The case of the imaginary sensei

Eager would-be students of jiujitsu in early Edwardian England had limited options to learn the mysterious Japanese art of self defence. During the period 1899-1902 the Bartitsu Club in London’s Shaftesbury Avenue was literally the only jiujitsu school in England. By 1906, however, there were several more dojo operating in the UK, with greater or lesser degrees of legitimacy.

Some seekers (there’s one born every minute) sent away for the correspondence course advertised above, which purported to represent the Kara Ashikaga School of Jiu-jitsu in Liverpool. Not only did this course offer an infallible method of self defence “as taught at the Yoshimosa School in Japan”, but other advertisements promised that the practice of jiujitsu would cure all manner of ailments, including constipation.

The best current evidence suggests that Kara Ashikaga, the stern-looking sensei depicted in the Liverpool school’s magazine ads, did not actually exist. Rather, he was a promotional gimmick devised by the actual proprietor of the correspondence course, an Englishman named Thomas.

There appears to be no evidence that the Yoshimosa School of Jiujitsu ever existed either. The name “Yoshimasa Ashikaga” was, however, featured prominently in Lafcadio Hearn‘s book, “In Ghostly Japan”, first published in England in 1904. It’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that Thomas simply picked out a few names that he liked the sound of and proceeded to sell his customers a bill of goods. Adding insult to injury, the four-volume correspondence course, “Jiu-jitsu the Japanese Method of Attack and Self Defence by the Kara Ashikaga School” was, in fact, a direct plagiarism of “Jiu-Jitsu the Japanese Method of Attack and Self Defense” by Captain H. H. Skinner.

By a strange twist of fate, for a brief time in early 1906, the Ashikaga School did feature instruction by a genuine jiujitsu sensei. Liverpool was the first British port of call of the famous Gunji Koizumi. In Koizumi’s “My Study of Judo” (1960) he mentions having taught jiujitsu at the Kara Ashikaga School.

It’s tempting to imagine a Remington Steele scenario in which Mr. Thomas, having invented a Japanese martial arts master as a figurehead, suddenly and unexpectedly found himself in the position to employ a real one. Sadly, the historical record does not reveal whether Koizumi played along with the charade (although it seems unlikely), nor whether Thomas had to scramble to create an actual dojo at his Electric Building address to accommodate his new instructor and, presumably, paying students. Koizumi, sensibly enough, spent only a short time at the Liverpool school before before travelling south to London, where he collaborated with former Bartitsu Club instructor Sadakazu Uyenishi at his Piccadilly Square dojo.

Caveat emptor

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