All I knew about judo until a few weeks ago was what I had seen on television—a demonstration showing a couple of little girls (like me) throwing men built like Anton Geesink right into the next studio.
"Anybody can do it," said the announcer, while I sat in my living room, eating potato chips. "Isn't that right, honey?" He put his arm around one of the little girls and she smiled as if she had a deep, dark secret that was giving her raptures and said yes, anybody could do it.
"Just a matter of proper training, isn't it, honey?" said the announcer. Yes, answered the girl, just a matter of proper training (she wouldn't have won any prizes for dialogue). The announcer thereupon offered a brief history of judo, the earliest form of which was called jujitsu, saying that it had apparently started simultaneously in China, Tibet and Japan, but that it had been the Japanese who developed it, calling it "the gentle art," a nonviolent method of dealing with bandits who were trying to run off with their rice. As years went by, jujitsu became more and more refined until it was considered a sport as well as a method of self-defense. The program ended with the girls coming back to toss a few more men around the studio to show how easy it is for a little girl to take care of herself.
Interesting. I turned off the TV and picked up the evening paper, which was full of the usual cheerless news about people clobbering each other. Things hadn't changed much. Burglars, muggers, purse snatchers, all running loose in the streets, plucking off victims as if they were grapes hanging in a cluster. Then, all too frequently, there would be that ever-popular story about some little Miss Muffet who got stuffed down a drainpipe while the whole police force happened to be on the other side of town. The newspaper stories implied that such girls couldn't take care of themselves. Now, if they had known judo.... It got me to thinking.
May 21, 1967
Once I make up my mind about something, I don't sit around swatting flies. I get out my telephone directory and make a list of places to call. This time I eliminated some likely spots because they were too far from where I lived. I didn't want to knock myself out just getting there. Others I crossed off the list because I didn't like the sound of the names. I didn't care to learn my self-defense at Sigward Sports Academy, for example. I was sure that the girl on TV hadn't learned her judo at any academy. Finally I put in a call to the New York Karate Club.
"We don't take women," the man said curtly. Too bad about him. A man at the second karate place I phoned said, "If you want judo why are you calling us?"
"Aren't they the same thing?" I asked. He hung up.
I crossed off all the karate schools and dialed a number that ran an advertisement under it saying, "If you live in the city, you ought to know judo."
"How old are you?" asked the man who answered the telephone. Already we were off on the wrong foot. I'm not that old, but it's not my favorite question.
The next number I dialed got me a sweet-voiced Oriental from Korea, who said he painted during the day and taught "technique" at night—up in his loft in Greenwich Village. I'm sure he was all right, but just his voice left me weak, never mind the technique.
The last number I tried was Judo, Inc., a name that sounded pleasantly matter-of-fact. A man who identified himself as Ray Gould answered the phone. He was friendly but businesslike and didn't ask any nosy questions. We set up an appointment for the following week.
That gave me enough time to look up some books on the subject. I like to know what I'm getting into. I mean, it was going to be fun wowing my friends with the fact that I was taking judo; I just wanted to be sure I wasn't going to be in traction when they came around for a look.
Anyone can walk into a bookstore and say, "Give me your latest bestseller on judo," and get it, but somehow the things that go click, click, click for most people always go drag, bump, clang for me. The small bookstores on Manhattan's East Side had nothing on the subject. Brentano's was a bust. At Double-day on Fifth Avenue the salesman was reading a pretty exciting mystery I had just finished myself.
Putting a forefinger in the book to keep his place, he smiled at me and said, "Judo?" It was obvious that he didn't expect me to take up much of his time.
"Why would a little thing like you want judo?"
"Because I'm a little thing like me," I said, "and if you don't have any books on the subject yourself, you might tell me where I can find something."
"Charles Tuttle would have anything you wanted," he said.
"Where is Tuttle located?"
"Thanks a lot," I said. "Any other helpful suggestions?" He finally suggested I call Japan Publications. Probably they could tell me who stocked books on judo—if anyone did.
"What are you reading?" I asked, as if I hadn't already noticed. He held up the mystery. "Oh, yes," I said. "That's the one where the girl's fiancé tries to kill her by locking her up in her stepmother's steamer trunk, isn't it? Don't worry, they catch him."
I got on the telephone again. The man who answered at Japan Publications let me go through my whole litany about books on judo, then said, "My speak very poor. You call Honda."
Honda Associates, it turned out, was located only a few blocks from where I worked and carried just about every book available on judo and the other martial arts. I went home with both arms full.
The books were most encouraging. The thought of someone my size (5 feet, 107 pounds) being able to master something like judo intrigued me, as it would anyone who has spent a lifetime peeking around people's elbows and trying to stay out from underfoot. All the books agreed that where judo was concerned, height and weight were unimportant, since judo, "the gentle way," is the art of overcoming force by yielding, by giving way, which is what I'd been doing for years during subway rush hours. Apparently, all I had to do was learn how to get an opponent off balance, then kick his legs out from under him.
The fate of my own legs during the learning process was something else again. As a beginner—a white belt—I would be recognized as a sixth kyu (which is nowhere, friends, but the books weren't mean enough to say so). A kyu may be translated, one book said, as "dan uncertain." By the time the sixth kyu becomes a fifth kyu (yellow belt) he is still uncertain but not so uncertain as he was before, and so on down to first kyu, at which point he's wearing a brown belt and is still uncertain but is trying not to show it. The next step is black belt, first degree. A black belt is a dan, and uncertainty presumably has vanished forever, for his name and status are registered with the Kodokan in Tokyo.
Kodokan judo was founded in 1882 by a Japanese scholar and jujitsu expert named Jigoro Kano, who systematized and welded together the best techniques of jujitsu with some of his own techniques. The word Kodokan, I read, means, literally, "a school of studying the way," and what Kano had in mind was no less than "the true concept of life." It seemed obvious to me that before a group of yellow, green, brown and black belts finished seeking the way somebody was going to take a lot of lumps. Who else but the lowly white belt? But my judo books were reassuring on this point, too. "It is considered a disgrace to injure anyone of lower grade than yourself," wrote the author of Judo and Self-Defense. It seemed I would be in a sort of demilitarized zone on the Battlefield of Belts.
The offices of Jerome Mackey's Judo, Inc. are housed in a narrow two-story building that is sandwiched between a restaurant called the Russian Bear and an apartment house. A nicely carpeted stairway leads up one flight of stairs to a reception room, and a narrow corridor beyond that leads to the dojo, or exercise room. I found Ray Gould, who manages Judo, Inc., in a pleasant office just off the reception room. I tried to ignore the sounds coming from the dojo—whomp! crash! bam!—as he began to explain Judo, Inc.'s program of courses.
"Don't worry," he said, after a particularly nerve-wracking whomp, "it doesn't feel nearly as bad as it sounds when you hit the mat." Oh, sure.
"I'm a brown belt," he said. "Jerry Mackey, who owns Judo, Inc., is a third-degree black belt."
"Oh, I see," I said. Gould looked very vigorous. Crash! He got up and closed the door.
"We consider our courses a form of life insurance," he said. "Once judo becomes a part of your life you can walk down the darkest alley on a moonless night without fear." That was good news. I'm the type who hears footsteps behind me in broad daylight. When I look around, there's no one there. "Not only that," Gould assured me, "but along with the physical discipline there's a rather challenging and satisfying mental discipline." I've never been very large on any kind of discipline, but I tried to look as if I thought it was a great idea to have something going on in your mind while you were doing all the physical stuff.
"We also have courses in karate and aikido," Gould went on. His tone implied that as long as I was going to be hit by a truck I might as well throw myself under a train and jump off a bridge, too. "In aikido" said Gould, "you not only flip your opponent, you frequently flip yourself." It sounded a charming way to spend an evening, but I said I thought I'd start out by giving judo a fling and save karate and aikido for some other reincarnation.
"The main thing is not to get discouraged," concluded Gould, sliding a release across the desk for me to sign. The gist of the release was that if, in learning judo, which "is not similar to playing checkers" (you better believe it), I should accidentally leave a few arms and legs behind, I would not sue Judo, Inc.'s "agents, servants, employees or my fellow students." I was momentarily alarmed by the number of people who were going to be out to get me. However, as that wise old Oriental, Kujaku Myoko, once said: "He who get flung fling." It probably suffers in translation.
By the time I got home I was composing newspaper headlines, GIRL THROWS 205-POUND THUG was one I worked out for the Post. The New York Times would run something a bit more conservative: GIRL BESTS ATTACKER. The Daily News, of course, would pull out all stops with something like SHE FLIPS HIS LID.
Aarrgh! I was going to be a tiger!
My uniform, which I picked up the following afternoon just before my first class, didn't do much for the tiger image. Called a judo-gi, it came in three parts, all of them appalling from a feminine point of view. The white cotton trousers, designed to cover the knees, fell to my ankles. The kimonolike jacket, which should have ended just below my hips, hung to my knees. With the thick cotton belt looped twice around my waist and tied in a double knot, I looked like Madame Butterfly's laundry bag. The gi would shrink, I had been assured, after a couple of washings. Even so, it wasn't anything I was going to see in Vogue next year.
The dojo at Judo, Inc. is a large, cheerful room, furnished with 1,500 square feet of mat made of grass or rush matting and filled with rice-straw padding. Rice straw? Had no one told Japan about foam rubber? I was feeling the edge of the mat to see how thick it might be when my first black belt came after me.
"I am Sensei Kanokogi," he said with a smile that charmed right down to my bare toes. "That," he said, pointing to another Japanese instructor who was hurling a body to the mat a few feet away, "is Sensei Eguchi." The word sensei means teacher, but it carries all the import of the French ma√Ætre. I had been told that Ryohei Kanokogi, a fifth dan, had trained the Japanese judo players for the 1964 Olympics and was former all-weights judo champion of southeastern Japan. Both he and his colleague, Motohiko Eguchi, a fourth dan at 23 who won the 1966 AAU National Judo Championships, had taken degrees in economics at Nihon University in Tokyo, which is where Jerome Mackey found them. Intelligence, as well as judo expertise, is a must for Judo, Inc., where the clientele includes a large cross section of New York's industrial and professional fields: doctors, lawyers, psychiatrists, clerks, secretaries, lab technicians, chefs, and also housewives and cops—and me, a tiger in disguise.
"Come," said Sensei Kanokogi, "first we learn to bow." As we stepped up to the mat, he ducked his head and shoulders, a brief bob of respect to the dojo, which the Japanese consider a cultural temple. Next there was the bow one makes to an opponent, before and after a contest, stiffly from the waist, hands sliding down the thighs, fingers closed; and finally, the bow to the sensei, performed before and after class. "Judo," I remembered reading, "begins and ends with courtesy." Kanokogi sank to his knees, indicating that I should do the same, touched his forehead to the mat, hands flat on the mat with fingertips touching. I waited, folded over like a tea cozy, while he corrected the position of my hands, then fiddled with my toes, which were apparently pointing in the wrong direction. When I got up, he was staring at me raptly.
"Why you got pants on backwards?" he demanded.
There is no good answer to a question like that, unless you say something like, "Just for laughs," which didn't seem appropriate. In the dressing room I had decided there was no front or back.
"Knee patches go in front," he said. He meant my ankle patches, of course. He untied my belt, and for one delightful moment I thought I was going to have my drawers changed then and there, but he only retied the knot in some mysterious fashion, gave me another celestial smile and asked me to try a few warmup exercises. These seemed to include touching the back of my head with my big toe, doing a split and attempting a macabre impossibility called the judo push-up. Once you're in a horizontal position, rump in the air and legs wide apart, balanced on the flat of your hands (or fists) at one end, your toes at the other, the idea is to lower your head inward as far as possible, then sweep forward and up, with your body only an inch or so off the mat.
"Ichi...ni...san...shi...," counted Kanokogi, doing the judo pushup 10 times. The Japanese numbers were printed in large type on a poster nailed to the wall, where I had ample time to read them, since I had collapsed on the first syllable of ichi.
"Judo push-up make you strong," said Kanokogi, coming up beaming.
"Oh, I see," I said brightly. "Do we do it every time?" But he was already on his way to the back of the dojo, where Sensei Eguchi was flinging around a green belt. I decided I could bear to put off meeting Eguchi indefinitely.
"Now we fall," said Kanokogi cheerfully.
"You mean deliberately?" I asked, limping after him.
"We fall three ways. Back breakfall, side breakfall and roll-out." They all sounded hideous, but there was no way to avoid it, since he was already sitting on the mat and patting a reserved seat for me beside him. Crossing his arms over his chest, he rolled backwards onto his shoulders, bringing his hands down to strike the mat hard at a 45° angle from his body. His chin was tucked close to his chest to prevent the back of his head from striking the mat. His knees, as they came up, were apart, he explained, to keep them from hitting his nose. Easy. It was my turn. Back I went. My head snapped back and hit the mat with a crack you could hear in Hoboken.
"Neck muscles weak," said Kanokogi thoughtfully.
"I could take up mah-jongg," I told him.
"Fall again, please." This time I saved my head by landing on my elbows.
"Keep arms straight. Otherwise, Paa-Boing!" Finally, I was instructed to try the back breakfall from a crouch, then from a standing position. It was Paa-Boing! all the way.
"When I start judo in Japan, I fall for whole month," Kanokogi told me matter-of-factly. "As a child I have a very weak body, sick all the time. I come from samurai family. My father was a boxer. He enrolls me in judo school, then I cry all the time." I later found out that Kanokogi is 29 and is married to an American girl, a third-degree black belt herself. She and Kanokogi have an 8-month-old child, and I was told his wife was on her feet two hours after leaving the delivery room.
"Now we try side breakfall," Kanokogi said, getting to his feet and crossing his right leg over his left. He fell on his side, slapping the mat with his right hand almost at the same moment his body touched, to break the fall.
It took a while to lacerate both hips, after which I was ready for the roll-out, which seemed to be a handspring that turned into a somersault.
"Falling very important. Otherwise, break arms, legs—where you go?"
"I thought I'd go up front and practice bowing," I said.
"No, we learn roll-out," said Kanokogi, and we did. The idea, as demonstrated by my tireless sensei, was to take a stance something like a sprinter about to start, push off with the rear foot and roll over on the soft side of the upper outer arm in the direction of a crescent, coming down slightly turned on one side and breaking the fall by slapping the mat.
"I leave you now to practice," said my new boss, abandoning me for a brown belt. Sensei Eguchi, who had temporarily run out of bodies, sauntered over to watch, his face expressionless, as I slammed down on head, shoulders and spine.
"Before you go over, rook through regs," he said mysteriously and then stalked off. A small boy edged over and sat on the mat Turk fashion. Then he got up and executed a perfect roll-out. I got up and executed my perfect impression of a plane crash-landing.
"Sensei won't throw you until you learn how to fall," said the boy. It was a thought to cling to.
On the way home after my first lesson, surprisingly, I felt fine. Nothing to it, I told myself, eying a man who was walking toward me on Fifth Avenue. "Aarrgh!" I said softly. The man passed at a fast clip, glancing at his watch. Scared to death.
The next morning my bones had news for me. If there was any muscle that wasn't sore, it probably had stopped functioning in infancy. When I could make it out of bed, I got dressed and creaked around the neighborhood doing chores. Everyone wanted to know why I was walking "like that," which was a cross between a crawl and a hop.
That evening, out on the mat—as they say at Judo, Inc.—I got no sympathy.
"Go practice falling," Kanokogi said, after I had gone through my collapsible calisthenics.
"Sensei say fall, you fall." That's the way it was. Sensei say jump out of window, you jump out of window. So I fell—backwards, sideways and head over teakettle.
"Look at this," I said to Eguchi, who never tired of supervising my roll-outs. I showed him a rather extravagant bruise on the inside of my elbow.
"Congratulations," he said, and his heartlessness had a curious effect on me. I tried harder. Eventually I considered myself undisputed queen of roll-outs and did them as an accepted part of calisthenics; I did them as an accepted part of punishment, too, because I got smart with my two sensei.
"Pronounce this," I said one day, showing Eguchi a slip of paper with the Japanese word for third kyu written on it.
"Sankyu," said Eguchi promptly.
"You're welcome," I replied, giggling like a maniac (that one cost me seven back breakfalls, five side breakfalls, and 15 roll-outs).
"I haven't made my bed for two weeks," I told Kanokogi.
"Why not?" (The Japanese make marvelous straight men.)
"Now that I'm taking judo, I just sort of throw it together" (four back breakfalls, six side breakfalls, 10 rollouts).
In between getting up just to fall down, I began to learn technique, mostly from Kanokogi, whose demonstrations struck me more and more as pure poetry.
"I teach you only one technique first, the o-soto-gari," he said. "Too many make scramble in head." For someone who had been trying for days to get me to induce a concussion, I thought his concern was touching.
Grasping my lapel with his right hand and holding my left sleeve under the elbow with his other, he took a deep step forward, pulling me off balance. Simultaneously, he swept his right leg against the inside of my knee. My leg flew out from under me. Pulling me upright, he demonstrated again, faster this time, his feet barely grazing the mat. Each part of the technique was performed in one continuous, flowing movement, as subtle as a watercolor. When demonstrating technique, his face took on a rapt expression, as though he sensed something beyond the movement itself. I had noticed the same "listening look" on Eguchi's face when he performed. Seemingly effortless judo is the mark of the expert, who is graded as much on a demonstration of his mental discipline—lack of anxiety, overcaution, anger—as he is on his technical skill.
My own mental discipline and technical skill were put to their first stern test when Kanokogi sent me off in a corner to practice with one of the other beginners, a patronizing young man who grinned down at me as I labored to upset his balance. His feet stuck to the mat with such tenacity I thought he might have lathered them with glue before coming to class. As I pushed, pulled and tugged, I began to get mad. My opponent yawned and gave me his most condescending grin. "Maybe fragile little girls ought to forget about judo and carry rocks or something," he said after my umpteenth failure to budge him. That did it. Running around behind him, I gave him a couple of swift kicks and dragged him down from behind.
Sensei Kanokogi was on me like a shot, pulling me up by the scruff of the neck. "Use technique. When attack fails, you withdraw. No run around behind kick, understand?"
I retreated to the back of the cultural temple, disgraced, and did a few penitential roll-outs. "More," said Eguchi, making a circular motion with his finger.
"Phlagh!" I said, hoping it was the Japanese equivalent for nuts, but I apologized to the boy with sticky feet and also to Kanokogi for losing my temper.
"Fighting spirit makes good judoka," he said. "I like that."
At least once a week we got down on the mat and did groundwork (grappling), which was a kind of calisthenics gone wild. I didn't care much for groundwork, since I always wound up in someone's armlock or face down in the rice straw. One of the rules of judo is that if you tap the mat twice with hand or foot, or tap your own body or that of your opponent, he must release you immediately. My own substitute was to yell bloody murder.
"If you want to be released, tap out," said Kanokogi one day in exasperation, as I struggled to free myself from a Neanderthal throwback who had flopped on top of me. My head was buried in his gi (we hadn't even been introduced), he had one of my arms locked and the other arm was under me. Both his legs, the size of tree trunks, were on top of mine. What was I supposed to tap out with? I knew if I asked I'd get bawled out, so when I got up I kept quiet, sat down in an abandoned corner of the dojo to lick my wounds and told the wall the purse snatchers, thieves and muggers could have me, and welcome. Judo, Inc. had seen the last of me.
The next day I thought it all over and decided I needed a change. To karate, for instance. Two nights a week, while judo was being perpetrated in the front of the dojo, the karate class assembled at the back, practicing something that seemed to be uninhibited madness. I decided to take a closer look. The first thing I noticed was that there was none of the playfulness of judo in the karate lessons. The students were intense. Some looked almost distraught. The instructor, an American black belt, bounced in stiffly, like a power-driven pogo stick, and his class came to immediate attention. For the benefit of beginners, he would go through a brief history of how Shoto-Kan karate was developed in Okinawa by Funakoshi Gichin and taken by him to Japan, finally arriving in the U.S. When Gichin died, he passed his domain on to a disciple named Tomosaburo Okano. Photographs of these two gentlemen hung on the back wall, and the first thing the students did was bow to the photographs, shouting something that sounded like "oosh."
The poor, suffering karate students were always being bawled out. "When I say move, move!" yelled the instructor. "I'm teaching you to kill. We're not playing games." Kill was a word I never heard in judo, not even in fun during the pretend punching and kicking sessions. Watching karate was sort of like going from Mary Poppins to James Bond. Those who couldn't move fast enough were usually separated from the main group of karate students and marched off to another corner to learn basic techniques. It was time, I told myself, that I joined them. Nobody would notice if I slipped in, and, besides, I'd fix Kanokogi and his crew. They'd be sorry when they saw me noodling around in the karate class. I sidled in beside a golden-haired, blue-eyed boy who seemed to be drowning in his own sweat, though he hadn't done anything yet but bow and holler "oosh" twice. A few feet away the advanced karate class was already sweeping across the mat like a group of mechanized locusts. The beginners' instructor nodded to me briefly and barked an order.
"Kiba-dachi. Yoi!" The students beside me went into immediate action, punching the air hard and silently, first with one fist then the other. I could feel the wind whistling past my ears. Since I didn't know what was going on, I just stood there. The instructor brought the class to a halt and looked at me, baffled.
"Yoi!" he said.
"Yoi!" I replied, hoping it was some sort of greeting.
"Step out." I stepped out (there's nothing like a karate class to make you think you've joined the Marines).
"Yoi means 'do it,' " he explained.
"Oh, I see." I trudged back into line, then stepped out again as a thought occurred to me.
"The kiba-dachi, straddle-leg stance. Haven't I seen you here before?"
"You've probably seen me in the judo class, doing the o-uchi-gari, the hiza-guruma, the tai-otoshi—things like that," I said. (Part of a judo player's discipline is modesty, so I didn't list all the other techniques I hadn't learned.)
While this was going on, the advanced karate students were marching around, in a crouch, toting other students on their shoulders, like horses carrying jockeys. Every so often, horse and jockey let out a shattering kiai (yell).
At the end of the hour I left karate forever and scuttled gratefully back to judo. "Here come that Chinese," said Eguchi.
I made up my mind to work harder and practice my techniques diligently. The o-soto-gari was still my greatest challenge. It looked so simple, but it really wasn't. I had better luck with the ippon seoi-nage (single shoulder throw) and the morote seoi-nage (double shoulder throw), but my favorite technique was the de ashi-harai (advanced foot sweep) because it had rhythm, like a waltz. One, two, three, sweep; one, two, three, sweep!
"What you got, new dance step?" teased Eguchi, as I whirled across the mat.
"Very good," said Kanokogi one day, watching my breakfalls and fancy footwork. "I think we throw you now." "We" included everyone on the mat. Kanokogi threw me first—testing—then handed me over to a brown belt named Eric, who threw me. When Eric got bored, he passed me on to a green belt, who made a few desultory passes at the mat with me and delivered me to a yellow belt, who gave me a fling or two, before offering me to a 13-year-old purple belt, who was tireless. I tended to cling to lapels, almost taking the thrower with me, or I forgot to break my fall as I had been told to by slapping the mat. I could write a book about what I think of rice straw.
Finally I was judged ready for my first randori, which is variously translated as "free exercise," "free struggle" or "free fight." My own translation—I'd watched a few—was "brawl." Each contestant uses his techniques to get his adversary down. Randori, engaged in seriously, improves speed, timing and reflexes, all important to the judoka training for actual competition. There are schools that profess to teach "soft" judo, without randori. Without randori, judo could not survive as a sport. Nevertheless, randori is dreaded by most beginners. It's fun when you're fast enough to make your techniques work. Otherwise it's like running into a windmill.
Eguchi found me hiding behind a padded post at randori time, and lined me up with a slim boy of my own approximate height and weight, who looked as if he couldn't wrestle a plate of spaghetti to the ground. At the word "Go," we bowed stiffly. It was almost the last thing I remembered. Fling, flang, flung.
The next morning I was still brooding about my poor showing in randori when my cleaning lady showed up. Leveen listened sympathetically to my account of the previous night.
"I should have been able to at least try the o-soto-gari," I said.
"This," I said, grasping the right lapel of her blouse with one hand, her sleeve with the other. I took a deep step forward and swept back against the inside of her knee. Leveen lay on the living-room rug looking up at me.
"It never worked before," I said, helping her up. "I'm really just a beginner."
"Let me know when you graduate," said Leveen, stomping off for the mop.
I was elated. Imagine that little old o-soto-gari finally coming through for me. But a sobering thought assailed me. Mowing innocent people down is not in the spirit of judo, particularly not as conceived by Jigoro Kano.
A profound thinker, Kano sensed that physical perfection—as one strives for it in perfecting judo techniques—should be accompanied by mental and spiritual benefits as well. He developed his own Kodokan school, therefore, under two slogans: Maximum Efficiency with Minimum Effort and Mutual Welfare and Benefit. The latter slogan meant among other things that henceforth the thrower would be responsible for the person thrown.
"The philosophy is not un-Christian in concept," says Mackey, who runs Judo, Inc. strictly according to the precepts of Kodokan judo. "The more proficient you become, the more you are your brother's keeper."
Judo was also a matter of courtesy, and I wasn't winning any blue ribbons for good behavior around the dojo.
"First, I teach courtesy, then judo," Kanokogi always said whenever someone committed a breach of discipline (guess who?). He looked sad if a student forgot to bow, or talked back, or made a mess of things when he was being used for purposes of demonstration. I had an absolutely perfect score for delinquency in every department. If Kanokogi tried to teach an escape tactic, I thought of a dozen "what ifs," like, "How is that going to work if I happen to be in bed with the covers over me and can't get my arms or legs free?" It was the sort of question that made him want to climb the wall. Interrupting the sensei was considered a sign of disrespect.
"You can fight with your head," he said coldly, and I had a feeling he wished I'd go put it out the window, then follow it with the rest of me. One day he showed us how to fend off an opponent with a quick karatelike kick.
"Suppose he catches my foot?" I asked.
"You don't think like that," he said, and went back to the demonstration. I knew what he meant. If you work hard and practice until you drop, no one is going to catch your foot, because you will have perfected the technique.
One of the things that threatened to drive Kanokogi around the bend was the way Americans handled their shoes when they came into the dojo. They never took them off and lined them up neatly the way the Japanese do. I tried to explain how Americans feel about their shoes.
"They put them on in the morning," I said, "and take them off at night. Americans couldn't care less about where a shoe lands. They line up their money before they go to bed, not their shoes alongside the bed, understand?"
"Money?" pondered Kanokogi, clearly perplexed. "What has money to do with judo?" I could see that East had not met West on that one. But as angry as he got at what he considered the Americans' ingrained lack of courtesy, he never held a grudge. Each class was a new beginning, all sins forgiven. I never had to worry about the tired old mistakes I'd made the day before. I could start right off the next session racking up some new ones.
Occasionally he would talk about his life in Japan. One day he drew a map, pinpointing his home town of Kumamoto in the south of Japan. As he drew nearby Nagasaki, he hesitated, then drew a mushroom cloud above it. As a little boy he had seen the cloud rise. "It stayed in the sky for a long, long time," he said. We both stared at it. Then he crossed it out and threw down his pencil. "But that is between governments. It has nothing to do with us—or judo. Go do your warmups."
Once the spirit of judo began to get through to me, I realized that other things had changed. I was no longer imagining terrific victories, and I had given up composing headlines. If this kept up, I told myself, I'd probably wind up loving thieves, purse snatchers and muggers. The tiger was turning into a dove.
On the way to Judo, Inc. one afternoon, I tried not to look at the position of people's feet as they came down the street, a preoccupation of mine ever since I had started learning judo. The man, for example, who was waiting for a bus, one foot behind the other—a perfect setup for five different techniques; a woman coming out of a store sideways—a pushover for the okuri-ashi-harai. It didn't hurt to look. They had nothing to worry about. I wouldn't harm a fly.
It felt great to get into my gi. Most of my luminous bruises were beginning to disappear. I no longer looked like an abstract painting started by an artist who had suddenly run out of funds. In fact, I was in great shape. I had a feeling something exciting was going to happen, and I couldn't wait to get out on the mat. After warmups Kanokogi led me up to the front of the dojo. We worked on the single shoulder throw and he patiently explained, as if he'd never had to before, what I was doing wrong, which was just about everything.
"Pull my arm tight, or I escape, then paa! No, bend knees before attack—how many times I tell you that? You don't bend knees, I can choke you as you step in...you forget again, I do it...now, move in fast, turn, back into my hip, all one movement. Again! Again! Again! Good. Much better. We do form five times now, fast, then you throw, understand? Ichi...ni...san...shu...go!" On the count of five my reflex was automatic. One hundred eighty pounds of Kanokogi went over my shoulder and landed at my feet. I stared in amazement. A rare smile as bright as a Japanese lantern illuminated his face. I hadn't felt his weight, hadn't felt him go over.
"That is judo," he said.
As I left Judo, Inc. I felt uplifted. It didn't matter that I knew he had let me throw him. A judo player as good as Kanokogi can't be thrown by a white belt unless he wants to be. There are instructors who wouldn't go down if you came in driving a bulldozer. But I had watched Kanokogi teaching others, and when he thought they needed that extra little dose of self-confidence, and if the technique was correctly executed, down he went. It's discouraging never to succeed. He understood that. For one fleeting moment my mind and body had worked in perfect coordination, and he had let me know it. It might never happen again, but it had happened once.
A sudden thought stopped me cold. If I kept on doing things right, I might someday get another belt—a special one made up for undisciplined types like myself—something in mauve maybe, or spotted chartreuse. When you get promoted there's a little ceremony in which you have to walk across the mat all alone to where Kanokogi is waiting and kneel. I'd never make it. I'd trip over my own feet and ruin the whole pretty ritual. Then it would be back to roll-outs for this white belt, maybe forever.