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Early Days of Judo in America

As Remembered by Black Belt Hall of Famer Hayward Nishioka

In addition to forgetting, one of the problems with aging — oddly enough — is remembering. "I remember when you could get a cup of coffee for 10 cents." "I remember when gas was 25 cents a gallon."

After hearing me make a few statements like that, a young student asked, "What about judo? What was it like back in the day?" This is the way I happened to experience it.

DECADE — THE 1940s

Setting: World War II erupts and then ends when first Germany and then Japan are defeated. The United Nations is created. Casablanca and Citizen Kane are released, as are Disney's Dumboand Pinocchio.

In Judo: The grappling art is relatively unknown and mysterious. There's barely a hint of a national organization in the USA. Several regional clubs get together and call themselves the Judo Black Belt Federation. The art is practiced mostly in areas with high concentrations of people of Japanese ancestry, such as Hawaii, Los Angeles, Seattle and San Francisco. Judo is viewed as an event that fosters cultural identity, putting it in the same category as flower arrangement, tea ceremony and sumo.

Japanese parents take their children to judo class to instill pride, discipline and respect — qualities that are important in any culture but particularly so for first-generation Japanese so far from their homeland.

Judo competition follows the kohaku format, basically a winner-stays-in system. In other words, you keep going as long as you can score at least a half point or until you run out of steam and lose. The judoka with the most wins wins. Prizes for winning are often sacks of rice, soy sauce or maybe sake if you're a senior competitor. Trophies haven't debuted.

DECADE — THE 1950s

Setting: The Korean War hits, the Cuban Revolution unfolds and elsewhere the Cold War transpires. The United States becomes an economic power. The transistor takes off, resulting is radios for every person (and every vehicle), which gives people easy access to the tunes of Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole and Chuck Berry. NASA is created, and polio is on its way to being eradicated.

In Judo: At tournaments, which are becoming more poplar, you line up and then sit cross-legged around the perimeter of the mat until your turn comes — it can take hours. Once you're called, you stand and immediately feel pins and needles as blood gushes back into your extremities.

One pleasant aspect of participating in tournaments is you always get a free lunch. Sometimes it's a tuna sandwich, sometimes baloney or peanut butter and jam. More than sustenance for the body, it's food for the soul. The message this sends judoka is, "You're part of our community." It reminds the predominantly Japanese student body that their culture is intact.

This sows the seeds for the character-building aspects and general spreading of goodwill that are part and parcel of modern judo. Even now, judo clubs promote reverence and respect. It's exemplified by the act of bowing — toward one's opponent, one's instructor and the very room in which one works out. The rationale is, without any of these elements, progress could not occur. Without a partner, whom would you practice with? Without an instructor, how would you learn? Without a proper place to train, how would you learn to fall and throw?

During this time, you look down when bowing and often notice "old-timer's feet." There are some messed-up toes in the dojo — bent and gnarly, some facing east while others look west. That comes from years of stubbing toes on uneven surfaces like horsehair mats and wrinkled canvas coverings. A few such dojo can still be found if you look hard.

DECADE — THE 1960s

Setting: The Vietnam War is in full swing, and The Beatles rule the music world. A president and his brother are assassinated. The Watts riots find soldiers guarding the streets of Los Angeles. A man walks on the moon.

In Judo: An activity that was dominated by the Japanese no longer is. A Dutchman named Anton Geesink dispels that myth when he wins the world championship in 1961 and again in '65 — and the 1964 Tokyo Olympics in between. At each event, he bests Japan's strongest heavyweight champs. The defeats strike a blow to Japanese pride, but they're a boon for judo around the world. Now, other countries have hope that the seemingly invisible Japanese can be beaten at their own game. This initiates a shift from judo-as-a-cultural-activity to judo-as-an-international-sport. Today, it's practiced in more than 180 countries and ranks second only to soccer in terms of participation.

In the United States, early non-Japanese judo stars include "Pop" Roy Moore Sr., and later Roy Moore Jr. and his adopted brother Mel Bruno. They do much to expand the art. Bruno goes on to coach the famous Strategic Air Command judo team that includes George Harris, Lynwood Williams, Tosh Seino and Paul Maruyama. Other servicemen returning from Japan also help popularize the art, including Hal Sharp, Phil Porter, Donn Draeger and Ben "Nighthorse" Campbell, who eventually becomes a U.S. senator.

Author Hayward Nishioka, 1970s

During this time, I have a close encounter with Campbell. While living in California, he serves as head instructor at the Sacramento Judo Club, an entity sorely lacking funds. A member of the club, I qualify in 1965 to be on the U.S. team that will attend the world championships, but to do so, I'll need to secure my own funding. As a student, I deem it impossible to scrape up enough money to fly to Brazil, but Campbell makes me a promise: "By God, I'm going to get you there. How could our organization not send their best players?"

And he does. Everyone in the club — myself included — pitches in by selling candy and soliciting donations from the community. In Rio de Janeiro, I tie for fifth place.

Were it not for the leadership of Campbell and the generosity of the community, I would not have had the opportunity to represent my country. It instills in me a primal lesson of judo, that we should pay back to the world what we get from practicing the art. The lesson is driven home by Campbell's leadership style at the Sacramento Judo Club, which I've tried to emulate throughout my career as a judo instructor.

DECADE — THE 1970s

Setting: President Nixon resigns, and Elvis does his last song seated. Two rich kids (Patty Hearst and Paul Getty) are kidnapped while a third (Bill Gates) founds Microsoft. Everything on television can be recorded on a new device called a VCR. Star Wars becomes an instant hit.

In Judo: If you look at a group photo of judoka taken before 1972, you'll see mostly male faces. A new law referred to as Title IX mandates equal opportunities for women to participate in sports. At the beginning, it affects only government agencies receiving federal money, but the spirit of the act is adopted by judo. Before that, women who competed in judo were frowned upon. They could compete only in kata competition, where they were asked to wear a black belt with a white stripe down the center lengthwise. It was referred to as a "skunk belt." But all that has changed.

Early female champions include Diane Pierce, Bonnie Korte, Maureen Braziel, Lynn Lewis and, of course, Rena "Rusty" Kanokogi, who competes in the men's division at a local YMCA tournament but is later disqualified when officials discover that she is a she.

Kanokogi is a Jewish-American judoka from Brooklyn who eventually brings to the International Judo Federation table the notion that women can compete for gold at the Olympics. Perhaps no other American judoka changes the face of the art as much as she does. Many discount her as just a brash woman, but others admire her dedication, tenacity and bravery as she fights for what she believes in. Every female judoka who's ever won a medal at the Olympics owes her a debt of gratitude.

DECADE — THE 1980s

Setting: Mount St. Helens erupts, killing 57 people. Midway through the decade, the space shuttle Challenger explodes in the sky. On a positive note, Mikhail Gorbachev institutes glasnost and perestroika, easing tensions around the world. The Berlin Wall falls.

In Judo: The Amateur Athletic Union's hold on Olympic sports also falls. A new law requires the U.S. Olympic Committee to deal directly with each sport's governing body, and judo is one of them. For its first leader under the new system, the USOC selects Frank Fullerton. They chose wisely. Turns out Fullerton is an attorney as well as a judoka. He creates an umbrella organization to include all factions of the judo community, including the U.S. Judo Association and the U.S. Judo Federation, as well as all state organizations, boys clubs and girls clubs, the Scouts and the armed services. The original name of the organization is United States Judo Inc., but now it's known as USA Judo.

For 14 years, Fullerton leads the United States to more medals in international judo competition per year than the country has ever seen. The wins include America's first world judo championship in 1984 by AnnMaria De Mars and another by Mike Swain in 1987. During Fullerton's tenure, more teams are sent abroad than ever before; they use the experience they gain to improve their teaching and coaching methods at home.

With an iron fist in a velvet glove, Fullerton brings to the table the various factions of the judo world. In addition to the original judo organization, the tradition-bound USJF, there's now the more progressive USJA. There are also potentially 50 state judo organizations to deal with. Translation: For the serious judoka, at least three organizations are normally joined because each offers a different service.

The perception that each judo organization serves a specific subset of the population develops. USA Judo, with its ties to the USOC, basically services elite athletes, the top 5 percent of the nation. The USJF (the largest of the three national organizations) and the USJA (the next largest) deal mainly with recreational players — those who want to keep fit, delve into a cultural activity, learn discipline and self- defense, and generally strive to better their station in life.

DECADE — THE 1990s

Setting: Cellphones, laptops and the World Wide Web are born. Dolly the cloned sheep, Monica Lewinsky and O.J. Simpson are in the news. The country also witnesses the Rodney King riots and the collapse of the Soviet Union.

In Judo: When the Fullerton era comes to an end, a succession of presidents must deal with ever-changing social conditions, including waning support for athletes. Whereas once USA Judo sent even third-string teams abroad to gain competition experience, support for this is slowly disappearing — along with the nation's medal count.

Say hello to "self-funding." Those whose dream it is to make the U.S. Olympic Team can do so — if they have the talent and the money. First, they have to qualify at major national events and gain the necessary points. Then, if they're designated the top point player, they need to have the money to get to the next level of international competition. If they don't have enough money to fly, the next highest point-getter with enough will be offered their spot. These international tournaments are important to gain experience and to earn points to qualify for world and Olympic events. Luckily, there are two international competitions held in the United States — the U.S. Open and the New York Open — which entail much lower travel costs.

Hayward Nishioka, 2000s (photo by Rick Hustead)

International judo rules are in flux as some common techniques are eliminated. One of the first to go is the kanibasami, or crab scissors. Others include the morotegari, kibisudaoshi, kataguruma and any technique that involves grabbing a leg or touching below the waist.

DECADE — THE 2000s

Setting: The big event is also a dark one — September 11, 2001. It changes our way of life and brings to light the fact that terrorism can strike anywhere. The Human Genome Project is completed. Hurricane Katrina hits New Orleans, and Saddam Hussein is executed. The iPhone changes the world. The United States elects its first African-American president.

In Judo: In an effort to streamline the political process, the USOC in 2006 encourages many Olympic sports to downsize. Some refuse, but others, like judo, comply. The grappling sport's leaders vote by a narrow margin to shrink its board from 120 members to 10 members. It essentially goes from a democratic system to an aristocratic system — and loses the pulse of the U.S. judo community.

On June 25, 2008, Frank Fullerton leaves us for good but leaves behind a legacy of excellence in providing for American judo athletes. One of his passions was to provide financial support to athletic teams in need, which he did for 14 years beginning in 1980. He was supported by his executive director Bill Rosenberg, who rather than receiving remuneration for his services donated his pay to U.S. judo teams traveling abroad.

Together, their efforts help athletes understand that to do well in judo, you have to do what other judoka who are doing well are doing — and then some. As the Japanese adage states, "If you want a lion's cub, you have to enter the lion's den." Because of Fullerton and Rosenberg, more martial artists are beginning to realize this.

Unfortunately, it's still a costly undertaking. To get an idea of what's involved, it pays to look at the road record of one of our elite athletes from this era: Ronda Rousey, who wins a bronze medal at the 2008 Olympics. In the four years leading up to the Games in Beijing, her judo path entails traveling to and competing in the U.S. Open and the Pan-American Games, as well as numerous events in Greece, Canada, Belgium, Hungary, Sweden, Finland, Brazil, Germany and Great Britain.

Hayward Nishioka, current (photo by Thomas Sanders)

Not including continental, world and Olympic championships, it frequently costs a judoka $1,500 in out-of-pocket expenses to attend one tournament. U.S. athletes must bear the additional burden of crossing an ocean to get to Europe or Asia, where many competitions take place. (It's rumored that Travis Stevens, the American judoka who won a silver medal at the 2016 Rio Games, racks up more than $70,000 a year in travel expenses, and that's not counting time taken off from work.)

DECADE — THE 2010s

Setting: The iPad is introduced. Japan is devastated by a 9.0 earthquake that spawns a tsunami and eventually a nuclear disaster. The global population reaches 7 billion but drops by one when Osama bin Laden is shot by SEAL Team Six in Pakistan. Windows 8 is released, and the Mayan calendar comes to the end of its cycle, but the world and judo continue.

In Judo: Joy and relief are in abundance at the 2012 Olympics when Kayla Harrison becomes the first American to win judo gold. (No doubt she will have many "back in the day" stories a few decades from now.) Part of the credit for her success goes to coach James Pedro Sr. and his son Jimmy Pedro Jr., who won a bronze medal at the 1996 Olympics and the world championship in 1999. To be sure, the experiences they acquired over the years help Harrison navigate her way to the top of the podium in London.

At first, the U.S. judo community has high hopes that an Olympic gold medal will boost the popularity of the art and increase membership, but that proves not to be the case. Instead, judo rides the wave created by another female judoka: Ronda Rousey, aided by her mother AnnMaria De Mars and judo/MMA pioneer Gene LeBell.

Rousey, probably not wanting to have her mother continue to fund her judo competitions so she might make the next Olympics, decides to take matters into her own hands and enter the world of MMA. She's undefeated for 12 fights and is considered the No. 1 female athlete in the world until November 2015. Despite two recent losses in the octagon, she's still admired by judoka and MMA fans around the world.

As you can see, every era of every pursuit has its "back in the day" stories. Stick around in the martial arts long enough, and you'll have some, as well.

About the author: Among his many accomplishments, Hayward Nishioka was a 1967 Pan-American Games gold medalist and Black Belt's 1968 Judo Player of the Year and 1977 Judo Instructor of the Year.

Training for Competition: Judo

Hayward Nishioka's text, published by Black Belt Books, draws from his five-plus decades in the grappling sport. The topics he addresses include coaching, strategy, advanced tactics, conditioning, resistance training, injuries and risk management. The 168-page softcover is full color. Click here to order from the Black Belt Store.

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