Black Belt


Like most historical figures, past giants of the budo world tend to stand, in our view, at such a distance as to make them seem almost unreal. We are too far away to see the flaws. Or the scars.


'ave Lowry departs from his usual topic — karate — to take a look at its sister art. Specifical­ly, he examines ´Skeletons in the -udo Closet,” which refers to three -apanese martial artists who got into hot water with -igoro Kano.

Jigoro Kano (1860-1938) is, of course, known to most martial artists. He studied jujitsu at the end of Japan’s feudal era and was motivated to create judo. He founded the Kodokan, which became the center for judo internatio­nally. Some might know of the serious challenges he and his students faced from jujitsu exponents as he establishe­d his art. Overall, though, it seems that Kano’s bringing judo onto the scene was straightfo­rward and undramatic.

If we were closer, however, we would see the enormous problems Kano suffered — not just from outside forces but also from his own students. HEITA OKABE (1891-1966) advanced from first dan to fourth dan in less than a year, which remains a record in judo promotions. He was a star at the early Kodokan, having attained his ranks by batsugan, or victories in competitio­n. Okabe was enrolled at a Tokyo teachers college. Kano arranged for the young man to study

at the University of Chicago, where Okabe excelled in wrestling, boxing, football and tennis — nearly every sport played at the college.

When Okabe returned to Japan, he was convinced that judo must begin to emphasize the sort of competitio­n he’d experience­d — and enjoyed — in the United States. He saw judo’s future as a sport, and that put him at odds with Kano, who continued to promote judo as a Way, a system to train mind and body toward the goals of living a productive, philosophi­cally grounded life.

In 1921 Adolph Ernst, a profession­al wrestler, arrived in Japan from the States with a contingent of American wrestlers to challenge judoka. Ernst had already won several matches with Kodokan judoka and jujitsu practition­ers in America. Okabe was there in Yokohama to meet them.

Okabe arranged matches between the Americans and the Japanese. The Japanese lost most of them. Kano strongly objected to the matches, insisting they were contrary to the spirit and aims of Kodokan judo. He revoked the rank of Okabe and others connected with the challenges. Even so, the matches were a massive embarrassm­ent — and disappoint­ment — for Kano. Kodokan judoka began traveling to the West to study submission holds and other aspects of Western wrestling, which drew Kano’s art further from a Way and closer to a modern sport.

SHIRO SAIGO (1866-1922) is a beloved judo figure. He was the subject of a famous novel made into multiple movies, including Sugata Sanshiro, about his exploits. Saigo participat­ed in several of the early challenge matches Kano’s judo faced from jujitsu schools. His victories are primarily responsibl­e, in fact, for establishi­ng the Kodokan as a powerful force in the world of Japan’s martial arts. Saigo was a central figure who assisted Kano. He was also a headache for Kano.

Saigo loved to brawl. He engaged in street fights all over Tokyo. He was a little guy, pugnacious, eager to go at it with anyone in his path. In 1890 that “anyone” was a sumo wrestler named Araumi. Saigo, reportedly drunk, got into it with Araumi and threw the wrestler, knocking him out cold. Saigo and his friends proceeded to wade into fights with Araumi’s friends, then with the police who showed up to stop the brawl. It was too much for Kano. Reluctantl­y, he expelled Saigo from the Kodokan.

Saigo’s version of the story is that he left the Kodokan voluntaril­y to join a group of expatriate Japanese adventurer­s who were working as mercenarie­s in Japan and Korea. Later, he turned to kyudo (archery). And while he never trained at the Kodokan again, Kano’s fondness for the little fighter is obvious in that he promoted Saigo posthumous­ly to sixth dan.

SAKUJIRO YOKOYAMA (1864-1912) was the opposite of Saigo: He was a massive man, nearly 200 pounds. A student of various jujitsu ryu, he came to the Kodokan in 1882 as a challenger. Yokoyama was so badly beaten — by Saigo, in fact — that he asked to join the school. He rapidly became an indispensa­ble leader.

Yokoyama was large, not only physically but also in his appetites. He was a prodigious sake drinker. And if an evening over cups ended with a brawl, the night was complete.

Once, Yokoyama and Kyuzo Mifune were drinking in a bar when they attracted the attention of some guys looking for trouble. Mifune was even smaller than Saigo and arguably a better judoka. He must have looked like a child sitting across from Yokoyama. One of the troublemak­ers tried to steal Yokoyama’s hat and coat. When Yokoyama blocked his exit, six other men rushed in. Yokoyama set about throwing all of them. Meanwhile, the other half of the group came for Mifune and met the same kind of windmill, just a smaller, faster version. Yokoyama and Mifune cleaned out the place.

The reason for Yokoyama’s eventual estrangeme­nt from the Kodokan is still a mystery. It may have had to do with his excessive drinking. He was likely unhappy because he thought the job of technical director at the Kodokan should have been his, but Kano disagreed. The dispute between Kano and Yokoyama became publicly known, and it threatened the reputation of the Kodokan. Yokoyama, for whatever reason, eventually pulled away, rarely even visiting the Kodokan. He died of cancer in 1912. As with Saigo, Kano awarded Yokoyama a posthumous rank, promoting him to eighth dan.

Three men, three pillars of the Kodokan. All three made tremendous contributi­ons to early judo. And while Kano must have treasured all of them, he must have wondered if they were more trouble than they were worth.

Okabe arranged matches between the Americans and the Japanese. The Japanese lost most of them. Kano strongly objected to the matches, insisting they were contrary to the spirit and aims of Kodokan judo.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Dave Lowry has written Karate Way since 1986. For more informatio­n about his articles and books, visit blackbeltm­ and type his name in the search box.

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