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.”

After mastering some martial arts in Hawaii, Okazaki then returned home and traveled the land, visiting more than fifty dojos in Japan, some of which had been there for centuries. Using his own body as a “data collection unit,” the professor began to collect and systemize the lethal combat methods of the samurai: jujitsu.

Throughout the ’20s and ’30s, Okazaki worked to combine all he had learned from the old masters into a comprehensive form of jujitsu, the Danzan-Ryu (“danzan,” meaning “sandalwood mountain style,” was an homage to Hawaii). In addition to combat techniques, Okazaki had also learned ancient healing arts, and as an adjunct to the dojo, he opened the Okazaki Adjustment and Restoration Clinic. Believing that if you have the power to hurt, you should also have the power to heal, Okazaki taught his students massage and resuscitation techniques. Okazaki was himself so skilled as a masseur that he even worked on Charlie Chaplin and Franklin D. Roosevelt, who invited him to be the White House massage therapist (he declined).

When Okazaki opened his dojo, he did one other extraordinary thing: he announced he would teach jujitsu to anyone, regardless of race or gender. For a Japanese man to teach outsiders struck many Japanese martial artists as a grave insult. The ancient techniques had been passed down through countless generations of samurai, and were sacred. “Normally at that time people trained in martial arts that were found within their own culture,” said Mike E. “Hawaii at that point had a lot of different kinds of people living close together, so those martial arts barriers began to break down. Okazaki opened up a school and said that he would teach anyone from any culture, which was huge. White people, black people, lots of women. This was a very radical thing.”

So radical that, according to Lamar Fisher, a descendant of the Danzan-Ryu “tree” who lives and practices in Chico, a death warrant of sorts for Okazaki was issued by some people in Japan. “They stated he could not teach to Caucasians, but Okazaki said, ‘I’m not going to listen to that.’ Then three Japanese men left on a ship from Japan to ‘take care of’ Master Okazaki. We don’t know what ever happened to them; we know that they got off the ship, but we don’t know what happened to them after that. They could have defected, or maybe something befell them. But they certainly never went back to Japan.”

To his students, Okazaki was a nice guy, very hospitable to visitors. But he was stern and strict in class, a tough guy physically. His rough-and-ready style appealed to people, some of whom found themselves deciding to devote their lives to jujitsu. One such man was Jack Wheat, now in his eighties and still living in Hawaii. Wheat, a “hall-of-famer” in the world of jujitsu, studied at Okazaki’s school and he remembers the hard work and practice, with Professor Okazaki overseeing everything from his seat in the corner.

“He was ‘the first’ among many different things,” says Mike E. “He was definitely ahead of his time. My teachers have passed down many stories to me about him. He started one of the first self-defense programs ever for women. Along with the growing US military presence in Hawaii, before and during the war, the number of rapes increased drastically. He and some of his students trained a band of female phys-ed teachers in the local high schools how to teach self-defense.”

Perhaps Okazaki’s most famous student is Wally Jay, a living legend in the martial arts. Among his many accomplishments, Jay is noted for being Bruce Lee’s trainer (“the best martial artist I have ever seen”). He also gave Mike E. some training. Now in his eighties, he lives on a quiet Alameda street, with a dojo on the property. He is small-statured, warm, and kindly, and one would never suspect that he could probably still kill you with his bare hands in a matter of seconds.

“I’ve had my ups and downs,” says Jay modestly. “In the beginning of my career, I got beaten so badly that they all laughed at me. They tried to kick me out [of the sport] but they couldn’t. That was in 1953. By 1960, I had won ‘coach of the year’ for judo. We later produced national champions.” On the walls of the dojo behind his house are photographs of his life; the handsome, squarish face crops up in all of them. “Don’t make me out to be some big guy,” he tells me.

No longer teaching, Jay is recovering from heart surgery. As he watches the children and teacher pass in and out of the dojo, Jay flexes his hands –strong, tan, wide, and well-veined –that look like they belong to a man in his sixties. He has a tenth-degree black belt in jujitsu, and a sixth-degree black belt in judo.

Jay was born in 1917 in Hawaii, and he began learning jujitsu in 1935 at Okazaki’s dojo. “He was the only one teaching jujitsu to anybody. If you weren’t Japanese, you couldn’t learn from anyone.” Jay, who is of Chinese decent, signed right up. Later, when he moved to California and expanded and tweaked the original teachings of Okazaki, he too would suffer some disgrace.

“Oh, they hated me, my associates. They wouldn’t talk to me for years. [Okazaki] decided to teach women in 1928, and it was a no-no. He became an outcast. But he thought it was necessary to change.”

Jay would not be the last of Okazaki’s students to cross the Pacific. When Ray Law came to Oakland, he set up the first Danzan-Ryu school in America at 3917 Grand Avenue in Oakland. A born salesman, Law Americanized jujitsu in a way that made the Asian art form seem like a natural to young boys and girls in the ’50s.

Before he met Henry Okazaki, Ray Law was already a local character: Jack LeLane meets Bozo the Clown. Calling himself “Chow-Chow,” Law traveled around the country on behalf of the National Tuberculosis Association and the American Dairy Association. Using magic, acrobatics, and trained animals, he preached the good word about healthy things like proper dental hygiene and the importance of drinking milk. Later he broadcast a radio show from the Tribune Tower as the character “Dario the King of Health Land,” and he developed the surreally titled “Children’s Theater of the Air.”

Law went to Hawaii in 1938 to work for an advertising agency that hoped to harness his innate talent for generating goofy excitement for a campaign to bring tourists to the islands. While there, he hooked up with Okazaki; the rest is history.

Returning to the East Bay, Law first began to teach the skills he had learned from Okazaki in his Piedmont garage. The school grew and moved four times in 25 years. Law was to eventually teach more than14,000 students, 116 of whom earned black belts. Kids loved him; Law had one of those faces that children seem to trust, with young eyes and a steady energy.

One of Law’s students, Don Cross, now teaches jujitsu near Sacramento. Cross began his jujitsu studies when he was nine years old, paying for it with money he earned from pulling weeds and having a paper route.

“My little friend took me down to this dojo,” he recalls. “It was like a circus, like one hundred kids on the mat. Marie Law was there behind the counter. Behind her were things that Professor Law had collected on his travels. There was a thing from Tahiti or Fiji, a batik; spears were flanking the top of the wall from all over the world.”

The dojo itself must’ve been a boy’s dream, with a gigantic rope ladder across one wall, a metal pole to climb, and swarms of kids on the mats. Law would methodically take the kids through their levels of jujitsu: joint locking, rolls and falls, throws, takedowns. He placed an “X” on their hands with a grease pen when they’d done something well, and at the end of the night they could show their parents how many Xs they had accrued. After class Law would pass on some stories about Professor Okazaki and his various philosophies and spirituality.

To restore order, Law had a ship’s bell, and he would ring it once. “He would never raise his voice,” said Cross. “When you heard that bell you stopped. We would line up in rows according to our rank, then we’d all take a bow toward the flag, and instructors.”

Outside of the dojo Law always seemed to have various projects going. He assembled the parts for a sophisticated telescope, yet never put it together. He had an interest in Big Foot. He knew all about what happened to the dinosaurs. “One time he brought me to his house in Walnut Creek,” says Cross. “He had a little cottage separate from his house with wall-to-wall and floor-to-ceiling books on religion, philosophy, and science. He was quite a thinker, quite a writer. I remember this one experiment that he was doing there: he had a whole bunch of little bean plants. He had separated them into two groups. They all got the same watering, the same fertilizer. The same physical care. He told me, gesturing to one group, ‘These plants I project negativity and hatred toward, and these I give a lot of love and attention to.’ Then the ‘negativity’ group became stunted while the other plants were flourishing, he said. ‘This is how I’ve been teaching you for years. Children are like little plants.’

But Law did release some “negativity” to other adults, who saw him as a stubborn and pushy part of the martial arts world. “He was sort of stern and opinionated,” says Cross. “Later [in life] I found out he was like sort of an asshole to other people. He pushed and shoved people politically, and was tough to deal with. We’d want to make a proposal and he’d be ready to stop it. But as a teacher, each kid was special. I felt like I was special. There was always a lot of storytelling too, because it’s a Hawaiian style of jujitsu.

“Professor Law’s teachings took on a Hawaiian flavor. People loved Okazaki because he was an open-minded, open-hearted man. He became more like the Hawaiians; it changed the way that he lived his life. He really embraced this idea of kokua–openheartedness. Ray Law learned that attitude as well.”

Structurally, Law played an important part in the history of jujitsu; he was a founding member and president of the Northern California Judo Federation and its successor, the American Judo and Jujitsu Federation. His students, Bill Randle and Carl P. Beaver, went down to LA and formed what is now the largest center for Danzan-Ryu jujitsu in the country; that’s where Mike Esmailzadeh learned the discipline.

“Ray Law really popularized jujitsu,” says Mike E. “He had the gift for getting people sold on the idea that this was a good, useful thing–and a good thing for Americans. This was the ’50s after all; think about the period of time he was teaching it in!” Law’s other students described the American flag Law hung in the dojo, and the patriotism he espoused. Yet he also passed along the Asian teachings of Okazaki and the old Japanese healing and massage methods that he had learned, fusing the two cultures into a newly Americanized activity designed to build character in children. “A lot of people who now teach jujitsu have ties to that school. Tons and tons of people went through his program, including my teacher Bill Randle.” Were it not for Law’s dojo, the Danzan method would probably have died out. As it stands, it is the most widely taught form of jujitsu today.

Another of Okazaki’s students who came to Oakland to help teach in Law’s dojo was Francis Merle Estes, called “Bud.” A devout Christian, Estes somehow managed to fuse Eastern philosophy, Christianity, and the deadly art of killing a man with your bare hands. Among all of the Okazaki group, Estes inspired the most legend. “He had powers,” says Don Cross. “He was one of the few Christian mystics that I met in my life.” He moved to Hawaii in 1931 with the Salvation Army, and quickly became Okazaki’s pet student.

Estes first took up judo, earning a black belt. Then he met Okazaki. Some say that his judo instructor simply introduced him to the legendary teacher, but others tell a more interesting story. “Okazaki would sit on the street corner or on the curb,” says Estes’ longtime friend and co-sensei Lamar Fisher. “He would dress like a bum, not very neat, and he’d wait until someone attacked him. Then he would take care of them and say, ‘Shame on you! You shouldn’t go around doing such things!’ Well, one day Estes was walking down the street, and he saw three guys jump Okazaki. Estes joined in on the defense–he took one, Okazaki took the other two–and they did away with them.” After that, so the story goes, Estes became a jujitsu convert.

The pictures of Estes as a youth show a square-jawed, handsome “Hahvard”-esque young man. “He was over six feet tall,” says Fisher, “225 pounds. His right arm had been shot pretty bad when he was younger. He had gotten in trouble with a guy who was hunting, and the guy shot him. He pulled his arm up to keep from being hit, and it just about blew his arm off.” Estes wore a thin board that he wrapped around his right arm from wrist to elbow, and amazingly he did most of his work with his left hand, rising high into the ranks of black-beltdom despite his handicap.

Lamar Fisher describes him as having “finesse and grace. He was like a ballerina, you might say,” he laughs. “He had that way about him. He had a charm. He was also a good diplomat. He could charm a rattlesnake.”

Okazaki called Estes his “Holy Boy.” So much is made in the Bay Area of alternative healing now, that it is hard to imagine just how odd a juxtaposition Bud Estes must have been to a lot of people back then. “He [originally] went over there to ‘save the heathens, says Cross, “but Okazaki taught him that his martial arts held Christian values. Professor Okazaki embraced all religious views; he was a universal man. Kukua [the healing and giving energy of Hawaii] is not unlike Christianity; it’s an open-hearted thing.”

Bud Estes died in 1981, and Ray Law passed away a bit earlier, in 1969. After the latter’s death, the dojo was shut down. Don Cross remembers when the dojo closed. “It was his desire that it not be left open. John Congistre [another long-term student of Law] wanted to buy it, and some other people, but he just wanted his legacy to be remembered as it was. I remember him teaching a class just one week before he died. I wept bitterly at his funeral, it was devastating. His funeral was huge.” Law is buried in Mountain View Cemetery.

In 1948 Professor Okazaki had a stroke that left him partially paralyzed. Later pictures would show him with one side of his face drawn. He had another stroke which then paralyzed him further, but he would sit in a chair in the corner of the dojo and watch the classes take place. His son would ask him questions, which he responded to by blinking his eyes.

“He was still very sharp in his mind,” says George Arrington, a Danzan-Ryu historian. “But people ignored him at that time, left him off in the corner.”

A final stroke killed him in 1951. Oddly enough, according to Arrington, Okazaki made a deathbed conversion to Catholicism. “Some nuns had led him in that direction.” Perhaps it was Bud Estes’ influence, perhaps he was simply too weak to resist. Or perhaps he was ready to absolve some unfinished business.

Though the original masters are now all dead, Danzan-Ryu is alive and, well, kicking. Mike Esmailzadeh’s Oakland dojo is quite large, with huge warehouse windows and skylights flanking a ceiling that looks like an airplane hangar. The mat is jade-green and vast. Each student bows before they walk onto it. There is the usual chit-chat and stretching before class. Someone is worried about a wedding–“My father has a tendency to get naked,” he sighs. But all talking and laughter stops when Mike E. comes out. Everyone acknowledges his presence and bows. Then comes the warm-ups and the class itself, with grips and throws and pain. “You must learn how to deal with pain and fear,” he lectures. “If you are attacked, that will be a part of it, so that must also be a part of your training. In a real situation that will be part of the equation. Make sense?” He ends most things with “Make sense?”

The grapplers practice various throws and holds, going for pressure points and painful bends in the opponent. So as not to hurt or injure the other person, movements are never really completed, and this seems vaguely unsatisfying. It’s as if two cats are playing at a tussle, but not really engaged in a fight.

After each lesson the students line up, and Mike corrects and demonstrates. The lives of a hundred generations of warriors ring through his words. “My teacher used to say, when you first roll you are a ball with corners. Sooner or later the ground wears you down.”

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