Hayward Nishioka started training in judo when he was 13. He moved into the competitive arena fairly quickly, he says, because as soon as a judo student learns to take a fall and execute a few techniques, he starts to compete. Hayward Nishioka won the National Championships in 1965, and the same year he was ranked fifth in the world. He won the Nationals again in 1966 and 1970, and in 1967, he earned a gold medal at the Pan-American Games. He was ranked fifth in the world once again the same year. From 1968 to 1970, he ran a judo school in California, and in 1972, he started a judo course at Los Angeles City College.
Like so many martial artists out there, Hayward Nishioka started training primarily so he could learn self-defense. “I lived in East Los Angeles, and there were a lot of gangs,” he says. “You never knew who was a gang member and who wasn’t. Once in a while, you would get into a scuffle with one, then you would have to confront all his friends.”
Looking back on his youth, Hayward Nishioka, a two-time Black Belt Hall of Fame inductee, admits that his own actions caused many of the problems he had to deal with. “I grew up in a Japanese family where we had certain rules that had to be followed,” he says. “Perhaps those rules conflicted with the rules other kids grew up with, and I got into conflicts with other people, thinking, Well, this is the way it should be, so I’ll tell the other kid he shouldn’t do the things he’s doing.”
Often, that other kid had a different view of the way life should be lived and was prepared to defend it, Hayward Nishioka says. “We would get into a fight, and then all of a sudden I was fighting a number of people.”
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Judo to the Rescue
Hayward Nishioka’s stepfather, Dan Oka, got him to start judo lessons. He took the boy to a Buddhist temple — back then, they used to hold tournaments in temples — where he got a chance to watch his first judo event. “More than the competition itself, the trappings were of interest to me,” Hayward Nishioka says. “It was exciting to see these black belts march down the aisle, stand in a row and bow in. Then the competition would start. They would just sit around the edge of the mat and wouldn’t move until their time came.”
Hayward Nishioka fell in love with the orderliness of the event and the idea of belonging to a community. “I felt safe within the context of this martial arts atmosphere,” he says. “I didn’t feel that in my ‘other’ world of going to school, where there were a lot of cultural and religious groups, each protecting its own existence. At that time, judo was more a cultural event than a sporting event.”
Because it was a cultural event, most of the students were Japanese, Hayward Nishioka says. Were students from other races and cultural groups intentionally left out, or did they simply have no interest in judo?
“At that time — during the 1950s — groups of people just stuck together in their own communities,” Hayward Nishioka says. “They weren’t intermingling. In the ’60s, people started to open their eyes and associate with other cultures.”
Art of Mystery
Outsiders showed some interest in judo, but it was a mysterious art for most people, Hayward Nishioka says. “In a match, there were two people standing, then all of a sudden one person was up in the air and down on the ground. Many people weren’t used to the idea because they had always associated falling with injury. But in judo, you learn how to fall before you learn how to throw. I think a lot of people were afraid to come into judo because of that [fear].”
While Hayward Nishioka was training in the art that allowed him to fit in with the culture from which he came, he found that his street-fight problems were disappearing. “The funniest thing was that, as I was learning judo, I used it on maybe half a dozen occasions,” he says. “After I started using judo to defend myself, I found that some people were afraid of me. As I got better, my aura [of confidence] defended me, and I didn’t have to fight as much.”
Although half a century has passed since those days, judo training still offers the same confidence-building and character-developing benefits to modern-day students, Hayward Nishioka claims. “The first word that comes to mind is discipline,” he says. “It helps you develop a tough mind. Certain things are geared toward teaching kids, and I think judo is one of them.”
On the physical side, judo continues to deliver. “It helps you know what reality is when it comes to sport and self-defense,” Hayward Nishioka says. “You grasp somebody, and you know the reality of the other person struggling. You know what works and what doesn’t. If something doesn’t work, you know it pretty quickly because you end up on your back.”
With the current interest in grappling, enrollment in judo dojo is reportedly up, and that’s good for the art. “Judo goes through cycles,” Hayward Nishioka says. “It goes through high points and low points, but it will always be there. Right now, we’re riding the crest of the jiu-jitsu movement, where people find the mat work in judo is not any different from the mat work in jiu-jitsu. We’ve learned some things from jiu-jitsu schools, and jiu-jitsu schools have learned some things from us.”
If you take up judo with your heart set on winning an MMA tournament in the future, that’s fine, Hayward Nishioka says. But somewhere along the judo path, you may find your priorities migrating to a higher level.
“It’s a matter of goals,” Hayward Nishioka insists. “I hope that anybody who goes into judo would have higher aspirations than to just win a championship or money. Although money is very important, looking toward judo’s ideals is excellent because not everybody’s going to be a champion. But everybody’s going to be a citizen. And practicing judo instills discipline and respect. Those things can help a person live in a civilized society.”
About the Artist:
Hayward Nishioka has written several books about judo. They include Training for Competition: Judo – Coaching, Strategy and the Science for Success (available here), The Judo Textbook (available here) and Judo Heart and Soul (temporarily out of print). To order his three-volume DVD series, titled Judo, go here.