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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Paul Maruyama and Roy 2
Olympian Paul Maruyama with me!

Paul Maruyama has three wishes for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics:

  1. For the USA to do the best overall at the 2020 Games
  2. For Japan to dominate in judo in Tokyo in 2020
  3. For the 1964 US judo team to reunite and visit Tokyo during the 2020 Olympics

I had the great pleasure of seeing Maruyama, member of the US Judo squad in 1964, in his visit to Tokyo recently. A second-generation Japanese-American, he is introducing his family from America to Japan. He is also catching up with people who helped him research his book about his father, his father’s friends, and their part in one of the greatest humanitarian acts in Asia – the repatriation of over a million Japanese abandoned in China after the end of the Pacific War. See my post about his book, Escape from Manchuria.

Escape from Manchuria coverMaruyama is a retired Air Force officer in the American military. Even though he was born in Japan in 1941, Paul had American citizenship due to the nationality of his Japanese-American mother. As an American, and a member of the 1964 US Olympic team, he naturally wants America to do well in the Olympic competition. But judo is a Japanese sport, and he believes the 2020 Games will be an opportunity for Japanese judo to shine again.

“Japan is not as dominant as they used to be,” Maruyama told me. “If they are dominant again, I think judo can become technique-oriented again, not wrestling-oriented. When I watch judo today, it’s hard for me to figure out what is superior technique and what isn’t.”

“Many try to win by wrestling the guy down. But the throw is the main thing. You want the guy to stand up straight, to commit, and to pick his opponent up and slam him down on his back. But it’s difficult to do that. You have to commit. If you don’t commit and follow through effectively, you expose your back to the opponent and open yourself up to attack. My dream would be that Japan shows the world again what judo really is, throwing for ip-pon – tai-otoshi, uchi-mata, seoi-nage.”

But finally, Maruyama wants to bring the band back together again, those Americans who came to the Tokyo Olympics to compete in the Games inaugural judo competition. While judoka, George Harris (heavyweight), has passed away, Maruyama (lightweight), bronze-medalist Jim Bregman (middleweight), and former 2-term US Senator from Colorado, Ben Nighthorse Campbell (open) intend to be in Tokyo for the 2020 Games. And their hope is to bring over their coach, Yosh Uchida, who recently turned 96.

Celebrating the 100th birthday of America’s most celebrated judo coach in the land of judo during the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo – Maruyama thinks about that and smiles.

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Left to right, George Harris (heavyweight), Jim Bregman (middleweight), Yosh Uchida (coach), Paul Maruyama (lightweight), and Ben Nighthorse Campbell (open weight division).  Bregman won bronze in his division. Campbell was a member of the US House of Representative and the US Senate. Uchida, Maruyama and Campbell have also been conferred the Imperial Decoration (kunsho) in Japan for their separate contributions in the promoting US-Japan relationship.
Tadahiro Nomura with His Three Gold Medals
Tadahiro Nomura (left), a three-time Olympic judo champion at 60 kg, attends a Monday news conference in Osaka. | KYODO

He won gold medals in the 1996 Atlanta Games, the 2000 Sydney Games and the 2004 Athens Games in the extra lightweight (-60kg) judo division. No other judo-ka has ever accomplished such consistency for so long.

On August 31, Tadahiro Nomura (野村忠宏) announced his retirement from competitive judo at the age of 40. As he was quoted in this Kyodo news report, “I began to feel my physical limit,” the 40-year-old Nomura said at a news conference. “I’ve done everything I can. I have no regrets.”

In addition to his three consecutive Olympic golds, he also won gold in the Judo World Championships in 1997, as well as bronze in the 2003 World Championships in Osaka. The man from Nara, Japan often won in spectacular fashion. He employed a seoi-nage technique, a throw where the thrower’s feet get in between the opponent’s legs in lightning fashion, and the thrower is able to toss the opponent over his back and shoulder with unexpected ease.

See the video below for a visual explanation, which is in Japanese, but fairly self-explanatory. A more detailed explanation of the seoi-nage in English can be found at this link.

Nomura comes from judo pedigree – his uncle Toyokazu Nomura was the gold medalist in the -70 kg division of the 1973 Games in Munich, while his father coached Shinji Hosokawa to gold at the 1984 Games in Los Angeles.