Martial arts – armed and unarmed – are found in many cultures. Most styles practised in New Zealand are Asian martial arts – from China, Japan, Thailand or Korea – or derived from these Asian forms.
The origins of Asian martial arts go back several centuries. Most, especially kung fu and t’ai chi ch’uan, have roots in Chinese forms. These forms were then developed further in other countries, often based around teachers in families or villages.
Many traditional martial arts became organised or formalised in the 19th and 20th centuries. New forms appeared in the later 20th century as martial arts became popular in Western societies.
There are more than 50 different martial arts forms and styles practised in New Zealand in the 2010s. The differences between these are important, especially to practitioners. Some forms, such as the Japanese styles of kendo or iaido, rely on weapons. The punching and kicking of karate – an Okinawan martial art – is distinct from that of Korean tae kwon do. The fluid Japanese art of aikido differs from the vigour of Chinese kung fu or Korean hapkido forms. Modern, hybrid and sport-based forms such as kick-boxing or mixed martial arts differ again.
Some martial-arts styles have competitive sporting aspects. New Zealand has been represented at the Olympic Games in both judo and tae kwon do. In 1972 Garrick (Rick) Littlewood competed in the men’s middleweight judo division at the Olympic Games in Munich. At the 2014 Commonwealth Games the judo team won five medals: two silver and three bronze. The first New Zealand tae kwon do team competed in the 2000 Olympics in Sydney.
Each major form of martial art has distinctive styles. There are about 15 different types of karate practised in New Zealand and around 10 different types of kung fu. These are organised around clubs, which may have several branches and usually a national head of the style. Most are affiliated to parent organisations overseas – in Asia, the United States or Australia – where the international head of the style is based.
Regardless of differences between the forms and particular styles, most martial arts share an emphasis on tradition, a hierarchical order of instructors and students, and a uniform with a belt whose colour indicates the level of skill achieved. Typically, a black belt represents the highest level. For exponents who study martial arts over many years, there is also a philosophical dimension.
There is no single national organisation for martial arts, and no combined national tournaments, although many styles run their own tournaments or compete in international events within their styles. Some of the major forms are organised into national bodies, such as Karate New Zealand, formed in the 1970s, but not all karate styles are affiliated with this body. Tae kwon do, one of the most popular martial arts in New Zealand, is split into two major organisations which are affiliated with different international groups.
In 2007–8 about 79,000 people in New Zealand took part in martial arts. Many children take up martial arts but relatively few practise for more than a few months; adults are better suited to the long-term training. The physicality of some martial arts appeals more to men than to women, but women martial artists are growing in number. T’ai chi chu’an especially tends to appeal to older people.
People train in the martial arts for many reasons, such as physical fitness, self-defence, health benefits or an interest in Asian philosophies. For children, martial arts can be a way to encourage habits of self-discipline and self-awareness. An ethos of self-improvement and helping others has led some martial arts groups to undertake community work. Several run programmes for disadvantaged members of the community or those with physical disabilities.
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.
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.
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.
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 the Netherlands.
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.
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.
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.
From the 1970s a growing interest in Asian cultures, and the impact of Asian migration, led more people to take up a martial art. The Rembuden Institute of Martial Arts, founded by John Jarvis in 1968, had over 3,000 karate students in 25 clubs throughout New Zealand and the South Pacific by the mid-1970s. The physical fitness craze of the 1980s also had an impact. Gyms included martial-arts elements in fitness routines, prompting some people to take up the practice more formally. For others, especially women, the self-defence aspects of martial arts were important. Kendo (Japanese ‘fencing’) practitioner Sue Lytollis ran women’s self-defence courses for the YWCA (Young Women’s Christian Association) from 1979.
Popular culture has had a major impact on the growth of martial arts. Hit 1960s television series The avengers introduced judo to new people, especially women attracted by the svelte and feisty Mrs Peel, who could hurl opponents to the ground with ease. The Bruce Lee movies and the Kung fu television series of the 1970s boosted the popularity of kung fu. Films such as The karate kid or those featuring Jackie Chan introduced later generations to the martial arts.
New styles of martial arts appeared. In 1980 the New Zealand Martial Arts Council listed 166 registered martial arts clubs. Less than a decade later there were over 150 in Auckland alone, and another 100 in Christchurch. The Korean martial art of tae kwon do, developed in the 1950s, opened its first club in 1970 in Palmerston North. The style grew rapidly, boosted by the visit of its founder, General Choi Hong Hi, in 1976, and then by migration from Korea during the 1990s. Muay Thai kick-boxing clubs opened in the mid-1970s, incorporating a traditional kicking and punching style with a competitive element. Different forms of karate and kung fu emerged, sometimes as established styles splintered due to internal politics, changes at an international level, new personnel or new philosophies.
New Zealand’s first live-in martial-arts centre opened in Porirua in 1985. Its founder, Bob Gemmell, played a lead role in the spread of Chinese martial arts in the 1970s, especially kempo and forms of t’ai chi. As a professional martial-arts instructor, he also taught self-defence and use of martial-arts weapons to the New Zealand police.
While Asian martial-arts styles dominated, more westernised styles also appeared, such as Zen-do-kai, a hybrid style developed in Australia in 1970. Some of these modern styles placed less emphasis on the traditional Asian aspects and more on self-defence. Others had a more overt competitive approach, such as MMA (mixed martial arts). This developed in the 1990s, based on a mix of grappling, throwing, boxing and karate. Like kick-boxing, MMA is also a professional sport with regular tournaments attracting large crowds. New Zealanders Dan Hooker and Israel Adesanya have excelled in the brutal Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) franchise. Adesanya became UFC world middleweight champion in 2019, a feat which led to his selection as New Zealand Sportsman of the Year at the Halberg Awards.
As styles and clubs proliferated during the 1980s, some styles emerged whose founders took little heed of a traditional, disciplined approach, or awarded themselves a high level of black belt with little regard to experience or training. Established practitioners commented on the tension that existed between some styles in the 1970s, often focused around standards of instruction and the qualifications of instructors. Karate was most prone to such tensions, and the Federation of New Zealand Karate Organisations was formed in 1976 partly to improve relations between styles. By the 1980s disputes between the various forms of martial arts had largely died away as the various styles became more established.
Looser, Diana. ‘The development and characteristics of the martial arts experience in New Zealand.’ Master of Social Science thesis, Lincoln University, 2003.
McNeil, Ken. ‘Encounters, 1860s to 1940s.’ In Japan and New Zealand, 150 years, edited by Roger Peren, 23–56. Palmerston North: New Zealand Centre for Japanese Studies, Massey University, on behalf of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Tokyo, in association with the Historical Branch, Dept. of Internal Affairs, Wellington, 1999.