Journal of Combative Sport, February 2000

Special Section: Training in Japan pre-1960.

An Englishwoman's Description of Learning Judo in Japan: Letters from Sarah Mayer to Gunji Koizumi, 1934-1935, Part I.

Letters from Sarah Mayer to Gunji Koizumi, reprinted courtesy of Richard Bowen. Copyright © 2000, all rights reserved.

Editor's note: On March 1, 1935, the Japan Times and Mail ran the following caption under a photograph: "Mrs. Sarah Mayer of London, who on Wednesday [February 27, 1935] realized her ambition when the Kyoto Butokukai awarded her the rank of shodan [first Dan] in judo which she had been conscientiously learning since May of last year. She is the first foreign woman to win such a distinction."

The following are transcripts of letters that Mayer wrote to Gunji Koizumi, head of the London judo club known as the Budokwai, of her experiences.



Feb. 7th 1934

Dear Mr. Koizumi,

I got here yesterday after wandering across India. I went to Jaipur - Delhi -Agra -Benares and a host of small places near to them. It was all very interesting and very expensive! The Taj Mahal is too lovely for description. I nearly burst into tears when I saw it. I was in four times to see it. At dawn -- in the afternoon -- at sunset and under the full moon which just arrived for my benefit. Apart from this I liked Jaipur best I think. It is so very Indian -- quite unspoilt and most interesting. Jackals howled under my windows all night. A peacock walked into my bathroom and almost fell into my bath. Hundreds of monkeys run on the housetops and the birds and butterflies are wonderful because no one is allowed to kill anything… and the tigers seem to get about one man a week -- but nobody cares. I went for miles on an elephant -- a most extraordinary sensation and I should think very good for the abdominal muscles!

The two Japanese that you gave me letters to -- Mr. Hamada and Prof. R. Kimura -- are neither of them in Lucknow but Mr. Kurihara, the consul in Bombay, was very nice to me and took me to see the Towers of Silence and out once to a séance etc. The Calcutta consul here this morning and he has been very helpful.

On Friday I leave for Rangoon and from there I go up the river to Irrawaddy and then to Bhamo. After that I shall go straight to Singapore and try to find a small cargo ship which will call at plenty of places on the way to China. I shall have to miss out Siam and Indo-China for the time being because India has been so expensive.

I shall be in Japan for the cherry blossoms so please write to me there to tell me how you are getting on. I shall arrange for Thos. Cook -- Tokyo -- to send letters to me wherever I am -- so if you write them I shall be sure of getting your letter.

I have had too many adventures to tell you in a letter but I shall have plenty to relate when I see you again. I had a lovely time on the ship coming out. I sat next to the captain who was a most attractive person and he was most attentive. He moved me out of my cabin and gave me the best one on the ship and we had a lovely swimming bath and swam all day and danced every night, so I enjoyed myself thoroughly. If all the captains I meet are so kind to me, I shall never want to come back.

Every good wish to you all. Tell me how the house is progressing when you write. Good luck.

Yours very sincerely,

Sarah Mayer


Yamato Hotel,

27th June [1934]

Dear Mr. Koizumi,

Forgive me for typing this, but in the first place it is so hot and damp that if I rest my arm on the table it sticks to it and secondly because I have burnt my hand with a box of matches which burst into flames a few days ago. I had always understood that this was a safe country -- but the Japanese matches and the motors [automobiles] are a danger to life and limb. I have got so nervous of the matches which set light to the whole box every time I strike one that -- together with the exhortations of my judo instructor -- I should not be surprised if I were not finally induced to give up smoking altogether!

I am still in Kobe. This is really because everyone is so kind to me at the Butokuden and Mr. Yamamoto is so patient with me that I do not feel inclined to leave here just yet.

I enclose some newspaper cuttings which may amuse you. The reporters have made rather a muddle of what I told them and all this talk about the stomach throw [tomoenage] is nonsense. It is the last thing I should do under any circumstances and you may remember that when I see it coming I generally give a scream of terror and give myself up. So on this memorable occasion -- when all the Kobe Police sat down to watch me with stupefaction and amazement -- you may be sure that whatever I did, it was not the stomach throw!

On the first occasion that I went there I was with difficulty persuaded to put on my judo costume and when I did I found to my horror that hundreds of men had left their practice of judo and kendo and were sitting in solemn rows waiting to see what I was going to do. Mr. Yamamoto looked quite unhappy too. He handled me as if I was a bomb that might explode at any minute. To make matters worse a row of men with flashlight cameras were in attendance; and I've never wished myself out of a country as I wished myself far from Japan at that moment. Mr. Yamamoto allowed me to throw him about for a bit and as I was feeling desperate I attacked him with might and main -- feeling that death itself would be better than disgracing myself forever before such an assembly. When this had gone on for a short while Mr. Yamamoto tried in a very gentle way to get me down, but I have not been kicked on the shins by [Yukio] Tani for nothing and I was determined to stand on my legs for as long as possible if I broke every bone in my body.

During this awful experience an august personage of high rank in judo who wore kimono and fanned himself placidly, walked around us. In his face I thought was an expression of distinct lack of enthusiasm and he terrified me.

Then the cameramen came forward, but just as they were about to take photographs, the august person stopped them with an imperative wave of his fan. I thought that he probably thought that I had brought all these reporters with me and that this was all against the spirit of judo, and I wished that I could explain to him that it was not my fault and that I had been dragged there very much against my will and that I had only gone to the place because I had been assured that I should not have to do anything but watch others doing judo. Nobody spoke English so I was helpless, but I need not have worried. All that august person did was untie my belt and cross my coat over the other way, and when he was sure that I was neatly dressed, he signed to the photographers to proceed.

After this I sat down to watch whilst an American wrestler tried his hand on Mr. Yamamoto and several others. This unhappy young man had been foolish enough to boast publicly that he could do anything he liked with any judo man in the world once he got his arms round him. I had heard him boasting and I warned him, but he wouldn't listen to me. And for the next half-hour we watched him being handled like a child by various men who were picked out for the purpose. I thought that the American was a bit unlucky to have fallen into the hands of fifth Dan men -- but I certainly thought that it served him right, as well as being relieved that it distracted attention from me and gave me time to recover my wind.

And so now I go every morning to the Butokoden at eight o'clock and Mr. Yamamoto gives me a lesson. He is very gentle and kind, but he no longer treats me as if I were a delicate piece of porcelain. In fact after a couple of hours I feel as if I had been in the clutches of a playful elephant! He seemed rather astonished and embarrassed that I was not averse to ground work and told me through an interpreter that it was because I was a woman and he thought I should object to it for that reason. I told him that I did not consider myself to have any sex when I was doing judo so he took heart and sat on me for a time until I began to repent of my rashness, and now he shows me no mercy. He weighs over 200 lbs. and if he leans on me I might just as well try to remove a mountain.

The other day there were contests and I was invited to attend. I sat from 7 a.m. until 5 p.m. at a table with the judges (thank heaven we didn't have to sit on the floor) and had lunch with them in the interval. Many important judo men had come to watch and they were very nice to me and gave me cards upon which they wrote their rank 5th, 6th, 7th, and 8th Dan. I gave them my cards and wondered whether I ought to write "white belt" on it in large letters, but decided on the whole that the least said was soonest mended.

Anyway I am getting used to them all now and they are getting used to me. I have even recovered from the shock of finding that I was expected to share the bathroom -- not to mention the bath -- with the entire Kobe police force. And how lovely the Japanese bath is after hard exercise -- especially the buckets and buckets of cold water which I pour over myself afterwards. And everyone is so kind to me, and send me flowers and presents and take me all over the place. Fortunately there is a Japanese journalist here who speaks English perfectly and who I am able to consult on the difficult question of proper behaviour so that I don't do the wrong thing too often.

Mr. Yamabe has written to me and says he will arrange everything for me in Kyoto when I go there and [Ichiro] Hatta has written urging me to go straight to Tokyo and let him teach me judo there. He also says that he will take care of me there. He has sent me an introduction to the head of the judo place at Kyoto, but Mr. Yamamoto says that he will write to them there when I am ready to go.

I must go to Kyoto and see other places as well, but if I find that I don't get such good judo practice there I think I shall return here.

In any case I shall stay in Japan until October or November and I must learn the language because it is so awkward sometimes not to be able to understand a word that is said to me. I am having lessons every day now.

I am feeling very fit in spite of having burnt my hand, cutting my foot on broken glass, having an electric fan fall on my head the other day and a few minor accidents of that kind. To say nothing of landing upon my head this morning several times running, when Mr. Yamamoto did the stomach throw. I suppose if he does it often enough I shall learn to fall on some other part of my anatomy -- at least that seems to be his theory.

He is aided in his lessons by a number of others who stand round and tell him what I am doing wrong if he can't see it for himself. Under this treatment there would be hope for me yet if I were twenty years younger, but as it is they are keeping me in very good condition which is the main thing. With collar bones being broken on all sides of me and shoulders and elbows being put out every day by these strenuous young men, I haven't the face to protest when I bump my head or to squeal with fright when I see the stomach throw coming. And if I break my neck I break it and that's all there is to it.

One lesson I have certainly learned since I left home, and that is that I am not so fragile as I thought, and that it is amazing what dangers one can come through unharmed. That I ever returned from the interior of China and got by Tibet is a miracle in itself, and now when I sit in a Japanese motorcar and it careers through the streets at sixty miles an hour I just think that if we have a head-on collision, we have one, and that's all there is to it. At one time I should have sat there with every muscle in my body at tension and with my nerves worn to a shred.

I suppose it is because I am in good health and enjoying myself and because nothing very serious has happened to me so far. If it were otherwise I might feel different. They say that no man is a philosopher with the toothache!

Robin [Mayer's husband] has gone to America for a trip. He has gone on the "Berengaria." How that would bore me! One might just as well be in an hotel as travel in one of these huge luxury liners. I have so enjoyed the small ships that I have been on, where sometimes I have been the only passenger. No rules, no regulations, dress as you please and the whole of the crew to wait on you. What more can a woman want?

I've written you a terribly long letter but I thought it might interest you to hear about it all.

My permanent address in Japan is c/o Thos. Cook, Kobe. Do write and tell me how the moxa treatment is getting on.

My love to Hana [Koizumi's daughter] and Mrs. Koizumi, and best wishes to everyone at the Budokwai. Tell Mr. Tani that I am having a lovely time but that no one here treats me as gently as he did. I now realize how tenderly he used to drop me upon the mat!

Kindest regards,

Yours very sincerely,

Sarah B. Mayers

To be continued.

JCS Feb 2000