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 black­beltmag.com and type his name in the search box.

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