Butokuden (Military Arts Hall), Suwayama Park, Kobe, c. 1910.

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Butokuden (Military Arts Hall), Suwayama Park, Kobe, c. 1910.

On February 27, 1935, Sarah Mayer became the first non-Japanese woman in the world to be awarded black belt rank in kodokan judo. She began learning judo in London, England at the Budokwai. In the 1930s Mayer visited Japan to study judo first in Kobe and, then, in Kyoto.

During Mayer’s stay in Japan, which spanned about two years, she corresponded with Gunji Koizumi, her first judo teacher in London. Here is an excerpt from one letter, written in 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 motorcars are a danger to life and limb.

… 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!

… 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 [gender] 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.

… 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.

Kindest regards,

Yours very sincerely,

Sarah B. Mayers

Map: Kobe, c. 1914, showing the location of the Butokuden near the Tor Hotel and Shokufuji at upper-left. [Source: Terry’s Japanese Empire, 1914]

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