Honourable Founder of the Way – Ji Han Jae

A recent photo of Doju Nim Ji Han Jae
A recent photo of Doju Nim Ji Han Jae

There have been several times in class where I have referred to the founder of Hapkido, Ji Han Jae, spending some time in prison in Korea. This is just one aspect of this interesting man’s life, so this blog post will give everyone the details of the time in prison, as well as some other interesting facts about Ji Han Jae’s life.

Gramdmaster Ji Han Jae, or Dojunim, to use his teaching title, which can be translated as Honourable Founder of the Way, was a very influential person in South Korea. He was born there, in Andong in 1936 or thereabouts. At this time in Korea it was common to not register children’s births until after their first birthday, due to the high infant mortality rate.

Ji Han Jae credits three instructors as being influential in his martial arts development. The first is Yung Sul Choi.┬áChoi is himself a fairly controversial figure, as he claims to have studied under the prolific Japanese instructor, Sokkaku Takeda, who was one of an old samurai family. It is clear that he did study with Takeda, as his techniques are clearly based on Takeda’s style, Daito Ryu AikiJuJitsu, however none of Takeda’s family will admit to remembering Choi, and in Takeda’s very comprehensive records of students, there is no record either of Choi or of the Japanese name he used while in Japan. Ji Han Jae trained with Yung Sul Choi from the age of 13, and from him he learnt the self defence techniques and strikes that are part of our Hapkido syllabus today.

Another instructor of Ji Han Jae was a man known as Taoist Lee. Ji Han Jae explains that this name was the best approximation he could offer in english of this man and his influence on Ji Han Jae’s practice. From Taoist Lee he learnt the spinning kicks and high jumping kicks that Hapkido is so famous for, also the Bo staff and the Dan Bong.

His final instructor was a lady monk who he refers to as ‘Grandma’ and is his spiritual instructor. This is significant to Ji Han Jae as the spiritual side of the practice of martial arts is very important to Ji Han Jae.

Ji Han Jae in Vietnam, around 1967
Ji Han Jae in Vietnam, around 1967

With these instructors, Ji Han Jae came up with a very effective and practical martial art style. He was gained a position instructing in the Korean Military Academy, due to his reputation as a highly skilled fighter and teacher. From there he was given permission to train the Military Supreme Council in Hapkido Techniques, and then a government position training the Presidential Security forces, who work on guarding the president in the Blue House, the Republic Of Korea’s equivalent to the US’s White House.

Due to such important officials being trained in Hapkido, it became known as the official martial art of Korea, while Taekwondo, which was also gaining in popularity at this time was known as it’s national sport.

As he increased in influence, Ji Han Jae had several opportunities, one of which was to travel to Vietnam in approximately 1967, where he spent some time training soldiers in Vietnam, and also training ROK marines.

Shortly after this, in 1969, Ji Han Jae had the opportunity to travel to the US as part of an exchange with President Richard Nixon’s security forces. While he was there, he had the opportunity to teach Hapkido to the US secret service, the CIA, the FBI and Special Forces.

It was also while he was there that he was introduced to Bruce Lee, who was very impressed with Ji Han Jae’s fighting skills. Bruce Lee asked Ji Han Jae to teach him, and Ji Han Jae was able to teach him the spinning kicks that he is now so well known for. Bruce Lee also insisted that Ji Han Jae accept a role in his film, ‘Game of Death’, which he did, and appears in a scene in the movie, and was also a martial arts advisor in making the film.

Bruce Lee and Ji Han Jae on the set of 'Game of Death'
Bruce Lee and Ji Han Jae on the set of ‘Game of Death’

During this time, Ji Han Jae was running a large school of his own, with over 500 students, and was active in his work training the military in Korea, including training the presidential bodyguards. Then, President Park of the Republic of Korea was assassinated. Ji Han Jae resigned his position, and he joined a political party run by a politician from Ji Han Jae’s hometown. The leader of the political party decided that this would be a good time to reorganise the presidential bodyguards so they could accompany the president when he travelled, not just guard him in the Blue House.

A political rival heard of this plan, and saw it as an opportunity to discredit his rivals. He informed the President that the plan was a plot to overthrow the President, and many of the individuals involved in this political turmoil were arrested and jailed, and some were executed. Ji Han Jae himself was sent to jail for one year, on a charge of tax fraud. The sentencing judge at the time said that if he did not imprison Ji Han Jae at this time, it was likely that more and more charges would be trumped up against him until he was facing a much longer jail sentence.

Ji Han Jae himself says that this time in prison was a very interesting time in his life, as it allowed him to experience people and situations that are not available to most people. He used his time in jail to develop a reinvented Hapkido, which he called ‘Sin Moo Hapkido’, which incorporated a number of very specific, close range kicks and meditation techniques.

This is interesting as it shows that our Art has come through a range of situations, from personal defence, to performance based work to meditation and study of the meditation and spirituality of martial arts to be the amazing system it is today.