This is a transcript of an interview with Thomas Blair of Main Line Judo from the spring of 2019. In it, we discuss his time under Takahiko Ishikawa, judo in the Philadelphia area, and growing the art in today’s social climate.
Martial Arts of Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow: Hello Thomas Blair Sensei! I would like to thank you for taking some time to chat about judo.
Thomas Blair: It’s a pleasure to be here.
MAYTT: When did you start judo? At the time, what was the appeal of judo to you over other martial arts or sports?
TB: I started judo when I was thirteen. I had just finished grade school and knew that my shorter size would hinder my participation in doing high school sports. In addition, I ran across a book called Judo Boy where it placed sport and martial art in a culture of respect and discipline – that aspect was a lure too much for me to ignore.
MAYTT: Takahiko Ishikawa was, without a doubt, one of the most famous judoka to come out of Japan. Being that you were his student for a time, what are your thoughts on him as an instructor and a person?
TB: Ishikawa Sensei was as humble a man as you will find, given his incredible skills. He always felt he was haunted by losing his son, Hajime, to suicide. As an instructor, he was very precise with developing technique and with learning the range of judo skill sets. He was not much into coaching, but he was encouraging when it came to competition and training.
MAYTT: Besides Ishikawa Sensei, did you have the experience to train under another instructor? If so, how did they compare to Ishikawa Sensei as an instructor?
TB: Mrs. Foos was my first instructor. She was a fireball! I did spend some time in many clinics, summer camps, etc. working with Phil Porter Sensei, former head of the National Judo Institute and president of the United States Judo Association. He was very analytical in his understanding of judo and not quite so traditional with the approaches to teaching. I did, however, pick up a lot of my teaching approach from him.
MAYTT: Out of all the cities Ishikawa Sensei could pick and build a judo program in 1962, he chose Philadelphia. What do you think made him choose this area over other locations in the United States?
TB: It came down to sponsorship from local Judo leaders that influenced Ishikawa Sensei’s decision. Mrs. Foos especially tried to help in any way she could. She tried to convert a car barn on her property into a dojo for him, but the Lower Merion Township denied it. From there, he moved into Philadelphia, directly right next to City Hall on the fifth floor of a block, I think.
MAYTT: Helen Foos seemed to play an important role in Ishikawa Sensei’s career in both the Philadelphia and Virginia Beach areas. Could you tell me a bit about her and her relation to Ishikawa Sensei?
TB: She was doing judo well before Ishikawa Sensei arrived in the Philadelphia area. In her search of excellence, she knew what the opportunity would mean to her judo and to judo in Philadelphia if Ishikawa Sensei settled in the area. She then hosted his family in her large home and when Ishikawa Sensei moved onto Philadelphia, his family remained at her house. This led her to eventually adopt his children, after his wife returned by herself to Japan.
MAYTT: In 1975, Ishikawa Sensei left the Philadelphia area and moved with Foos to Virginia Beach. What inspired him to move further south and what was the overall mood of his departure? What were your feelings during this time?
TB: There were a few reasons for his move. One was the warmer weather in Virginia Beach. Another was a far better dojo Mrs. Foos built for him there. Lastly, Mrs. Foos, as I mentioned before, had his two daughters that she would take down to Virginia. There was a farewell party for him here and I think most felt him leaving was the loss of a teacher, but everyone knew the reasons of warmer weather, being closer to his family, and a far better dojo were compelling enough. During this time, I was in law school, so my attention was elsewhere.
MAYTT: When did you open your dojo and what prompted you to begin your own school? Has that reason or purpose changed and evolved since then?
TB: I started to teach in various recreation department programs, YMCAs, and some colleges. I always wanted to have my own dojo. My first one happened when there was some lasting traction for judo at some local recreation departments. With that, they moved to a sublease at a local fitness club. After that, they moved into a shared space with a local business. Four moves later, we are where we are now with Main Line Judo.
MAYTT: When you first opened your dojo, how did you acquire new students? What types of advertising methods/outlets did you use?
TB: At first, I used promotions and advertising through the township recreation departments. Once social media began to take off, I started using Facebook.
MAYTT: Based on your dojo’s past and current membership enrollment statistics, when did your dojo see its greatest membership growth? What has been the dominant age demographic and what has been the least?
TB: It has varied over the years. In previously years, children between seven and eleven were the most common. However, as the trend has grown by parents to limit their children to one or two sports or activities, more adults currently form the dominate age group. Also, about twelve years ago, there was influx of members because of the French Ex-Pats (2007), resulting in judo becoming the second most popular youth sport.
MAYTT: I can see how an event like that can help grow judo. Martial arts writer Greg W. and podcaster Dave Roman claim that judo organizations do not help much in the way of developing and growing small and new clubs/schools. From your perspective, do you see this to be the case? What has been your experience?
TB: I agree with Greg W. and Dave Roman, but I am not sure what resources the larger judo organizations have to bring to developing and growing smaller clubs and schools.
MAYTT: Greg W. also suggests that developing solid judo instructors can help establish smaller clubs and schools. Is this a valid and feasible way for clubs to become more unified in creating a network of likeminded learning institutes?
TB: Yes, it is a way to build a unified network of instructors, but it may also have the hopefully temporary effect of reducing the vibrancy of the parent club.
MAYTT: How does your dojo address developing new/future instructors?
TB: I have potential instructors teach a class or portion of a class once they receive their brown belt regularly.
MAYTT: In your opinion, what separates a good instructor from a great instructor?
TB: There are a few things that a great instructor must have; they must have a depth of superior technical skill; the ability to adjust, on the fly, the tenor and intensity of any given class based on the overall skill level; and both the fitness and energy level of those who show up and participate in class.
MAYTT: I see. Recently, Josh Gold of Aikido Journal along with other martial arts writers claimed that traditional martial arts, like judo, karate, and aikido, have been on a decline since 2004. Has this been your experience and has your dojo been affected in any way?
TB: I don’t know much about aikido or karate, but if it is true for judo, then it is only in the United States. Worldwide judo, in comparison, is very strong and getting stronger.
MAYTT: Those same writers also contend that the eighteen to twenty-nine age group/demographic is almost vacant in judo as well as other traditional martial arts dojo across America. Has this been your experience? If so, what do you think is contributing to the decline and can these traditional martial arts survive without those specific age demographics?
TB: No, it has been the most challenging demographic now is the seven to eleven-year olds whose parents limit their horizons to only one or two activities, as I mentioned before. We do also have eight college judo programs in the Philadelphia area under our club umbrella, so, in that regard, we are decently represented in the eighteen to twenty-nine demographics.
MAYTT: It is amazing that you are running eight college judo programs. What prompted you to form multiple judo programs in the colleges and how have you managed to maintain them throughout the years? Do you have plans to expand to more colleges and/or other organizations or institutions? If so, where would you like the program to expand to?
TB: The college programs came because they represented an avenue to demonstrate judo to a population that is no longer locked into the parent driven formula for getting into college by selecting only one or two sports at a young age, with the goal of an eventual college acceptance
There are two obstacles to finding a way to bring judo to colleges: one is the college bureaucracy that seeks to be certain of student interest in a new activity and two, the availability of suitable instructors who are willing to teach for about twenty-three weeks a year without pay.
Even though we have lost a ton of qualified black belts to job relocations, we have found enough have remained who are interested in sharing judo and building it in this area.
We have additional colleges in mind and are working through the process of bringing it to them, but I can’t say much about that yet.
MAYTT: In your opinion, how can traditional martial arts, such as judo, adapt to the changing modern martial arts landscape and the American business model? Is there a way for schools to maintain tradition and integrity while staying current with the times?
TB: Since judo has no issue in the non-American world, I think those countries and programs can provide insight into how to get the message of judo and its overwhelming quality to people even in today’s noisy world.
MAYTT: Given that the membership numbers of judo and karate remain somewhat greater than aikido’s membership, how do you think judo and karate adapted to such changes or why have they not experienced the same decline in recent years as aikido?
TB: I cannot truly speak for aikido. However, for karate, a good portion of American audience has always been outside the normal athletic mindset. For judo, it has been an activity with diverse sporting, cultural, and recreational aspects so its appeal can be to a broader audience. In relation to Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, since that’s the big thing today in the martial arts world, I am sure there is some bleed as there is bleed from BJJ to judo when BJJ practitioners realize they have troubling performing stand-up techniques 1as well as Judo players.
MAYTT: Podcaster Dave Roman claims that judo focuses too much on the competition and sport aspect, to the point where rank advancement is linked to the amount of wins a judoka earns during tournaments. Do you, in your opinion, think that this is the case in many judo clubs? What are the advantages to having rank linked to competition wins? Are there any disadvantages as well, since some practitioners are not interested or otherwise the competitive type?
TB: There are different tracks for rank and promotion in Judo; competition is only one of them. Whether one competes or not, the demand for technical competency is the most common way to get promoted in judo. Furthermore, most judoka simply enjoy doing judo.
MAYTT: I see. That clears up some misconceptions. Roman also asserts that judo’s curriculum needs to be revised, claiming that after a year training in judo, “you still suck” during randori in comparison to a year of BJJ, where practitioners demonstrate skill during randori/rolling. In your opinion, is there any truth in his statement? Do you think judo’s curriculum needs to be revised, and if so, what revisions would you suggest?
TB: If his observation about judoka sucking at randori after a year is empirically true, it is only because the learning curve for stand-up is steeper than newaza since the nature of the kinesiology needed for judo is more complex. In my personal story, I was competing and winning at three months into judo.
MAYTT: How would you describe your dojo community? Then in comparison and from your perception, in what ways does your dojo community culture align with the worldwide judo community culture of unity? How does it differ?
TB: It offers robust energetic and traditional judo, which, as I came up in judo in the 1960s, meant that we behaved with respect and understanding of each of the partners we worked with. I strive to have the same culture today in my dojo.
MAYTT: Final question, Sensei. Based on your experience of teaching and training, what advice would you give to someone who is looking to open a dojo today?
TB: It’s a tough sled, to be honest. My advice would be to first build an audience through teaching at a YMCA or something similar. Secondly, pick a location with affordable rent where the competition of other sports is not intense. And lastly, have a very robust sequencing plan to attract and retain students.
MAYTT: Thank you again, Sensei, for talking about judo’s history in the Philadelphia area!
TB: It was quite enjoyable!