by Mark F. Feigenbaum
Copyright © Mark F. Feigenbaum 2000. All rights reserved.
One of the more popular judo information sites on the Internet is http://JudoInfo.com, which began life as the Encino Judo Club's website. In the following article, former Encino Judo Club member Mark Feigenbaum describes judo in Encino before there was a website, or even a judo club.
It was the late summer of 1963 when I walked into a judo dojo for the first time. It was called American Judo Associates, and it was on Ventura Boulevard in the Los Angeles suburb of Encino. My mother wanted me to attend because I was small. For myself, I had convinced myself that I was dead meat if I were to partake of my first judo classes which were mixed as to ability, rank, age, and size.
The instructor, Bob Hill, met my mother and me. It was a Saturday, probably in the late morning or early afternoon, as my mother had piano students early on Saturday mornings. Mr. Hill was an imposing man, way over six feet. I was, in a word, gnat-sized. Not only was I small for my age, but against Mr. Hill, I came up to about his mid-thigh.
We talked for a while about why I wanted to know how to defend myself, but even at that age the answer was obvious. So the lesson began.
Not to humiliate me, he got down on one knee, as at this level we were about the same height. This first lesson was mainly based on striking, to include where I should hit if I found myself in a bad situation. He said, at my height, that a swift kick to the testicles was certainly not out of the question, but then he said, "Let me show you some of the less obvious places to strike." He started with strikes to the nerves in the brow, just above the eyes, and said even grabbing and squeezing these nerves was good. Yes, it hurt, badly, but this wasn't rocket science. He then showed me how to strike using a "knife edge" of the hand. This didn't look much different from the "judo chops" that I had seen watching Wednesday night wrestling with Dick Lane. None of this was real spectacular. Sure, some of the stuff hurt, but it was no-duh, too. I mean, this was supposed to be training in dirty fighting, and that was all there was to it?
My second lesson was a review of the first. After that, he asked me a question to which I thought I had at least a beginner's answer. Mr. Hill said, " If someone challenged you to a fight, or started to push you around, what would you do?" I repeated what little I knew which included a kick to the testicles. Mr. Hill answered in a loud voice, "Wrong! You would back out as best you could, and then when safe you turn tail and run like mad. Do you really think you would be here if you had the answers?" He then went on to say that learning judo or any kind of self-defense only gave you a slight advantage, and this was assuming the attacker was a complete bonehead whom you could outrun.
The third lesson was much like the first although he showed me a few holds that used the nervous system to stop an attacker. Later I leaned this was called kyusho, and referred to using pressure to interrupt the flow of nerve impulses.
After this third lesson, Mr. Hill suggested to my mother that I join the class. It would be more economical for her and I would have the opportunity of learning a much wider range of skill and that the mix of the classes would help me relax, etc. My mother agreed, and that was the real beginning of my judo training.
At American Judo Associates in the sixties, there were no girls in the class and very few adults. Instead, it was mostly just boys. So, being as much Scoutmaster as Sensei, Mr. Hill made class fun. He was rarely critical, helped when necessary, and split his time with the students as needed. In other words, those who needed the help, got it, and those who knew the waza (techniques) did randori (free practice). My problems were not in throwing (nage waza), but in falling (ukemi waza). I could fall from a throw all right, but I could not for the life of me do a forward roll. I had the same problem in tumbling in PE classes in school, and until I figured out how to do it, I had a headache and sore neck all the time.
Nevertheless Mr. Hill was strict about making sure that one learned the techniques before advancing to new stuff. But there was still that sense of play, that judo was fun. Or at least it was fun once I finally worked out my ukemi problems! And after I had done that, things seemed to advance quickly.
Mr. Hill's class was always structured and organized. He had learned his judo in the Air Force, so every class started with students getting to their feet at a command that meant Attention but sounded like "Kisket, grunt!" Then we had seiza (kneeling in the formal way) during which time he asked questions and answered ours, and gave us an update on the health of the aged Kodokan 10-dan Kyuzo Mifune or a lecture on the history of judo or some such. After that, we trained.
Some classes we would spend the hour and a half class having ukemi contests. Now, this sounds awful but actually it was a lot of fun, as Mr. Hill made a game of it. The game began with you doing ukemi rolls over one person. Then two, three, etc. Eventually I was able to jump nine at one time. Of course, Mr. Hill wasn't stupid, and at those distances, we jumped over an imaginary line, but the bodies were there, just not directly under us when we did these games.
Mr. Hill was certainly not above participating in the game and he did the jumps as well. One time he lined up nine students, looked at the line, and told one of us to add one more. Okay, now there were ten. He peeked around, peered over, and told another to get down in line. I was getting just a bit nervous because I wasn't yet in the line. Anyway, I ended up being the thirteenth "man" he was going to jump and he asked us if we trusted him to be able to do it if he said he could. Some, in very weak voices said, trembling, "Y-y-yes?" but you could hear a pleading in their voices. He walked up and down to take a look at the distance, and then asked us again if we were confident that he could do this. His face was very stern. We said yes again, in slightly more confident voices, and he said, "All right, then!" He then moved way back and took off, running as if it were a footrace, and then instead of jumping, ran across our backs. The joke was on us. The whole purpose of the game was that we learned trust as well as technique.
When tournaments were coming up, he always went over the commands and what they meant. You know, ippon (point), waza-ari (half-point), etc. But he always seemed to have some funny image that made us remember the words. For example, he would say something like: "Here is a word that is going to sound like "wash day" to you. The word is awasete, but the shimban (referee) is going to say it more like this: "WAZA-ARI WASHTE IPPON. This means scoring a second waza-ari, thus making two half-points and ending the match." (Back then, the Olympic committees hadn't yet inserted those stupid yuko [almost waza-ari] and koka [almost yuko] points, and as a result shiai was a lot better all around.)
Yet, no matter how much fun Mr. Hill made competition sound, there were rarely more than two or three of us who routinely entered shiai (contests).
During my first shiai, I was twelve years old. In it, I fought a girl in what turned out to be my only match of the day, as she threw me for ippon in record time, as she did it an instant after we gripped. I do not remember what technique she used except that it was a front throw, so probably a shoulder throw of some kind. I was embarrassed, not because my adversary was a girl but because of how little time it took her to throw me to the floor. Do not be fooled by anyone who says it doesn't hurt to be beaten, it does.
My second tournament took place a couple months later. Once again I faced a girl in my one and only match. This time I did better -- I lost by two "waza-ari," or half points. This was not nearly so embarrassing as the first tournament, as at least I got a good workout and it was an improvement! But something I still think of today whenever I "hook up" is to take nothing for granted. So even though I lost, I still got a good lesson for everyday life. Every moment is a gift, so use it wisely. If nothing else, I learned that lesson, and it was good to learn it early rather than later in this all-too-short life.
Shortly after this tournament I began reading judo books. You know how you always hear how you can't learn by reading? Well, you have to practice, too, but books sure gave me some great ideas. For example, by reading I learned that the Kodokan way of doing judo was to use only short bursts of power, and then only when needed. To develop this power, the books told me I needed to practice grips and strengthen the hands, and this was best done at home. Mr. Hill might have mentioned the need to do this before, but until reading those books I didn't know what he meant. But afterwards, well, I started doing uchikomi exercises at home. (Uchikomi is off-balancing the opponent, getting inside for the throw, but stopping just short of actually completing it. At home, I usually used a wall to tell me when to stop, but some techniques could actually be practiced in the middle of the room.)
Then, after awhile, it was off to another shiai in San Bernardino, which as a kid seemed like a long way from the San Fernando Valley. Remember that song by Moon Unit and Frank Zappa about Valley Girls? That was home… But of course there were no girls participating in the tournament, Valley or otherwise. The reason was that back then the AAU banned females from competing, saying that competition wasn't ladylike. As Moon Unit and Frank said, gag me with a spoon.
As was the custom in a sport in which everything was done by size, smallest to largest, I was called first. By this time I was used to be being called by my first name, then silence, as I guess a lot of those Japanese American guys never learned how to pronounce German names. So this time I just answered, "Hai!" [yes] during the silence.
After that I didn't hear much but the sound of my heart beating. The referee started the match, and after we gripped, I suddenly turned and went for my best forward technique, ippon seionage (one arm over-shoulder throw). My opponent went flying, and if I hadn't retained the grip as taught (do judo right, and there is no need for anyone to get hurt), he might have landed out of bounds and into the match on the mat next to us. But I pulled him in and he hit and slapped the mat loudly. "Ippon!" said the shimban.
Then the next opponent was called. In those days you didn't get breaks, you just kept fighting until you ran out of opponents or lost. There were no time-outs unless the referee called one so that you could rearrange your clothing and sash. Between matches, you had the time it took for both players to go back to their spot, bow, shake hands, and for the next to be announced.
Well, this continued through seven wins, and each time it got a little harder, as no matter what the books say about minimum effort, maximum efficiency, you do get tired out there. By number eight, I no longer wanted to win, but I didn't want to lose, either, so I walked the guy around the mat for a draw, and I was through.
But it was enough for first place, and afterwards Mr. Hill came up to me with a smile on his face that was ear to ear. He didn't say a word. He just kept smiling and shaking his head as if he couldn't believe it. Then he mussed my hair a little and that was the end of the "conversation."
The odd part was that this came the first time that I didn't worry about winning or using strength; I just went out there to use the best technique I knew. I had lost in my two previous attempts, so I had nothing to lose. I just did the technique and I won. Dang, I said, maybe Mr. Hill was on to something.
Accepting a trophy, Mr. Hill once said, was the most difficult part of shiai. There were unseen markers to go to. A turn to be made at a distance from the judging table, then a bow, then a motion from the judges that was really nothing more than these bored old guys saying, "Come here and get your damned trophy." But you could not hurry any more than the old guys could hand the trophies out wholesale. The etiquette was important, and it meant a lot to show respect. Mr. Hill had trained us well in these little "services" so again, with a smile, he taught us how to accept. Walk across the mat, stop, and make another bow. The "grand Poobah," who back then was almost always some old Japanese American guy -- well, old by my standards then, but probably no older than I am now -- bowed, too.
While I knew what to do, this was unfamiliar country and I think I was more nervous about the ritual of getting a trophy than winning or losing a match. So up, bow, another step, accept the trophy and a handshake. A step backward, another bow, another turn, and then walk across the mat. Turn once more and bow to the table of honchos, step off the mat and bow to the mat (or, more precisely, the comradeship and traditions it represented), and it was finally over.
Back at the dojo, Mr. Hill kept that trophy on or near his desk for at least two weeks. He had pictures of me with it taken, but one trophy does not a champion make, so I never displayed the picture. (The trophy, yes, but not the photo.)
Later, I tested for sankyu (third kyu), which is an intermediate grade. I have no idea what Mr. Hill was writing as he scribbled notes to himself throughout the test, but I passed with a 98 1/4 points, or something close to that. That was my first and last test until shodan (first black) and even then I didn't test before I was promoted.
Mr. Hill had his own way of promoting people. One day when I was fourteen, I walked into class with one of my judo buddies at whose house I had spent the weekend. We were both about equal in the fighting department, and we reached the dojo at about the same time as Mr. Hill. He turned to both of us and said: "By the way, you two can dye your belts purple if you want." That was my promotion to nikyu (second kyu; in kyu grades, big numbers are lower than small numbers). We both looked at each other because we were startled. I mean, we figured there would be a test. Sure, we knew we could pass anything he threw at us, but we figured there would be the formality of a test. Later, I found that a lot of teachers were promoting without tests. After all, why waste time on something they knew we would pass anyway? Both of us were doing well in shiai so maybe it had something to do with a point system. I do not know, but neither had I met anyone who had failed a test. That either says something about the teacher, the student, or both.
Well, one day during the late summer of 1966 I was working out at the dojo on a Saturday morning by myself. Recently I had been graded ikkyu (first brown) and as I had also been teaching one or two classes a week, Mr. Hill had given me the key. As a result, the dojo was open on Saturdays for four hours, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., for randori only. There weren't many takers, but hey, it was fun.
On one of these randori Saturdays, a man walked in and changed into his dogi (practice clothes). He wore a brown obi (belt), but I had no idea which kyu he was. Meanwhile, I wore a purple belt to denote that I was a junior, but nevertheless, ikkyu.
This man, who introduced himself as "George Wahl," asked me, in a very obvious German accent, if I would like to work out. I said yes, and then he proceeded to show me some outstanding throws, some of which I did not even know. I did know how to be uke (partner), though, and so got a lot of practice in falling.
We played randori for at least two hours with barely a word or two exchanged. Afterwards, he exclaimed, in broken English, that he was satisfied and thanked me for the workout. I thanked him, too, as I mostly played randori with kids my age, and it was indeed a pleasure to have such a satisfying day playing judo.
I didn't see George again for a couple weeks, but then he again came to the dojo on a Saturday and asked again for some randori. We worked out for around the same time as the last time he was there. This time he was more forthcoming with conversation and we even talked while tossing each other around.
In those days, I was not doing badly in competition, and even won several shiai (contests) in my weight and age class. Remember that this was still the old days when no points, aside from waza-ari (half point) and ippon (full point) were scored. And in competition George was great.
I guess he thought I was okay, too, as after that he became more of a regular, coming to a class or two a week, and judging from his technique, it was for the workout rather than the training, as he needed no "work" at his level, whatever that was.
One day I asked him what his real name might be. (I was only fourteen or fifteen so he ignored the abusive tone of my questions.) He said, "Juergen, Juergen Wahl. And yours?" When I gave him my name, Mark Feigenbaum, he began to speak away in German. (I guess that since my name is German, he thought I must be able to speak it too. Hah!) Then he saw the terrified look in my face and said, "I'm sorry. I thought you speak German." And after that he was back to English.
Anyway, he was a regular from then on.
Around 1970 American Judo Associates closed. The reason was that Mr. Hill was trying to support his family on the income from the club, and there simply weren't enough students to do that. As a result, I didn't see Juergen again for about five years.
Meanwhile, without a judo class for the first time in years, I started practicing jiu jitsu at Valley Junior College in another Los Angeles suburb called Van Nuys. Yes, I know the word should be spelled jujutsu, but that was how the instructor, Jack Haywood, spelled the word, so that's what I'll call it, too.
Mr. Haywood's father was a white American and his mother was Japanese from Japan, and he said that he had learned jiu jjitsu at the Kodokan. (NOTE: for photos and some descriptions of Mr. Haywood' s jiu jjitsu, see http://home.earthlink.net/~lgross/cbjjf.html#Anchor.seki.) Mr. Haywood thought a lot of himself, and whenever he did a particularly nice technique he would run his hand down his body and say in an audible whisper, "Ah, sandan [third black] judo." Later he started calling himself Sanzo Zeki, too, I guess to attract more students by appearing more Japanese and less hapa. But other than that, he wasn't bad, either as a judoka (some of his best techniques came straight from atemi kata) or as a person (excepting his ego, his worst habit outside of class was smoking heavily).
To his credit, though, Mr. Haywood never charged for promotions. Classes were cheap, too -- a club secretary took quarterly registration fees of five dollars, and that was it. The club secretary was female. She was the only female in the place, too; there were no other women there during the early 1970s.
Every class began with the all-too-familiar thumb scrunch as a counter to someone grabbing you by the shirt. Of course the thumb must be available to do it, but it started every class. All ukemi was to be done before the beginning of class. Yes, there were some wrist and finger/hand locks but they came from Kodokan kata, and while all of them were practical, none of them were ones that I had seen in California judo classes.
Although I was graded ikkyu in judo, I refused to wear my brown belt in class, and Mr. Haywood seemed almost pleased by that. Some of his senior students, though, were less impressed. They always held an inspection to make sure we were dressed properly. Nearly all were younger than me, and in the beginning I wore a white belt, and I silently argued on the direction the ends of the tied obi were to hang. One would turn the ends as he liked them and I would turn them right back. When he came at me asking in a mocking tone, "Are you arguing with me?" "Well, no," I replied, "I have been tying my obi like this since 1963. No argument, just a difference of opinion."
Shortly afterwards a brown belt about an inch taller than me asked me to work out. When I failed to throw him (it was expected since he was SO much taller), he said I should be throwing him all over the place. I said, "Oh, you mean I can use anything I want?" Before he could answer I grabbed him in a natural left side grip and boom! He was embarrassed and I thought it a decent throw considering my time away from the mat.
Mr. Haywood just smiled.
The training was okay at Mr. Haywood's dojo, but I missed judo very much. Part of it was that he held shiai only about once a year and as he wasn't going to any regional tournaments there wasn't much competition. As a result Mr. Haywood ended up "American Jiu Jitsu Champion" fifteen years in a row. So after about a year of that I phoned Bob Hill to ask if he could refer me to someone in the local judo community.
The name I got was Tokuo "Bob" Ota. Ota Sensei was the Japanese American senior judoka who had sponsored American Judo Associates. In Southern California in those days, you had to be a sandan (third black) to run your own school without the sponsorship of someone who was, and I think Mr. Ota was a godan (fifth black). Like a lot of middle aged Japanese Americans in those days, he worked 10-12 hours a day as a landscaper (or gardener, you take your pick), and afterwards he did judo for a couple hours a night, four nights a week.
I told Mr. Ota that I had been doing jujitsu with Mr. Haywood and he snorted, saying, "He is nothing. You sandan judo, you sandan. If you godan judo, you godan. You no sandan here and godan there." Ota Sensei was a delight to talk with, and I knew I had to train with him.
He taught at two different clubs, one at the Glendale YMCA and the other at the Hollywood YMCA. And while he was an older man whose English wasn't the best (I always thought he was Issei, but maybe he was a Kibei, meaning someone born in the US but educated in Japan), his judo was very traditional.
Yet his classes were far from samurai. For example, if we wanted to warm up, we did that on our own before class. Most students didn't, though, and just stood around talking until he arrived. At that point, everyone would lazily get into line, older students on one side and younger or lower ranked on the other side, and yudansha (black belts) in a line next to Ota Sensei.
During class, people continued laughing and joking, and formal instruction was rarely anything more than showing beginners how to do breakfalls. However, toward the end of my regular training at Glendale, ukemi became almost totally absent during pre-class warm-ups. The reason had to do with the YMCA moving to new facilities, where the surface became tumbling mats over a concrete floor instead of wrestling mats over a basketball court. On the old surface, you could turn an ankle, but the new floor hurt. Still, I did learn that slapping the mat was not necessary to good ukemi.
Another really strange thing about Mr. Ota's class -- no one bowed at the start of the class, there was no practice in the formal sitting position called seiza, and there definitely wasn't a dojo shrine. Sure, the students bowed to each other before engaging but the only explanation I can give is that Mr. Ota didn't want to waste time on formalities that could be spent on work. At the end of class, announcements were made or promotions held, and then there was a group bow. But no one, even Mr. Ota, commanded it. It was just done.
So, you say, how on earth could one learn judo in a place like that? Well, I don't know, but Glendale's members included some of the best judo players in Nanka Yudanshakai (Southern California Black Belt Association), and heavy hitters who regularly trained there included "Judo" Gene LeBell, a former AAU judo champion turned professional wrestler and film stuntman. And LeBell wasn't alone: judoka from all over the world -- Japan, Korea, Brazil, you name it -- came to Ota Sensei's class to train.
Ota Sensei was a quiet man, and at the beginning I thought it might have been because he was shy. Now that I think about it, he wasn't shy, he just wasn't very comfortable speaking English, and if you asked him what you had done wrong during a move or a tournament, trust me -- no feelings were spared, he just let fly. One night shortly after being promoted to shodan, I was standing with my arms crossed over my chest watching the newbies doing a variation of seoinage with the foot out and slightly behind uke's right leg in a right-sided throw. In particular, I was watching this twelve-year old blue belt (yonkyu), and instead of getting on the floor to adjust the kid's stance a bit, I used my right foot to adjust it. Ota Sensei saw this and boy! I never saw him move so fast in all my life. He literally reached down and grabbed my foot to keep it away from the student, and then boomed in the loudest voice I ever heard him use: "Dat baad! Don kick like dat! You brak bewt [black belt] now! Don do dat, you brak bewt!" The class was crowded that night and I wanted to crawl off the mat right there, but he was having none of that, and trust me, I have never used my foot that way again.
Such scolding occurred whenever I needed it, and even if it didn't make me a better competitor the next time (sometimes it did), eventually it made me a better teacher. Indeed, I did not realize just how much Ota Sensei's teaching methods had rubbed off on me until I had my own dojo. Mr. Hill, I knew his influence -- I learned my basics from him. But Mr. Ota, at the time I never had an inkling how great a teacher he was. All I knew was that he ran a club where one got lots of practice in perfecting waza for escaping throws and locks that the senior students wanted to practice and needed somebody (me) to practice them on. But later, as I thought about it, I discovered that I had improved because of rather than in spite of the rather lax conditions at this dojo. Why? Because Ota Sensei let you work on anything you wanted, at your own rate, with just a little nudging (and the occasional push) along what he saw as the Kodokan way.
For example, while I had the shiai points needed to get my shodan, I decided that I wanted to earn mine the old-fashioned way. Therefore I asked if I could test doing kata only. It took me ten years to get the rank but eventually I got there, and to this day I teach techniques as bits of kata rather than simply saying, "Throw like this." Meanwhile, I think Mr. Ota was grateful that I continued teaching beginners, adults and children alike, and that I didn't mind not working toward grading higher. And eventually he did promote me, but I think this mostly was his way of saying thank you.
By the way, Ota Sensei was another who never held special promotion tests. Somehow he just knew when you were ready and said, "You promoted." In his classes, you were tested every day, and in general, found wanting. Of course, back then you didn't have to be an O-sensei to teach a class or run an association. Mr. Hill, for example, was ranked just shodan, and strangely, with less rank and fewer connections, nobody argued about whose teacher was closer to the pure stuff in Japan. Instead everybody just did judo.
You had to take responsibility for your own training, though. For example, whenever I wanted to work on randori, then I'd call Mr. Hill, or if I were feeling really sporty, I'd ask Gene LeBell how to do something. But looking back on it, I do not recall Ota Sensei teaching me one single technique, and it never occurred to me ask. Yet in his way Ota Sensei gave me a much better understanding of judo, and why judoka were so much less "specific" in the way things were done than if we had done randori every night.
After a year or so I had by default become Mr. Ota's senpai, or senior student. (Wait long enough and like bills and taxes, seniority comes naturally. And while some black belts dropped in almost every night, they were not there every night. Thus I inherited the responsibility of ensuring the day-to-day training of beginners.) One night while watching the beginners do their ukemi, I spotted Juergen Wahl walking in the door. I exclaimed "Juergen!" He turned and looked at me and I asked him if he remembered me. But of course I was just a teenager when he last saw me and it had been about five years, and so he replied no with a shaking of his head. I gave him about three more chances to recognize me, but still, nothing. Oh well; I reintroduced myself and got a workout with him. His judo seemed even better than before compared to mine, which it was. And with good reason: he started training in what the Germans called jiu-jitsu in 1953, and had been a German national champion.
After class Juergen told me that he had just started a judo program at a city recreation center located in Encino, and asked if I would like to come by. This must have been during the spring of 1971, as Encino Judo Club is listed as registering with Nanka Yudanshakai on March 17, 1971. Anyway, the address was close to my old dojo so I attended the next scheduled class.
As I drove up, I remembered going to dances at this recreation center when I was a teenager. And once inside, I spent the next three hours helping out in two classes in which Juergen was sensei. (He only had one senior student, a young fellow aged maybe fourteen, who was graded ikkyu.)
Juergen always started his classes with some forms of self-defense, meaning blocks, hand and wristlocks, atemi, kicking, etc. Bob Hill had taught classes the same way, which wasn't the way the Japanese Americans did it, so maybe he had picked up teaching tips from him. However, unlike Mr. Hill, Juergen taught his classes by skill rather than age, and having children and adults training together doesn't work well, especially at the lower ranks.
Anyway, to enliven things during this first visit, I tried to organize a competition. And, as I had just been ranked shodan, after taking my turn Juergen let me act as shimban for the rest of the night.
One of the older students was a fellow named Neil Ohlenkamp. Neil took his training very seriously and followed Juergen like a lost puppy. In this he seemed a nice, although perhaps a little bothersome, young man. And Juergen seemed to enjoy the attention, or at least displayed a lot of patience.
Personally, I think it was mostly that Juergen had a lot of patience, as the only time I ever saw him get excited was when somebody failed to use or display kiai. Kiai seemed to be a sticking point for Juergen, too, as he expected this "spirit shout," if you will, to be used during every throw attempted, even during intrasquad competition. To my mind, this was unnecessary, especially when the outcome of the throw was fairly certain and the throwing surface rather hard. (The floor was tile-covered concrete, with only tumbling mats for softening the many throws one would receive in the course of a class.) But one night he goaded me so much that I finally let out a groan and then threw this student with a left-side major outer reaping throw, and boy, did that fellow go down hard. Juergen let out a yell of his own: "Waza-ari!" I glared at him, as I was trying to help this man as he was attempting to regain his breathing ability and had let out a couple of meek coughs. Juergen said: "Ohhhh, if you go down that hard, then that's ippon." Suddenly I realized how his teaching method worked, and I started feeling right at home. As a result I started splitting my time between Judokai of Glendale and the newly named Encino Judo Club.
Okay, the whiney kids and their pushy parents at Encino weren't my kind of folks. Remember that Encino catered to a middle rather than working class crowd and at Encino, some kid running off the mat to Mommy or Daddy was just a fact of life. Remember those Valley Girls I mentioned earlier? Well, there were Valley Boys, too. And of course there were the film stars (and wannabe film stars) to contend with. For example, David Chow, who did some of the fight choreography for the first two seasons of Kung Fu, was affiliated with the nearby East San Fernando Valley YMCA judo club.
But Juergen wasn't like that, and after class we had some great times.
As with American Judo Associates, Mr. Ota was the sponsor of the Encino Judo Club during its early days. The funny part about the sponsorship program was that the senior was supposed to make regular visits. I think Mr. Ota visited American Judo Associates once, and Encino not much more. Why? Because he had a life. In fact, there were nights that due to work or other interruptions Mr. Ota didn't even attend his own classes. Instead he'd phone me and let me know that he wouldn't be there, and then I'd go to class early to make sure that everything was set up.
During the early 1970s women and girls started joining the local judo clubs. There weren't many, but there were a couple. The one I remember best had three brothers in the class at Glendale. She started when she was aged about sixteen, and she caught on so fast that I surmised that her brothers had "home schooled" her a little. In fact, she did so well that even before she earned her brown belt, I encouraged her to enter a contest called the Women's All-City High School Judo Championships. (In 1971, the AAU changed the rules so women could compete in judo using special women's rules. Between us, that ruling still strikes me as silly. I mean, judo is judo, no matter who does it. Evidently other folks thought so, too, as in 1973 the AAU finally decided to let women do judo by regular rules with other women.)
Ota Sensei agreed that this girl was unusually good, so we worked with her as much as we could. Our reward came when she beat the brown belts and two black belts, too! Of note, the women yudansha at these tournaments did not wear the black belt with the horizontal white stripe that used to be customary for female judoka. Possibly, this was a sign that things were changing, and they were. No matter; neither Mr. Hill nor Mr. Ota ever suggested that women were somehow inferior to men in judo or anything else, and today women's shiai is an internationally recognized sport.
There was one other female player at the Glendale dojo during the same period. This one was from Holland, and she had trained there before coming to the US as an exchange student. She was about eighteen, blonde, blue-eyed, and tall: I remember that, but not her name -- shame on me! Anyway, her kata was excellent and she also made sankyu in record time. For both these women, there were never any formal tests. After all, their performance on the mat was test enough.
In 1978, I got an opportunity to live and work in Mexico that I could not pass it up. I stayed there for about four years, working and doing some judo with both some local and national teams, and whenever I returned to Los Angeles, I normally trained with Ota Sensei. Meanwhile the Encino Judo Club grew to three dojo, and the parent club moved to the recreation center in nearby Reseda. The classes were much bigger and the club had raised the money to buy real straw tatami (mats) and homegrown yudansha were teaching at all three clubs.
In 1982 I returned to Los Angeles to start pharmacy school at UCLA, and resumed practicing judo a couple nights a week at either the Glendale or Hollywood YMCA. Going into Hollywood or Glendale was a pain because of the traffic, and the mats weren't as nice, but I liked the working-class people who went there better than the upper-middle class people who frequented Encino. A different work ethic, I guess is the best way to describe it. Or, as Ota Sensei would have put it, less talk, more do. Anyway, I tried to train as much as I could, but eventually I was spending most of my time teaching the kids. The amazing part was that while teaching I could demonstrate and do throws without tiring, but when I was not, I got tired in no time!
After graduating from pharmacy school I worked for UCLA for a couple years so that I could pay off my student loans and get some clinical experience. Meanwhile I kept getting promoted in judo, I think mostly because Ota Sensei was afraid I'd go away. I never had the heart to tell him that I didn't need the ranking to stay, and the awards seemed to please him. I also tried some of the old-style jujutsu arts (dressing in hakama always looked so cool), but to me the softness of judo was always so much more comfortable than the rigidity of the jujutsu, so I didn't last too long.
In 1986 I moved to New Mexico, and after that I lost contact with Juergen and my other California judo buddies. But by then practice had taken on a new meaning. Now, don't get me wrong. Practice, practice, practice were three words I heard a lot during my upbringing. However, hearing and obeying are two separate things and until I was in my early twenties I rarely practiced without being told. But suddenly, I wanted to practice. It wasn't anything special, I just wanted to play. To digress a bit, I play the trumpet. I went through five different instruments before deciding I liked the trumpet better than the other instruments. Even when I hit high school and everyone had a guitar band and the trumpet was not cool (although there are some women who say that kissing a trumpet player is very nice because we seem to know what to do with our lips), I never even entertained the thought of giving up the trumpet.
So, anyway, by the 1980s judo had become another kind of trumpet, and I sounded the judo horn at various Albuquerque community centers and YMCAs. My students and I traveled to the local tournaments but that was about the sum of my judo world until I went online during the late 1990s, at which time I discovered that the Encino Judo Club had a "Judo Information Site". At first I really liked the site, but like judo itself it has made some changes over time that leave me cold. An example of the changes (and my feelings about them) is this photograph that shows some guy in judogi and black belt standing with his thumbs hooked in the belt. You know what Mr. Ota always said upon seeing somebody doing that? "Dat baad. Don't do dat! You brak behwt now!" On the plus side, though, they now have a female teacher, and that's good.
Feigenbaum throwing with seoi nage at the California Nationals held
San Jose State, circa 1982.
About a year ago I heard through the grapevine that Juergen was having some health problems. So of course I e-mailed him to ask about his health, and while writing, of course I complained that judo just didn't seem the same any more. The following is Juergen's response, which is posted here because it does such a good job of summarizing his personality and attitudes.
I am not too much concerned with the current official representation of Judo (as a sport) in the public domain. For several reasons: Oriental philosophy teaches us that nothing ever remains the same. Therefore, the snapshot of Judo, when you were first exposed to it, has changed too, even though you still are devoted to it. Hold on to your conviction, because the Budo sports have room enough for variations. Kano's ideal will still prevail. His refined style is just not for a large number of devotees.
Secondly, just like mountain water has to filter through stones and sand to become clear, so do martial arts have to go through a constant refining process. People with a deeper understanding will intuitively be attracted to the best, according to how sincere they are seeking.
Again, do not think that your understanding of Judo should be changed because the mainstream of practitioners has a different "ideal". Rather, let any ego be silenced by your example. I wish you luck.
Thanks again for your concern for my health. I will retire in the next few months. Then I will probably go to Europe and spend some time with my family.
I'm grateful for that letter, too, as before receiving it I had begun to worry about the future of judo, the combative art and sport that I love. When I began to play judo in 1963, national politics were small, and there was only one organization, the Judo Black Belt Federation (the forerunner of the modern United States Judo Federation, or USJF). But the USJF had mostly Japanese American leaders and some white guys didn't like that, and even some Japanese Americans did not like the fact that the USJF leadership expected people to train at the Kodokan or win tournaments, and neither politicians nor people without much skill liked that. And of course the businessmen were annoyed that the USJF didn't like teachers earning money by teaching judo. So in 1969 Phil Porter, a man who these days signs his letters O-sensei, led the Armed Forces Judo Association (the forerunner of the modern US Judo Association, or USJA) out of the US Judo Federation. The result was the alphabet soup of rank-selling organizations that you see today. The division wasn't good for US judo, but few of the newly promoted judoka worried about that.
Encino Judo Club changed too. In the old days the club barely kept its
financial head above water, but it had a heart, too -- there were even
classes at the Braille Institute. These days it's a dotcom, what can I
say? Still, the old jujutsuka probably said the same thing about that upstart
Kano during the 1880s: times change, and to paraphrase Bob Dylan, judo
is forever young. So no matter what happens to judo or the Encino Judo
Club, I can never repay my debt to Juergen sufficiently, and if there is
judo in heaven, I only hope that my friend Juergen will be senpai to Professor
Kano for eternity, with Mr. Hill and Ota Sensei at their sides.