Making the transition from the San Francisco Bay Area to Iwate Prefecture was surprisingly easy. One of the main reasons why I was able to adjust so smoothly was being involved with Judo. I quickly had a large group of friends from young to old. After a few months I went from joking in the dojo, to going out and having unforgettably fun nights.
Iwate, unlike Tokyo or other larger cities, has an extremely small population of foreigners. I moved to Iwate in April of 2012 and since I didn’t have any contacts I went three months without running into another English speaking foreigner. Unlike English teaching jobs I had no real support network in terms of introducing myself to fellow English speakers. My only friends were people I saw on a day-to-day basis. Even though I speak some Japanese it was quite isolating. The only exception to this would be my friends from Judo.
It just so happened when I moved to Iwate and started training in Hanamaki there was a tournament coming up. After only about two weeks I was invited to participate. Unlike most tournaments I’d entered in California, this tournament was team against team. Although I was still new in town, I was quickly invited to join a team representing the area of Hanamaki that I lived in.
Eventually the day of the tournament came. It was amazing to see how much of a community based event the tournament was. Friends and family came to cheer on competitors. Even though I still didn’t know very many people in Hanamaki, I had a full cheering section at my matches simply because my name was listed in the program. To say the least I felt extremely welcome. It was a huge relief considering I’d just moved all the way from the Bay Area to Iwate and had no idea how I’d be received.
I heard about ten kids all yell, ‘頑張ってロバート先生.’
I didn’t win a single match at the tournament. After all, Japan is the country that invented Judo and it has more Olympic gold medals in the sport than any other country. That being said, their technique is amazing. In Japan most Judo competitors tend to differentiate themselves from athletes from other parts of the world. I’ve actually heard athletes winning world championships say things like, ‘I didn’t win it in a very Japanese way. So I think I could have done better.’ What this means, at least from what I’ve gathered, is that Japanese competitors don’t like to win by points only. They like to win with a definitive Ippon.
An Ippon, simply put, is a full point that is very similar to a KO in boxing. An Ippon instantly ends the match. Just scoring an Ippon isn’t everything though. Japanese players pride themselves on their technique rather than muscling out a win. This technique, rather than brute strength, is one of the core values of Judo.
A year later the same tournament just took place again. This time rather than being introduced to several people, it felt like a huge gathering of people I’ve grown close to. Friends from other towns who occasionally come and train at the Hanamaki Dojo and coaches from various high schools in the area were all there. I help teach at the children’s Judo class and in the middle of one of my matches I heard about ten kids all yell, ‘頑張ってロバート先生.’ It may have been just a simple small action but it made me feel like I’d finally planted some roots in Japan.
After a year, of course I do have some English speaking friends in Iwate. However, none of them live close to me and naturally everyone has their own personal life they are busy with. In the long run my friends from Judo have remained my closest friends in Japan. I’ve also found that I share common hobbies with my Judo friends. From going out and discussing business strategies with my friends from Fuji University, to skateboarding with friends who also host local music events, my days are always busy and enjoyable.
I’m sure there are plenty of people living in Japan who feel like they are disconnected or need a way to make friends. Judo is a great way to improve your health, make friends and also understand more aspects of Japanese culture. Whether you’re a teenager or in your middle age there are so many benefits to doing Judo. Win or lose, you’ll be enriching your life. If you’re up for a challenge and want to try something new, I highly recommend trying out the gentle way: Judo.