Grappling With Tradition 

As they practice the ancient art of jujitusu, thousands of students throughout 21st century America are at the end of a surprisingly short trail leading back to feudal Japan. It's a trail that leads directly through postwar Oakland.

The E! Channel's coverage of this year's Cannes Film Festival was fraught with the usual highbrow mischief and learned commentary we've come to expect from the network that brought us AJ Benza ("Palme d'Or... nice"). The diminutive Jean-Claude Van Damme and Jackie Chan were both in attendance, milling about with big I-am-so-loving-this grins and the occasional off-the-side hi-yah

kick for the camera. But the real martial arts spectacle was reserved for the Swedish Bikini Team, who demonstrated their mastery of jujitsu on the beach. "With jujitsu you can take someone down who is twice your size," said blonde #3, demonstrating with a flabby yet very willing Frenchman. The young lady stood close with her back to him, reaching around to grab his armpit behind her, bending at the waist and lifting her rump with him attached, then letting him slide off her frame and into the sand. It wasn't really "throwing" him, as she had bragged, but more of an awkward exercise in foreplay.Nonetheless, the encounter must have sent several shoguns spinning in their graves. How did we go from an ancient manner of fighting practiced by only a select few warriors in feudal Japan to a gaggle of giggly Norsebunnies using it as an excuse to bend over? In fact, the trail is surprisingly short--and it leads directly through Oakland.

To see how the history of jujitsu in America is part and parcel of our local history; one need not look much further than a modest dojo in downtown Oakland near Laney College. Suigetsukan, or "Moon Reflected in Water School," sits nestled in a courtyard with other studios. It's a collective, and everyone from jocks to anarchist punk rockers have called it home; body piercings, "Free Mumia," creative anachronism, and cold beer after practice have all been part of the dojo. The "Girl Army" teaches self-defense for women.

Housed in a massive brick live/ work artists' community, the dojo is a nonprofit collective that is part of NOBAWC (The Network of Bay Area Worker Cooperatives) along with other East Bay businesses like Ped Ex, the Cheese Board, and the Missing Link. The dojo's founder, Mike Esmailzadeh, or "Mike E.," lives in a loft on one side of the dojo. Esmailzadeh's life has been a serious of interesting (and challenging) juxtapositions. His mother married a Polish Jew who had been active in the resistance, surviving in the hills of Poland during the second world war. Later his father would fight the British for Israel, and then become a Nazi hunter. But his parents split up when he was four, and his mother then married an Iranian. Mike E. essentially grew up in Iran, becoming adopted by his stepfather's family.

"We moved here when I was thirteen, in '76, about a year and half before the revolution came," he says with a deliberate and soft voice. He is handsome, compact, with long, slightly graying light brown hair and blue eyes. "I 'passed' as an American because of my looks, but I spoke no English when I came here. I spoke Farsi and German." In Iran he was somewhat of an oddity because he was fair and spoke German; in America he was an oddity because although he looked the all-American type, he had grown up in a Middle Eastern country. Once the hostage crisis began, things really got bad. "Some redneck shot up my stepfather's place. [He ran a Persian business.] They drove up in a pickup truck and started shooting through the windows with shotguns."

Perhaps it's not surprising that Mike E. would be attracted to the martial arts. Most people who make it to the black belt stage (Esmailzadeh is a fifth-degree black belt) have had complicated or challenging childhoods. "I knew I really wanted to do martial arts because I had gotten into a lot of fights growing up and looking the way I do. Then I moved to a new culture where again I didn't speak the language, so it was like, 'I'll learn martial arts and I'll be able to fight anyone.' That's how I started it, for all the usual young boy reasons. Then I just really learned to love it over time, and my reasons changed."

Jujitsu is a contradictory sport. It is one of the dirtiest ways to fight, replete with grabbing and gouging, yet its practitioners will tell you that it is better to walk away from a fight or somehow diffuse it. The feudal samurai developed jujitsu's various grappling techniques as a means of knocking down an opponent dressed head-to-foot in armor. On the one hand, jujitsu is all about leverage and timing. But it is also quite violent: eyeball gouging, crotch twisting, and skin scraping figure in alongside punching, falling, and escaping techniques. Joints are bent in directions they don't normally go, causing great pain at best. It's an excellent training for women who wish to defend themselves, because even small movements can produce great discomfort.

The kind of jujitsu Mike E. learned and now teaches is called Danzan-Ryu ("ryu" meaning "school"). He learned it from a teacher in Los Angeles, where he grew up, who in turn had learned it in Oakland from a man named Ray Law. Destined to become a legend in the sport, Law was the owner of what is widely believed to be the first commercial jujitsu dojo on this continent, an establishment that opened on Oakland's Grand Avenue in 1939. Law opened his Oakland dojo after arriving here from Hawaii where he had studied with a man named Henry Okazaki. It is there that the trail begins.

When Japan switched from the feudal ways of the samurai to an imperial government in the late 1860s, the combat methods of the former were outlawed. (An amended, less lethal form of jujitsu, judo, was introduced into Japanese schools as a physical regimen and as an aid to concentration.) "What happened with jujitsu at this time," says Mike E., "was that the old arts had been strongly associated with the old regime. So the people who were doing it and teaching it were thought of as old-fashioned, and part of an old, corrupt system."

Unwilling to let the ancient martial art die, Okazaki set out to learn as much as he could from the few warriors he could find in rural Japan who still knew jujitsu. He is now credited with learning and preserving more than five hundred jujitsu techniques --and quite possibly with saving jujitsu from extinction.

Henry Seishiro Okazaki was born in 1890 in Japan, and he moved to Hawaii when he was only sixteen. In pictures he stands defiantly, a barrel of a man with a square head and surprisingly sweet eyes. Standing at a stocky 5'5", he was described as having a head "shaped like an artillery shell and a personality to match." Like many people who grew up to master jujitsu and other martial arts, Professor Okazaki was a frail child. He was diagnosed with TB as a young man, and was given what he took to be a death sentence by his doctor. According to a jujitsu history Web site, Okazaki said, "Assuming I was a dead man, I practiced Judo with all my strength at the risk of my life. During this time, strangely enough, I had a complete recovery from the sickness, and I became the owner of a body as if made of iron! Therefore, I was convinced that my whole life was a gift from Judo and thereafter my whole life should be devoted in behalf of Judo."


Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

Anonymous and pseudonymous comments will be removed.

Latest in Feature

Author Archives

  • Hot Pants

    West Oakland clothing designers go to the side pocket.
    • Aug 18, 2004
  • Rock Opera of Ages

    Introducing Pyromania!, the show-stopping, arm-severing Def Leppard musical.
    • Aug 11, 2004
  • More»

Most Popular Stories

Special Reports

The Beer Issue 2020

The Decade in Review

The events and trends that shaped the Teens.

Best of the East Bay


© 2020 Telegraph Media    All Rights Reserved
Powered by Foundation