The Mysteries of the Embok Kwai (1900-1902)

… he was initiated into the Order of the Embok Kwai, the sole purpose of which is to teach, perpetuate and protect the secrets of jiu-jitsu.

The Philadelphia Inquirer, 1st June 1902

Although misfortunes had punctuated E.W. Barton-Wright’s early efforts to establish Bartitsu in London, his lectures and demonstrations had successfully conjured a general curiousity about the Japanese martial arts. By the time his three Japanese “champions” stepped off the steamer in September of the year 1900, the British press and public were eager to witness jiujitsu as performed in earnest and by experts.

After a short series of academic displays, the stage was set for their grand debut at the Alhambra music hall, which was scheduled for the last week of October.  At the eleventh hour, however, misfortune struck again, as the two most senior jiujitsuka – Kaneo Tani and Seizo Yamamoto – abruptly refused to take part.  This decision left their eager would-be audiences disappointed and confused, also causing no small amount of public embarrassment to Barton-Wright and Alhambra manager C. Dundas Slater.

Primed by over a year’s worth of Barton-Wright’s hinting about the wizardry of Japanese close-combat, London’s sporting journalists succumbed to a fever of speculation as to why the promised show had not taken place.  Barton-Wright was prevailed upon to explain, and so he did, to the effect that the jiujitsu men belonged to a society whose code of honour forbade the public performance of their art for commercial gain.

Barton-Wright insisted that he had instructed his agent in Japan to explain his expectations to the jiujitsuka before they set sail, but apparently the agent had not done so.  The two senior wrestlers had, therefore, not realised what a London music hall performance would entail until they’d arrived at the Alhambra.

Worse still, they had now decided to leave England altogether.  The only silver lining was that the youngest wrestler – 19 year old Yukio Tani, Kaneo’s kid brother – had confirmed that he’d be happy to remain and to compete on the stage as required.  The promised display, therefore, would have to be delayed again until a suitably skilled and amenable sparring partner could be imported from the Land of the Rising Sun.

This was the “official” story as published in various newspapers.  An anonymous journalist from the London Daily Mail, however, had a slightly more colourful take on the situation.  His report included several unique details, most notably references to a mysterious organisation called the “Embok Kwai”:

So – what was this Embok Kwai?

The phrase is as meaningless in Japanese as it is in English, but to be fair, there was no standard system of spelling Japanese words via European alphabets circa 1900, so writers were left to do as best as they could with phonetics. The context, however, clearly indicates that the journalist believed Embok Kwai to be the name of the honour-bound martial arts society that Barton-Wright had alluded to.

It is known that Professor Jigoro Kano’s martial arts institute, the Kodokan – which may well have had some hand in choosing the Japanese fighters and in arranging their travel to England – disapproved of professionalism in sports.  A large part of Professor Kano’s mission was to refine traditional Japanese martial arts into a respectable, codified method of physical and spiritual education.  Although he would have had no direct experience of London music halls, it’s very unlikely that he would have considered the rowdy, rough-and-tumble Alhambra to be a suitable venue for jiujitsu contests.

There seems to be no record of Barton-Wright referring to Kano’s institute by any name during this period.  Allowing that he may have spoken it in passing, though, it’s possible that the Daily Mail reporter garbled “Kodokan” into “Embok Kwai”; similarly, several papers had rendered Kano’s first name as “Jiyataro” rather than “Jigoro” and mispellings of “Bartitsu” were very common. It’s also conceivable that Barton-Wright or one of the jiujitsuka had used the Japanese word embukai, which means a public demonstration – that word is still used to describe displays of jiujitsu and other martial arts – and that the journalist confused the meanings of two different terms.

A few months after the Daily Mail ran its Embok Kwai article, 20 year old Sadakazu Uyenishi arrived in London from Japan.  Together with Tani, Barton-Wright, savate and canne master Pierre Vigny and wrestler Armand Cherpillod, they put Bartitsu firmly on the cultural map, and thereafter no more was heard in England of Embok Kwai.

In the United States, on the other hand …

During April of 1901, an anonymous short story variously titled “Did He Kiss Her?” and “A Fight Over Catullus” was published in several American newspapers.  The tale concerns the escalating rivalry between two men – the studious Norton and the strenuous Sterling – who first come to blows as university students, over a disagreement about the affections of a young lady and (ostensibly) about the value of the writings of the Roman poet Catullus.

Over the course of the next five decades, Norton and Sterling obsessively train in increasingly diverse and exotic fighting skills in order to get the better of each other via a series of ferocious unarmed combats that take place whenever and wherever they meet.  Incidentally, if this premise sounds familiar, you may well be thinking of Ridley Scott’s 1977 cinematic masterpiece “The Duellists”, which was itself based on Joseph Conrad’s 1908 novel “The Duel: A Military Story”.  It’s tempting to speculate that Conrad may even have been inspired by the fictional rivalry between Norton and Sterling.

At one point we learn that Norton (by then a physician of some reknown as well as a highly trained and seasoned brawler) has ended up in “Yeddo” (Edo, i.e. Tokyo), Japan:

Clearly, the unknown author of “Did He Kiss Her?”/”A Fight Over Catullus” had chanced to read the London Daily Mail article from the previous year and incorporated the Embok Kwai motif into his story verbatim.

About a year later, during March of 1902, the short story received a second round of publications via US newspapers.  Very shortly thereafter, the Embok Kwai saga took another strange turn, this time involving none other than President Theodore Roosevelt:

We may never know how the Embok Kwai became embroidered into John J. O’Brien’s personal myth, though it’s entirely possible that a mischievous journalist or promoter may have simply decided to spice the story.  The best evidence is that O’Brien actually did learn jiujitsu from officers of the Nagasaki police force, but they most definitely weren’t members of the Embok Kwai Society, whose progression from garbled Japanese/English transliteration into outright fiction and then back into reported “truth” serves as an object lesson in misinformation.

In any case, O’Brien’s association with the President gained him some degree of notoriety via the newspapers, ensuring that the legend of the Embok Kwai would be passed down to the present generation.

What we may choose to do with it, only time can tell …

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