President Theodore Roosevelt not only studied Jiu-jitsu and Judo, he was instrumental in bringing Japanese grappling arts to prominence in the US.
President Theodore Roosevelt & Judo – Episode 148
It’s time for episode 148 of whistlekick Martial Arts radio, and we’re going to talk about President Theodore Roosevelt, who not only studied Jiu-jitsu and Judo, he was instrumental in bringing Japanese grappling arts to prominence in the US.
Let me introduce myself. I’m whistlekick’s founder but I’m better known as your host on this show. My name is Jeremy Lesniak. whistlekick makes the best sparring gear you can get as well as some great apparel and accessories for practitioners and fans of traditional martial arts. I’d like to welcome all of you new listeners and thank everyone that’s come back.
All our past episodes, show notes, and some other good stuff is at whistlekickmartialartsradio.com. From that site, you can sign up for our newsletter, and I hope you do because we offer exclusive content to subscribers, discounts and it’s the only place to find out about upcoming guests.
Today’s episode has a full transcript on the website.
Before we talk about the grappling antics of our 26th president, I wanted to share some feedback I received. It hit me pretty hard and I wanted to respond to it, a bit.
Hi, Jeremy. Thanks so much for the Whistlekick podcast. I think you may have changed my life today.
I’m 40, and just started Krav Maga and Kung Fu in October (yes, I know I shouldn’t do two at once, but I love both and couldn’t decide on just one).
Anyway, I just finished listening to Episode 79, and after hearing your story, I had to stop and write. This is the first time I’ve emailed a stranger like this; I hope you don’t mind.
So I had a similar upbringing. Picked on, abused, bordering on torture by other kids both physical and mental…mostly for being black, female, and dark-skinned. Plus, being bigger than most girls, with glasses, and pretty smart, I never fit in anywhere. By high school, there were times when I was afraid to go to school, knowing that either I would be cornered or somehow humiliated.
I remember one incident sitting in the back of the bus, and two of the more popular boys sat on either side of me. They got very quiet, and someone in front of me called my name. So I looked up, everyone was looking back at me, and the two boys punched me. Hard. On either side of the face at the same time.
I was so ashamed, and can’t really think of another time where I felt so stupid, so ashamed, and couldn’t do anything about it. Had I had something like martial arts, I highly doubt I would have ended up there that day. Even now, reading that, I want to throw up. I feel silly about it, but there you go.
After that, my confidence and self-esteem was so low I ended up in an abusive relationship – still in high school – with one of those boys. I wanted to be accepted so much, I was willing to be a victim to have some connection with someone. God, even now the thought of how I allowed myself to be treated makes me ill.
What’s even sadder is that I still recognize that young girl in me, even now. Fast forward to today, and I’m outwardly confident, I have a good job, my kids are amazing, and I’m generally happy. But everyday, I see myself in the mirror and wonder where the next punch is coming from. Not really physically, but you know what I mean. Every time I see someone whisper, I wonder if it’s about me. I jump when people speak too loudly, too. I guess I also have put myself in the situation to still be treated, while not badly, definitely not demanding the kind of relationship I deserve.
So, I decided to take matters into my own hands lately with martial arts. I wish I would have done it when I was younger, but at least I’m here now.
Ok, wow, that was tougher than I thought. So…the point: Thank you for your podcast. I think hearing about all of these folks who have been through these things really help me feel like I’m not alone anymore. I am sure you’re spammed with these kind of emails all the time, and I definitely appreciate you taking the time to read this. I just wanted to reach out and thank you so much for sharing your story.
Thanks, and Merry Christmas!!
I’ve already written to Vanessa privately, but I want to thank her publicly for her email. She’s clearly taken a huge step forward. She’s proof that it’s never too late to face your fears and make your life better. I appreciate all of the feedback I receive and do try to write back to everyone that writes in.
President Thedore Roosevelt & Judo
I was listening to a podcast the other day when I heard one of the hosts make an off-handed reference to President Teddy Roosevelt having practiced Judo. It wasn’t a martial arts podcast, but the thought struck me and I did some research. Not only did President Roosevelt practice Judo, but there’s quite a story here.
President Roosevelt was a fighter. If he were alive today, he’d probably be ringside at MMA events. It wouldn’t surprise me if he’d have shown up at a professional wrestling event – in the ring. Not only did the man love competition, he loved combat, and all forms of it. He was a practiced wrestler and boxer. He did things his way, and enjoyed a challenge.
As a kid, boxing was self-defense for him. Asthmatic, weak and frequently picked on, young Theodore had a lot of bullies. “Having been a sickly boy, with no natural bodily prowess and having lived much at home, I was at first quite unable to hold my own when thrown into contact with other boys of rougher antecedents,” he wrote in The Autobiography of Theodore Roosevelt. “I was nervous and timid.”
At 14 he asked his Father if he could learn boxing, and his father said yes.
“I was a painfully slow and awkward pupil, and certainly worked two or three years before I made any perceptible improvement whatever,” he writes in his autobiography.
During later schooling at Harvard, he competed in boxing but also wrestling. He wasn’t on any college teams, but he was still an active competitor. In fact, he developed a small following around Boston because of the heart he brought to competition. He certainly wasn’t the best, but he just wouldn’t quit.
In 1899 Roosevelt became Governor of New York and preferred grappling as his athletic pursuit. The American middleweight wrestling champion was near his home in Albany, so he hired him. Three to four time a week Roosevelt trained.
“Roosevelt, who was in his early 40s at the time (nearly double the age of the wrestler), looked forward to his training sessions so much that he eventually bought a wrestling mat for the workout room,” Jon Finkel wrote in Teddy: Roosevelt: The U.S. President That Was Always Tough And Ready To Throw Down for The Post Game. “While neither combatant had a problem with the wrestling mat, Roosevelt’s Comptroller did, and he refused to audit the bill for the mat, claiming that wrestling wasn’t ‘proper Gubernatorial amusement.’”
What did the comptroller suggest as better? A pool table.
Once he became President, he set up quite a few mats in the White House basement and sparred with anyone that would spend the time – including his wife and sister-in-law. In fact, he’d spar with nearly anyone of any discipline – if they were willing to go hard and he thought it was worthwhile, he’d do it. It was part of his desire to keep his skills up and his weight down.
He learned Judo from one of Jigoro Kano (the founder of Judo) ‘s students, Yoshiaki Yamashita. Yamashita wasn’t just any old judoka, though – he was 19th student of the school and considered one of Kano’s four top students. He originally learned of Judo when a wrestling instructor of his showed him movements he’d learned during time in Japan. Yamashita taught him three to four afternoons a week for a few months.
The president once said in 1905 “The art of Jiu-Jitsu is worth more in every way than all of our athletics combined.” From research it appears that Roosevelt confused Judo and Jiu-Jitsu, or else didn’t know the difference. There are writings of his where he references his Judo teacher as having taught him Jiu-jitsu.
“The President’s training partners included his sons, his private secretary, the Japanese naval attache, Secretary of War William Howard Taft, and Secretary of the Interior Gifford Pinchot. When these people were unavailable, then Roosevelt tried tricks on husky young visitors,” Joseph R. Svinth wrote in an article titled Professor Yamashita Goes to Washington
Robert Johnstone Mooney, who had been one of the visitors that President Roosevelt threw around, later wrote “[He] sprang to his feet and excitedly asked: ‘By the way, do you boys understand jiu-jitsu?’ We replied in the negative, and he continued, pounding the air with his arms, ‘You must promise me to learn that without delay. You are so good in other athletics that you must add jiu-jitsu to your other accomplishments. Every American athlete ought to understand the Japanese system thoroughly. You know’—and he smiled reminiscently—‘I practically introduced it to the Americans. I had a young Japanese—now at Harvard [A. Kitagaki]—here for six months, and I tried jiu-jitsu with him day after day. But he always defeated me. It was not easy to learn. However, one day I got him—I got him—good and plenty! I threw him clear over my head on his belly, and I had it. I had it.’”
Professor Yamashita later said that while Roosevelt was his best pupil, he was also ‘very heavy and very impetuous, and it had cost the poor professor many bruisings, much worry, and infinite pains during Theodore’s rushes to avoid laming the President of the United States.
The President became America’s first Judo brown belt and, if the research I’ve done is correct, the most senior rank of high-level politics until Vladimir Putin. It seems that Putin has an 8th dan in Kyokushin karate.