Warrior Dreams: The Martial Arts and the American Imagination

Warrior Dreams: The Martial Arts and the American Imagination

Warrior Dreams: The Martial Arts and the American Imagination

Warrior Dreams: The Martial Arts and the American Imagination


This is an analysis of the martial arts as socio-cultural and symbolic phenomena. As Americans search for a sense of purpose, belonging, and structure in life, they have chosen an Asian cultural tradition and changed it to suit the needs of contemporary American society. A brief historical summary of the development of martial arts in Japan sets the scene for the reinterpretation of the role of these arts by American mass media. Donohue, an anthropologist with a black belt in karate, explores the important role that the martial arts play in the American psyche. As a means of developing personal power, self-defense systems are aesthetic and spiritual practices as well as statements of urban paranoia reacting against street violence and life-threatening situations. Martial arts organizations are seen as symbolic vehicles for enmeshing participants in constellations of actions and philosophies that create a sense of self and community.


All human beings search for meaning; it is, at best, a difficult task. Anthropologists take this propensity to new and complicated heights: they search for meaning in other peoples' lives in the hope of illuminating their own. The search for meaning, the need to be a receiver of messages transmitted by other humans, has traditionally taken ethnographers to new and strange places and alien peoples. As the pace of change accelerates in the closing years of this century, however, fewer and fewer of the exotic locales remain, and anthropologists are thrown back upon their own places and times to see whether their discipline is truly illuminative, whether the insights generated in far-off lands seem as cogent close to home.

Can an anthropologist approach his or her own society and help make sense of it? In the terra incognita of our own myths, stories, and dreams, can the ethnographer serve as guide? Can, in short, the interpretive dimension of anthropology be fruitfully employed to illuminate some of the darker, less explored regions of our own territory?

These are tough questions for an academic discipline barely a century old. For the individual scholar struggling with the host of personal limitations all humans possess it is even tougher. It is one thing to offer up an analysis of some remote people or custom, since the cogency or accuracy of the analysis is not immediately subject to widespread scrutiny. To attempt to conduct an ethnological study of one's own culture, however, is to make the limitations of both one's discipline and one's intellect breathtakingly and vividly apparent.

It is, nonetheless, an attempt that should be made. Anthropologists lament the lack of familiarity with their discipline on the part of the general public. This is, to a certain extent, a function of the fact that people in general have a difficult enough time of it figuring out their own lives without . . .

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