The Education of Syd Hoare: A Gaijin’s Painful Initiation to Judo in Japan

Reay Miura Hoare Bregman at Kodokan
Tony Reay, Sensei Miura, Syd Hoare, Jim Bregman in the Kodokan; from A Slow Boat to Yokohama
Since that time in December, 1954, when Syd Hoare came to a judo dojo in London, he understood that the very best judoka trained in Japan. Seven years later, Hoare got a ticket on a steamer that took seven weeks before it pulled into Yokohama. He made it to the Mecca of Judo.

A friend from England met him at the port, and drove him into Tokyo. That evening he had soba for dinner, and fell into a sleep so deep he didn’t feel an earthquake that rumbled in the middle of the night. In his first full day in Japan, he opened up a bank account, visited the legendary home of judo, the Kodokan, and then bought his judo wear, called judo-gi.

Hoare-Syd-A-slow-boat-to-Yokohama-a-Judo-odyssey1On Day two in Japan, Hoare had his initiation to Japanese judo. He picked up his brand-new judo-gi and made his way back to the Kodokan. He bumped into fellow Brit and judoka, George Kerr, who helped Hoare navigate in his new judo world. Hoare watched George and another friend John, walking where they walked, bowing when they bowed. And when he entered the main dojo, as he explains in his wonderful autobiography, A Slow Boat to Yokohama, Hoare was impressed.

I had never seen so many black belts in one place before. All were standing to one side, waiting for the mass bow to the teachers. In one corner on a wooden stand stood a massive barrel-shaped drum. An old grey- headed sensei approached it and hammered out a tattoo of about fifteen beats which quickly got faster, followed by two slow bangs at the end. Then on the command “seiza!”we all moved forward and knelt down in orderly ranks. Next followed “Ki o tsuke! Sensei ni rei!” and we all lowered our hands and head to the mat.

Hoare of course trusted Kerr to guide him in the right way in his first few days in Japan. After all, he was literally fresh off the boat. Kerr said that Hoare could go up to anyone on the floor and ask for a tussle, called a “randori”. Kerr pointed out a “fairly chunky Japanese” standing near them, and suggested that Hoare ask for a randori. Hoare didn’t think too much about it and did as was suggested.

Isao Inokuma in action
Isao Inokuma
I went up to him and in halting Japanese said “Onegai-shimasu”. He looked surprised, paused a moment, then walked out on to the mat where we bowed to each other. I soon found myself in a very vigorous randori.

At that time I had done virtually nothing in the way of judo or any other kind of training for nearly two months, and it felt a bit weird to be back on the mat. After about three minutes when nothing much had happened, we stumbled to the ground and I got him in an immobilization hold called kuzure-kesagatame. I think, he wasn’t trying too hard and let it happen. I kept him under control for about twenty seconds (a thirty second hold-down would have been a loss) during which time his struggles got rougher and rougher.

The hold-down was one I had worked on quite a lot in the UK and was deceptively strong. He broke out of the hold just before time, and when we stood up again he began pasting me from one end of the hall to the other. I took a hammering and endured it for about ten minutes, then said “mairimashita” and bowed off. I staggered back to George and asked him who he was. “Oh”, he said most innocently, “that was Inokuma, the current All-Japan champion.”

Isao Inokuma, who took gold as a heavyweight at the 1964 Olympics, was at that time actually the runner up in the 1960 and 1961 All-Japan Championships, but became All-Japan champion in 1963. At any rate, Inokuma was a judo legend, and Hoare’s painful introduction to judo in Japan.