Interview with Art Bourgeau, Part I: Training Under Takahiko Ishikawa

Beginning his judo training under the famed Takahiko Ishikawa at the Ishikawa Judo Club in 1968, Art Bourgeau soon inherited the club in 1983, being the head instructor for twenty-five years, under the Philadelphia Judo Club namesake. Today, Art discusses his relationship with Ishikawa and his training under him. This is part one of a two part interview. Read the second part here.

Martial Arts of Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow: Welcome! Thank you for taking the time to talk about judo in the Philadelphia area and Takahiko Ishikawa!

Art Bourgeau: I am happy to be here!


Training Under Takahiko Ishikawa

MAYTT: What aspects of judo appealed to you that made you first join the club and do those aspects still appeal to you today?

AB: When I was a boy, I lived with my grandparents. My grandfather died when I was eight and the job of being my male family figure fell to an uncle who lived in Detroit. This was in the 1950s. He was studying judo at the famous Detroit Judo Club, at the time the largest judo club in the United States, headed by John Osaka, rokudan. His letters to me back home in Tennessee were filled with it. In tribute to our relationship I made a promise to myself that if I ever got to a city where there was a dojo, I would become a judoka.

Art Bourgeau. Source:

Years later when I moved to Philadelphia, I remembered that boyhood promise and found the Ishikawa Judo Club. There I met Takahiko Ishikawa, hachidan at the time, Twice All Japan Champion, Former Chief Instructor to the Tokyo Police Department. That was late 1968. Eight years later in the mid-1970’s, he moved to Virginia Beach, so my contact with him from then on was minimal, his occasional birthday and other ceremonial occasions, but he remained my Sensei, even today long past his death in 2008. I’m sure I’m not alone in that feeling. He affected many people that way.

The word “sensei” is usually translated as “teacher” or “honored teacher,” but I’m told its literal meaning is “one who came first.” In that way it is a more or less perfect Zen term that addresses the idea of life as a journey. Guidance for whatever portion of the journey it covers requires a deep sense of trust or bond between sensei and student that often extends past just repetitive physical practice and evolves into a more spiritual zone. That was Ishikawa to a “T.” Just practicing with him, being on the mat together, made you feel better – better about the world, better about yourself, glad you came to practice that day.

MAYTT: Since you were a direct student of Takahiko Ishikawa for eight years, what was he like as an instructor and a person? Were the two roles one in the same or were they separate?

AB: As a person, he was different to different people. Over the years we drank a lot of coffee together and during these moments he would sometimes relate experiences or stories of his youth or bits of philosophy that he might not retell on the mat. So, the Ishikawa I knew would probably be a little bit different from the person another player might have known.

One thing, however, we could all agree on — physically, he was imposing. He was large, especially for a man born in 1917 in Japan, probably 5′ 9″ in height, and in his early fifties, around 225 or 230 pounds in weight. His body was square and stocky, kind of like Odd Job from the James Bond movies.

His biceps were not particularly large, but his forearms were. In my years with him his hands were arthritic, the joints all swollen and misshapen. Facially, he was a handsome man. (He would love knowing I said that about him.) He wore glasses, had a strong jawline, and his head was large. During his fifties he suffered from back problems and would often need to be cracked before he could practice.

As an instructor, he was absolutely fixated on the subject of proper technique. I remember before practice one night I decided to work on a leg-grab ouchi gari. When he saw this, he came rushing onto the mat, angry as all get-out. “Don’t ever let me see you do that again. It is improper technique,” he scolded me. (Not ‘bad’ or ‘poor’ technique, but ‘improper.’ Since English was Ishikawa’s fourth language, he was always very careful with his choice of words.) He went on to say, “I would rather see you lose every match the rest of your life than have you embarrass me with improper technique.” That was my last leg-grab ouchi gari.

Another example of his devotion to proper technique was in the area of newaza or matwork. There is no simpler series of techniques in judo than the pins or katame waza section of newaza. By the time most students have been in the sport for a few months they feel they have mastered them or at least have a thorough working knowledge. Not so when studying with Ishikawa. For him there was always a new and higher level to be achieved, if only you would strive for it.

When he would practice or do randori with you, he would throw you quickly, usually with a foot sweep. Then the rest of the randori would consist of you trying to escape his pin. His idea of a pin was to squeeze you so tightly it would take away your air, one breath at a time, like a boa constrictor, until you either submitted or passed out. We used to call these pins his “body strangles,” and everyone in the club knew to tap quickly, or else wish you had, especially if he was holding you down in kamesho gatame, which was especially smothering. He credited this to Sumiyuki Kotani, judan and former Olympic wrestler, who he said would not allow a student to practice chokes or armbars in matwork for their first four years with him. Only pins. This made for strong pins. Sometimes I thought he used this technique as punishment if we were not being good students that night.

MAYTT; Seemed that Ishikawa was very adamant about his teaching methodology. What did his average class consist of?

AB: His practices were about three hours long. First a few minutes of warm-ups, ukemi or break falls mainly, then he would teach for about an hour. In this time, he would routinely go over several throws, plus matwork. He taught very little defense. He felt that if you needed it, you had already lost. He didn’t like kata, or teaching them, except as needed for promotion, although he could demonstrate both tori and uke roles in all seven or eight beautifully. Friday night practice in my early years with him was devoted to stick fighting and kata, but over time he dropped both and Friday became just another regular practice.

On the topic of kata, the only kata he ever seemed to have any affection for were Gonosen-no-kata, or the kata of counters, and Kime-no-kata, the more formal of the two self-defense kata, although he did occasionally enjoy watching the ladies of the club perform the soothing and beautiful Ju-no-kata, the kata of gentleness, at the end of a Friday night practice. In fact, we all enjoyed watching them demonstrate it.

Ishikawa West Point 1972
Takahiko Ishikawa coaching at West Point, New York 1974. Source: Art Bourgeau.

Normally Ju-no-kata is the third kata, after Nage-no-kata, the throwing kata, and Katame-no-kata, the groundwork kata, and is a kata performed by women. One night Mrs. Fukuda, from San Francisco, now deceased, but then the highest ranking woman judoka in the world, and the last living member to be personally taught by Jigoro Kano in his first all-female teacher’s class, came by to visit, and Ishikawa asked her to teach Ju-no-kata. That night the men had to practice it, too. But that was a rare exception. In Don Draeger’s book on judo kata, he asked about a dozen of the then top ranked Japanese champions their opinion on the subject of kata. Ishikawa’s response was among the most negative.

MAYTT: With that in mind, it appeared that he liked teaching the throws more than teaching kata?

AB: That’s right. There is actually an “order” to the throws in judo, it is called the Gokyo no Waza, and consists of the forty original throws divided into five groups of eight techniques. Jigoro Kano devised it, not as “an order,” but as “the order” of teaching the throws. There were two versions: 1895 and 1925. Oddly these dates coincide with the 25th and 50th Anniversary of his mother’s death, so I suspect there may have been some tribute to her in them, but I could not say exactly how or what.

Most instructors do not follow the mandated order from either version. Ishikawa was no exception. He felt that most judo throws were variations of six. So, at practice we regularly worked on all six: ippon seio nage, tai otoshi, osoto gari, ouchi gari, daeashi harai, and uki waza. In addition, he would go over other techniques but less frequently. For instance, harai goshi, my favorite, would be less frequent, instead at least once a week we would practice hane goshi, another hip throw, because he felt if you practiced it you were also practicing harai goshi and uchi mata since the three were similar, and hane goshi being the most difficult, deserved your attention.

He also liked doing developmental exercises. I once asked Ishikawa if he had a favorite developmental exercise. Most players seem to have one, for instance Masahiko Kimura, judan, loved Japanese push-ups. The story goes that Kimura got out of his hospital bed and started doing push-ups the day after surgery for lung cancer a short time before his death. There is a video on Youtube of one of Kimura’s classes, the narrator I think was Doug Rogers, the great Canadian champion, who says in it the class always ended with 600 Japanese push-ups, which of course no one could finish, but you tried and tried anyway.

Ishikawa told me his favorite exercise was to work out on the high bar, especially doing the kip, a powerful move which of course helped his “body strangles” tremendously, but also another idea he worked on involving the high bar was to swing on it, then let go and drop from all different angles, trying to land on his feet like a cat. He said it helped his agility.

Additionally, when we practiced throws, we did more fitting-in than throwing. He wanted high repetitions. At home he always suggested we do footsweeps. I once asked him how many we should do. His answer was 3,000 in thirty minutes. Good cardio training. I asked once about running or jogging. He said no more than two miles. Anything more was a waste. If he wanted to test our cardio fitness the test was simple: we did 100 standing back break falls without stopping. Trust me, that will get your heart rate up.

MAYTT: What differentiated Ishikawa from other judo instructors at the time?

AB: Technically, his one style deviation was that he did not stress the sleeve pull as much as many instructors do, instead he favored parrying the sleeve hand, just blocking it and pushing it out of the way, either inward or outward, then executing the throw largely with the lapel hand, held conventionally against the opponent’s chest rather than in a high grip (although he would teach the high grip). As a class, we would often spend periods practicing throws using only one hand, the lapel hand. This made you stronger, more confident, and helped open and stretch the chest.

On the subject of right side or left side attacks, he taught right side almost exclusively. I was left-handed, but he would not allow me to practice the left side, so over time I developed into a competent right-side player, but it was a struggle.

As a teacher, he had a strong Zen Buddhist streak. I once asked him about his religion. He said he was a Zen Buddhist but didn’t practice anymore. I asked why, and he replied, “Would you like to sit in seiza on a hardwood floor for forty minutes each day and have someone walk behind you and hit you with a stick every time you moved?” I answered, “No,” and he replied, “Neither did I.”

Still old habits die hard. If you went to him, and said, “Sensei, my osoto gari is not working.” He would nod politely and say, “Okay, show me.” Then the student would take a partner and attempt the technique. After which, Ishikawa would shake his head sadly, sigh, and say, “Well, there are many ways. I think best for you to go back and practice. Only two more years and I think you’ll understand.” [Laughs] That was always his answer, “Only two more years,” because one of the ideas of Zen Buddhism is that it’s not so important to arrive, the importance is in the journey, the dawning of self-awareness. He was excellent at allowing us to develop in our own way in our own time and knowing when to say the small thing that would pick you up when you were feeling discouraged.

MAYTT: It sounded like Ishikawa was someone who was student-centered but didn’t give away everything at the drop of a hat.

AB: No, he expected you to get it for yourself. One of the differences (there are also other differences, of course) between a sport and an art is that a sport is actively coached while art is more passively instructed. In sport you line up and do what the coach says throughout the workout. In art you take a blank piece of paper and start drawing and see where it takes you, then the teacher comes at the end and comments on it. With Ishikawa when he was teaching, we would line up and do what he was showing, but the club was open an hour and a half before practice and usually a half hour after practice. With four practices a week that amounted to eight hours of possible judo study hall, and that was when he expected you to show up and practice your own personal technique. That was the art part, your time for self-development, and the mat was just a big canvas for you to paint your personal judo picture on. Most of his students took advantage of it.

An interesting little aside about practice. We were required to wear shower shoes from the locker room to the edge of the mat. When we took them off to enter the mat, we were required to line them up in descending order by rank with Ishikawa’s always in the first place on the left. If you were a lower rank who came in early you were expected to leave space to anticipate the black belts who had not arrived yet.

As for bowing, Ishikawa’s standing bow was barely a nod, it was almost as if he couldn’t be bothered, but his kneeling bow was always formal: head down with the hands sliding forward in a triangle for the full three seconds, and he was a real stickler for live toes in the second part of seiza as the student lowered himself into the position.

MAYTT: From your recollection, what was the most important or memorable lesson from Ishikawa?

AB: In our years together, he said two truly important things to me. Life-changing things. When I think of them today, I can still hear his voice clear as a bell.

The first was when I was a new white belt and had only been in the club a short time. I wanted him to notice me, so I stopped by his office before practice. He was replaying a famous go game by himself trying to understand the moves, something he did constantly. Go was his true passion. Go has dan ranks like judo. He was a nanadan. I stood in front of his desk until he looked up, then I said, “I was just wondering, do you think I’ll ever be any good at judo. Could I ever make it to black belt?” He puffed on his pipe for a moment. From his expression I could tell he’d heard the question before, just not from me. Then he said, “Don’t worry about it. Go practice. Tonight, no partner for you. Practice alone, only do footsweeps. When you are ready as a player there will be plenty of people to give rank to you. It is not important. Practice is what is important. Man does not chase rank. Rank follows the man.”

On the subject of rank, Ishikawa believed that non-Japanese judo players should never be allowed to advance past the rank of godan. Some of his USA students did achieve higher ranks than that, but they were not awarded by him.

The second was when I was a brown belt and I was especially early to practice one night. Ishikawa said, “Go get changed, then come out here, I’ve been wanting to talk to you.” I couldn’t imagine what that meant, so I hurried to change and get back out there. Ishikawa said, “Sit down, I want to teach you to play go.” I was disappointed, this wasn’t what I expected or hoped to hear, so I said, “Aw, Sensei, do I have to?” “Yes,” he said. “Okay, we start with how they teach small children in Japan. We alternate putting down buttons anywhere on the board. First one to get five buttons in a row wins.” By the time we had a total of maybe eight buttons on the board, not each but total, I’d lost. He looked at me and sighed, “You’re so stupid. I had hopes for you. Leave me. Go practice.” I’ve never played a game of go since.

Speaking for his old students, I think I can truly say when his wife, Aiko Fukasuwa, wrote to me of his death it was as if a little bit of the light had gone out of the world. He was truly one in a million. He helped us all to let go, to be not so much what we were, but what we could become.

This is part one of a two part interview. Read the second part here.


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