By Joseph R. Svinth
An earlier version of this article appeared in Furyu, the Budo Journal, 10 (Fall 1999), 33-36. Copyright © Joseph R. Svinth 2005. All rights reserved.
The assistance of the following individuals is gratefully acknowledged: Fujiko Tamura Gardner, Graham Noble, Hank Ogawa, Robert W. Smith, Rose Tamura, and Kenji Yaguchi. Financial support included grants from the King County Landmarks and Heritage Commission and the Japanese American National Museum.
In 1943, a sportswriter for the Chicago Daily Times named Gene Kessler decided "to find out about the comparative merits of our wrestling when matched against the Japs' jujitsu." For the answer, Kessler turned to professional wrestler Karl Pojello and judoka Masato Tamura.
In his book Wrestling, Published Under the Auspices of W. (Billy) Wood (1934), E.J. Harrison described Pojello as follows:
As far back as 1912 he won the championship of Russia in the Graeco-Roman style at the then St. Petersburg. In the following year he became first Russian Olympic [freestyle] champion at Kiev and International Tournament champion at Breslau; and in 1914 second Russian Olympic [freestyle] champion. Then after the war he won several Far Eastern championships [probably at Shanghai], and studied the Japanese art of Ju-jitsu, later turning the knowledge thus gained to excellent account when he entered the All-in [e.g., American professional wrestling] ranks. After his arrival in the United States in 1923 he beat Johnny Meyers for the World's light heavyweight title, and since his entry into the heavyweight class he has won the European championship from [Heinrich] Froehner twice running, and later scored an easy victory over [Atholl] Oakeley. [EN1]
In the United States Pojello also wrestled Japanese wrestlers such as Matty Matsuda and Taro Miyake. So, having had extensive experience with Japanese opponents, Kessler trusted Pojello's opinion of Japanese unarmed combative methods.
Pojello told Kessler that the Japanese had just three good tricks – a sharp blow to the Adam's apple with the fore edge of the open hand, a lapel choke, and a hard kick to the groin. Furthermore, said Pojello:
'It is easy to form a defense against these tricks. By keeping your chin on your chest, you prevent the knifing barehanded blow to the neck. By moving in close and shifting to your right, you either avoid his kick, or take it on the hip. The noose grip is most difficult, but all you have to do is lift his top arm over your head and you get out of that. Then, the Jap is at your mercy.'
Although this advice sounded reasonable, Kessler knew that professional wrestlers sometimes exaggerated. Therefore he telephoned Harry Auspitz, the owner of Chicago's Ju-Jitsu Institute of America, to ask if his judo instructors would consent to a match with Pojello. Because there was a lot of prejudice against Japanese Americans in 1943, Auspitz wasn't happy about the idea. However, Auspitz's lead teacher, Masato Tamura, said that a contest would be okay, as US soldiers might be better able to defend themselves during hand-to-hand fighting if they knew something of judo. So in the end Auspitz allowed Kessler to have his show.
Tamura was originally from Fife, Washington, and by the 1930s, he was known throughout the Pacific Northwest as someone that you had to beat if you wanted a chance at first place during tournaments. Despite his having lost three fingers on his left hand during an accident with a blasting cap, his favorite techniques included migi seionage, or right-hand shoulder throw. To do this, he grasped his opponent's right sleeve with his left hand while his right hand pulled the opponent's left lapel.
"Tamura," recalled a former opponent named Hank Ogawa in 1997, "was strictly a right hand or right side thrower. He was fast and utilized the opponent's movement. He anticipated the opponent's move to the right. He timed just perfectly and had his opponent." Nothing works forever, however, and so with time experienced opponents such as Ogawa learned to pull their arm free the instant they felt Tamura grab their sleeve. Failing that, they waited until Tamura turned his back to execute the throw. Then, just as they were about to go over, they dropped their hara (center) and turned sideways, thus stopping the throw.
"Judo has delicious risk," said Robert W. Smith, author of A Complete Guide to Judo (1958) in a letter written in 1997. "Many throws you must turn your back on your opponent to throw him, giving him a countering (kaeshi) chance." Still, for players who had never met him before, Tamura's technique was unusually devastating. One second they would be up, thinking devious thoughts, and the next they'd be soaring through the air, wondering how they'd gotten the gift of flight. Recalled Ogawa:
You must have speed in executing your technique. Or you must fool the opponent by trying for one throw on the left or right and go exactly the opposite because you must throw him the way he is resisting. If you plan to throw him left, your upper body, which means or includes both your arms, must make a pull to the right. That pull to the right makes him resist to the left and that's when you go into your left throw. Whatever waza [technique] you are using, he will fly through the air like a feather. But remember your footing's got to be in place before all this happens. Footing or the supporting leg must be in exactly the right place.
During tournaments, Tamura liked being the team anchor, as this gave him choices. If his opponent were powerful, then he would go all out to beat him. On the other hand, if someone junior had shown spirit or improvement, then he might allow himself to be thrown so that the junior could get the trophy. As former Fife judoka Kenji Yaguchi recalled in 1997:
I remember this one tournament. You had to take all comers in those days. It didn't matter how big they were. I took three or four guys down. Masato Tamura had a chance to take more down, but he didn't do it. He stopped right there. He had a lot of trophies, and he wanted me to get one. What a gentleman he was!
Anyway, in 1943, Tamura was among the best judoka in the United States, and so, even though he weighed just 143 pounds, his selection as an opponent for the 205-pound Pojello was as reasonable and fair as local conditions allowed. [EN2] Nevertheless, anti-Japanese emotions were still running high in February 1943, and so, to minimize any public outcry, the match took place behind closed doors on February 22, 1943. Besides the participants, attendance was limited to Lt. Jim McMillan, US Navy, Capt. Dick Hyland, US Marine Corps, Lt. Ray Flaherty, US Navy, Avery Brundage (head of the US Olympic Committee), various sportswriters, and Harry Auspitz. Ted Tonneman (Gus Sonnenberg's personal referee) was the official.
Pojello started the match as he expected, by slamming Tamura to the mat. But all of judo is in the falling, and once on the mat, Tamura applied a cross-hand choke to Pojello's collar. This caused the incautious older man to pass out after just 1 minute 20 seconds of wrestling.
Upon recovering, Pojello leaped to his feet and demanded that the match continue. More cautious now, he proceeded to toss Tamura about the mat. But Tamura continued to fall well and always managed to avoid any entangling holds. After about five minutes of this, said a reporter for the Chicago Daily News afterwards:
Pojello was wheezing like an old bellows. His nose was skinned. Masato was bleeding from cuts over both eyes suffered when his head banged into a radiator. But they continued for 14 minutes, first the Jap hitting the mat, and then Pojello…
[Finally] Tonneman, wrestling arbiter, stepped between them. 'This has gone far enough,' he yelled. 'Nobody is getting any dough out of this. Let's call it quits. It's a draw.'
The grinning Masato and the puffing Pojello, both willing to continue, abided by the referee's orders and shook hands.
"This was," Gene Kessler wrote, "the only 'shooting match' we ever saw on the mat." [EN3] He later added:
We recall [these] facts because recently we witnessed a public 'exhibition' in the Stadium between Rudy Hoffman, a local wrestler who was supposed to be using the 'Japanese jujitsu style,' and Gus Lesnevich, light heavyweight boxing champion now in the coast guard.
This, like other similar exhibitions, was staged for the purpose of advertising a war movie in which an American boxer wins over a Jap jujitsu artist. [EN4]
There was no resemblance whatsoever between Hoffman's style or holds and those used by Masato, the real Jap exponent… Perhaps this [showing boxing defeating judo] is good for public morale. Perhaps it is wise to make the average American believe a soldier, marine, or sailor with any knowledge of boxing can flatten a Japan in hand-to-hand combat on the battlefield, or rather in the Pacific jungles. But we doubt it.
The Navy and Marines evidently agreed with Kessler's assessment, as during 1944 some judo was added to naval pre-flight training. The result wasn't real judo, but it was better for practical self-defense than the systems that had preceded it. [EN5]
EN1. From 1939 until his death in September 1954, Pojello was best known in North America as the manager of Maurice Tillet, the French Angel.
EN2. See also Joseph R. Svinth, "Masato Tamura, Ryoichi Iwakiri, and the Fife Judo Dojo," Journal of Asian Martial Arts, 8:1 (1999), 30-43, and Joseph R. Svinth, Getting a Grip: Judo in the Nikkei Communities of the Pacific Northwest 1900-1950 (2003).
EN3. A "shooting match" is professional wrestling jargon for a contest in which both wrestlers are doing everything they know to win. Amateur matches are generally "shooting matches." The term is contrasted with "working," which describes an exhibition in which the outcome has been arranged in advance. By 1943, all professional wrestling matches were worked.
EN4. This was probably RKO's Behind the Rising Sun. Starring Robert Ryan and Mike Mazurki, this 1943 film was advertised as "The Picture That Makes You Mad Enough to Fight!" and promised to let viewers "Know the Worst About the Japs!" For details of the historical events that contributed to the screenplay, see Joseph R. Svinth, "Amateur Boxing in Pre-War Japan: The Amateur Connection," http://ejmas.com/jnc/jncart_svinth2_0100.htm.
EN5. For combative systems used by the United States military during 1942-1943, see US Army Field Manual 21-150, Unarmed Defense for the American Soldier, June 1942, at http://ejmas.com/jnc/jncart_FM21-150a_0800.htm; Anthony J. Drexel Biddle, Do or Die: A Supplementary Manual on Individual Combat (Quantico, VA: Marine Corps League, 1937); and Harvey L. Miller, "Range, Two Feet,"Ring, December 1943, 16-17. For the subsequent V-5 program, which was developed in part on the lessons learned in this match, see Bruce Bennett, "Physical Education and Sport at Its Best – The Naval Aviation V-5 Pre-Flight Program," Canadian Journal of History of Sport, 21:2 (December 1990) and Donald W. Romminger, Jr., "From Playing Field to Battleground: The United States Navy V-5 Preflight Program in World War II," Journal of Sport History, 12:5 (Winter 1985).