The First Non-Japanese Woman Awarded Black Belt Rank in Judo

mayer Sarah Mayer: The First Non-Japanese Woman Awarded Black Belt Rank in Judo Sarah Mayer started Judo in London, England at the Budokwai, which had been founded by Gunji Koizumi on January 26, 1918. She visited Japan in the 1930’s and studied at the Kodokan and later at the Kyoto Butokukai (which had been established in 1890 and was led by Kano’s representatives). On March 1, 1935 the Japanese Times bore the headline “Foreign Woman wins Shodan at the Butokukai”. Sarah Mayer was offered this rank on February 27, 1935 and was the first non-japanese woman in the world to be awarded black belt rank in Kodokan Judo.

She returned the same year to Britain, bringing Ichiro Hatta* with her, and practiced at the Budokwai for a while before setting up her own dojo in her home in Burgh Heath. Sarah was involved in the theatre and wrote a play “Hundreds and Thousands” which played at the Garratt theatre in 1939. She went on to write articles and stories for the Evening Standard.

During Ms. Mayer’s stay in Japan, which spanned about two years, she wrote letters to Gunji Koizumi. The following letters are reprinted courtesy of Richard “Dicky” Bowen of the Budokwai and they reveal interesting information about early Judo training.

mayer6 Sarah Mayer: The First Non-Japanese Woman Awarded Black Belt Rank in Judo
Gunji Koizumi with Trevor Leggett at the Budokwai

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 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 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!

mayer8 Sarah Mayer: The First Non-Japanese Woman Awarded Black Belt Rank in Judo
Mr. Yamamoto

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 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.

mayer4 Sarah Mayer: The First Non-Japanese Woman Awarded Black Belt Rank in Judo And so now I go every morning to the Butokuden 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 careens 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 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

mayer7 Sarah Mayer: The First Non-Japanese Woman Awarded Black Belt Rank in Judo
Gunji Koizumi in his studio in London (September 17, 1921)

Kobe, 23rd July [1934]
Dear Mr. Koizumi,

Everybody must think that I am quite mad to be still in Kobe in this hot weather, but here I am and I have taken a house. For about £10 I have “furnished” it in princely (Japanese) style and this includes such European luxuries as electric fan and iron, electric light fittings and “Cona” coffee machine. Besides these I bought a nice ebony Japanese table and dressing table and everything in the way of china, glass, and kitchen utensils. Two very nice Japanese girls have helped me and lent me a number of things for the house such as Japanese bed (upon which, rather to my surprise, I have enjoyed untroubled sleep) and a European desk and two chairs which I keep in one room which I use for writing.

One of these girls is “modern” and speaks excellent English — the other is very Japanese and won’t speak English to me although she understands it. She tries to teach me good manners and how to arrange flowers, and she is the domesticated one who keeps an eye on my housekeeping, looks through my bills, gives instructions to my maid and advises me how to entertain my guests. The other wears European clothes, behaves in European fashion and confesses to a preference for things European. She gives me lessons in Japanese and (as she is from Tokyo) sternly suppresses any tendency that I have to pick up the Kobe dialect. In return for this I give her lessons in psychology and English.

I have another girl staying with me during her vacation. She is 21 but looks about 16. She is a great contrast to the others. She is as clumsy as a young carthorse and falls over anything that lies in her path. I have saved her from being run over in the street more times than I can count and in the presence of men she is so shy that she does nothing but giggle. Every day she asks me the same question about judo — “Isn’t it terrible to be dropped on the floor?” — until I feel that if I am not careful I shall become so irritated that I shall pick her up and drop her just to show her. However she is a nice girl and so anxious to please me that I must not be unkind.

Mr. Yamamoto still gives me judo lessons every morning for nearly 2 hours, Sunday’s included, and in the afternoon I go to Miyahojigawa where Mr. Sonobe teaches me to swim. I share a small room with the Kobe police who all go to the Butokuden. They come in and out, regardless of the state of dress that I am in, but I am quite used to that by now.

I have just come back from Kyoto where I stayed at a very nice Japanese hotel for several days. Mr. Yamamoto had to go to Tokyo with some of his pupils for a contest (in which they vanquished Tokyo and Osaka) and he told me to go to Kyoto Butokuden to practice whilst he was away. But I was too busy getting into my new house. A few days ago he had to go to Osaka and this time I had no excuse, so I went to Kyoto and presented an introduction from Mr. Hatta to Professor Isokei [Hajime Isogai] and told him that Mr. Yamamoto had sent me to him. He greeted me with that absence of enthusiasm that seems to be considered necessary to put would-be judoists in their proper place, and led me to a room where dozens of men were in a state of nature and invited me to change into my judo costume. As I said before, I am used to this by now! We entered the Dojo with impressive ceremony, the Professor leading the way followed by a number of judoists of exalted Dan [rank] and me bringing up the rear trying to look like a modest violet and wishing myself a thousand miles away.

The headmaster of a neighbouring school had been called in to act as interpreter; for either the Professor knew no English or else would not demean himself by speaking it, and a strapping young man of 5th Dan had been called in to practice with me. For awhile we pranced around and he let me throw him about a bit and dropped me fairly gently on the mat and then the Professor said something to him and he threw me all over the place, and not content with throwing me, he gave me that extra push when I was on my way down that makes the floor come up quicker than usual.

I should never accuse Mr. Yamamoto of being gentle with me. Indeed when first he saw me in my bathing dress he was quite concerned about my bruises and abrasions, but he has not been any more tenderhearted since. But this man was much worse. I was beginning to think that it was too much of a good thing and to wonder how best I might escape from his clutches without letting down the British Empire by asking him to be a bit less rough with me, when it occurred to me that although I was being thrown with some violence, I had not yet hurt myself, so I decided that it would be better to wait until I died before I complained. And when I considered the matter later, I found that I hadn’t so much as a bruise or a scratch beyond the usual ones on my shins and my left collarbone which are no doing of mine. After I had a short rest, they told me to try again and this time the Professor stopped us every time I tried to do a throw and corrected me carefully. He taught me quite a lot in a very short time.

Then my “sparring partner” lay on the floor and the Professor asked me if I could do any ground work and to show him how much I knew. Mr. Yamamoto is still a little shy of this altho’ he has taught me a lot, and I feel that it is a little forward of me to always be the one to attack him, accustomed as I am to you and Mr. Tani being the aggressors and some of it is admittedly not very modest. However I did everything that I could think of and the Professor and the others just sat down and laughed and laughed.

When this awful ordeal was over, the Professor told me that I might practice at Kyoto whenever Mr. Yamamoto sent me there. In Kobe I have a room to myself to dress but share the men’s bathroom. At Kyoto I dressed with the men but was given a bath to myself. This consisted of a bucket of cold water which was put in a room which was open on three sides. I feel that the Kobe arrangement is better. It is quite impossible to adequately conceal oneself in a bucket. You will easily understand that when my Japanese girlfriends suggested that whilst workmen were fixing my bathroom I should go with them to the public bath, I readily agreed on the principle that what I hadn’t already seen wasn’t worth seeing!!! Everybody behaves very modestly and nicely and no one stared at me except a few little boys of between the ages of three and six and who seemed to be fascinated by the ridiculous contrast between those parts of me which are covered by my bathing dress and the rest of me which is highly tanned by the hot sun on the beach. My bathing costume has no back being one of Fortnum and Mason’s who advertise them saying among other things: “The back is all your own.” And two straps cross over to hold body and soul together. The result of this is a gleaming white St. Andrew’s cross on my back and the small boys couldn’t take their eyes off it.

As you may imagine, under Mr. Yamamoto’s regime I am feeling better than I ever felt in my life. Woes are a thing of the past and I am aggressively healthy. I am enjoying myself more than I can say and I ought soon to be able to operate the language a little because Miss Adachi, my Japanese friend, is the only person I ever see who speaks English, and she won’t now except when it is necessary. My maid speaks no English so I have to struggle with Japanese as best I can.

Mr. Ichiya, a journalist who speaks excellent English, is not to be seen at present as his only son has died. Did I tell you how I went to the funeral little knowing what I was in for? How I managed to bow all over the floor and cope with the priests and the incense will forever be a mystery to me. I tried to copy Miss Adachi and I was so overwrought that when I got out of the room and saw her fall upon her face before some man who was standing at the front door I did the same to his great astonishment just as he was about to shake me warmly by the hand. He was so surprised to see a foreign woman grovelling at his feet that for a moment he couldn’t move, then he shot down and bowed just as I was going to get up. Every time I tried to rise down he went again and I had to duck too. I thought it would never end!

I was taken by Mr. Sonobe (brother of the one who teaches me to swim) who tells me that you are his friend, to a house to see the Duchess Yamanouchi who was formerly the Princess Fushimi, doing Naginata. There was also display of Kendo and archery and I was interested in spite of having to sit Japanese fashion on a hard floor for three hours. It isn’t my knees that trouble me, but my feet aren’t used to being sat on!

At Kyoto I met a Japanese girl whose father has been for 30 years in America. She came to the Butokuden to study Naginata for three years and they seem to me to have pretty well broken her spirit. She spoke no Japanese when she arrived and knew nothing of Japanese customs, and she has to live with her teacher who makes her do all the housework and look after the children and a grandmother besides doing the gardening. And for this she has to pay! The teacher says it is good training for her. Thank Heaven Mr. Yamamoto doesn’t expect me to do his housekeeping, and that, if the worst comes to the worst, he has only one child! I don’t mind waiting politely till he has had his bath, I don’t mind saying “after you” when we get to a door. I am quite used to trotting behind him in the street with that kind of meek and modest look which is seen on the face of a cat who has stolen the cream and hopes nobody will suspect her, but 7 children and a grandmother would be just a bit too much for me. So I left Kyoto with some relief and came back to Mr. Yamamoto feeling greatly relieved to be staying in Kobe.

Mr. Yamamoto sometimes comes to dinner with me and says that it is the first time that he has ever been alone with any woman except his wife. He hasn’t even walked in the street with one before although he generally takes me for a walk after judo. Mr. Ichiya tells me that no one will mistake our relations for other than those of teacher and pupil as Mr. Yamamoto has set an example of morality to the youth of Kobe. But I must say that for a man who has never been alone with a woman, he bears the ordeal with remarkable fortitude. Armed with two dictionaries we are able to correspond and spend quite an agreeable evening and he doesn’t seem to want to go home until half past eleven or twelve.

The other day he came in when I was unpacking and I asked him if he would have lunch. He said he would but that he was tired and wanted to sleep first. Then he lay down among all my luggage and went to sleep immediately in spite of the noise that I was making.

I have had some trouble with the British and Americans here because I live in Japanese style and mix entirely with Japanese. One man who met me out with Mr. Yamamoto told me that it made his blood boil to see me let a man go ahead. I told him that I’d rather his blood boiled than the blood of all the men at the Butokuden who looked upon Mr. Yamamoto with respect and would expect me to do so too, and he is the last Anglo-Saxon that I have met. As all of them without one exception have tried to kiss me after telling me that the Japanese don’t respect women and they are of very inferior type, I can bear their absence without any trouble. And if I mixed with them I should spend my time playing bridge or tennis at the International Club, and I should see nothing of the real Japan, but only what the tourists see.

Besides, Mr. Yamamoto is so nice and kind and although he doesn’t know any foreigners he has heard of our ways and he gave me every opportunity of having the first bath and so on when first I went to the Butokuden. But I thought it would only make us both look ridiculous and annoy all the others; and I think that dubious quantity — the “prestige of the white woman” can be upheld as well on the mat as anywhere.

I am sending you some photographs which may interest you. Those of the Kendo are not very good, but the light was not bright enough. I am sending this to the Budokwai so that if you like you can show them to some of the members.

Please give my best regards to everyone that I know. I am looking forward to hearing from you. How is the moxa treatment going? I wish you all good luck with it.

I just had another letter from Mr. Hatta saying that he will teach me judo in Tokyo and to wire him what train I am taking. He asks me if I would like to go with him to Kamakura. It doesn’t sound quite proper to me, but “I’ll try anything once.” So when Mr. Yamamoto has to go away, I shall go to Tokyo. Don’t you think I am very lucky, having all these expert judo men to teach me every day? I wish I were ten years younger!

Very best wishes,
Yours very sincerely,
Sarah Mayer

Tokyo, 12th Sept. [1934]
Dear Mr. Koizumi,

I was so pleased to get your letter and to hear that moxa treatment is doing so well. I shall expect to find you very rich and riding in a Rolls Royce when I return.

mayer3 Sarah Mayer: The First Non-Japanese Woman Awarded Black Belt Rank in Judo
Sarah Mayer with Ichiro Hatta’s mother, Haru

Ichiro Hatta met me at Tokyo station when I came here at the end of July intending to stay for a fortnight. He invited me to stay at his home instead of going to a hotel and when the time came for me to return to Kobe, his father persuaded me to get rid of my house and make my home with him. So I have been adopted and am now one of the family and they seem to want me to stay with them as long as I can.

I had intended to return before Xmas, but I am writing to Robin [husband] to ask if I can stay longer — till after the cherry blossom. I make such slow progress in the language (not to mention judo) that I feel I must stay a little longer if possible.

Last night Ichiro and I had dinner with the famous Mr. Mifune. I practiced with him once at the Kodokan and often sit and watch him. He is extraordinary. Very frail and delicate, very small and looks quite old. He was in a playful mood when I practiced with him. He just threw me round the room as if I were an India rubber ball, and when I tried any throw, he simply wasn’t there any longer.

He has now agreed to teach me by myself on one morning every week as I can practice with him every day when he is teaching in different places. In this way I shall have to track him down to a different dojo every day, but it is worth it. In the afternoons I practice with Ichiro and some of his many friends.

I usually go to the Waseda Dojo now and the boys are all very kind and most anxious to help. And often I am called for to practice in Ichiro’s wrestling dojo with the young wrestlers. The atmosphere here is very different to the judo dojos. The boys shout encouragement to me and how — “Chance-Chance” — and applaud loudly if anything I try comes off. Sometimes I go to Mr. Sato’s dojo and sometimes to the Kodokan, as well as many other stray dojos which I come across in the country. Like the sailors who have a wife in every port I have a costume in every dojo. Mercifully they only cost 3 yen 50 here.

I like the University students. The great joke is for them to carry my parcels or let me go through a door first. As soon as I appear with anything in my hand, it is seized by one of these youths and carried in triumph, whilst the others hold their sides with laughter.

When a Japanese wants to let a woman go first, he usually gives her a good push in the small of the back, and I have not yet got used to being treated in this way by men who I have only just met. With Ichiro I am by now accustomed to it and when he wants to be very polite, he gives me such a shove through a door that my entrance is far from dignified.

We went to Nikko with only one suitcase between us into which his mother helped me to pack our clothes, and stayed at the same hotel. Then we went to the Mount Fuji lakes and to Atami, and nobody seemed to think we were doing anything unconventional. This is certainly a land of contradictions. It is against the law to turn the light out in a taxi for fear of flirtation and a young man and woman can get a fortnight’s “hard” for being out together after dark and yet everyone thinks it quite in order for two people to go off together for a weekend. Indeed, Ichiro even told the newspapers where we were going.

People don’t seem to mind being seen with no clothes on — at one hot spring there was a private bathroom intended for honeymoon couples. To everyone’s amusement I insisted on having it, but there was no lock to the door and no sooner was I ready to get into the bath than a man came in and insisted on washing my back. I didn’t know enough Japanese to argue and I am quite used to the Japanese by now, but I must confess I was surprised next day when Ichiro told me he thought my bathing dress was indecent because it’s cut low at the back!

mayer1 Sarah Mayer: The First Non-Japanese Woman Awarded Black Belt Rank in Judo Mr. Hatta has chosen Japanese clothes for me for the autumn. Mr. Hatta always likes me to wear them and even wants me to go out in the street in them. So far I have worn a thick kimono with a narrow obi but the old gentleman thinks this is all wrong. The new clothes have just arrived. The wide obi is very beautiful but it looks beastly uncomfortable. With it are innumerable bells, bands and various gadgets to hold it up. Also there is the strangest underwear. One thing is certain — that is that I shall never be able to dress myself.

I enclose some newspaper cuttings which I don’t think you have seen. From what I can gather from the rough translation that was given to me, there is not a word of truth in them. I certainly never take a powder puff into the dojo with me, and the “painted eyebrows” that would survive judo in Japanese summer have yet to be discovered! The article I wrote will amuse you. I think we should have a job to find 10 women at the Budokwai on ladies night, but I was asked to write in that way in order to stimulate the interest of Japanese women. They certainly have a very nice dojo but if I couldn’t do judo in any other place I’m afraid I shouldn’t do much. The girls are altogether too polite to each other. They never try to avoid any throw, but just take it in turns to drop each other gently on the mat. The one in the photograph with me is 2-Dan but as I’ve never practiced with any of the women I don’t know how good she is.

Mr. Mifune told Ichiro that if I could stay here till the spring he could make me “quite strong.”

Please give my love to your family and my best regards to everyone I know. Ichiro has been intending to write you for a long while but he is terribly busy. A team of wrestlers from Hawaii are here for a contest and he has to arrange everything, entertain them, and fix business details and advertising as well as coaching his own boys. So he will write to you later. Prof. Kano is just back but not well as he has stone in kidney. People don’t seem to think he will live much longer. Remember me to Mr. Tani.

With all good wishes,
Yours very sincerely,
Sarah Mayer

Tokyo, September 30, 1934
Dear Mr. Koizumi,

As you see, I am still staying with Ichiro Hatta’s family and Ichiro says that he will write a letter for me to enclose with this. He has been very busy till now with the Hawaii wrestlers but he will tell you all about them and the Japanese success himself.

We went to Osaka for the second match and chose the day of the typhoon to travel on. The railway was greatly disorganized and we had to change several times. We arrived very late and deposited our boys and the Hawaiians with the parents of one of the party. There were about eighteen of them and when we found the house it was half down and the front wall in ruins. However the hostess came to the door with a candle and took them all in and Ichiro and another boy and I went in search of food for them, and a hotel for me.

There was no water to be had and very little food and the lights had all gone out but we managed somehow. Next day we were more able to see the extent of the damage and Osaka looked as if there had been an air raid on the previous night. You will have read all about it in the papers so there is no need for me to tell you any more. The terrible toll of schools was the most tragic feature of the disaster.

Last week I met Professor Kano for the first time. I had expected to meet a very aloof person for everyone seems to stand in such awe of him that I felt quite nervous. Instead I found a charming old gentleman with European manners who greeted me warmly and made me feel quite at home. He seems most anxious to help me and asked me whether I only wished to get some practice or whether I wanted to learn as much about the real meaning of Judo as was possible in a short time. I told him that I was as much interested in the philosophical side as in the actual practice which seemed to please him and he asked me to come again when he had had time to formulate a plan for my study.

I saw him again the day before yesterday and he advised me to practice wherever I liked with Mr. Mifune and Ichiro, or with anyone who held a high degree in Judo. At the same time he insisted upon the importance of learning Kata in all its forms thoroughly. For the rest he said that he would talk to me often and explain the ethical side and answer any questions that might occur to me.

Hitherto I had rather avoided the Kodokan because they refused to let me go into the big dojo and I didn’t like the woman’s section which is rather like a young ladies school; and I have been practicing at the Waseda University dojo. However Professor Kano would not hear of my being banished to the woman’s department and gave orders that I should be admitted to the men’s dojo to practice.

I went there yesterday and practiced with two men of 6th and 8th degree who were very kind but rather exhausting. In fact after the first I was very tired and when another one came up at once and asked me to practice with him I had to say that I must have a rest first. Afterwards Ichiro said that if I was asked to practice by any of these exalted ones, I mustn’t refuse — but if the Prince of Wales had come up at that minute and asked me to dance I should have had to make some excuse!

To make matters worse there seems to be no chance of getting a rest between times. Yesterday Ichiro said that I must either sit on my feet or cross-legged — both positions are most uncomfortable on a hard floor — and that failing that I must stand up. I told him that I was going to ask Professor Kano to provide me with an armchair!

Next month — or rather — November will see the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Kodokan and I am very pleased that I shall be able to see it. I have written to Robin to ask him how he feels about letting me stay here till the Spring as it seems such a pity to miss the opportunity of getting some more Judo now that I have the opportunity. At present I don’t know whether I shall have to come home for Xmas or whether he will let me stay until after the cherry blossom.

Ichiro is very keen to come to England for six months when I go back. Do you think that there is any chance of getting him any kind of job or managing it in any way? Of course he can come to Quarr whenever he likes but he is too active and restless to stay in the country doing nothing for long. He seems to be able to live on the minimum of money and I am wondering if something cannot be done about it. Do let me know if you can think of anything. I will help in any way I can but once I am home it may not be too easy for me to do very much financially.

I enclose another newspaper cutting which will make you laugh at all events. I am not responsible for the nonsense the good lady who interviewed me wrote. I saw her and afterwards she questioned Ichiro (upon whom she has bestowed the rank of 8th Dan), she has got most of her facts mixed but, as Ichiro says, the newspapers don’t care what they write as long as they write something.

All good wishes to everyone and my love to your wife and Hana.

Yours very sincerely,
Sarah Mayer

Setagaya, November 27, 1934
Dear Mr. Koizumi,

Thank you very much for your letter. I am so glad that Moxa is doing so well and wish you all the luck with it.

I forget if I told you that my husband has given me another six months, so that I shall be able to stay here till the end of May or thereabouts — arriving in England at about the end of June.

I expect that Ichiro will come with me if Mrs. Hatta consents, and he hopes to stay for a year. If the Budokwai can find enough for his board and lodging, I can manage his fares and pocket-money. But he will write to you himself. I think that it will be an excellent thing for the club if he does come to England — especially as you are too busy to give as much of your time as you used to do.

A few days ago we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Kodokan. One of the Imperial Princes was present and the Emperor sent a present of money. A speech was read from the Prime Minister and the Minister of Education delivered a long oration. All the famous Judo men were there and there was a rather touching scene when Mr. [Yoshiaki] Yamashita, the oldest pupil, came forward. He has lost his voice with advancing years and another man had to read his speech for him, but as he stood facing Prof. Kano I could not help thinking of the long years that these two men, now so old, had struggled to make Judo popular, and what a wonderful day it must be to them to have lived to see such an amazing achievement.

Famous men demonstrated beautiful Kata when the speeches were over and Prof. Kano had dedicated three trees to his three teachers, and comic relief was provided by a match between me and Mr. Samura, who was good enough to get the worst of it. I was so frightened by the instructions I had been given (how to bow and which mat to stand on in a hall of 500 mats each indistinguishable from the next) that I was more inclined to collapse on his bosom than engage him in combat. However, despair gave me strength and I got through somehow although Ichiro said afterwards that I “made him some awful pants” by which he meant that he was as nervous as I was.

I dislocated my shoulder a few weeks ago which stopped me doing any Judo but the bonesetter patched me up in time for the anniversary. As I was about to enter the dojo he begged me to fight with might and main adding that if I put my shoulder out again he would soon mend it! As he attends to me for nothing I suppose it was meant very kindly, but I was very glad that nothing of the kind happened.

I had thought that I should be allowed to practice again the next day, but the bonesetter tells me that I must wait for another week as, although nothing serious happened to my shoulder, the exertion did it no good.

I have now met all the famous Judo men. Mr. Nagaoka is back; and Mr. Yamashita, who I had never met, came to me after the display and introduced himself. He was good enough to say that I was “very skilful.” Prof. Kano contented himself with saying that he was very “interested” and that my “posture” was good. For my part, the more I study the less I seem to know, and I sometimes wonder whether I am any better than I was when I left England.

Prof. Isogai came from Kyoto and came to lunch with me at the Imperial Hotel. I had invited two 6th degree men who had been very hospitable to me, but Prof. Isogai and Prof. Iisoka [10th dan Kunisaburo Iizuka] joined us. We had a very merry party in the course of which Prof. Isogai drank several cocktails and plenty of sake. I will say that for a man who has never tasted a cocktail before he carried it remarkably well. It is true that he offered me a 5th degree if I would go to Kyoto, but otherwise he was quite himself. He broke his leg a short while ago and arrived leaning heavily upon a stick, but he left the hotel waving it in the air. When I remember how terrified I was of him in Kyoto I can’t help laughing. As for Prof. Iisoka — I’ve never been able to take him very seriously since I taught him the Charleston.

Did you ask Mr. Nagaoka to look after me, or is his parental instinct abnormally developed? He bestows the same care upon me as a hen with one chicken, and if he sees me alone in the Kodokan he calls loudly and demands to know the reason that I am being neglected. The other men who are quite accustomed to me look very surprised and rather at a loss. The Great Men either slap me heartily on the back or cuff me as if I were a small boy and they are all very kind, but Mr. Nagaoka seems to think that I shall perish if not constantly watched. He seems very kind and is very upset about my shoulder, which the others seem to think a good joke.

As I am staying for another six months, Ichiro has given me his room which is larger than the one I had before and I have bought some furniture. I am happy enough sitting on the floor in the ordinary way but when I feel tired I require something more luxurious than a mat. I got an armchair and a desk and an electric fire, for the hibachi is cold comfort in the winter. Mr. Hatta and Ichiro already wear so many clothes in the house that they look like Laplanders but I cannot burden myself in this way, neither can I bring myself to accept their kind offer to lend me some of their underclothing — long pants which extend to the ankle.

I have quite a collection of Japanese clothes now — enough to keep me in dressing-gowns for many a long year — including a rather lovely ceremonial dress that I had to get for the wedding of Mrs. Hatta’s brother which takes place next month.

Ichiro is very keen on writing a book on Judo in English. It is not a bad idea as there is no good one in existence except a very old one which is out of date. But I am afraid all the work will fall on me although we are supposed to be collaborating. His idea seems to be that I shall do the writing and he shall do the reading and it is like getting blood out of a stone to get him to do the necessary translating for me. The translation of the various throws etc. is giving me the greatest trouble. To the English student such terms as “Major Interior-Reaping”, “Rear Scarf”, and “Embrace and Separation” mean anything or nothing and some terms that the reader can understand and which will at the same time distinguish between the different holds must be invented.

With your experience of Judo in England you must have coined many terms and I should be very grateful if you would send me a list of those that you have in use together with the Japanese terms for them. As regards the new tricks which are being invented all the time by Mr. Mifune and others, I shall have to try to think out suitable terms myself.

My best regards to all and, as this will reach you at about that time, a very Happy Xmas and all good luck for the New Year.

Yours very sincerely,
Sarah Mayer

Setagaya, 9th January [1935]
Dear Mr. Koizumi,

The time is passing quickly now and in less than four months I shall be getting ready to leave Japan. The new year dawned in beautiful weather and for several days it was as warm as Spring. The thermometer in my room registered 65 without any heating, but our pleasure was somewhat marred by earthquakes which occurred every day for the first four days of the year. A volcano at Hakone which has been supposed to be extinct for many years has recently shown signs of being very much alive and people are afraid that it may mean a bad earthquake. I only hope that it won’t happen whilst I am here. The small ones are bad enough and it takes years off my life when we all have to leap up in the night and fly to the door ready to take to our heels before the house falls down. Neither do the frequent warnings, instructions and advice that the Hatta family give me as to the best way to escape if the worst comes to the worst do anything to reassure me, but merely add to my fears.

Winter practice started at the Kodokan on the 5th of January at the ungodly hour of five o’clock [in the morning], and so far Ichiro and I have managed to get there. The lovely warm weather vanished and ice and a bitterly cold wind took its place — doubtless in honour of the occasion. However, I have an electric stove in my room and we prepare coffee overnight and keep it in a thermos flask so we are able to start off fairly warm.

mayer5 Sarah Mayer: The First Non-Japanese Woman Awarded Black Belt Rank in Judo
Sarah Mayer with Kyuzo Mifune (1934)

As all the Great Men in the Judo world go there to encourage the rest I am able to practice with the élite who are all very kind and spoil me thoroughly. I enclose a picture that appeared in this evening’s paper of Mr. Mifune practicing with me. The unfortunate cameraman had to struggle through a crowd of combatants to get the photograph and I really admired his devotion to duty as the dojo is packed.

There are six hundred men attending the winter exercises and, as I am the only female allowed in the men’s dojo, there are no women there, which is just as well for I cannot imagine what the tiny Japanese women from the ladies’ dojo would do if they were swallowed up in the throng. Even I, who am about the same size as most of the men, am beginning to look the worse for wear. I’m covered with bruises and I’ve got a black eye that would not disgrace a Billingsgate fish-fag!

When I told the photographers that I did not want to have any photographs taken until my eye resumed its normal colour it transpired that they had not realised that I had hurt it but thought that it was a new style in make-up for European ladies to paint one eye a bright purple and leave the other untouched! And really when I see the blood-red fingernails that the American women wear here, I am not surprised that the Japanese should think us capable of such an eccentricity. In the photograph, however, although you can see it, it looks like a shadow, I think.

We get away from the Kodokan at seven and come home for breakfast and at eleven I have lessons in “kata” from a Mr. Sato who is 6th Dan and who is considered to be very good at it. He keeps me at it until three o’clock and as the form I am doing now is all sitting down (or what I call kneeling) my knees have got hardly any skin left on them. And the things that I am taught to do to my opponent are what no lady could do to another!

One of the things that I find most difficult to do is to utter “Kiai”. So far all that I have achieved is a very sore throat and the sound that emerges from it is rather like the yapping of a very small dog. When my opponent does it, it startles me so much that I forget what I have to do next and we have to start all over again. But Mr. Sato is also teaching some of his other pupils and I am encouraged to see that they are quite as stupid as I am. Indeed he says they are worse.

Is there anything that you want us to bring you for the Budokwai? Don’t ask for mats because I am taking some back with me to fix up a practice room at Quarr. But anything smaller we can manage quite easily as Ichiro is bringing three other boys with him. They are going to wrestle in Berlin in preparation for the Olympic games next year and will stay in Europe for a month. Ichiro of course wants to stay much longer and hopes to be able to remain for a year and return with the Olympic team in 1936.

As he is hopeless at arranging his financial affairs, I propose to deposit money with you for his pocket money and ask you to be good enough to dole it out to him once a week. Otherwise as he is so good-natured he will give it all away and be stranded. I shall bring him over and pay his fare back as well — but please keep this to yourself as if it should get to my husband’s ears he will think I am too rich, which would never do.

I have been meaning to tell you that I met your friend Mr. Kobayashi. I wrote to him from Kobe but had no reply and he tells me that he never got my letter. He came to the Kodokan on the 50th anniversary and sent his card to me, and Ichiro and I went to lunch at his home. When we arrived he handed me a long letter that he had written because he felt that he could not express himself well enough in speech. It was a very kind letter but very Japanese and I am keeping it as a souvenir.

mayer2 Sarah Mayer: The First Non-Japanese Woman Awarded Black Belt Rank in Judo I also met yesterday a Mr. Nicholas at the Kodokan. He tells me that he learned Judo at the Budokwai and he is the only foreigner that I have seen there. He goes there very seldom however and seems to be in the early stages of Judo. I gather that he is not going to do the winter exercises but came in to see what it was like.

Enclosed is also a snapshot of me with Mrs. Hatta in our ceremonial dress on the way to the wedding of her younger brother. I was all right when I started but after I had partaken of a heavy meal of Chinese food I thought that my obi would burst, and almost prayed that it might. And it was a particularly auspicious day and the restaurant is famous for its weddings, no less than thirty-eight couples were married on the same afternoon. The bride was a country girl and her relations were most amusing. One very elegant old gentleman removed his false teeth in the middle of the banquet and gave them a good wash in his teacup before putting them back. As for me, I am used to being stared at but on this occasion newly married men deserted their brides, waitresses left their work, and even the cooks left their kitchen to follow in my wake. A party of American tourists — when they had recovered from their stupefaction — announced in loud tones that I was one of the brides and Ichiro the happy man. This was contradicted loudly by a lady who declared that anyone could see that a small Japanese girl who was walking beside me was my daughter!

Ichiro joins with me in sending you all the best wishes for the New Year.

With kindest regards,
Yours very sincerely,
Sarah Mayer

hatta Sarah Mayer: The First Non-Japanese Woman Awarded Black Belt Rank in Judo * Ichiro Hatta (1906-1983) was a pioneer of freestyle wrestling in Japan, and a coach of the Japanese Olympic wrestling team. In 1929 as a 4th degree black belt he participated as a member of the Waseda University Judo Team that toured the United States promoting Judo. After learning about the effectiveness of western wrestling he introduced it to Japan. In 1931 he started Japan’s first freestyle wrestling program at Waseda University. In 1932 he represented Japan in wrestling in the Olympic Games Los Angeles, and in 1936 he coached the Japanese wrestling team at the Olympics in Berlin. Subsequently, he encouraged both Japan and the United States to exchange teams in various age groups for competition and cultural enhancement. His efforts advanced wrestling in both countries. For over seventy-four years, he attempted to bring nations of the world together in understanding through sports. He became an 8th degree black belt in Judo and Aikido, as well as a 7th degree black belt in Kendo. He also served as a senator in the Japanese Diet.

daisho Sarah Mayer: The First Non-Japanese Woman Awarded Black Belt Rank in Judo

Letters from Sarah Mayer to Gunji Koizumi reprinted courtesy of Richard (Dickie) Bowen of the Budokwai. Photos provided by Leiko Hatta Wooten and Judo Photos Unlimited. Copyright © 2004, all rights reserved. This web page is provided by, USA. Last modified March 18, 2004.