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From the “United States Olympic Book”

The pictures are the first two pages of photo profiles of Americans on the US Olympic squad, from the summary report of American performance at the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games. As you can see and likely understand, America at the time demographically was generally perceived to be white. But it was changing, as minority groups, be they black, latino or Asian for example, were growing in size. Consequently, their representation in American Olympic squads were also growing.

But this was 1964, and race relations were beginning to brew, and get attention. In fact, it was October 14, 1964, the fifth day of the Tokyo Olympics, when the powers that be in Norway awarded Dr. Martin Luther King Jr the Nobel Peace Prize.

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Note James Bregman’s head shot in the upper right-hand corner

In 1964, diversity and inclusion were not buzzwords in corporate America. They were in some ways an alien concept, something that you might only visualize if you happen to be passing through the United Nations when it was in session. But there was one shining example of that on Team USA in 1964 – the Judo team – represented by a Caucasian Jew (James Bregman), a person of Native American Indian descent (Ben Nighthorse Campbell), a Japanese-American (Paul Maruyama) and an African American (George Harris).

Judo is not a team sport. It is very much mano-a-mano, and while you learn from others, training can be done independently. In other words, in the case of the 1964 Team USA judo squad, their diverse make up did not necessarily contribute to their actual performance beyond the fact that they were all good friends, four of the few foreigners who ventured to the mecca of judo in Tokyo to live and train.

 

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L to R: George Harris, James  Bregman, Yoshihiro Uchida, Paul Maruyama, Ben Nighthorse Campbell

 

But for James Bregman, who won a bronze medal in the middleweight class at the 1964 Games, the “rainbow team” was an inspiration to him.

“I grew up in a black ghetto,” Bregman told me. “I was a Jewish kid with white skin who was picked on by black kids who were brutes. I actually experienced segregation. My father had a grocery store in Green Valley, Virginia, and we lived above it on the second floor. Behind our store was Drew Elementary School, only two blocks away. I could play basketball with the other kids there, but in the 1950s I couldn’t go to that school. Instead, they bussed me out to Fairlington Elementary School in a white neighborhood 30 minutes away.”

Bregman didn’t object to being bussed out – he said he really wasn’t conscious of the socio-economic context of race relations at that time. But he did know that he was beat up in his neighborhood. Very often the bullies would be black, but Bregman told me that he was brought up not to judge, that he should be respectful to everybody and that a few bad guys did not represent an entire group.

And yet, he was getting beat up nonetheless.

Bregman was a small boy, often sick, dealing with bronchitis and asthma as a child. His parents thought that keeping him active indoors would help, so he got lessons in baton twirling, tap dancing, gymnastics, acrobatics as a kid. But one day, his parents learned of a judo club in the officers’ athletic club at the Pentagon in Washington D. C. that also was open to the public. Bregman’s parents took him to the club and suddenly, he was hooked on judo. And the officer’s club was also eye opening, the closest he would come to being inside the United Nations.

Although the Officer’s Athletic Club was located in Virginia, it was not segregated since the Pentagon was the Federal Government’s military headquarters. You had black, whites, hispanics, Japanese, Chinese, people from embassies all over the world. The club membership was multi-racial, multi-cultural, multi-religious. From the time I was 13 years old, those were the people I hung out with. Maybe it was subliminal, but it gave me an understanding that hatred based on these externalities was ridiculous.

In fact, what Bregman understood, as did his teammates on the US judo team, what brought them together was far more substantial than what set them apart. Harris, Campbell, Maruyama and Bregman had all trained together in Japan for 3 or 4 years, their tight friendship forged in the common experience of two-a-day training – relentless, punishing and exhausting training. According to Bregman, they were more interested in becoming waza-shi, or highly proficient in judo technique, than winning competitions.

Bregman felt that his team was the representation of an ideal America, a team built on merit and performance, not race or religion. “Being on the rainbow team had a tremendous impact on me personally. This team represented America, not the one I grew up in, but one I wanted to live in.”

Judoka James Bregman Part 1: To Be a Waza-shi

Judoka James Bregman Part 2: The Stoic Professionalism of Judo

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Geesink vs Kaminaga_Tokyo Olympiad 1964_The Kyodo News Service
Anton Geesink staving off fans at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics_ from the book “Tokyo Olympics Special Issue_Kokusai Johosha”.

It was shocking. When Or Sasson of Israel extended his hand to Islam El Shehaby of Egypt to express a match well fought at the Rio Olympics, the Egyptian turned and walked away.

There were no words in anger, no fists raised in threat. But in the world of sportsmanship, and more specifically in the gruff quietude of judo, the action of El Shehaby was akin to a slap in the face.

In Judo, there is an expectation of restraint and calmness, regardless of whether one makes the perfect throw or is body slammed in twisting agony, whether one wins or loses. When Anton Geesink shocked all of Japan by handily defeating Akio Kaminaga to win the gold medal in the open division of the 1964 Olympics, Geesink did not revel in his victory. In fact, right after the referee tapped his shoulder to indicate his victory, Geesink had to deal with an unexpected breach of etiquette by Dutch fans who sought to storm the judo mat in victory. He jumped to his feet and walked towards them, his right hand extended in a halt sign, and a hard stare stopped them in their tracks.

The two competitors then kneeled facing each other, getting their judo-gi in order in a matter-of-fact manner. They stood and bowed. Geesink walked up to Kaminaga impassively, but when he reached over to offer a small hug to his competitor, Kaminaga offered a smile of resignation and happiness for the other, which in turn gave Geesink permission to smile back in relief.

James Bregman and his brotherhood of judoka understood this interaction to be proper.

Bregman won the bronze medal in the middleweight class in judo’s Olympic debut at the Tokyo Summer Games of 1964. Some say, he should have had a shot at gold if not for a quick judgment call that went the other way.

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Bregman (#5) throwing an opponent at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics_ from James Bregman’s personal collection.

Bregman had defeated Argentinian Rodolfo Perez to get to the medal round. He faced off against Wolfgang Hofmann of Germany for a chance at gold. Towards the middle of the match, Hofmann got Bregman in an arm bar, “an effective one” as Bregman put it. “He nearly broke my arm.” Bregman told me that he approached Hofmann with an uchimata, but Hofmann blocked it. Then Bregman performed a left ip-pon seoi-nage over the shoulder and threw Hofmann to the mat, but not for a full point. They rolled and Hofmann then got Bregman in an arm lock. Bregman was able to stand up and also got Hofmann off the mat.

According to Bregman, the rules of judo at the time stated that if a person is in an arm lock but is standing, and the person who is giving the arm lock is off the ground, then the referee is supposed to say “matte”, stopping the match briefly so that the judoka can re-set. And in fact, the referee did indeed say “matte“, which means “wait”. Hofmann either didn’t hear that, or ignored it, and continued with the arm lock. Bregman thinking his arm was about to break, tapped out and gave up. In that instant, the referee simply ignored the fact that he had said “matte“, and awarded the match to Hofmann.

“I’m like, ‘what'”, said Bregman. “I’m in a lot of pain holding my elbow walking off the mat. But in judo, you don’t say a word, you show no emotion, and you honor your opponent as a victor, in a gentlemanly fashion. And you accept the referee’s judgment.”

What was more important was how he was greeted by his colleagues at Meiji University, home of the toughest judoka in the world in the 1960s. “When I won the bronze, the Japanese judoka came over and congratulated me and hugged me. It was like Meiji had won a gold medal. They were ecstatic for me.”

Judoka James Bregman Part 1: To Be a Waza-shi

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Bregman and his bronze medal_from James Bregman’s personal collection.

It was October, 1964, the Olympics were in Tokyo, and the Japanese were expected to sweep their home-grown martial art. And in fact, Japanese took gold in three of the four weight-classes at the Tokyo Olympics.

American James Bregman won the bronze medal in the middle-weight class at the inaugural judo competition at the Olympic Games. His accomplishment was the result of years of training, as well as a dedication to mastering technique or “waza“, and being the best judoka he could possibly be. But it was never about winning a medal.

Bregman, like a handful of other determined foreign judoka in Japan, trained with members of Meiji University, the dominant judo power in the 1960s. Training at Meiji was what you might find in a judo dictionary as meaning “glutton for punishment”. But Bregman trained, learned, and was proud to become proficient enough to earn the respect of his Meiji comrades. “My sempai was the captain of the Meiji University team. And when he put his hand on my shoulder and called me a “waza-shi” (a technician), that meant more to me than a medal.”

Bregman remembers judo in Japan as being a meritocracy, where attitude, grace and technique were the measures of a person. He said that twice a year, there would be public and open competitions called “koh-haku shiai“, where any judoka could come and compete. They would line you up in terms of your level, from the beginners’ level of “sho-dan“, then to “ni-dan“, “san-dan“, and upwards. You could have a line of hundreds of judoka, and the process is the first person in line gets on the mat with the next judoka and has a go. Whoever wins, stays on the mat to take on the next guy, and the next guy. Sometimes, a person from a lower rank takes on a person from the next rank up and wins a match or two. But very often, judoka are in the right rank, getting that feedback real time in front of all to see.

Bregman told me that when he first started attending koh-haku shiai as a ni-dan, “you’re basically a flying machine” getting tossed all over the place. But as you train, you get better, and over time, you’re throwing people, and eventually beating people above you in rank. “It’s a real learning experience,” Bregman told me, “putting to test all the things you learned from your training.”

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From the autobiography of Syd Hoare, “A Slow Boat to Yokohama”

One of his most impactful teachers was Bregman’s sempai, a judoka named Seki who was a year ahead of Bregman. He said he trained every day with Seki, who was third or fourth best in the middleweight class in Japan, learning the right way to stand, mat work, choke techniques, and mat presence, lessons that served him well in the Olympics. Bregman explained that Seki would train Bregman about mat presence by practicing near the “joh-seki“, a wooden floor where shrines were placed for special occasions. Since the joh-seki was hard, falling on it was something Bregman wanted to avoid.

It was hard enough thrown on the tatami, which are not exactly cushions. Even though we know how to fall, it hurts. What he was teaching me is that you have to be conscious of where the edges are, to have total mat awareness. You need to know where your opponent is going, and where you want to go. Most of us were taught to fight in the middle of the mat. This was due to the early rules of judo. If you go to the mat, and you stepped out, they brought you back after stopping the match, so throwing a person outside the mat was, in a way, wasted effort. So Seki taught me how to anticipate the other person’s move and maneuver him to where you want to go.

At the Tokyo Olympics, Bregman faced off against a judoka from Argentina named Rodolfo Perez. In the video, you can see Bregman pick up Perez’s right leg, putting him off balance. But Bregman notices that he is just about to push Perez off the mat, which would have stopped the match and resulted in no points. Noting where he wanted to go, Bregman planted his right foot at the edge of the mat, and while still holding Perez’s leg suspended, he turned the two of them nearly 180 degrees so that Bregman was facing the middle of the mat. Then with his left leg sweeping from behind, he tripped up Perez in a kosotogake. Perez fell safely in bounds and Bregman moved on to the semi-finals.

 

Judoka James Bregman Part 2: The Stoic Professionalism of Judo

From the book, “Tokyo Olympics Special Issue_Kokusai Johosha”

He was 6 foot 6 inches or nearly 2 meters tall. When Anton Geesink entered a judo tournament, in a time when there were no weight classes and a 120-kilogram giant like Geesink could compete against a 70-kilo judo-ka, he intimidated. Geesink was a European storm, and the Japanese could hear it coming in the early 1960s. In 1961, Geesink defeated the Japanese champion Koji Sone, ending Japanese domination in the sport.

In 1964, it seemed pre-ordained that Geesink would make it to the finals. But the Japanese held out hope that Akio Kaminaga, would rise to the occasion and uphold national pride. And there they were, in the Budokan, facing off. Ada Kok, winner of two silver medals in swimming at the Tokyo Olympics, was there to witness. Kok is Dutch, and as a reward to medalists, the Dutch Olympic Committee invited Kok to watch her compatriot, Geesink, in the judo open weight finals.

Geesink vs Kaminaga_Tokyo Olympiad 1964_The Kyodo News Service
Geesink asking the crowd to quiet down. From the book “Tokyo Olympics Special Issue_Kokusai Johosha”

“I had just turned 16, so I accepted this invitation as something normal. It was just a fight to me at the time. But on reflection, I realized I was watching a culture shock of sorts, going throughout Japan. The Budokan was silent. Quiet. I could hear people crying. It was like a solar eclipse had suddenly blackened out all of Japan. It was a feeling of doom.

“But of course, it was tremendous for us, the Dutch. And I remember the Dutch officials were elated, and wanted to jump on