Of the select group of Japanese judoka and jiujitsuka who pioneered their martial arts in the West at the turn of the 20th century, Mitsuyo Maeda is almost certainly the most famous. It was Maeda who settled in Brazil, beginning the legacy of Brazilian Jiujitsu that would eventually sweep the world during the 1990s MMA boom.
This article, however, will focus on Maeda’s relatively little-known activities in England, where – very much unlike most of the other Western countries he visited- the art of Japanese unarmed combat was already somewhat established. E.W. Barton-Wright had begun lecturing on and demonstrating jiujitsu in the English capital nine years before Mitsuyo Maeda arrived there.
In the interim, a number of Japanese jiujitsuka – Kaneo Tani, Seizo Yamamoto, Yukio Tani, Sadakazu “Raku” Uyenishi, Akitaro “Daibutsu” Ono, Taro Miyake and others – had all taught, demonstrated and competed in England. Instructional manuals such as Uyenishi’s Text-book of Ju-jutsu were widely available. Thus, English wrestlers, sporting journalists and wrestling fans were largely familiar with the conventions and some of the techniques of jiujitsu, to the extent that jiujitsu matches had lost a measure of their novel sheen by 1907.
Mitsuyo Maeda was born in Hirosaki City, Aomori Prefecture during November of 1878. By 1904 he had become a seasoned and respected judoka via intensive training at the Kodokan Institute in Tokyo.
In early 1905 he followed in the footsteps of Yoshiaki Yamashita, who had introduced Japanese unarmed combat to the United States two years earlier. Yamashita’s most celebrated student, incidentally, had been none other than President Theodore Roosevelt, who had a great enthusiasm for boxing, wrestling, singlestick fencing and other “manly pastimes”.
Maeda competed in a number of mixed-styles challenge matches in the US and even started a commercial judo school in New York City. By mid-1907, however, he had left America for London.
Although little is known about the logistics or circumstances of Maeda’s stay in England, it’s evident that he quickly joined forces with former Bartitsu Club instructor Yukio Tani and their fellow challenge wrestler Taro Miyake, who were then affiliated with the Japanese School of Ju-Jitsu.
The first record of Maeda’s activities in England comes from an article in the Cambridge Independent Press of June 14th, 1907, describing a demonstration by Maeda and Tani held in conjunction with the Cambridge University Boxing, Fencing and Jujitsu Club:
Demonstrations of the Japanese art of Ju-Jitsu formed the most fascinating items in an attractive programme, among those assisting being two of the best exponents in this country, Maida (sic) and Yukio Tani, from the Japanese School of Ju-Jitsu, in London.
With the assistance of Mr. G. T. Lemon, Clare, Maida demonstrated the art of disturbing the balance, as practised by the people in the country of the chrysanthemum, and Yukio Tani, with Mr. E. T. Busk, King’s, as a medium, illustrated methods of causing surrender by discomfort, or, in other words, of getting an opponent in such position that he cannot move without giving his rival an opportunity to inflict bodily injury.
Maida and Mr. Z. Horikiri, a Japanese Non-Collegiate student, gave an exhibition of Shobina Kata —the ancient art of disturbing the balance by fancy throws—and there were also exciting Ju-Jitsu encounters between Mr. Z. Horikiri and Mr. E. Morse, King’s ; Yukio Tani and Mr. E. A. MacNee, Clare ; and Maida and Yukio Tani. In the contests between Englishmen and Japanese, the former, although invariably the bigger men, were no match for the Japs in dexterity. The display between the two professionals was especially exhilarating, although it was explained to the company that the men were not putting forth their best endeavours, as, if they did so, they would be likely kill one another.
Two months later, the Dundee Courier offered advance notice of a Highland Gathering to be held in Market Park, Crieff. The main attraction was advertised as a “Grand Demonstration of Ju-Jitsu”, featuring:
(…) from the Japanese School, Oxford Street, London – Tarro Miyake, Champion of Japan; Yukie (sic) Tani, who has never been Defeated; Professor Maeda, Government Instructor; and Hirano, the Lightest and Cleverest Wrestler in the World.
Open Challenge to Any Wrestler in Great Britain. Military Display by a Detachment of the Scottish Horse. The Usual Athletic and Other Events. The Celebrated Kirkcaldy Trades Band will be in Attendance during the Day.
The Dundee Courier report was mostly notable for being one of the very few to spell Maeda’s name according to the modern conventions of Japanese/English transliteration.
In late January of 1908 Maeda competed in a massive international wrestling tournament held at London’s famed Alhambra music hall. By that time he had assumed the professional pseudonym “Maida Yamato”, possibly because people who had English as their first language had difficulty pronouncing his real given name.
A Sporting Life journalist commented:
Maida Yamato (Japan) is one of the favourites of the tournament. He is still “alive” in the middles and heavies, and is the most dangerous competitor in the lighter weight. Yamato has been champion of Japan in his native style, which he says is not unlike the catch-as-catch-can method. At any rate, he says a ju-jitsu wrestler can pick the English method quite easily. “I don’t like wrestling black men,” he said.
The unfortunate racial bias displayed here was not uncommon among athletes and promoters at the turn of the 20th century. Notably, when Bartitsu founder E.W. Barton-Wright was promoting his own mixed-styles wrestling contests, he had specifically welcomed all challengers, regardless of race.
In early February, Maeda offered a general challenge via Apollo’s Magazine, which was answered, as was the general custom at the time, by a counter-challenge in the pages of the Sporting Times. A Private P.W. Brocklehurst of the 1st Battalion, Cheshire Regiment, agreed to Maeda’s terms, noting that:
I will wrestle on the same conditions that (Maeda) offered Hewitt – that he forfeits £25 if he does not defeat within fifteen minutes. When will it be convenient to meet me the “Sporting Life” office to make a match?
A classified advertisement in the Sporting Life of 9 April, 1908, announced the Maeda would again be appearing on the same bill as Tani, this time in earnest competition rather than for display purposes. Tani would be challenging a boxer known as “Young Joseph” to a jiujitsu vs. pugilism contest, while Maeda would take on Alf Hewitt, the English wrestler referred to by Private Brocklehurst, in a jiujitsu match.
As it happened, it was not Hewitt but rather Jack Madden who wrestled with Maeda on Saturday April 11th, and the result of their match does not seem to have been recorded. The novelty of Tani’s contest with “Young Joseph”, however, did attract some notice from the press.
Shortly thereafter, Mitsuyo Maeda departed for Paris and then set off for Havana, then Mexico City, Cuba and finally Brazil, where his judo skills found much less jaded audiences.