The relationship between Korean martial arts and Japanese martial arts is usually a touchy one. This is because, like the history of so many other things in modern Korea, it is susceptible to what I like to call the “Colonial Death Touch.”
The Colonial Death Touch works like this. Any practice which can be demonstrated to have its origins in the Japanese colonial period, was reborn during the colonial period partly out of inspiration or imitation of some Japanese practice, or was significantly influenced by similar Japanese practices is ruled to be inauthentic. Inauthentic things, of course, cannot be authentically Korean, and thus risk, at the very least, losing its place in the national cultural or historical repository. At most, it can destroy any popularity such practices might enjoy.
The Colonial Death Touch is sometimes delivered by, for example, Japanese nationalists who want to anger their Korean neighbors. However, it is also often used domestically. For example, practitioners of Korean martial art X might claim that they are superior to martial art Y because they are “pure” Korean while martial art Y is soiled by its evil Japanese roots. I’m sure many readers familiar with Korean martial arts can think of some examples of this.
These sorts of exchanges, whoever their participants might be, are silly childish games of nationalist mudslinging. They depend on a simplistic idea of authenticity, a laughable faith in cultural uniqueness, and a conception of the colonial period as cultural and economic black hole out of which only the bright shining light of Korean national resistance can possibly shine.
One martial art that became popular during the colonial period which remained popular in the postwar period is 검도(劍道, J: Kendō) or swordsmanship. In recent years, perhaps partly due to the ever present threat of the colonial death touch, the martial art has undergone some degree of “Koreanization” while other innovations in technique, uniforms, etc. probably are more simply attributable to the evolution of all such arts across time.
Reaching back to the time of liberation in 1945, however, I did find it remarkable that 검도 seemed to remain particularly popular among the Korean police. Like the popularity of Kendo among the Japanese police down to this present day, Korean police publications from the late 1940s and 1950s show pictures of 검도 practitioners gathered in huge numbers. This is somewhat surprising since the sword of the police in the colonial period was one extremely hated symbol that often gets mentioned in anti-police newspaper articles. The post-Liberation police stopped carrying the sword after a reform of November 8, 1945 and replaced it with a police stick. Admittedly, one could argue that the symbolic weight of a sword carried is different from that of the bamboo 죽도(竹刀 J: Shinai) used by 검도 practitioners, but I find the resilience of 검도 to be impressive and admirable all the same. Others, however, might point to this as yet another expression of the “pro-Japanese” tendencies of the police.
It is not surprising to learn that many Korean police during the colonial period were also working hard at various martial arts. In a 1938 Japanese imperial government report on the colonial police, there is an interesting table listing the number of Japanese and Korean police holding various degrees of skill in three martial arts: Judo (유도), Kendo (검도), and Kyudo (궁도, Japanese archery). The degrees are listed by dan beginning with shodan (in some martial arts this is often now called the first degree “black belt”). Below are the number of police holding first degree or higher in the three martial arts for 1938: