Everyone has a story about how they got started in budo. For me, it was because I had the classic 98-pound weakling syndrome.
If you were to try to find my original dojo, you’d end up in a dead end road facing a field of six-foot tall scrub grass and weeds. The dojo where I first started my budo journey is no longer to be found.
But almost a half-century ago, there used to be a derelict cast-off building that the sugar plantation in my home town loaned out to a group of Nisei plantation workers to start a judo club, the largesse of the company probably stemming from the notion that any sport or pastime that kept its workers and kids happy, healthy and out of trouble is good for business and productivity. The building sat in a dirt lot, cleared in the middle of the sugar cane fields, along a poorly maintained asphalt black top road with more potholes than you could count.
The wooden building would shake noticeably if a heavy judoka was thrown. Us young boys used to joke that the structure was held together by the termites holding hands. A plastic tarp covered thick padding on the floor, and as I recall, there was a raised stage in the front. It was probably a town meeting hall before it was converted.
That humble small-town dojo was where I began my budo journey.
I was, as I said, a typical candidate for those back-of-comic-book ads that promised bullies would no longer kick sand in your face if you signed up and paid for their regime. I was sickly, without much social graces, awkward, and a bookworm. My mom remembers having to force me to go outside to play. I’d rather be reading library books in the house. If neighborhood kids picked on me, I’d run home crying because I didn’t know how to fight, or at least that’s how my parents recalled my early childhood.
By the time I was in elementary school, even a tomboy girl picked on me in the schoolyard. She could smell my timidity. That was one of my first experiences with girl-boy relationships, and I’m sure it scarred me for life. First she beat me up. On top of not knowing how to hit back, I already had a notion that I wasn’t supposed to hit girls. Then she felt bad about beating me up and in an odd way got attracted to my hopeless nobility, I guess, because after that J let me to play with her during recess. And she kissed me under the cafeteria table one day because she thought I was sweet for not punching her back. Maybe that’s the pattern of my love life since then: women beat me up and then take me in. Who knows? Maybe it’s a Freudian thing.
Anyway, one day I got tired of being picked on, teased and laughed at for being a Clark Kent without a Superman alter ego. I didn’t want to get beat up anymore. I didn’t want to play organized sports like Little League or Pop Warner football (my younger brother did all that, and so well that I couldn’t hope to compete), so why not judo? I watched a session. Judo was fascinating. It had a cultural component. It was Japanesey. It could teach me how to stand up for myself in a schoolyard fight. I could get strong!
For five dollars a month, I signed up. During the first couple sessions, all I did was practice ukemi. Tumble. Front, back, side, forward roll, back roll. Once I got the hang of that, the old codgers took me to Level 2: learning how to take falls while being thrown all over the place in randori.
I was taught very little about throwing somebody ELSE in the beginning. The idea was, I suppose, that I had to learn my ukemi first before anything else. If I could get launched clear across the room and still end up unscathed, then I could take on anybody in a judo match and not get too hammered.
So for an hour-and-a-half each session, my body, so unused to physical exercise, was put through the mill. Old-school judo folk will know what it’s like: warm ups including stretching and calisthenics. Then strength and endurance exercises, like squatting and hopping around the room. Ukemi. Randori. Session after session, I was thrown and thrown and thrown.
I used to get home, take a bath, and then lie on the living room floor, my body in complete pain. My mom, bless her soul, would rub Ben-Gay and Salonpas all over my aching back and legs and console me that I could always quit if it hurt so much.
I was determined, however, not to fold. This was my first foray into the weird, wonderful, odd world of real physical sports. It was the first time I ventured into the world of men and boys, that strange world of locker room humor, male bonding, old men teaching young boys the intricacies and lore of a sport. How could I quit so soon? I needed to prove something to myself. I needed to feel like I belonged to a male lodge.
At bedtime, I literally crawled from the living room into bed. And I’d do it again the next practice session.
Eventually, I was taught a throw or two. And then newaza, or grappling on the mats. My introduction to newaza was inadvertently very “old school.” I was thrown down and the sensei put his forearm around my neck. I struggled…And then I saw black. I woke up, dazed, with the sensei looking at me with a surprised look on his face.
“Don’t you know to tap before you get knocked out?” he asked.
“Uh…I was knocked out?” I said. “You tap to give up?”
The sensei laughed and then proceeded to show me how to tap out from a choke. Good thing he showed me that before he did an arm bar on me!
Eventually the aches and pains of pushing my body in physical exercise eased. I progressed to learning different throws. My body grew leaner, stronger, and in growing confidence, I felt more capable and self-assured physically.
As a child, I had grown up reading about heroes and super-heroes and their feats of derring-do. Judo was a concrete, real-life adventure that made me feel like one of those heroes, in a juvenile, adolescent sort of way. Hey, Bruce Wayne became Batman through sheer force of will and training! Holy tomoe-nage, Batman, I could train hard too and become a super-hero, if only in my mind!
One funny outcome: other kids stopped picking on me. It wasn’t because I had become more belligerent. Far from it. Yet somehow, I suppose my newfound self-confidence kept all but the most rabid school bullies away from me. The more I practiced, the less I found myself being physically bullied. One of the reasons I started judo was to defend myself, but self-defense became less and less a major priority. I began to have other goals: developing greater finesse in my techniques, learning better body movement, engaging in tournaments, and so on.
I was far from the best judo student. There were a host of other kids far stronger, faster and more technically adept than me. But I had found a place. I felt like I was part of a social group. I was part of a group of guys, engaged in a sportive ritual, and I belonged. No matter how well or badly I did on the mats or in a tournament, I was a member of a dojo.
Developing a healthy body from judo eventually opened up other avenues of physical activity for me. During high school, I left judo practice for months on end to pursue more popular sports such as football, wrestling and weights. But I kept going back to judo. Something about the structure of the dojo environment, the budo culture, kept pulling me back.
Even now, I have a fuzzy, warm nostalgia for that old dojo and its termite infested walls. It may not have had the fanciest facilities, but it was a great nurturing ground for me when I was a child just learning how to be a man. The judo dojo accepted me for what I was. There were no first string, second string or bench warmer status to demean you. We all participated, we all got some kind of ranking step by step, we all trained together and bowed and paid respects to each other, regardless of prowess. It was a great introduction to an egalitarian, communal system of physical activity.
I started from there. Little did I know, at the time, that this introduction to budo would lead to a lifetime of training in various budo, ending up where I am today. My own private life is all the more richer for having started, not just because of my improved physical health, but because of the mental stimulation, friendships and experiences I enjoyed through the years, gifted to me by budo. And so, perhaps, that is why I continue to train, and study and learn.
…So readers, what about it? What were YOUR first motives for starting budo, and how did you start?