“How I Became a Ju-Jitsu Champion” by Taro Miyake (1905)

This detailed interview with Taro Miyake was published in the Sunday Times of September 3, 1905. Miyake, who rose to fame by defeating former Bartitsu Club instructor Yukio Tani in a London challenge match during September, 1904, subsequently joined forces with Tani in opening the Japanese School of Jujutsu in Oxford Street and in producing the “Game of Jujutsu” textbook in 1906.

Though largely a catalogue of Miyake’s various successes and accolades as a martial artist, the article is also notable for naming three of Miyake’s own instructors – Tanabe, Uyemura and Handa.  Miyake’s association with Mataemon Tanabe and with Yataro Handa is significant to Bartitsu studies because both Yukio Tani and Sadakazu Uyenishi are likewise associated with these sensei, whose unusual newaza (mat-grappling) techniques helped define the eclectic “British jiujitsu” of the very early 20th century.

How would you like to get up at four o’clock on a bitterly cold January morning, and wrestle for two or three hours with no covering but a thin, loose tunic and knee breeches, when the wrestling mats are frozen hard, and the garments you wear are quite stiff with frost? (asked Tarro Myaki of a London journalist).

Yet that is what we ju-jitsu wrestlers do in Japan — at least, those of us who are very keen, and are anxious to harden our bodies and to practise endurance. Very often after such a morning I have been so sore and chafed that the clothes I wore made me smart all over. But I have turned out again next morning, all the same, until my skin got hard enough to withstand the cuts and scrapes of the hard mats.

Although, like all Japanese boys, I was in a way familiar with ju-jitsu — for is it not as much a part of our national schooling as your football, cricket, and other games? — yet it was not till I was eighteen years old that I took it up in so keen and determined a spirit as to lead me eventually to become the champion of my country. This was principally because I had other things to do, and did not have the time to devote to my favorite sport till I reached that age.

When I did begin, however, I made up for lost time. I entered upon my apprenticeship, so to speak, to the art of self defence with the fixed determination to reach the top of the tree, and with this end in view I concentrated all my attention upon learning the tricks of throw and lock which were shown me, and making myself more proficient at them than those who taught me. That I was successful in my endeavors you may guess, when I tell you that at the end of a year and a half I went in for and won my first contest.

This first success set the final spark to my enthusiasm, and two or three subsequent defeats in minor matches, such as every beginner must suffer, fanned it into a flame. My improvement during the nine months which followed was so rapid that about that time I obtained my first position
as instructor.

Until I was twenty-one, and apart from my duties as instructor, I studied ju-jitsu under one of our most famous teachers, Tanabe, and, although I was still very young, he entrusted me with all the secrets of his school, for in Japan, there are distinctive “schools” of ju-jitsu, just as you have distinctive ‘schools’ of art. Each school has some special little tricks and secrets of its own, which are only fully disclosed to its pupils when they reach a certain proficiency, or years of discretion.

Above: Taro Miyake and Takisaburo Tobari demonstrate a series of formal waza (techniques) for the Pathe film camera in Paris (1912).

When I was twenty-one, I was appointed instructor to the police at Kioto, and during the time I was there I still went on learning, studying at that time in the great Uyemura School. Here, again, I proved my self so proficient that I learnt their secrets before I moved on to Osaka to teach the police there. At Osaka I worked under another great teacher, Handa, and in this way I mastered the secrets of three distinct schools of ju-jitsu.

During, and subsequent to this time I went in for numerous contests, and I am probably more proud at being able to tell you that I have never been beaten in any important match than your English gentlemen are of winning the Derby.

It was in Osaka, last May, that I went through the most trying contests I have ever taken part in, and achieved the greatest success of my career by beating all who opposed me. For this an unusual honor was paid me in the shape of a gold medal, which was presented to me by the Crown Prince of Japan. I have also received a sword of honor from Prince Komatsu, the President of the Butokukai — our national society for the encouragement of ju-jitsu, fencing, and other sports.

What I am specially proud of, however, is that at the age of twenty-two I was admitted to the fifth degree in ju-jitsu. This is rarely attained before the age of thirty five, and then is conferred more as an honorable recognition of a closing career than as the reward of real proficiency.

Now I suppose you will want to know something about my training. Well, that is soon told. My only training has been hard work. We Japanese athletes pay no attention to diet, but just eat and drink and smoke like everyone else. But those of us who are specially keen go through trials of endurance which the others will not face.

What sort of condition I am in you may judge from the fact that from ten o’clock in the morning, when I commence giving lessons in the Japanese school of Ju-jitsu, which Yukio Tani and I have founded in London at 305 Oxford-street, till eleven o’clock in the evening, when I finish my last bout on the stage, I am practically wrestling all day!

All my efforts now are centred upon trying to make ju-jitsu champions out of other people, but, although you Englishmen are eminently suited to become experts, it is difficult to get you to take it seriously. You take it up as an amusement and an exercise, but you do not persevere and stick to it till you become expert. Englishwomen, I think, are far quicker to learn it than the men. I have more than one lady pupil who is very expert, indeed, and I should be sorry for anyone who attacked them now.

I find hard work agrees with me, and I have an excellent appetite. I conform to your ways now that I am in England — which is a country I like very much indeed — by eating English food at English times. That is to say, I have breakfast, lunch, tea, and dinner, all of them at regular times except the last, which is what you call a ‘movable’ feast’ with me. I have it whenever I am hungry.

There is one thing which everyone over here seems very much surprised at. I have never had a cold bath in my life. We don’t go in for cold baths in Japan. If we bathe in the open air it is in the Summer time, when the sea or the river is quite warm. I have several warm baths a day— whenever I have finished practice. If I took a cold bath I should catch cold at once, and
get out of trim.

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