Reflecting on Joseph Svinth’s Getting a Grip

Svitnh, Joseph. Getting A Grip: Judo in the Nikkei Communities of the Pacific Northwest, 1900-1950. Guelph: EJMAS, 2003.

Martial arts historian Joseph Svinth tackles the immense task of chronicling the foundation and growth of judo in the Pacific Northwest for the first fifty years of the twentieth century. Splitting his book into two parts – the first generation and second generation judoka and their endeavors – Svinth forms a narrative that demonstrates how the Japanese American communities grew and maintained their individual judo clubs and programs. In doing so, Svinth illustrates just how important judo was to those communities.

After giving a brief introduction of the art, the founder, and its philosophies, Svinth jumps right into judo’s first generation narrative, taken mostly from newspaper clippings from the early 1900s to the 1920s; these recount either judo/jujutsu players pitting themselves against wrestlers in matches or judoka hosting demonstrations/exhibitions at a local theater or gym. Svinth then recounts the tale of Theodore Roosevelt’s judo instructor, Yoshiaiki Yamashita. In 1903, Yamashita first came to America to help discipline a Seattle businessman’s son through the art of the “Gentle Way.” After a demonstration at the city’s theater, news spread of these event to Washington, D.C., resulting in Roosevelt inviting the judo instructor to teach at the White House. Yamashita obliged and taught the enthusiastic president in the spring of 1904. He soon landed a teaching position at the Naval Academy at the beginning of 1905, due to the surprising success of Japan defeating Russia in the Russo-Japanese War. However, the Navy, and the military as a whole, were skeptical of this new Japanese “fad” martial art and released the judo instructor from his duties at the end of 1906. From there, Yamashita, along with his wife and aid, returned to Japan.

In the first generation judoka, Svinth discusses Tokugoro Ito, who came to America after Yamashita. Ito was also one of the many Japanese who made their living competing against wrestlers and boxers in the great debate of which manly arts were superior – East or West. Though not the founder of the famous Seattle Dojo (a man by the name of Kono Iitoro founded the dojo in 1904), Ito was its leader and popularizer from 1907 to 1910. Throughout those three years, local White Americans attempted to find a challenger that would submit Ito, however, they failed, often to the joy and cheers of the Japanese American communities. His victories became a symbol for early Japanese settlers in America, especially when he arrived in Los Angles in 1916, winning matches there and having the Japanese crowd rush to him in excitement and awe.

This is where the drama and contests of national pride would come to an end, as the second generation of judoka grew up quite differently than their earlier counterparts. Termed nisei, or second generation Japanese American, these younger judoka were brought up in American schools and activities, allowing many to obtain a diverse background of physical activities before starting their judo training. Many students, as Svinth describes similar circumstances in sixteen different judo clubs, participated in wrestling, football, and/or baseball while in school. The former two activities helped greatly with the younger judoka’s training, sometimes surprising the older issei (first generation Japanese Americans) instructors. In addition, many, if not all, Japanese parents wanted to impress upon their children the Japanese heritage, culture, and traditions of the old country, resulting many a parent to enroll their children into the local judo club.

Svinth illustrates that many Pacific Northwest judo clubs did not have a stand-alone building for training but operated within other businesses and/or institutions. Many of the clubs conducted training in the basements of Japanese language buildings or a local community center’s gym. Because of this, many clubs only held practices, at most, twice a week. This schedule did not detract from the training, as training hours were usually two hours long.

Despite the positive outlook many had when training and coming together for community events and tournaments, many of the clubs Svinth discusses came to a close, or at least a closure of their doors, as the Second World War began with the Japanese Empire’s bombing of Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. With that, judo ceased in the Pacific Northwest as the many Japanese Americans were herded into ten Internment Camps. In spite of the injustices faced, the judo clubs slowly began reappearing as early as 1949, while some reestablished themselves in the 1950s.

Joseph Svinth closes Getting a Grip with a short analysis of how judo changed from its prewar and postwar incarnations. While the prewar judoka focused more on randori and overall sportsmanship, the postwar judoka emphasized technique basics, kata, and winning at all costs. These changes, however, do not detract from how important and prevalent judo was in the Japanese American communities of the Pacific Northwest. From the symbol of national pride to the community events and families wanting to pass on a piece of their heritage to their children, judo was a cornerstone of these communities. After the war, the art became a cornerstone again as these communities began the rebuilding process of their lives to normalcy, laying the foundation for judo to grow and disseminate further throughout America.

Check out the book here.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s