Professor Yamashita Goes to Washington by Joseph Svinth

Commander Isamu Takeshita strolling with President Theodore Roosevelt in Washington, D.C. c. 1905

Commander Isamu Takeshita strolling with President Theodore Roosevelt in Washington, D.C. c. 1905

“Teddy Roosevelt’s Love Affair with Jujutsu.”

A slightly different version of this article appeared in Aikido Journal, 25:2 (1998).

What if we made our judo known abroad? Wouldn’t it be a great thing which would allow us to get people to know Japan better? …What do hardships matter? For any pioneer, it is not a matter of harvesting, but of sowing.—Yoshiaki (Yoshitsugu) Yamashita, circa 1887

In 1902, a wealthy Seattle businessman named Sam Hill was routinely working ten hours a day, six days a week. This prolonged absence caused his nine-year old son to turn “sickly,” as being spoiled and selfish was then known. Rather than spend more time with the boy, Hill decided that judo, which he had seen demonstrated during a recent business trip to Japan, would be just the thing to imbue young James Nathan Hill “with the ideals of the Samurai class, for that class of men is a noble, high-minded class. They look beyond the modern commercial spirit.”

Hill therefore asked I. Shibata, a Japanese friend living in New Haven, Connecticut, to find him a good judo teacher. In February 1903, Shibata told Hill of a Professor Yoshiaki (Yoshitsugu) Yamashita of Tokyo. [EN1]

Yoshiaki Yamashita, early 1930s. Photo courtesy
of the Joseph R. Svinth collection

Yamashita was born in Kanazawa City, in Ishikawa Prefecture, on February 16, 1865. The son of a minor samurai, he received some martial art training as a youth. In August 1884 he became the nineteenth member of Jigoro Kano’s Kodokan Dojo, where he began studying the jujutsu style that later became known as judo.

Despite all the stories about how it took years to get rank in the old days, Yamashita earned his 1-dan ranking after just three months at Kano’s school. Subsequent promotions continued apace, and he received his 4-dan after just two years. He was further promoted to 6-dan in 1898, and, upon his death in October 1935, he became the first person to receive posthumous promotion to 10-dan. Highly educated and urbane – he spoke good English and wrote beautiful Japanese – Yamashita quickly became a top-notch instructor. His postings included the Imperial Japanese Naval Academy and Tokyo Imperial University.

Yamashita’s skill was not solely theoretical, either. He was a member of the Kodokan teams that wrestled the Tokyo police jujutsu club in 1883 and 1884, and in 1946, the British judo pioneer E.J. Harrison, who studied judo at the Kodokan around 1905, told the following stories of Professor Yamashita’s practical fighting skills in the Budokwai Quarterly Bulletin:

It chanced that some years before I joined the Kodokwan Yamashita and a friend were assaulted by seventeen coolies in a Tokyo meat-shop – a sort of popular restaurant. Although some of the coolies were armed with knives the gang were dispersed in a twinkling, three of them with broken arms and all with bruised and battered faces. [EN2] As fast as one of the two experts artistically ‘downed’ his man the other would pick the victim up like an empty sack and dump him unceremoniously in the street. The only evidence of the conflict on the side of the two experts took the form of skinned knuckles where the latter had come in contact with the coolies’ teeth. On another occasion Yamashita fell foul of a coolie in the upper room of a restaurant and promptly threw him downstairs. The coolie returned to the fray with fourteen comrades, but Yamashita calmly sat at the head of the stairs and as fast as the coolies came up in single file, owing to the narrowness of the passage, he simple choked them in detail and hurled them back down again. In the excitement of the moment he was rather rougher than was strictly necessary, and so broke one man’s neck. The rest fled in terror, carrying off their dead and wounded. Yamashita was arrested, but as he was easily able to prove that he had been one man against fifteen he was, of course, acquitted. Nevertheless, the Kodokwan temporarily suspended him for his conduct, which was deemed unduly violent.

Hill knew none of this, however. All he knew was that his friend in Connecticut said that Yamashita was a good judo teacher, that judo was supposed to build character in boys, and that his son James Nathan was badly in need of stronger character. So Hill wrote Yamashita on July 21, 1903, saying:

My dear sir:—Referring to the correspondence between Mr. I. Shibata and myself regarding your coming to America, I beg to state that I am now ready to carry out my proposition to you as made in February last. My son will be next year in the city of Washington, D.C., from the first of October on. I have arranged so that if you will call at the office of the Nippon Yusen Kaisha [Japan Mail Lines] [EN3] in Tokyo they will furnish you transportation for yourself and your wife from Yokohama and Seattle, and I will pay for same. The steamship ‘Shinano Maru’ leaves Yokohama on the 22nd of September. If possible, I should like you to sail at that time. I shall, of course, furnish you with a railroad ticket from Seattle to Washington, D.C. for yourself and wife as well. I am greatly interested in this matter and believe that you will do well, and I am very anxious that my boy should learn the art. Trusting that you will be able to come to America and that I may hear from you at earliest moment to that effect.

To which Yamashita responded on August 26, 1903:

Your letter dated 21st July is duly at hand and I greatly appreciate your kindness in furnishing transportation for myself and my wife.

In reply to your favor I am very glad to inform you that we are ready to start for America on the 22nd of September on board ‘Shinano Maru’ as you so kindly arranged for us.

I had been much bothered about how to show you the true art of our ‘jujutsu’ before accepting your proposition because I was afraid that there is no Japanese resident there who is able to show you the art as my opponent, but fortunately I have got a young Japanese gentleman, one of my pupils who is very clever and whose father is a judge of the Tokyo Supreme Court, who voluntarily applied to go to America with us at his own expense which I have gladly consented to.

Asking you to give our kindest regards to Mrs. Samuel Hill and your son.

Letters reprinted courtesy of Maryhill Museum of Art. Images copyright Maryhill Museum of Art.

So, on September 23, 1903 the 38-year old Yamashita, his 25-year old wife Fude, and his 19-year old assistant Saburo Kawaguchi boarded the SS *Shinano Maru* in Yokohama. Since Hill was paying his fare, Yamashita traveled first-class. On the other hand, Kawaguchi traveled second-class, doubtless because his father was paying his way. Still, neither man traveled steerage. So when they arrived in Seattle fifteen days later Yamashita proudly told immigrations officials that he was a professor hired to teach “jujitsu” to Mr. Hill’s children. Kawaguchi just as proudly proclaimed himself Professor Yamashita’s assistant.

On Saturday, October 17, 1903 Yamashita and Kawaguchi gave a judo exhibition at the Seattle Theatre. This was a private show, not a public one; the theater was between shows, and Hill hired it for the evening. Guests included Sam Hill’s mother-in-law Mary Hill (wife of railroader J.J. Hill, the man of whom it was said, “In the West there are many mountains, but only one Hill,”), Senator Russell Alger (a Republican from Michigan, and a former Secretary of War), and several Seattle sports writers. So far as I know, this was the first time Kodokan judo was shown to a non-Japanese audience in North America. (Since journalist H. Irving Hancock had begun studying jujutsu in New York City as early as 1896, this statement refers solely to Kodokan judo.)

During his show, Yamashita told the audience that judo was a word meaning “victory by pliancy or yielding.” What this meant, he was quoted in the *Post-Intelligencer* as saying, was that:

When the opponent in a hand-to-hand conflict exerts the greatest muscular power he is easiest to overcome, for the expert in judo, by a subtle trick of yielding, converts the antagonist’s momentum into his own destruction. The unfortunate leans too far, loses his balance, and swift as lightning the adept exerts one of his peculiar holds on the neck or arm…


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