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 …

“How the East Entertains Us” (The Tatler, October 16, 1901)

If India has not charmed us histrionically, we have to thank Japan for Sada Yacco and several eastern countries for all sorts of entertaining varieties. The Japanese wrestlers now appearing at the Empire are not only illustrating Japanese arts of self-defence, but exhibit a scheme of self-defence designed by Mr. Barton-Wright, who presents and organised the performance. This defence is said to secure immunity from every form of attack to which the unsuspecting traveller in strange or familiar lands may be subjected.

Armed with the necessary knowledge he may go at his ease through streets where the Hooligan flourishes in the outskirts of London, through Montmartre and La Villette in Paris, through the Delicias of Madrid, and the slums where-from Rome looks out towards the Campagna and Stamboul sees the Golden Horn. Mr. Barton-Wright, himself a traveller in many lands, has picked up what he deemed best of every method of self-defence and worked his collection into a comprehensive system that he explains to members of his own club in Shaftesbury Avenue.

In Japan, whence the wrestlers now appearing at the Empire come, all the police are trained in the arts of self-defence and wrestling so that they can deal in short, sharp, effective manner with disturbers of the peace. I have seen a trained wrestler, who knows all that the West of England can teach him, a man standing six feet and two or three inches in his stockings and muscular as Goliath of Gath, floored by a little Japanese instructor of police who came up to his chest. The big man had no chance.

Mr. Barton Wright’s scheme of defence provides against an attack by a man with a knife, and the only way to get rid of a master of the scheme is to shoot him at long range with a rifle. I don’t think the system protects him against that. For the rest, it is an ingenious and genuine method and comes at a fortunate hour when people want to improve their physique.

“Why not invent an English art of Ju-jitsu?” (1905)

The following anonymous letter to the editor was originally published in the St. James’s Gazette of March 9th, 1905.

Sir, —Jujitsu seems to be the fashionable graven image of the moment before which the whole athletic world is bowing down. English wrestling is abasing itself before this foreign god nightly at the Lyceum Theatre, where the best of our English wrestlers are being used for dusting scenery and wiping the floor.

Is it, or is it not, a fact, that all the holds and tricks which the Ju-jitsu experts beat our wrestlers, and compel them to hammer the floor in agonised token of defeat, should properly be called “fouls”? English wrestling knows nothing of these tricks; but it is not hard to imagine that English wrestlers could invent a few that would have the same effect on Japanese wrestlers as Ju-jitsu has on English experts.

The Jap gets a twist on the Englishman’s arm of a sort that gives intense pain, and would result in a fracture if the victim did not at once give in. Why not invent an English art of Ju-jitsu which might include such holds as, say, seizing the opponent’s ear in the teeth, or thrusting the fist in his mouth and retaining it there; sitting firmly on the face, or pressing tightly on the wind-pipe with the knee? A little imagination will supply no end of victory-compelling holds.

I don’t know, but a sort of patriotic pride makes me wonder how the Ju-jitsu experts would shine in a wrestling contest according to English rules— all “fouls,” English or foreign, barred.

Defence a la Walking Stick (The Tatler, December 4 1901)

The president of the Bartitsu Club (that most interesting school of self-defence in all its forms, which is located in Shaftesbury Avenue) has taken up the cudgels in favour of Professor Vigny, who teaches the beautiful and useful mysteries of la canne, or walking-stick, defence and la savate at the club in question.

Professor Vigny has already challenged his Parisian rival, Professor Charlemont, several times but without result. Charlemont refuses to fight anywhere but in Paris, no doubt not wishing to add the horrors of a Channel crossing to the possibilities of defeat.

Mr. Barton-Wright, the president and founder of the Bartitsu Club, has now thrown down the glove for Vigny and challenges Charlemont in his name to an encounter of la boxe francaise (a combination of English boxing and savate for the title of world’s champion and the stakes he may choose to name, the match to take place either in England or in some neutral country.

It would be an extremely interesting event could it be brought off but it is thought probable that Charlemont will still prefer his role of “masterly inactivity.” One is irresistibly reminded of the lions in Bombastes Furioso: “And the last lion thought the first a Bore!”

“Self-Defence with a Bicycle” video from the 2017 Dreynevent

A humourous and enlightening demonstration of Self-Defence with a Bicycle, animating the lessons of Marcus Tindal’s eccentric 1901 Pearson’s Magazine article. The demo took place at the recent Dreynevent historical European martial arts workshops in Vienna.

” … the misspelled wrestle Doyle called baritsu”: “Sherlock” writer Mark Gatiss replies in verse to criticism of “The Six Thatchers” fight scene

In response to the newest Sherlock adventure, The Six Thatchers, TV critic Ralph Jones wrote an opinion piece titled Sherlock is slowly and perversely morphing into Bond. This cannot stand. The elaborate fight scene between Sherlock Holmes and the assassin known only as Ayjay was cited as an example of Holmes’ undesirable transmogrification into an “action figure”.

Now Sherlock writer/actor/co-creator Mark Gatiss has followed in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s footsteps by replying to a critic in verse, playfully underlining the fact that the Sherlock Holmes canon includes numerous action scenes:

Here is a critic who says with low blow
Sherlock’s no brain-box but become double-O.
Says the Baker St. boy is no man of action –
whilst ignoring the stories that could have put him in traction.

The Solitary Cyclist sees boxing on show,
The Gloria Scott and The Sign of the Fo’
The Empty House too sees a mention, in time, of Mathews,
who knocked out poor Sherlock’s canine.

As for arts martial, there’s surely a clue
in the misspelled wrestle Doyle called baritsu.
In hurling Moriarty over the torrent
did Sherlock find violence strange and abhorrent?

In shooting down pygmies and Hounds from hell
Did Sherlock on Victorian niceties dwell?
When Gruner’s men got him was Holmes quite compliant
Or did he give good account for The Illustrious Client?

There’s no need to invoke in yarns that still thrill,
Her Majesty’s Secret Servant with licence to kill
From Rathbone through Brett to Cumberbatch dandy
With his fists Mr Holmes has always been handy.



Captain Hutton demonstrates Pierre Vigny’s walking stick defence (London Daily Telegraph, Nov. 20, 1901)

Captain Alfred Hutton was a member of the Bartitsu Club committee and also taught fencing at the Club.  E.W. Barton-Wright encouraged his instructors to learn from each other and Hutton did so enthusiastically, studying jiujitsu with Yukio Tani and Sadakazu Uyenishi and also walking stick defence with Pierre Vigny.

In November of 1901 Hutton was interviewed by a reporter from the Daily Telegraph.  After a discussion of historical fencing techniques and a typically robust critique of the fencing instruction offered by the British army, Hutton addressed and briefly demonstrated the Vigny method to the bemused journalist.

This image is adapted, for purposes of illustration, from Hutton’s chapter on fencing with the Great Stick from “Cold Steel” (1889).

(…) And in a moment the Captain was holding a walking-stick in such a threatening manner that the interview seemed likely to come to an abrupt end.

“You see,” he went on, smiling, “the thing has far more possibilities than you might imagine.  Walking-stick play, as taught by M. Vigny, for instance, is an extremely useful bit of knowledge.  Now try and hit me on the head.”

We tried. As soon as the coals had been picked out of our hair, and the lower portion of our waistcoat had been removed from our collar, the captain cheerfully resumed:

“If you are mobbed, you observe, the great thing is never to raise your hand to strike. Always keep it low. Hold your stick at each end, and thrust the first man on the Mark, the second in the throat, clear a circle round you rapidly, and . . . .”

But the audience had fled. It is not a healthy thing to pretend to be a mob when Captain Hutton displays “a little of the art of self-defence,” and it was to a prostrate form upon a sofa that the captain addressed his last remarks.

Interestingly, Hutton’s description of stick defence vs. a group of attackers is almost a verbatim representation of “How to Use a Walking-Stick as a Weapon in a Crowd”, the fourth sequence in part II of Barton-Wright’s 1901 article on stick defence for Pearson’s Magazine.  The sequence is included below for comparison.