Tuesday, February 16, 2010

I Dream of Judo

A couple nights ago I had a wonderful dream: I was playing judo with my childhood judo teacher, Umeki Masaru Sensei. It's no mystery why I had the dream. The day before I had begun reading Higher Judo by Moshe Feldenkrais. Feldenkrais is best known as the originator of the school of movement education that bears his name. He was also a physicist and engineer as well as an early student of Jigoro Kano, the founder of judo. We see in his writing some early glimmers of how judo would inform his method, as in this passage: "Many people have never made any but the most primitive use of their feet, with the result that the only use and idea associated with them, is that of a plate-like support to the body. This being the only use made of the feet for many years on end, the muscles are most of the time maintained in a fixed state of contraction - precisely the one that makes the feet fit for the service demanded of them. In extreme cases the exclusion of other patterns is so complete, that the feet become frozen in the flat, plate-like position and are useless for any other purpose than motionless standing."

Reading Higher Judo, I was struck by the degree to which Feldenkrais was obviously influenced by Kano's vision of judo as something that went beyond martial art, as a physical/educational/developmental system with a unique pedagogy that helped the practitioner achieve a certain completeness as a human being: "The understanding Judo teacher does his best to further the maturing process of his pupils in this respect, showing them that it is essentially a question of learning and not of infirmity. He, therefore, literally helps his pupils on the way to adult maturity."

The introductory chapters of Feldenkrais' book helped me remember the impact that judo had on me as a child (the rest of the book, on judo groundwork, would have been better served by an instructional DVD, to my Youtube-generation mind). From age eight until fourteen, I strove to perfect my skills in judo under Umeki Sensei's tutelage. I was a skinny boy, something of an egghead, and not at all a natural athlete. I am convinced that, were it not for judo, I would have turned into an ungrounded intellectual with very few physical skills and very low confidence in my bodily abilities. As it was, I learned from an early age to fall and roll and throw and pin, and I believe that has made all the difference. Though I didn't get in fights often, when I did I would throw my opponent to the ground and that was usually the end of it. My favorite pin is a wonderful move called katagatame ("shoulder pin") that to this day nobody I have fought has ever escaped from, including a fellow soldier in the Swiss Army who challenged me to a friendly wrestling match and had at least twenty pounds on me. Judo fostered in me, as Feldenkrais puts it, "a degree of independence of gravitation" that demonstrated to me that, with the rational application of the correct method, one could free oneself of other types of restraints one might come across in life.

Which is not to say that the journey to be free from gravity or other forces was always easy. For instance, I had a natural affinity for leg techniques such as ashi-barai and osoto-gari, and was not very good at applying upper-body throws such as seoi-nage in competitive situations. Somehow I never overcame the mental block that kept me from using seoi-nage. I am not naturally very aggressive, and seoi-nage requires a certain chutzpah and quickness that I didn't think I possessed. In hindsight, I wish I had applied myself to push past this limiting self-definition.

Shortly before leaving Japan for the United States at the end of the ninth grade, I tested for black belt and didn't make it. Black belt testing consisted of entering a tournament of aspirants of the same age, and competing in round-robin fashion. If you won three matches in a row, you got your first degree black belt. I lost my first match, and over the following weeks was a little jealous of my friends Fujita, Wakamiya, and Arakawa, who got to sit up at the front of the class next to Umeki Sensei with their impressive new black belts on.

When it came time to leave Japan, I went to say good-bye to Umeki Sensei. I was surprised and honored when he gave me his black belt as a parting gift. I believe that what he meant by this was not "Here, you deserve this," but rather, "You may not be very good, but I've come to like you so here, keep this to remember me by."

In my dream, Sensei and I were doing judo on the familiar mats of the old dojo, he throwing me around and I occasionally throwing him when he deemed my technique good enough to work had I been matched with someone closer to my ability. The smell of rough cotton gi blended with sweat and Sensei's Mild Seven tobacco aroma, the feel of the cold tatami mats as I was slammed down time and again, the thrill of throwing my teacher, it all came back to me and I was just so happy. Thank you, Sensei, for playing judo with me again after so many years.

1 comment:

bogiegolfer said...

Hi Kaz,

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this blog. My sons Wesley & Warren (6 & 8) were recently promoted to Black Belt 1st degree in Tae Kwon Do.

Seems like it was just yesterday when you tutored me in the 7th grade. I fondly remember those Hwang Rang Do days too!