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 IV.

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

501, 4-chome
Setagaya, Setagaya-Ku

Dear Mr. Koizumi,

As you see, I am still staying with Ichiro Hatta's family and Ichiro says that he will write a letter for me to enclose with this. He has been very busy till now with the Hawaii wrestlers but he will tell you all about them and the Japanese success himself.

We went to Osaka for the second match and chose the day of the typhoon to travel on. The railway was greatly disorganized and we had to change several times. We arrived very late and deposited our boys and the Hawaiians with the parents of one of the party. There were about eighteen of them and when we found the house it was half down and the front wall in ruins. However the hostess came to the door with a candle and took them all in and Ichiro and another boy and I went in search of food for them, and a hotel for me.

There was no water to be had and very little food and the lights had all gone out but we managed somehow. Next day we were more able to see the extent of the damage and Osaka looked as if there had been an air raid on the previous night. You will have read all about it in the papers so there is no need for me to tell you any more. The terrible toll of schools was the most tragic feature of the disaster.

Ichiro Hatta

Last week I met Professor [Jigoro] Kano for the first time. I had expected to meet a very aloof person for everyone seems to stand in such awe of him that I felt quite nervous. Instead I found a charming old gentleman with European manners who greeted me warmly and made me feel quite at home. He seems most anxious to help me and asked me whether I only wished to get some practice or whether I wanted to learn as much about the real meaning of Judo as was possible in a short time. I told him that I was as much interested in the philosophical side as in the actual practice which seemed to please him and he asked me to come again when he had had time to formulate a plan for my study.

I saw him again the day before yesterday and he advised me to practice wherever I liked with Mr. [Kyuzo] Mifune and Ichiro, or with anyone who held a high degree in Judo. At the same time he insisted upon the importance of learning Kata in all its forms thoroughly. For the rest he said that he would talk to me often and explain the ethical side and answer any questions that might occur to me.

Hitherto I had rather avoided the Kodokan because they refused to let me go into the big dojo and I didn't like the woman's section which is rather like a young ladies school; and I have been practicing at the Waseda University dojo. However Professor Kano would not hear of my being banished to the woman's department and gave orders that I should be admitted to the men's dojo to practice.

I went there yesterday and practiced with two men of 6th and 8th degree who were very kind but rather exhausting. In fact after the first I was very tired and when another one came up at once and asked me to practice with him I had to say that I must have a rest first. Afterwards Ichiro said that if I was asked to practice by any of these exalted ones, I mustn't refuse -- but if the Prince of Wales had come up at that minute and asked me to dance I should have had to make some excuse!

To make matters worse there seems to be no chance of getting a rest between times. Yesterday Ichiro said that I must either sit on my feet or cross-legged -- both positions are most uncomfortable on a hard floor -- and that failing that I must stand up. I told him that I was going to ask Professor Kano to provide me with an armchair!

Next month -- or rather -- November will see the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Kodokan [EN1] and I am very pleased that I shall be able to see it. I have written to Robin [her husband] to ask him how he feels about letting me stay here till the Spring as it seems such a pity to miss the opportunity of getting some more Judo now that I have the opportunity. At present I don't know whether I shall have to come home for Xmas or whether he will let me stay until after the cherry blossom.

Ichiro is very keen to come to England for six months when I go back. Do you think that there is any chance of getting him any kind of job or managing it in any way? Of course he can come to Quarr whenever he likes but he is too active and restless to stay in the country doing nothing for long. He seems to be able to live on the minimum of money and I am wondering if something cannot be done about it. Do let me know if you can think of anything. I will help in any way I can but once I am home it may not be too easy for me to do very much financially.

I enclose another newspaper cutting which will make you laugh at all events. I am not responsible for the nonsense the good lady who interviewed me wrote. I saw her and afterwards she questioned Ichiro (upon whom she has bestowed the rank of 8th Dan), she has got most of her facts mixed but, as Ichiro says, the newspapers don't care what they write as long as they write something.

All good wishes to everyone and my love to your wife and [daughter] Hana.

Yours very sincerely,

Sarah Mayer

P.S. How goes the moxa[bustion]?

501, 4-chome

Dear Mr. Koizumi,

Thank you very much for your letter. I am so glad that Moxa is doing so well and wish you all the luck with it.

I forget if I told you that my husband has given me another six months, so that I shall be able to stay here till the end of May or thereabouts -- arriving in England at about the end of June.

I expect that Ichiro will come with me if Mr. Hatta consents, and he hopes to stay for a year. If the Budokwai can find enough for his board and lodging, I can manage his fares and pocket-money. But he will write to you himself. I think that it will be an excellent thing for the club if he does come to England -- especially as you are too busy to give as much of your time as you used to do.

A few days ago we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Kodokan. One of the Imperial Princes was present and the Emperor sent a present of money. A speech was read from the Prime Minister and the Minister of Education delivered a long oration. All the famous Judo men were there and there was a rather touching scene when Mr. [Yoshiaki] Yamashita, the oldest pupil, came forward. He has lost his voice with advancing years and another man had to read his speech for him, but as he stood facing Prof. Kano I could not help thinking of the long years that these two men, now so old, had struggled to make Judo popular, and what a wonderful day it must be to them to have lived to see such an amazing achievement.

Professor Yamashita

Famous men demonstrated beautiful Kata when the speeches were over and Prof. Kano had dedicated three trees to his three teachers, and comic relief was provided by a match between me and Mr. [Kaichiro] Samura, who was good enough to get the worst of it. I was so frightened by the instructions I had been given (how to bow and which mat to stand on in a hall of 500 mats each indistinguishable from the next) that I was more inclined to collapse on his bosom than engage him in combat. However, despair gave me strength and I got through somehow although Ichiro said afterwards that I "made him some awful pants" by which he meant that he was as nervous as I was.

I dislocated my shoulder a few weeks ago which stopped me doing any Judo but the bonesetter patched me up in time for the anniversary. As I was about to enter the dojo he begged me to fight with might and main adding that if I put my shoulder out again he would soon mend it! As he attends to me for nothing I suppose it was meant very kindly, but I was very glad that nothing of the kind happened.

I had thought that I should be allowed to practice again the next day, but the bonesetter tells me that I must wait for another week as, although nothing serious happened to my shoulder, the exertion did it no good.

I have now met all the famous Judo men. Mr. [Shuichi] Nagaoka is back [from Europe and the United States]; and Mr. Yamashita, who I had never met, came to me after the display and introduced himself. He was good enough to say that I was "very skilful." Prof. Kano contented himself with saying that he was very "interested" and that my "posture" was good. For my part, the more I study the less I seem to know, and I sometimes wonder whether I am any better than I was when I left England.

Prof. [Hajime] Isogai came from Kyoto and came to lunch with me at the Imperial Hotel. I had invited two 6th degree men who had been very hospitable to me, but Prof. Isogai and Prof. Iisoka [Kunisaburo Iizuka] joined us. We had a very merry party in the course of which Prof. Isogai drank several cocktails and plenty of sake. I will say that for a man who has never tasted a cocktail before he carried it remarkably well. It is true that he offered me a 5th degree if I would go to Kyoto, but otherwise he was quite himself. He broke his leg a short while ago and arrived leaning heavily upon a stick, but he left the hotel waving it in the air. When I remember how terrified I was of him in Kyoto I can't help laughing. As for Prof. Iisoka -- I've never been able to take him very seriously since I taught him the Charleston.

Did you ask Mr. Nagaoka to look after me, or is his parental instinct abnormally developed? He bestows the same care upon me as a hen with one chicken, and if he sees me alone in the Kodokan he calls loudly and demands to know the reason that I am being neglected. The other men who are quite accustomed to me look very surprised and rather at a loss. The Great Men either slap me heartily on the back or cuff me as if I were a small boy and they are all very kind, but Mr. Nagaoka seems to think that I shall perish if not constantly watched. He seems very kind and is very upset about my shoulder, which the others seem to think a good joke.

As I am staying for another six months, Ichiro has given me his room which is larger than the one I had before and I have bought some furniture. I am happy enough sitting on the floor in the ordinary way but when I feel tired I require something more luxurious than a mat. I got an armchair and a desk and an electric fire, for the hibachi is cold comfort in the winter. Mr. Hatta and Ichiro already wear so many clothes in the house that they look like Laplanders but I cannot burden myself in this way, neither can I bring myself to accept their kind offer to lend me some of their underclothing -- long pants which extend to the ankle.

I have quite a collection of Japanese clothes now -- enough to keep me in dressing-gowns for many a long year -- including a rather lovely ceremonial dress that I had to get for the wedding of Mrs. Hatta's brother which takes place next month.

Ichiro is very keen on writing a book on Judo in English. It is not a bad idea as there is no good one in existence except a very old one which is out of date. But I am afraid all the work will fall on me although we are supposed to be collaborating. His idea seems to be that I shall do the writing and he shall do the reading and it is like getting blood out of a stone to get him to do the necessary translating for me. The translation of the various throws etc. is giving me the greatest trouble. To the English student such terms as "Major Interior-Reaping", "Rear Scarf", and "Embrace and Separation" mean anything or nothing and some terms that the reader can understand and which will at the same time distinguish between the different holds must be invented.

With your experience of Judo in England you must have coined many terms and I should be very grateful if you would send me a list of those that you have in use together with the Japanese terms for them. As regards the new tricks which are being invented all the time by Mr. Mifune and others, I shall have to try to think out suitable terms myself.

My best regards to all and, as this will reach you at about that time, a very Happy Xmas and all good luck for the New Year.

Yours very sincerely,

Sarah Mayer

501, 4-chome
9th January [1935]

Dear Mr. Koizumi,

The time is passing quickly now and in less than four months I shall be getting ready to leave Japan. The new year dawned in beautiful weather and for several days it was as warm as Spring. The thermometer in my room registered 65 without any heating, but our pleasure was somewhat marred by earthquakes which occurred every day for the first four days of the year. A volcano at Hakone which has been supposed to be extinct for many years has recently shown signs of being very much alive and people are afraid that it may mean a bad earthquake. I only hope that it won't happen whilst I am here. The small ones are bad enough and it takes years off my life when we all have to leap up in the night and fly to the door ready to take to our heels before the house falls down. Neither do the frequent warnings, instructions and advice that the Hatta family give me as to the best way to escape if the worst comes to the worst do anything to reassure me, but merely add to my fears.

Winter practice started at the Kodokan on the 5th of January at the ungodly hour of five o'clock [in the morning], and so far Ichiro and I have managed to get there. The lovely warm weather vanished and ice and a bitterly cold wind took its place -- doubtless in honour of the occasion. However, I have an electric stove in my room and we prepare coffee overnight and keep it in a thermos flask so we are able to start off fairly warm.

As all the Great Men in the Judo world go there to encourage the rest I am able to practice with the élite who are all very kind and spoil me thoroughly. I enclose a picture that appeared in this evening's paper of Mr. Mifune practicing with me. The unfortunate cameraman had to struggle through a crowd of combatants to get the photograph and I really admired his devotion to duty as the dojo is packed.

There are six hundred men attending the winter exercises and, as I am the only female allowed in the men's dojo, there are no women there, which is just as well for I cannot imagine what the tiny Japanese women from the ladies' dojo would do if they were swallowed up in the throng. Even I, who am about the same size as most of the men, am beginning to look the worse for wear. I'm covered with bruises and I've got a black eye that would not disgrace a Billingsgate fish-fag!

When I told the photographers that I did not want to have any photographs taken until my eye resumed its normal colour it transpired that they had not realised that I had hurt it but thought that it was a new style in make-up for European ladies to paint one eye a bright purple and leave the other untouched! And really when I see the blood-red fingernails that the American women wear here, I am not surprised that the Japanese should think us capable of such an eccentricity. In the photograph, however, although you can see it, it looks like a shadow, I think.

We get away from the Kodokan at seven and come home for breakfast and at eleven I have lessons in "kata" from a Mr. Sato who is 6th Dan and who is considered to be very good at it. He keeps me at it until three o'clock and as the form I am doing now is all sitting down (or what I call kneeling) my knees have got hardly any skin left on them. And the things that I am taught to do to my opponent are what no lady could do to another!

One of the things that I find most difficult to do is to utter "Kiai". So far all that I have achieved is a very sore throat and the sound that emerges from it is rather like the yapping of a very small dog. When my opponent does it, it startles me so much that I forget what I have to do next and we have to start all over again. But Mr. Sato is also teaching some of his other pupils and I am encouraged to see that they are quite as stupid as I am. Indeed he says they are worse.

Is there anything that you want us to bring you for the Budokwai? Don't ask for mats because I am taking some back with me to fix up a practice room at Quarr. But anything smaller we can manage quite easily as Ichiro is bringing three other boys with him. They are going to wrestle in Berlin in preparation for the Olympic games next year and will stay in Europe for a month. Ichiro of course wants to stay much longer and hopes to be able to remain for a year and return with the Olympic team in 1936.

As he is hopeless at arranging his financial affairs, I propose to deposit money with you for his pocket money and ask you to be good enough to dole it out to him once a week. Otherwise as he is so good-natured he will give it all away and be stranded. I shall bring him over and pay his fare back as well -- but please keep this to yourself as if it should get to my husband's ears he will think I am too rich, which would never do. [EN2]

I have been meaning to tell you that I met your friend Mr. Kobayashi. I wrote to him from Kobe but had no reply and he tells me that he never got my letter. He came to the Kodokan on the 50th anniversary and sent his card to me, and Ichiro and I went to lunch at his home. When we arrived he handed me a long letter that he had written because he felt that he could not express himself well enough in speech. It was a very kind letter but very Japanese and I am keeping it as a souvenir.

I also met yesterday a Mr. Nicholas at the Kodokan. He tells me that he learned Judo at the Budokwai and he is the only foreigner that I have seen there. He goes there very seldom however and seems to be in the early stages of Judo. I gather that he is not going to do the winter exercises but came in to see what it was like.

Enclosed is also a snapshot of me with Mrs. Hatta in our ceremonial dress on the way to the wedding of her younger brother. I was all right when I started but after I had partaken of a heavy meal of Chinese food I thought that my obi would burst, and almost prayed that it might. And it was a particularly auspicious day and the restaurant is famous for its weddings, no less than thirty-eight couples were married on the same afternoon. The bride was a country girl and her relations were most amusing. One very elegant old gentleman removed his false teeth in the middle of the banquet and gave them a good wash in his teacup before putting them back. As for me, I am used to being stared at but on this occasion newly married men deserted their brides, waitresses left their work, and even the cooks left their kitchen to follow in my wake. A party of American tourists -- when they had recovered from their stupefaction -- announced in loud tones that I was one of the brides and Ichiro the happy man. This was contradicted loudly by a lady who declared that anyone could see that a small Japanese girl who was walking beside me was my daughter!

Ichiro joins with me in sending you all the best wishes for the New Year.

With kindest regards,

Yours very sincerely,

Sarah Mayer

On Wednesday, February 27, 1935, the Kyoto Butokukai promoted Mayer to shodan; she was the first foreign woman to be so honored. Shortly afterwards she returned to Britain.


EN1. Although the traditional date for the establishment of the Kodokan is June 1882, in March 1934 the organization opened a new 500-mat facility at Suidobashi. So, as this was the organization's first New Year celebration in its new building, it rated a special celebration.

EN2. Assuming cabin-class travel, the fare between Japan and Britain was around US $250-$300 each way, which was a sizable sum during the Depression.

JCS May 2000