How Seattle's Sons of Old Japan Practice Jiu-Jitsu

Journal of Combative Sport December 1999

The Seattle Sunday Times, March 10, 1907, Magazine Section, Page 1 [FN1]

 Wrestling is the national pastime of the Japanese youth just as baseball is that of the American. [FN2] He takes to it just as readily and just as enthusiastically. American boys wrestle, too, but they do it in an impromptu and rather reckless fashion which would shock the convention-bound Jap. [FN3] In America, the wrestling usually begins with some such formula as "You did! I didn't! You did! You dassen't!" and then they clinch. In Japan it begins with the two boys on their hands and knees formally kowtowing to each other and is a thoroughly dignified although strenuous performance. [FN4]

 It is one of the oldest things in all of old Japan, patronized by the Emperor and high officials, taught in the schools and fostered in the army. [FN5] It is a game, a training exercise and a ceremony all in one.

 It has been transplanted to Seattle with all its forms and queer rules and six nights in the week finds at least a score of young Japanese, clad in the costumes of their forefathers, squatted on the floor in a dingy bare room in an old building at 622 Maynard Avenue, while two of their number struggle and sway on the canvas mat in the center. [FN6] There is no excited buzz of talk, such as is usual at a wrestling match. There is only the careful, studied swishing of the brown bare feet sliding over the rough canvas, the hissing breath of the struggling, panting men, a grunt or two and then one kimono-clad body [FN7] flies through the air and lands on the mat with a crash that would seem to have broken every bone in it. But it hasn't. He is on his feet again in a flash and they go at it again.
 It is about the quickest, fastest thing in the line of athletics to be found in all the world. A slow man would stand no chance at all with one of these little bundles of springs and strength. [FN8] It is splendid exercise and besides that it is fun for those who understand it. Quite often the two men on the mat giggle like school girls with the humor of a situation which in another second or two is going to result in one of them landing six feet away on his back as hard as the other can throw him there. The others, squatted about the walls awaiting their turn bare their white teeth in grins and laugh at the discomfiture of the victim.

Under the name of jiu-jitsu, this sport has already gained a considerable vogue among Americans. [FN9] It has attracted the attention of President Roosevelt and is being taught at both West Point and Annapolis. [FN10] It has been heralded as a wonderful means of defense in case of attack on the street at night, but it seems doubtful if anyone but an expert could bring it into play save against the slowest and most dull-witted of thugs. A miss would be disastrous against any man with a hard right fist or a club. But as an exercise it is undoubtedly excellent, although as a game it seems to have little attraction for others than the Japanese themselves.

Seattle Times 1907

 As to its superiority over our own style of wrestling, there is no way to judge. There is no neutral ground upon which the two may meet. The rules are totally different. There are no falls counted; the men simply struggle and squirm about until one of them signals that he is beaten and he only signals to save himself a broken arm or crushed ribs. To pit a Japanese against an American wrestler, each under his own rules, would be very much like sending a football team into the field against a baseball team. The only possible compromise would be a rough and tumble fight where nothing is barred and there are no rules.

 The object of jiu-jitsu is to put your opponent out of action as quickly as possible not to put his shoulders on the mat, because that is one of their favorite positions. Pushed to its limit it results in death or serious injuries, such as broken or paralyzed limbs, dislocated joints, broken necks and strangulation. In play, of course, it is not pressed that far. The wrestler is supposed to recognize a dangerous hold and, if he finds himself helpless, to signal his defeat. This he does by slapping his opponent on any part of the body he can reach or striking his hand on the mat. Technically he is disabled and therefore defeated. To the uninitiated it frequently appears as though the beaten man were a "quitter." It is hard to believe that the simple grip of a hand upon the wrist of a prostrate man were sufficient cause for capitulation. Yet that hand is probably grinding its finger tips into some nerve that only physicians and Japanese know in this country and the man is not only suffering pain but in danger of serious injury.  They know the vulnerable nerves like a professor of anatomy and a good one can render an ordinary man helpless merely by grasping his hand in a certain way. There is a nerve there which, when pressed hard, is enough to take the ambition out of a college man on graduation day.

 The Japanese are little men and believe in taking every advantage to overcome or at least make up for this deficiency. Hence, for one reason, jiu-jitsu. Anther reason for it is that they believe in keeping their bodies in the best possible physical condition. And besides that there is an innate love of fun and play which makes a joke out of the hardest of knocks and creates a laugh by twisting a man's arm until it almost pops out of its socket.

 So for these reasons and many lesser ones, they have organized a wrestling club which has been in existence for about two years and imported an instructor from Japan. [FN11] Each member pays his share of the expenses and even the instructor receives but slight compensation for wrestling night after night with a dozen or more husky young fellows, each anxious to triumph over him. The manager of the club is S. Miki, who between times is a pupil at the high school.

 The instructor is I. Kono, a graduate of one of the great Japanese wrestling schools and as fine looking a specimen of his race as can be seen in many a day at least in this country. He has only been here a little more than a year and speaks English falteringly. [FN12] Always with a smile, he takes the novices who come to him one by one and patiently teaches them the rudiments of his art, slipping and gliding with them over the mat, encouraging and instructing them in a low voice and occasionally throwing himself to show what the pupil should have done to him. If one of the more advanced members of the class succeeds in genuinely tumbling him upon his back, no one is more pleased and amused than Kono. Of course he outclasses the rest, but there are several among his pupils who can and do give him a hard tussle.

 The youngest pupil is Tommy Kikutake, six years old, the son of the proprietor of a Japanese hotel. [FN13] Dressed like the rest of them in a woven white kimono, almost like a sweater, with a black sash around his waist and white pajama-like trousers, he has his turn with the powerful Kono and takes life very seriously for five or ten minutes. Kono must bend over so that the little fellow can get the regulation hold upon the lapels of his kimono but otherwise there is no deviation from the rules and Tommy kicks just as sturdily at the legs of his big opponent as though he could really topple him over, as occasionally he does that is he thinks he does. And when his own legs are kicked out from under him he is on his feet again like a bounding rubber ball, puffing and grunting but with his hands out, reaching for another hold.

 One of the most marvelous things about the sport to a stranger is the way these Japanese boys fall and bound back to their feet. The secret of it is that they know how to fall. If more Americans knew there would be fewer hurt in falling from street cars. Probably the best teacher in this country is the game of football and any one who plays that for a season or two finds that he has acquired the art. [FN14] The Japanese have cultivated it to perfection. When they are thrown they are thrown hard, but as a fall does not count against them in the rules, they simply let themselves go and crash down upon the mat, twisting so as to fall as nearly as possible upon their backs and with one arm and flat hand extended to break the force of the fall. [FN15] It is the whack of this arm and hand upon the canvas which gives the first impression that they are breaking each others' necks. They seem to enjoy the falling and frequently play a sort of wrestling solitaire game to practice it, jumping into the air, falling on their shoulders and bounding to their feet in a series of hops and flops around the mat.

 These Japanese boys in their wrestling club are entirely different from the types we see on the streets or at work. In contact with Americans the Japanese tries to be as American as possible. Here he is pure Japanese, with the clothes of Western civilization hung on a nail, the torturesome shoes kicked into a corner and his half-naked brown body glistening under the costume of his country. There are two or three benches for visitors but the wrestlers squat on the floor like they would at home. Americans prefer the benches and so the benches are there. The Japanese consul paid the club a visit not long ago and he occupied one of the benches while he enjoyed and encouraged the work of his young charges. [FN16]

 One of the quaint customs is typically Japanese. In America, two wrestlers stepping upon the mat together advance to the center and shake hands. The Japanese have the same idea but they do it differently. Facing each other across the width of the mat, they drop upon their hands and knees and solemnly bend their heads to the floor. It means the same thing but one is West and the other is East and they are just as far apart as the two types of wrestling.

NOTES (hit your BACK button to return to the text.

FN1. While the author is not named, the article was probably written by Seattle Times sports editor Ed Hughes or the Seattle Athletic Club's director William Inglis. The title is technically a misnomer, as the article is about Kodokan judo rather than jujutsu. Annotations are by Joseph Svinth.

FN2. In the early 1900s, Japanese missionaries were just starting to organize baseball leagues in Northwestern communities. That is correct Japanese missionaries: American and Canadian missionaries took the game to Japan, and Japanese Christians returned it to North America. For an introduction to the topic, see Samuel O. Regalado, "'Play Ball!': Baseball and Seattle's Japanese-American Courier League, 1928-1941," Pacific Northwest Quarterly, Winter 1995/96, 29-37.

FN3. All spellings and usages are as found in the original text. Until the early 1950s, this was the term that most Europeans and Americans used to describe people of Japanese origin. By the 1920s, however, the word had taken on some very negative connotations and during World War II it became what it is today, a racial epithet and slur.

FN4. By the 1930s, standing bows had replaced kneeling bows except at the beginning and end of class. When no instructors were around, as was sometimes the case in small outlying schools, they were sometimes omitted even then. The most accessible account of life in a Seattle judo club of 1935-1941 is found in The Two Worlds of Jim Yoshida by Jim Yoshida with Bill Hosokawa (New York:  William Morrow, 1972); see also Joseph R. Svinth, "The School of Hard Knocks: Seattle's Kurosaka/Tentoku Kan Dojo 1928-1942." Journal of Asian Martial Arts, 7:1 (1998), 28-47.

FN5. This history is a jumble. For example, the Meiji emperor patronized sumo rather than judo, and, while the Japanese military supported all kinds of physical training, the Ministry of Education did not make judo part of public school physical education programs until 1911. Finally, rather than being one of the oldest things in Japan, judo was actually one of the newest, dating as it did to 1882.

FN6. The Seattle Dojo did not have tatami (e.g., rice straw mats) until June 1934.

FN7. Accompanying illustrations show the wrestlers wearing short-sleeved uwagi (jackets) and short-legged shitagi (trousers) rather than kimonos. In an article published in Black Belt in July 1967, Honolulu's Kakuji Fukai told Thomas Makiyama, "Yes, the gi [sic] was different in those days. They were designed for long hard wear and not for looks. The jacket, for example, was made by sewing together three thicknesses of a very heavy white cotton material. We then hand-sewed further reinforcement by running the needle every which way and where. One thing for sure, no two jackets were sewn alike. The sleeves were short in comparison to those worn today by judokas. They came down only about halfway on the upper arm. The pants portion also was cut midway to the thigh, rather than to the ankle like now. The short pants and jacket combination afforded considerable freedom of movement during hard practice." Thomas H. Makiyama, "Judo and Jiu Jitsu versus Sumo," Black Belt, July 1967, 41.

FN8. The usual size of an Issei man in the US during this period was around 5'3" and 130 pounds. Well-fed Nisei, though, were often several inches taller and 20-30 pounds heavier. For the average size of an Issei freshman at the University of Washington during 1908-1909, see Pacific Daily Wave, April 21, 1909, 3. For the size of a Nisei basketball player of the 1930s, see Japanese-American Courier, November 27, 1937, 3.

FN9. Although the author repeatedly calls what he is watching "jiu-jitsu," what he was actually watching was Kodokan judo. Jujutsu was an older term, however, and, until judo became an AAU sport in the early 1950s, both Japanese and European American writers frequently used the two terms interchangeably in English-language writings.

FN10. Although the US Naval Academy offered a judo class from January to May 1905, and Irving Hancock offered to give a jujutsu demonstration at the US Military Academy in February 1904, archives at both institutions report no judo instruction at either place in March 1907. Theodore Roosevelt's interest in judo is described in Joseph R. Svinth, "Professor Yamashita Goes to Washington," Aikido Journal, 25:2 (1998), 37-42.

FN11. This earlier date probably refers to the judo demonstration given by Ipani and Fujihara at the University of Washington on March 17, 1905. Private classes were probably available from the 1890s James Y. Sakamoto's father had been a jujutsu teacher in Japan prior to emigrating to the United States in 1894 and in A Complete Guide to Judo (Rutland, VT: Charles E. Tuttle, 1958), Robert W. Smith quotes Yasutaro Miyazawa as saying that Seattle's first judo club was established in 1903.

FN12. Iitaro Kano, a Kodokan 2-dan, arrived in Seattle on the Riojun Maru on 20 May 1903.  He listed his age as 25, and his occupation as student. Although immigrations forms show his name as Kano, his name is transliterated as both Kano and Kono, even in Japanese sources. See, for example, History of the Japanese of Tacoma, translated by James Watanabe (Seattle:  Pacific Northwest Council, Japanese American Citizens League, 1986), 76, 99.

FN13. Judging from the Seattle City Directory, this was probably the son of the owner of the hotel at 622 Maynard Street. Which makes sense, as a hotel owner with an interest in judo would have ignored the complaints of the tenants who didn't like the thumps and shouts in the basement.

FN14. There is indeed an enormous correlation between good judo players and good football players, and nationally known examples of football-playing Northwest judoka include Eitaro Suzuki, Ken Kuniyuki, Jim Yoshida, and Hank Ogawa. Minor injuries were more common than the writer realized, however. Dislocations and sprains were usually treated on the spot a basic knowledge of first aid was expected of instructors and special salves and tonics were used to treat the inevitable scrapes and contusions.

FN15. This sounds more like a side fall than a back fall.

FN16. As the Japanese consul was the nominal head of the prewar Seattle Dojo, the Seattle Dojo's official date of establishment (1907) is probably based on this consular visitation rather than the arrival of Tokugoro Ito in Seattle in July 1907, as is stated in Smith, 1958, 132.

JCS Dec 1999