Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Isao Wada: A Judo Life

You know that when the truth is told,
You can get what you want or you can just get old.

Hundreds of people came to Isao Wada's funeral yesterday. Tony Mojica talked about how Sensei Wada encouraged him as a teenager at his first senior nationals. Roger Yamashiro and Mickey Matsumoto talked about how Isao had tolerated their misbehavior as boys and helped guide them into men who were pillars of the community.

Isao was a leader in many ways. I remember going to Gardena years ago and asking if it was okay if I worked out. He said, "Yes, yes, of course!"

For many years, it wasn't "of course". Maybe if you grew up in judo and were Japanese or Japanese-American you don't realize how unwelcome people like me and my friends Jake Flores and Blinky Elizalde were often made to feel. We were NOT welcome. Occasionally people told us that to our faces, but more often it was the "forgetting" to tell us about tournaments or yudanshakai (black belt association) meetings, the being turned down for promotion "because your paperwork wasn't typed", the invitations other people got to come work out that didn't include us, and sometimes, the people who just tried to beat us into the mat until we would go away.

I know that there were bad things that happened to people of Isao's generation, that they were often discriminated against, many of them were sent to concentration camps far from home, and lost everything they owned. After the war, there was a lot of discrimination, too. Maybe if I had been that age and had that experience I would have been bitter and distrustful toward people who weren't "like me". Growing up, I heard behind my back, and sometimes to my face, "Judo is a Japanese sport. What is she doing here? Why doesn't she just go home?"

Isao was different and he told everyone they were welcome, and he did treat it like, "Of course, everyone is welcome to train at Gardena Dojo. This is a judo dojo." He was too polite to add, "Are you stupid or what?"

Not everyone agreed with him and I admired immensely his effortless ability to stand for what he believed in without fanfare. He was right and he knew it. Everyone else knew it, too, and if they disagreed, they went along because Isao had a tremendous amount of moral authority.

Anyone who knows me can attest that I do not suffer fools gladly. If someone is petty, mean or unethical, I will stand up to them and in no uncertain words.

Isao was different. He said things simply and he made you listen. At a Nanka meeting when I was MUCH younger, someone brought up the fact that a good bit of the development budget of the local black belt association went to "a girl".

Isao stood up and said, "So what? She's winning." He didn't add, "Are you stupid or what?" but after that, everyone felt stupid.

I wasn't any more special than anyone else. Isao ALWAYS stood up for what he thought was right and did it simply, matter-of-factly. It was because of that so many people had so much respect for him. He had a good uchimata, and he knew more about judo than the great majority of people. He knew more about being a good person and building a community than anyone I ever met.

When I was younger, he was one of the very few people who, if he told me to sit down and shut up, I sat down and shut up. To the day he died, everyone was like that around him. It wasn't because he could beat us up, it wasn't because of what he would do TO us if we didn't. It was because of what he had already done for us, as a role model, as a teacher, as someone who supported and nurtured Gardena Judo Club to be there, open to everybody, "of course".

I do understand some of those who resent people like me and Jake and Tony. We will never have a judo club exactly like Isao and we will never be a senseis like him. Isao embodied a kind of Japanese judo culture that was very wonderful. As the old senseis die, that is slipping away, both in the U.S. and around the world, including in Japan and that is really sad. In the 73 years of Sensei Wada's life, judo changed, society changed and yet he held fast to some of the basic tenets - give back to the community, be a good person. As I looked around the church, I saw more people I sincerely admire than I think I will ever see again in one place. I saw friends I had made as a child and known nearly all my life. I also saw some bitter old men who still look at me like something the cat drug in.

You can't turn back time. I will never be a sensei like Isao. I'll never be that good. I will never have his calmness, I'll probably always swear at people who I think are morons and yell when I think someone did something wrong. I doubt I'll ever get invited to be a deacon in any church. So, did I learn nothing?

Henry David Thoreau said,

Aim above morality. Be not simply good; be good for something.

Yeah, I can do that. I think Thoreau would have liked Sensei Wada. Who knows? Maybe now they are hanging out together.


Anonymous said...

Very sorry to here about the death of Sensei Wada.

Anonymous said...

Hi, I am very sorry for your loss. Obviously he was a great influence on you, he sounds like an amazing gentleman!

Anonymous said...

This is Ryan Oba, an old Tenri person, though I'm not sure if you remember me.

It's nice to hear some of these names. I'm glad all is well with you.

I'm sorry about Wada Sensei.

I was just thinking about, of all people, Blinky, a few days ago. He was always such a good guy, and the first to congratulate me when I came back from winning my Junior National Championship.

Whatever good graces were given to you and Blinky and Tony, you returned to folks like me a thousandfold. Take care!

Anonymous said...

hello AnnMaria, excellent post. here is a good photo of Sensei Wada and Ramon & Adrian Rivera.


Dr. AnnMaria said...

Ryan -
How could I possibly forget you? You threw me with that seoi nage about a zillion times. That's why I had to armbar you - to get even.

viagra online said...

Hos teachings are amazing, he really represents the essence of Judo.

Anonymous said...

I just stumbled across this looking for Judo friends. Wada Sensei was one of a kind. The first time I walked into Gardena Dojo my coach asked if he could work out. It was Sie Kaneoka that asked me if I would like to help serve coffee. God rest her precious soul. I said I would rather practice if that was ok. And that was the beginning of one of the best times of my life. Wada Sensei always praised and helped me. He told me he was proud of me. My name is/was even on the Competitor of the Year trophy one year. One of my proudest accomplishments. Mine was the 1st female, Yes white girl if that matters. Wada Sensei knew I had pet rabbits and he would always bring carrot tops and garden greens for me to feed them. I really loved him. And I hate that anyone that has skin other than white has to live with the discrimination and automatic dislike or distrust they have to live with. I am white as a Lilly and when I went to Tenri, nobody told me to leave or tried to hurt me.. They made me feel welcome and I went back many times. I always thought Judo was a place where prejudice was left at the door. Women in general were looked down on. But men like Wada Sensei helped change that. But I know my experience was different. Hopefully not just because I am white. I wish I would see the day everyone is treated the same. The Man I spent 13 years with doing Judo and my precious love of 28 years were both Native American. Cherokee and Potawatamie. I ran a semi truck parking yard for at least 15 years and I only had 1 white man there. I choose not to perpetuate the hate and treat everyone the way I would like to be treated. I love you Ann Marie. And I share your love and respect for Wada Sensei. I'm glad I found this.