Donn Draeger

The Exponent of today’s modern Budo gropes about in a maze of classical traditions that he does not understand, and thus, the cleverest of his kind declare that the classical disciplines must be freed from feudal Japanese and raised to great heights of rational efficiency so as to yield wealth, prestige, and practical use.

Donn Draeger

A historian of the martial arts, Donn Draeger was widely regarded as the foremost authority on many Asian martial arts. He is perhaps one of the most important figures in the development of eastern martial arts in the west. Much younger martial artist may not be aware of his influence on pioneers such as Henri Plee and Dan Ivan. He was a practitioner and teacher of several martial arts. He researched and wrote books on various martial arts, ranging from Karate to Ninjitsu, that provided an introduction to people in the west. His book “Comprehensive Asian Fighting Arts” is still a very popular book today.

Donald Frederick “Donn” Draeger was born to parents Frank and Irma Draeger on 15 April 1922 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, during the Great Depression of 1920s America. His parents eventually separated and remarried.

Around the age of 7 or 8 years, Draeger started learning Jujitsu. He was now living in Chicago with his mother. He soon switched from Jujitsu to Judo. By 1932 he had been promoted to 2nd Kyu.

In 1940 Draeger, aged 17, moved in with his father, Frank and his new wife Dora. Draeger had two half-brothers, on his father’s side and a half-brother on his mother’s side.

Draeger enlisted in the US Marine Corps in 1943. His basic training was at the San Diego Marine Recruiting Base. He was selected to join the Officer Training Regiment, where he trained as a communications officer.

In 1944, at the height of World War II Draeger was deployed to the Pacific arena, where it is thought that he saw action at the Battle of Iwo Jima.

In April 1945 Draeger was transferred to the 3rd Amphibious Corps, as they were preparing for their planned invasion of Japan. The Corps was deployed to North China in August, to accept the surrender of the Japanese soldiers. After he finished his deployment with the 3rd Amphibious Corps, he was transferred to a signal unit based in Tianjin, China, in October.

Draeger returned to the United States in February 1946. He had various assignments in the states of Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin.

In January 194 7 Draeger was reassigned to Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. Around this time he was promoted to the rank of captain and placed in charge of a company.

At Camp Lejeune, Draeger ran the base’s Judo club and was the main instructor. In 1948 he was promoted to the rank of 4th Dan. He also trained at the Judo club of Johnny Osako, in Chicago.

On 18 June 194 9 Draeger was married in Bluefield, West Virginia. Even though he and his wife had two sons, the couple divorced in 1951.

In the summer of 1951, Drager was deployed to the Korean city of Hongcheon, where he served as a signal officer in the 1st Marine Division. The following year he was reassigned to Marine Corps Headquarters.

Draeger established the Judo Black Belt Association in 1952. The association would eventually become the United States Judo Federation. This was the first national Judo organisation in the United States.

On 30 June 1956 Draeger left the Marine Corps. He held the rank of lieutenant. He attended Georgetown University in Washington DC. However, he moved to Japan, where he continued his studies at Sophia University.

While in Japan Draeger lived in the Ichigaya district of Tokyo. Westerners visiting Tokyo would sometimes stay and train with him at the house. In his book “Moving Zen: Karate as a Way of Gentleness“, Shotokan practitioner C. W. Nichol described his stay at the house. At the time Nichol was training at the JKA Hombu. Other martial artists such as Steve Arneil and Jon Bluming passed through the house.

In 1959 Draeger was awarded a BSC from Sofia University.

Draeger had become one of the top foreign judokas practising in Japan. In 1961 alongside Englishman John Cornish, he was selected to demonstrate techniques at the All-Japan Judo Championships. They became the first non-Japanese to be given the honour of doing this.

With the 1964 Olympics taking place in Tokyo, Draeger was named the United States Amateur Athletic Union Judo representative in Japan.

By 1963 Drager had started exploring other martial arts such as Karate, Kendo, and Iaido. When Draeger had been stationed in Japan, he crossed paths with Dan Ivan, who was also serving in Japan. Draeger introduced Ivan to Shito-Ryu legend Fumio Demura. Demura started teaching Ivan Karate at Draeger’s Ichigaya home.

1963 also saw Draeger co-author a six-book Practical Karate series with Masatoshi Nakayama of the JKA. The books were written to showcase the self-defence aspect of Karate in real-world situations, for a western audience. The books featuring the likes of Hiroshi Shoji, C.W. Nicol and William Fuller acting as the attackers in the book.

In December 1963 Draeger travelled to France for a Judo competition it was around this time that he met Henri Plee. Plee had been practising a martial art he thought was Karate. However, Draeger informed him that he was practising a form of French Boxing. He provided Plee with footage of a Karate demonstration given in front of General MacArthur. He later provided Plee with a 15 min 42-sec film showing Shotokan Karate training. The film featured Isao Obata and Masatoshi Nakayama performing various techniques. These films changed the course of Plee’s training and in so doing, European Karate.

Draeger began travelling around Asia in 1966, with a group of other martial artists. The aim of the trip was to research different martial arts. He visited Malaysia, The Philippines, Indonesia, Australia, and New Zealand.

In 1967 Draeger doubled for actor Sean Connery in the film “You Only Live Twice“. The film was shot on location in Japan. Draeger and foreigners staying with him would sometimes be cast by Japanese producers looking for foreign extras to appear in their films.

Draeger became the first foreigner to be allowed into the Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto Ryu school. The school was one of the oldest martial arts schools in Japan. It taught various weapons arts including the sword, the staff and the spear. The school also taught several forms of Jujitsu.

1969 saw the publication of Draeger’s book, “Asian Fighting Arts“, co-authored with Robert W. Smith. Both men spent a lot of time researching various martial arts and through their shared interest formed a close friendship.

From 1973 to 1974 Draeger had several books and articles published, which showcased Japanese martial arts. These included:

  • Classical Bujutsu: Martial Arts And Ways of Japan, Vol I (1973)
  • Classical Budo: Martial Arts And Ways of Japan, Vol II (1973)
  • Modern Bujutsu & Budo: Martial Arts And Ways of Japan, Vol III (1974)

In the 1970s, after more than 25 years of practice, Draeger became disillusioned with the direction Judo was taking. He felt the art had moved away from the ideals of Judo founder, Jigoro Kano.

For the next couple of years, Draeger travelled around Asia for four months at a time. He spent time researching various martial arts and combat systems in the countries visited. He spent time living in Japan, China, Mongolia, Korea, Malaysia, and Indonesia.

In 1979 Draeger and a group of martial artists, visited the island of Sumatra, Indonesia. They were there to learn the fighting arts of the Aceh tribe. It is thought that during their visit the group were poisoned. Draeger was hospitalised after developing amoebic dysentery as a result of the poisoning.

Draeger’s 1969 book, “Asian Fighting Arts” was re-published in 1980. It was renamed “Comprehensive Fighting Arts“.

Following the poisoning, Draeger’s health never recovered. He gradually grew weaker and lost a lot of weight. As time progressed he found it difficult to walk or do any form of train. During the visit to Tripler Army Hospital, Honolulu, Hawaii, where he was being treated, it was discovered that he had developed liver cancer.

On 20 October 1982, Donald Frederick “Donn” Draeger died from cancer at the Veteran’s Hospital located in Milwaukee. He was buried five days later at the Wood National Cemetery, in Milwaukee. Unfortunately, his death attracted very little attention. Many people did not even know he had returned to the United States.

Almost sixteen years after his burial, a delegation arrived from Japan to pay their respects at Draeger’s graveside. The delegation comprised of eight martial artists led by Tsnuemori Kaminoda, a high ranking instructor. The party consisted of both American and Japanese martial artists. One of the martial artist had discovered purely by accident that Draeger was buried close to where he trained.

Donn Draeger can be considered one of the greatest pioneers of Asian martial arts in the west, through his books and articles. He made these arts accessible to a western audience who had had very little knowledge about them. He was held in high regard by the Japanese. He became the first non-Japanese instructor at the famed Kodokan, the home of Japanese Judo.

Draeger was at one point the Director of the International Hopology Society based in Tokyo. Hopology is the study of the development and evolution of human combative systems and behaviour.

Having knowledge of several martial arts, Draeger was considered by many to be ahead of his time, especially in his approach to training.

Author: Patrick Donkor

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