers Digest in January 1943 the Japanese Ministry of War asked a US Army military attaché named Warren J. Clear to demonstrate the value of military boxing. Captain Clear agreed, and thereupon began training with a friend from the embassy named John E. Tynan. Due to Japanese insistence, the planned demonstration turned into a boxing-versus-jujutsu match of the kind popular in Yokohama and other Japanese seaports of the day. In the end Clear won the fight by knockout. Reasons included luck (dazed after being thrown hard, Clear was saved by the bell), the fact that he was not wearing a judo jacket (thus preventing many chokes), and most of all, his opponent, a jujutsuka named Kitamura, was grossly overconfident.

Warren J. Clear, Japan Times, 20 Dec 1924

But in 1943 the United States was at war with Japan, and the reality of Clear's match in Tokyo was probably less sanguinary than the account published in Readers Digest, and surely less sanguinary than the version that appeared in the 1943 RKO film called Behind the Rising Sun. According to the Japan Times, Japanese officials, various US diplomats, and their staffs gathered at the Toyama Military Academy at 3:00 p.m. on Saturday, May 17, 1924, to watch a military boxing exhibition led by Captain Clear.

Clear had begun his military career in 1917. While still a student at Boston College, he had enlisted at New York's Plattsburg Barracks, and on November 10, 1917 he accepted a commission as a provisional Second Lieutenant of Infantry. Following wartime service at Madison Barracks, New York, he was transferred to the 22nd Infantry Division, which at the time was based at Fort Jay, New York. From there he was assigned to Tientsin, sailing from the US in May 1919. While in China Lieutenant Clear was assigned to the 14th Infantry and Chinese people he met apparently included the young Mao Zedong.

Four years later Clear, now a captain, was reassigned to the US Embassy in Tokyo. There he arranged to teach boxing to Japanese officer candidates in exchange for permission to accompany Japanese soldiers on maneuvers. As for his treatment by the officer candidates and their supervisors, in December 1924 Clear wrote in the Japan Times that they were "all good sportsmen, absolutely fair and not afraid of punishments." So probably the Readers Digest account contained more than a touch of wartime hysteria.

One thing both versions of the story agreed upon was that the Japanese soldiers had a degree of confidence that bordered on hubris. As Clear wrote in December 1924:

The best little 120-pounder was not content with being the best man in his class. He was actually chagrined and mortified when he couldn't defeat the 175-pound champion and so be king-pin of them all. The best pupil of the lot left the class after ten lessons and opened a boxing-academy! [FN1]
Be that as it may, it is probably safest to conclude that the Toyama Military Academy began to incorporate boxing into its physical training program during the winter of 1923-1924 and that Clear and other American soldiers were the instructors. [FN2]

Toyama Ryu Boxing

The program was evidently successful, too, as boxing was subsequently encouraged in Japanese military academies and colleges. Renaming the sport was essential, however, to ensure its acceptance as a proper Japanese sport. The name it got was kento, or "Good Fighting." In February 1931 boxing promoter Yujiro Watanabe explained the reasoning for this decision to reporters from the Japan Times. "The game which was introduced in the market ten years ago," he said, "it was not a genuine one and it was a mixed up game of boxing versus jujitsu. Japanese thought the boxing game is made for 'judo' and all the foreigners are champion boxers, especially the Americans. Therefore the boxing was called 'merikan' in those times instead of 'kentow', which we name the game now."

Watanabe also told the reporter that boxing was well suited to developing Japanese he-men. First, he said, the sport classified boxers according to weight. Thus stature was irrelevant and everyone got to compete equally. Second, participation built character by encouraging participants to do their best. But most importantly, said Watanabe, if the Japanese were to compete internationally, then "boxing is the best medium, for it is a universal sport today. Its progress after the World War has been astonishing."

Ironically, the "he-men" developed by Japanese collegiate boxing were as often Korean as Japanese. The first Korean champions to be mentioned by name in Japan Times appear to have been Ko of Meiji, Ko of Nihon University, and Jo of the Nihon Boxing Club, all of whom won matches in the Meiji Jingu Games of November 1929. It is possible that Jo was Teiken Jo, who was later ranked sixth in the world. [FN3]

The reason was that most Japanese boys who liked combative sports liked judo and kendo better than boxing. [FN4] Furthermore, when the Japanese schoolboys did box, it was often politely. For example, in February 1931 Kari Yado wrote in the Japan Times that during bouts between Japanese students, whenever one "delivered a hard blow, he would apologize by bowing his head slightly or by showing a friendly look in his eyes. There was no knockout in those days. When a boxer began bleeding in his nose, a cry of horror went up [Promoter Yujiro] Watanabe had a hard time explaining to the student boxers that they need not and should not refrain from hitting a groggy opponent. 'You must cultivate the spirit of manliness,' he roared."

Koreans, though, were subject to all kinds of discrimination and therefore found boxing clubs good places to safely and happily punch Japanese in the nose.

Regardless of ethnicity, the first exposure most Asians had to boxing was Hollywood films in which, as Japan Times put it, "the hero knocks men right and left." During the early 1920s, these films were popular throughout the Japanese Empire. Jack Dempsey's Fight and Win, for example, played in Tokyo from late 1924 until the middle of 1925. The Boxing Blade's Mike Collins wrote of this film: "Dempsey was a fellow who had done a little fighting but had quit the game and now was doing hard common labor. The world's champion, who was Ed Kennedy, arrived in town, and as usual with a champion, he was looking for soft opponents At the same time Dempsey's mother got very sick." Similar films starring Reginald Denny and William Russell were also popular. An advertisement for Denny's Fighting Blood series described the films as "the biggest treat in the world for anybody who can get a kick out of a real 'go' between HE-MEN." "The hero of these wonderfully human stories is a lowly soda jerker," added an article in the same January 1923 issue of The Ring, "who becomes overnight a champion of the prize ring!" In other words, in plot and character development they were not quite as sophisticated as Rocky or The Karate Kid.

In the real world, an intercollegiate tournament held at Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo's Kudan district on November 15, 1925 pitted boxers from Waseda University against boxers from Meiji University. Although "most of the student boxers failed to counter properly," said the Japan Times, "they are fast, clever, and game, and ought to be good boxers if they continue practicing."

In the lightweight finals, continued the paper, Waseda's "Sugino carried dream-producing power, the consequence being that Ishikawa at the end of that [tie-breaking fourth] round was minus one tooth. He showed gameness to fight but was so groggy that his opponent hesitated to hit him any more, and the referee stopped the fight." The fans, however, were not impressed, yelling, "Finish 'em, kill 'em. Fight for Meiji. Fight for Keio."

On May 1, 1926, another large amateur boxing tournament was held at the sumo grounds at the Yasukuni Shrine. This match coincided with the annual sumo tournament and was to feature collegiate boxers from across the country. The main event featured 18-year old Kaneo Nakamura, bantamweight, versus 21-year old Kazuo Takahashi, featherweight. Nakamura, said Japan Times, "uses his left with good effect while Takahashi is noted for his wicked right cross." Both men later boxed professionally in the United States, where Nakamura became moderately successful.

A month later, Meiji and Waseda Universities held another intercollegiate fight. About twenty fighters were scheduled for the preliminaries, held in Tokyo on Saturday, June 5, 1926. Although I do not know the results of these bouts, they nonetheless influenced Hawaiian boxing. "When I was in Japan last year," Honolulu's K. Oki told the Hawaiian sportswriter Don Watson in April 1927, "I noticed that many of the young boys were taking up boxing In fact several smokers were staged while I was there and they all drew big crowds. The Japanese like any competition between individuals and that is the reason they are taking up boxing." As a result Oki, a leader of the Asahi baseball organization in Honolulu, began promoting boxing among Hawaiian Nisei.

With so many colleges having boxing teams there was soon a clamor for a national amateur boxing association. The reason, said Japan Times, was that "the existence of small organizations, each pursuing its own course without effective co-operation between the different bodies, and without any feeling of rivalry, is retarding the development of the American pastime in this country." A national organization also would allow Japanese boxers to subsequently enter international competition such as the Far Eastern Championship Games and the Olympics. The leaders of this organization, which was formed in 1927, was Yujiro Watanabe and Ryusei Kato. Soon after, American-style boxing was added to the list of athletic events featured in the Meiji Jingu Athletic Games, and by extension an official Imperial Japanese combative sport.

FOOTNOTES (click your back button to return to the text

FN1. This was likely Sassa Ryo, whom the Japan Times (February 17, 1928, page 8), described as a "veteran soldier fighter."

FN2. To continue the story, Clear was reassigned to Washington, DC, in 1930, where he continued to serve as what was then called a language officer and what would now be called an intelligence officer. In 1935 he was reassigned to the Presidio in San Francisco, again as a language officer. During the spring of 1941 the 45-year old lieutenant colonel was sent on an intelligence gathering mission to Asia, and on December 1, 1941 he sent notice of Japanese plans to attack Hawai'i, Guam, and the Philippines to Washington, information that was ignored because President Roosevelt wanted an excuse to enter the war against Germany. The outbreak of hostilities found Clear in Manila, where he served on MacArthur's staff until being evacuated by submarine to Australia in early 1942. He then spent the rest of the war teaching classes on the Japanese Army to officers at the US Army Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Following World War II Clear retired from the Army at the grade of colonel. Outspoken in his opposition to the war in Vietnam, he died in Carmel, California on March 17, 1980. Published sources of information about Clear include Warren J. Clear, "Close-Up of the Jap Fighting Man," Readers Digest, 41 (November 1942), 124-130; Japan Times, May 16, 1924, 5; Japan Times, December 20, 1924, 8; John Thompson, "Colonel Warren Clear's Mysterious Mission in 1968," Freedom of Speech, 3:3 (1993), 12, 28; John E. Tynan, "Yank Meets Jap in Fight to Finish," Readers Digest, 42 (January 1943), 18-23.

FN3. For more on this, see Joseph R. Svinth, "'Fighting Spirit': Korean Boxers in the United States, 1926-1945." Occasional Papers, a publication of the Korean American Historical Society, 4 (1999), 111-132.

FN4. For a detailed listing of the sports Japanese college athletes played, see Japan Times, February 3, 1929, 8.

Warren J. Clear photo credit: Japan Times, 20 Dec 1924

JNC Jan 2000