Journal of Combative Sport, February 2000

Special Section: Training in Japan pre-1960.

An Englishwoman's Description of Learning Judo in Japan: Letters from Sarah Mayer to Gunji Koizumi, 1934-1935, Part II.

Letters from Sarah Mayer to Gunji Koizumi and photograph of Gunji Koizumi reprinted courtesy of Richard Bowen. Copyright © 2000, all rights reserved.

385 Nakayamae Y-chome

Kobe Ku, Kobe

23rd July [1934]

Dear Mr. Koizumi,

Everybody must think that I am quite mad to be still in Kobe in this hot weather, but here I am and I have taken a house. For about £10 I have "furnished" it in princely (Japanese) style and this includes such European luxuries as electric fan and iron, electric light fittings and "Cona" coffee machine. Besides these I bought a nice ebony Japanese table and dressing table and everything in the way of china, glass, and kitchen utensils. Two very nice Japanese girls have helped me and lent me a number of things for the house such as Japanese bed (upon which, rather to my surprise, I have enjoyed untroubled sleep) and a European desk and two chairs which I keep in one room which I use for writing.
Gunji Koizumi 1948 (C) the Budokwai 2000, All Rights Reserved

One of these girls is "modern" and speaks excellent English -- the other is very Japanese and won't speak English to me although she understands it. She tries to teach me good manners and how to arrange flowers, and she is the domesticated one who keeps an eye on my housekeeping, looks through my bills, gives instructions to my maid and advises me how to entertain my guests. The other wears European clothes, behaves in European fashion and confesses to a preference for things European. She gives me lessons in Japanese and (as she is from Tokyo) sternly suppresses any tendency that I have to pick up the Kobe dialect. In return for this I give her lessons in psychology and English.

I have another girl staying with me during her vacation. She is 21 but looks about 16. She is a great contrast to the others. She is as clumsy as a young carthorse and falls over anything that lies in her path. I have saved her from being run over in the street more times than I can count and in the presence of men she is so shy that she does nothing but giggle. Every day she asks me the same question about judo -- "Isn't it terrible to be dropped on the floor?" -- until I feel that if I am not careful I shall become so irritated that I shall pick her up and drop her just to show her. However she is a nice girl and so anxious to please me that I must not be unkind.

Mr. Yamamoto still gives me judo lessons every morning for nearly 2 hours, Sunday's included, and in the afternoon I go to Miyahojigawa where Mr. Sonobe teaches me to swim. I share a small room with the Kobe police who all go to the Butokuden. They come in and out, regardless of the state of dress that I am in, but I am quite used to that by now.

I have just come back from Kyoto where I stayed at a very nice Japanese hotel for several days. Mr. Yamamoto had to go to Tokyo with some of his pupils for a contest (in which they vanquished Tokyo and Osaka) and he told me to go to Kyoto Butokuden to practice whilst he was away. But I was too busy getting into my new house. A few days ago he had to go to Osaka and this time I had no excuse, so I went to Kyoto and presented an introduction from Mr. Hatta to Professor Isokei [Hajime Isogai] and told him that Mr. Yamamoto had sent me to him. He greeted me with that absence of enthusiasm that seems to be considered necessary to put would-be judoists in their proper place, and led me to a room where dozens of men were in a state of nature and invited me to change into my judo costume. As I said before, I am used to this by now! We entered the Dojo with impressive ceremony, the Professor leading the way followed by a number of judoists of exalted Dan [rank] and me bringing up the rear trying to look like a modest violet and wishing myself a thousand miles away.

The headmaster of a neighbouring school had been called in to act as interpreter; for either the Professor knew no English or else would not demean himself by speaking it, and a strapping young man of 5th Dan had been called in to practice with me. For awhile we pranced around and he let me throw him about a bit and dropped me fairly gently on the mat and then the Professor said something to him and he threw me all over the place, and not content with throwing me, he gave me that extra push when I was on my way down that makes the floor come up quicker than usual.

I should never accuse Mr. Yamamoto of being gentle with me. Indeed when first he saw me in my bathing dress he was quite concerned about my bruises and abrasions, but he has not been any more tenderhearted since. But this man was much worse. I was beginning to think that it was too much of a good thing and to wonder how best I might escape from his clutches without letting down the British Empire by asking him to be a bit less rough with me, when it occurred to me that although I was being thrown with some violence, I had not yet hurt myself, so I decided that it would be better to wait until I died before I complained. And when I considered the matter later, I found that I hadn't so much as a bruise or a scratch beyond the usual ones on my shins and my left collarbone which are no doing of mine. After I had a short rest, they told me to try again and this time the Professor stopped us every time I tried to do a throw and corrected me carefully. He taught me quite a lot in a very short time.

Then my "sparring partner" lay on the floor and the Professor asked me if I could do any ground work and to show him how much I knew. Mr. Yamamoto is still a little shy of this altho' he has taught me a lot, and I feel that it is a little forward of me to always be the one to attack him, accustomed as I am to you and Mr. [Yukio] Tani being the aggressors and some of it is admittedly not very modest. However I did everything that I could think of and the Professor and the others just sat down and laughed and laughed.

When this awful ordeal was over, the Professor told me that I might practice at Kyoto whenever Mr. Yamamoto sent me there. In Kobe I have a room to myself to dress but share the men's bathroom. [EN1] At Kyoto I dressed with the men but was given a bath to myself. This consisted of a bucket of cold water which was put in a room which was open on three sides. I feel that the Kobe arrangement is better. It is quite impossible to adequately conceal oneself in a bucket. You will easily understand that when my Japanese girlfriends suggested that whilst workmen were fixing my bathroom I should go with them to the public bath, I readily agreed on the principle that what I hadn't already seen wasn't worth seeing!!! Everybody behaves very modestly and nicely and no one stared at me except a few little boys of between the ages of three and six and who seemed to be fascinated by the ridiculous contrast between those parts of me which are covered by my bathing dress and the rest of me which is highly tanned by the hot sun on the beach. My bathing costume has no back being one of Fortnum and Mason's who advertise them saying among other things: "The back is all your own." And two straps cross over to hold body and soul together. The result of this is a gleaming white St. Andrew's cross on my back and the small boys couldn't take their eyes off it.

As you may imagine, under Mr. Yamamoto's regime I am feeling better than I ever felt in my life. Woes are a thing of the past and I am aggressively healthy. I am enjoying myself more than I can say and I ought soon to be able to operate the language a little because Miss Adachi, my Japanese friend, is the only person I ever see who speaks English, and she won't now except when it is necessary. My maid speaks no English so I have to struggle with Japanese as best I can.

Mr. Ichiya, a journalist who speaks excellent English, is not to be seen at present as his only son has died. Did I tell you how I went to the funeral little knowing what I was in for? How I managed to bow all over the floor and cope with the priests and the incense will forever be a mystery to me. I tried to copy Miss Adachi and I was so overwrought that when I got out of the room and saw her fall upon her face before some man who was standing at the front door I did the same to his great astonishment just as he was about to shake me warmly by the hand. He was so surprised to see a foreign woman grovelling at his feet that for a moment he couldn't move, then he shot down and bowed just as I was going to get up. Every time I tried to rise down he went again and I had to duck too. I thought it would never end!

I was taken by Mr. Sonobe (brother of the one who teaches me to swim) who tells me that you are his friend, to a house to see the Duchess Yamanouchi who was formerly the Princess Fushimi, doing Naginata. There was also display of Kendo and archery and I was interested in spite of having to sit Japanese fashion on a hard floor for three hours. It isn't my knees that trouble me, but my feet aren't used to being sat on!

At Kyoto I met a Japanese girl whose father has been for 30 years in America. She came to the Butokuden to study Naginata for three years and they seem to me to have pretty well broken her spirit. She spoke no Japanese when she arrived and knew nothing of Japanese customs, and she has to live with her teacher who makes her do all the housework and look after the children and a grandmother besides doing the gardening. And for this she has to pay! The teacher says it is good training for her. Thank Heaven Mr. Yamamoto doesn't expect me to do his housekeeping, and that, if the worst comes to the worst, he has only one child! I don't mind waiting politely till he has had his bath, I don't mind saying "after you" when we get to a door. I am quite used to trotting behind him in the street with that kind of meek and modest look which is seen on the face of a cat who has stolen the cream and hopes nobody will suspect her, but 7 children and a grandmother would be just a bit too much for me. So I left Kyoto with some relief and came back to Mr. Yamamoto feeling greatly relieved to be staying in Kobe.

Mr. Yamamoto sometimes comes to dinner with me and says that it is the first time that he has ever been alone with any woman except his wife. He hasn't even walked in the street with one before although he generally takes me for a walk after judo. Mr. Ichiya tells me that no one will mistake our relations for other than those of teacher and pupil as Mr. Yamamoto has set an example of morality to the youth of Kobe. But I must say that for a man who has never been alone with a woman, he bears the ordeal with remarkable fortitude. Armed with two dictionaries we are able to correspond and spend quite an agreeable evening and he doesn't seem to want to go home until half past eleven or twelve.

The other day he came in when I was unpacking and I asked him if he would have lunch. He said he would but that he was tired and wanted to sleep first. Then he lay down among all my luggage and went to sleep immediately in spite of the noise that I was making.

I have had some trouble with the British and Americans here because I live in Japanese style and mix entirely with Japanese. One man who met me out with Mr. Yamamoto told me that it made his blood boil to see me let a man go ahead. I told him that I'd rather his blood boiled than the blood of all the men at the Butokuden who looked upon Mr. Yamamoto with respect and would expect me to do so too, and he is the last Anglo-Saxon that I have met. As all of them without one exception have tried to kiss me after telling me that the Japanese don't respect women and they are of very inferior type, I can bear their absence without any trouble. And if I mixed with them I should spend my time playing bridge or tennis at the International Club, and I should see nothing of the real Japan, but only what the tourists see.

Besides, Mr. Yamamoto is so nice and kind and although he doesn't know any foreigners he has heard of our ways and he gave me every opportunity of having the first bath and so on when first I went to the Butokuden. But I thought it would only make us both look ridiculous and annoy all the others; and I think that dubious quantity -- the "prestige of the white woman" can be upheld as well on the mat as anywhere.

I am sending you some photographs which may interest you. Those of the Kendo are not very good, but the light was not bright enough. I am sending this to the Budokwai so that if you like you can show them to some of the members.

Please give my best regards to everyone that I know. I am looking forward to hearing from you. How is the moxa treatment going? I wish you all good luck with it.

In just had another letter from Mr. Hatta saying that he will teach me judo in Tokyo and to wire him what train I am taking. He asks me if I would like to go with him to Kamakura. It doesn't sound quite proper to me, but "I'll try anything once." So when Mr. Yamamoto has to go away, I shall go to Tokyo. Don't you think I am very lucky, having all these expert judo men to teach me every day? I wish I were ten years younger!

Very best wishes,

Yours very sincerely,

Sarah Mayer

To be continued.


EN1. On August 6, 1939, Mayer, writing under the pseudonym Sarah Tapping wrote the following in the London newspaper, the Sunday Express:

When I landed in Kobe I was introduced to the local judo establishment by a friend.

I was led to the bathroom. The public baths, of which there are as many as there are churches in Britain, as well as the judo baths, range in size from a plunge in a Turkish bath to a swimming pool.

The walls of the judo bathroom were of paper, very badly torn, and the sliding doors were jammed, giving less privacy than I would have wished.

However, I washed myself, sat in the bath for a space, and then sluiced myself with delicious cold water baled from a tank.

This happened for several days, during which large numbers of men came into the Dojo (gymnasium) clad in their judo clothes and practised among themselves.

One day, however … a man, who had not been warned, wandered into the bathroom, and after scrubbing himself thoroughly on the floor, hopped into the bath and sat beside me, murmuring, ‘May I?’ to which I could think of no answer but the customary, ‘Pray do.’

We talked about the weather, but the water was getting so hot that every time my neighbour moved I could scarcely refrain from yelling in agony.

True, the water was deep, and I could be but dimly perceived therein, but I was trapped in a bath that seemed rapidly to be approaching boiling point, and I began to pray that my companion would not have sufficient leisure to remain long therein.

At last he looked at me anxiously and suggested that it would not be good for my health to prolong unduly my stay in the water.

I endeavoured to assure him that I was enjoying it, but at last the true state of affairs dawned upon him.

"Ah! you do not understand Japanese customs," he said, producing a small towel and delicately indicating its use. "With the aid of this, extraction from such a situation is assisted."

Thus instructed in the Japanese equivalent of the fig leaf, I rose, less like Venus from the foam than a boiled lobster, and would have hastened from the room had not my companion urged me, over his shoulder, not to miss my cold rinse on his account.

The news having got about that I had shared the bath with one man, the rest soon followed, and all armed with our little towels, we spent many agreeable hours in conversation in the hot water.

JCS Feb 2000