Until the 1940s the martial art most commonly practised in New Zealand was jiu-jitsu, a Japanese style of grappling, throwing and wrestling. Jiu-jitsu appeared first on the popular entertainment circuit in the early 20th century, with the first recorded display at J. M. W. Harrison’s Gymnasium and School of Physical Culture in Wellington on 2 November 1904. In 1905 Fitzgerald’s Circus, touring from Australia, included six Japanese jiu-jitsu experts who thrilled the crowds with their exotic rituals and styles of wrestling. Between 1906 and 1914 Japanese jiu-jitsu experts toured the country. They gave demonstrations and competed with local wrestlers in bouts that combined wrestling and jiu-jitsu. Other Wellington gymnasiums offering jiu-jitsu in the early 1900s were Garlick’s School of Physical Culture and the Belvedere Club.
Harold Kunioka, Kiyo Kameda and Ryugoro Fukushima (Ray Shima) were part of touring Japanese jiu-jitsu groups in the early 20th century, and settled in New Zealand. In the 1930s in Christchurch Shima taught wrestling and judo. His gym became an important base for the development of martial arts in Canterbury in the 1950s.
Jiu-jitsu was a popular form of self-defence, especially among young women. From 1910 the Girl Peace Scouts learned hand and wrist locks, along with basic grappling techniques and throws. In 1915 British showman and soldier Captain Leopold McLaglen instructed New Zealand soldiers in new forms of bayonet fighting that incorporated jiu-jitsu throws. Flossie Le Mar took her brand of jiu-jitsu and vaudeville to the stage in 1911. Along with her husband, champion wrestler and jiu-jitsu exponent Joe Gardiner, Flossie performed ‘The hooligan and the lady’. This novelty show – also published as a booklet – showed how it was possible for ‘a maid to bash a ruffian’.1
It is debatable how authentic these forms of jiu-jitsu were, since few Europeans had access to Japanese instructors.
Second World War
From the 1940s greater exposure to Asian cultures brought more martial arts to the notice of Western societies, including New Zealand. Soldiers based in Japan after the Second World War learned judo (a style based on grappling, wrestling and throwing) from Japanese practitioners. Other servicemen returned home having seen martial-arts demonstrations or met exponents.
Jiu-jitsu for health
Health and fitness were considered important in the early 20th century, and jiu-jitsu was seen as one path to physical wellbeing. Physical culture exponent Harry Baldock began teaching jiu-jitsu and self-defence in 1927 and in 1932 opened the Baldock Institute in Dunedin, a gym specialising in wrestling, jiu-jitsu and weightlifting. During the Second World War Baldock gave instruction in unarmed combat to military recruits. He continued to teach self-defence until the 1980s.
Growth of judo
Judo was the first martial-arts style to become established in New Zealand with clubs and trained teachers. The first club opened in Auckland in 1948. Clubs were started in Christchurch (in 1953) and Wellington (1955) by Dutch and English migrants, some of whom had been in the armed forces and stationed in Asia. The name of the Christchurch club, Can Am Ju (Canterbury Amateur Judo), was derived from the Ken-Am-Ju club in Holland.
Judo grew in popularity in the 1950s. A national organisation emerged in 1956 and the first national championships were held the following year. Visiting Japanese instructors and teams boosted interest, as well as increasing the skills of local teachers and players.
People were attracted to judo for many reasons. Judoka (judo practitioner) Pat Toner recalled that the public saw it as ‘some deadly esoteric fighting art, or … a mysterious secret society’.2 It was also popular among women – perhaps because of its self-defence aspects – and clubs such as Wellington’s sometimes had 50% female membership.
Karate and kung fu
Judo paved the way for other martial arts. The first karate club was formed in Napier in 1958 by judoka Ken McLennan and two other students.
Books and boats
Young Kiwis keen to learn martial arts grabbed any instruction they could get. Some watched the demonstrations of karate, kendo and aikido given by the Japanese Maritime Self-Defence Force on their goodwill tours in the early 1950s. A few studied martial arts from books. Others picked up the basics of karate and kung fu from visiting Japanese and Chinese sailors. As a result, port towns – Invercargill, Napier, Nelson – were among the earliest to have martial-arts clubs.
Karate practitioners keen to learn from skilled instructors travelled to Japan. Doug Holloway became one of the first New Zealanders to do this, training under Mas Oyama, founder of Kyokushin karate. Holloway set up the Kyokushin organisation in New Zealand, opening its first club at the Can Am Ju centre in 1965. A number of unaffiliated karate clubs joined Kyokushin, which became one of the major karate styles. The first national karate open championship, featuring various styles, was held in 1967.
Chinese martial arts – kung fu and t’ai chi – were practised within New Zealand’s Chinese communities, but formal clubs did not start until the 1950s. By 1958 there were clubs in the Hutt Valley and Nelson. The latter was run by Bill Young, originally from China, who formed the Chinese Martial Arts Association in Wellington in 1968.