When I was training in Japan, I knew a senior judo man who was expert in groundwork newaza, and especially armlocks. He was a small thin man, with very supple and wiry legs, and he could always somehow thread one through the gaps and wind it round the other man’s arm. Then he would put the lock on very fast. He was not an official teacher, but he used to go nearly every day to the Kodokan and practise his extraordinary technique.
Some people used to watch him, but not from close up, because he would suddenly end that practice, and then call on the nearest man to go on with him. A splendid chance, one might think. Yet not many liked to take the opportunity. The reason was that there was something about him that was just a little vicious. He would put the lock on very quickly, and to the limit. With his great experience, he knew just how far to go. But when the opponent tapped surrender, he would not release him immediately, but keep the lock on and increase it fractionally. He did not injure the arm; as far as I know, he never injured anybody. But it gave just a tiny bit of pain. Then he would let it go. So to practise with him meant having to endure these little shots of pain. The joint was not damaged at all; it was just slightly unpleasant, and people avoided practising with him if they could. He would sometimes give a little instruction on one of the locks, but there again, the pupil had to go through this experience, and few volunteered for a lesson, though there was so much to be learned from him.
I had the same feeling myself, after a few such experiences with him. I did not want to practise with him; he was vicious. Then something in me said: ‘You can learn from him some things which you could not get elsewhere.’ To that, I produced one of those high ethical arguments which are often used to hide fear: ‘I ought not to practise with him, because I might get infected by his viciousness.’ The inner conversation went on: ‘Am I vicious myself ? After all, I have done spiteful things.’ ‘No, I can’t be, because I dislike it so much in him.’ ‘Oh but they say it is just one’s own unconscious fault that seems so odious in others.’
So finally I decided to learn from him regularly; perhaps I’d infect him instead of him infecting me. He seemed a bit surprised when I began coming up regularly for a lesson. At first I had the impression that he was putting the last little pressure on a bit more. Foreigners were then a rarity in judo circles. We were known to be extraordinary, and he may have felt that perhaps we did not feel pain in the usual way. When I kept coming back, his attitude changed. He even forgot sometimes to put that last pressure on. He did teach me a good deal. Some of it I could not use myself, because our physical build was so different. But it enabled me later on to teach those who were of his physical type.
The whole experience was a useful lesson for life. He had this unpleasant characteristic, but the little discomfort was really nothing to a judo man. It had nothing to do with the fact that I could learn some unusual techniques from him. I had nearly been put off by something quite irrelevant. How often in life we hear someone say something to the effect that they had made a good start at school with French, or mathematics, ‘but then I moved up to a new class where I didn’t like the teacher. He was supposed to be very good at teaching his subject, but he made one or two remarks about my accent (I’m from the West country, you know), and I couldn’t stand him. I made no progress, and it put me off for life.’
There is a saying: ‘Great obstacles can be wrestled with and defeated, but not trivialities, because there is nothing to catch hold of.’ Or as another tradition puts it: ‘It is not so much your great passions as your silliness that really holds you up.’
[Editor’s note: Formerly “Irrelevancies”]