Journal of Combative Sport, April 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 III.

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

501. 4 chome
Setagaya, Setagaya-Ku
12th Sept. [1934]

Dear Mr. Koizumi,

I was so pleased to get your letter and to hear that moxa treatment is doing so well. I shall expect to find you very rich and riding in a Rolls Royce when I return.

Ichiro Hatta met me at Tokyo station when I came here at the end of July intending to stay for a fortnight. [EN1] He invited me to stay at his home instead of going to an hotel and when the time came for me to return to Kobe, his father persuaded me to get rid of my house and make my home with him. So I have been adopted and am now one of the family and they seem to want me to stay with them as long as I can.

I had intended to return [to London] before Xmas, but I am writing to Robin [her husband] to ask if I can stay longer -- till after the cherry blossom. I make such slow progress in the language (not to mention judo) that I feel I must stay a little longer if possible.

Last night Ichiro and I had dinner with the famous Mr. [Kyuzo] Mifune. I practiced with him once at the Kodokan and often sit and watch him. He is extraordinary. Very frail and delicate, very small and looks quite old. He was in a playful mood when I practiced with him. He just threw me round the room as if I were an India rubber ball, and when I tried any throw, he simply wasn't there any longer.

He has now agreed to teach me by myself on one morning every week as I can practice with him every day when he is teaching in different places. In this way I shall have to track him down to a different dojo every day, but it is worth it. In the afternoons I practice with Ichiro and some of his many friends.

I usually go to the Waseda [University] Dojo now and the boys are all very kind and most anxious to help. And often I am called for to practice in Ichiro's wrestling dojo with the young wrestlers. [Hatta was a pioneer of freestyle wrestling in Japan, and a future coach of the Japanese Olympic wrestling team.] The atmosphere here is very different to the judo dojos. The boys shout encouragement to me and how [shout] "Chance-Chance" [chansu; a loanword, it means the same in Japanese as English] and applaud loudly if anything I try comes off. Sometimes I go to Mr. Sato's dojo and sometimes to the Kodokan, as well as many other stray dojos which I come across in the country. Like the sailors who have a wife in every port I have a costume in every dojo. Mercifully they only cost 3 yen 50 here [about a dollar].

I like the University students. The great joke is for them to carry my parcels or let me go through a door first. As soon as I appear with anything in my hand, it is seized by one of these youths and carried in triumph, whilst the others hold their sides with laughter.

When a Japanese wants to let a woman go first, he usually gives her a good push in the small of the back, and I have not yet got used to being treated in this way by men who I have only just met. With Ichiro I am by now accustomed to it and when he wants to be very polite, he gives me such a shove through a door that my entrance is far from dignified.

We went to Nikko [in Tochigi Prefecture, north of Tokyo] with only one suitcase between us into which his mother helped me to pack our clothes, and stayed at the same hotel. Then we went to the Mount Fuji lakes and to Atami, and nobody seemed to think we were doing anything unconventional. This is certainly a land of contradictions. It is against the law to turn the light out in a taxi for fear of flirtation and a young man and woman can get a fortnight's "hard" for being out together after dark and yet everyone thinks it quite in order for two people to off together for a weekend. Indeed, Ichiro even told the newspapers where we were going.

People don't seem to mind being seen with no clothes on -- at one hot spring there was a private bathroom intended for honeymoon couples. To everyone's amusement I insisted on having it, but there was no lock to the door and no sooner was I ready to get into the bath than a man came in and insisted on washing my back. I didn't know enough Japanese to argue and I am quite used to the Japanese by now, but I must confess I was surprised next day when Ichiro told me he thought my bathing dress was indecent because it's cut low at the back!

Mr. Hatta has chosen Japanese clothes for me for the autumn. Mr. Hatta always likes me to wear them and even wants me to go out in the street in them. So far I have worn a thick kimono with a narrow obi but the old gentleman thinks this is all wrong. The new clothes have just arrived. The wide obi is very beautiful but it looks beastly uncomfortable. With it are innumerable bells, bands and various gadgets to hold it up. Also there is the strangest underwear. One thing is certain -- that is that I shall never be able to dress myself.

Jigoro Kano with members of the Kodokan's women's section, 1934-1935.
I enclose some newspaper cuttings which I don't think you have seen. From what I can gather from the rough translation that was given to me, there is not a word of truth in them. I certainly never take a powder puff into the dojo with me, and the "painted eyebrows" that would survive judo in Japanese summer have yet to be discovered! The article I wrote will amuse you. I think we should have a job to find 10 women at the Budokwai on ladies night, but I was asked to write in that way in order to stimulate the interest of Japanese women. [EN2] They [the Japanese women at the Kodokan] certainly have a very nice dojo but if I couldn't do judo in any other place I'm afraid I shouldn't do much. The girls are altogether too polite to each other. They never try to avoid any throw, but just take it in turns to drop each other gently on the mat. The one in the photograph with me is 2-Dan but as I've never practiced with any of the women I don't know how good she is.

Mr. Mifune told Ichiro that if I could stay here till the spring he could make me "quite strong."

Please give my love to your family and my best regards to everyone I know. Ichiro has been intending to write you for a long while but he is terribly busy. A team of wrestlers from Hawaii are here for a contest and he has to arrange everything, entertain them, and fix business details and advertising as well as coaching his own boys. So he will write to you later. Prof. [Jigoro] Kano is just back [from a trip to Europe] but not well as he has stone in kidney. People don't seem to think he will live much longer. Remember me to Mr. [Yukio] Tani.

With all good wishes,
Yours very sincerely,

Sarah Mayer

To be continued.

EDITOR'S NOTES (click your back button to return to the text)

EN1. Ichiro Hatta (1906-1983) was a headstrong youth, and after he was kicked out of several schools for misbehavior, his father, a naval captain, enrolled him in judo at the Kodokan. There the young man fell under the spell of Jigoro Kano and Kyuzo Mifune, and by 1929 Hatta was both ranked 4-dan in judo and a firm believer in self-discipline. In 1929 Hatta also toured the United States with a Waseda University judo club. In Seattle, the team competed with University of Washington wrestlers, and while the Japanese team won the match, its members also learned holds nobody had told them about and several had been roundly trounced. As a result, Hatta believed that the American methods deserved greater study. Few Japanese agreed with him; however; to the judo purists, judo contained all the knowledge worth knowing. Hatta persisted in his belief that wrestling had value, and in April 1931 he started Japan's first freestyle wrestling program at Waseda University. Although Hatta's teams were international class by 1937 and world-class by 1952, his unconventional beliefs caused the Japanese judo community to pronounce anathema on Hatta, a situation that did not change over time. Hatta in turn accused the judoka of living too much in a greenhouse, and failing to make up their minds whether they were practicing a martial art or an Olympic sport. For further discussion, see Iwao Horiuchi, "Judo and Wrestling in the person of Hatta Ichiro," Japanese Martial Arts and American Sports: Cross-Cultural Perspectives on Means to Personal Growth, edited by M. Kiyota and H. Kinoshita (Tokyo: Nihon University, 1990), 231-242.

EN2. On March 29, 1935 Mayer gave a speech to Tokyo’s Pan-Pacific Club in which she described her judo experiences. Two days later, the Japan Times quoted her as saying:

We have a club in London, founded in 1918 [the Budokwai], which has been fairly successful. We have about 500 members, of whom 50 are women. They are all very enthusiastic about judo but as far as the women are concerned we have not had enough time to practice, for we have only about two evenings a week. If some of our women could come here I am sure they would have done much better than I have, for some of them are very good…

As far as the usual self-defense sports go I think that judo is probably the only one suitable for women, because it is not absolutely necessary to use strength. You can oppose brains to brawn in judo. I believe there are one or two women who have gone in for boxing, a most unsuitable and dangerous thing for a woman and in my opinion quite degrading.

I believe there is a number of wrestling ladies, rather large and brawny ones, but here wrestling is greatly a question of strength. In the ordinary way a woman cannot hope to pit herself against a man’s strength, but if she works hard she should be able to hold her own against a man in judo. Many of the finest judo men in the country are small and rather fragile in appearance, and they do not rely entirely on their strength.

Photo credit: Jigoro Kano with members of the Kodokan's women's section, 1934-1935. Keiko Fukuda sits seiza on the right side of the picture, in the striped outfit. Photo courtesy of the Joseph Svinth collection. Copyright (c) 2000 All rights reserved.
JCS Apr 2000