Welcome to the House of Japan in America

“Musings of a Seeker”

By Tom Spellman


Beginning the beginning

Welcome to the House of Japan page. Here we will explore the Japanese contribution to America’s great martial arts traditions. To get a historical perspective I need to go back to a major turning point in Japanese history.


On July 8, 1853, belching black smoke blotted out the sky of Tokyo harbor as Commodore Matthew Perry of the United States Navy, cruised his squadron of two steamers and two sailing vessels boldly into port with the intention of forcing Japan to enter into trade with the United States. The demands of the treaty included permitting trade and the opening of Japanese ports on behalf of the U.S. government, by force if necessary. With no navy to speak of to defend themselves, they were forced to agree to the U.S. demands.

The following year, 1854, Japan and the United States created and signed another treaty that allowed for two more port openings, and again in 1854 a subsequent treaty further expanded to more ports and cities in which foreigners could reside.

 An overwhelming increase of foreign currency and the weakening of the Tokugawa shogunate due to the Western demand for trade coupled with the Shogun implementing a food ration program, due to a national drought, contributed to social unrest and governmental distrust. That the food rationing favored the upper classes and the undermining of confidence in the government eventually lead to dissent and rebellion and contributed to the eventual downfall of the Shogunate. An additional stipulation by the samurai included that of a demand for new leadership, and the creation of a new centralized government with the emperor as its symbolic head. After 250 years of Japanese isolation, the doors were kicked open and everything changed with the culmination of the process of time peaking in 1868.

On 12 September 1868 Crown prince Meiji Tennō, whose personal name is Mutsuhito, officially became Emperor Meiji of Japan, the coronation ceremony had been postponed one year due to social unrest. During his reign (1867-1912) Japan went through a dramatic metamorphosis from a land of feudalistic rule into one of the great powers of the modern world.

As the new Emperor continued the process of Westernization, modernization, and industrialization, he envisioned Japan moving away from being primarily agrarian in nature and sought developments in technology and transportation, amongst other things. The government changed as well developing trade with the world. With the country having been opened and so to the chance of migration opened as well.

Starting in 1868, Japanese immigrants began arriving in Hawaii and the following year in 1869 California, USA saw Japanese transplants appear establishing a Wakamatsu Colony on Gold Hill. With the Chinese Exclusion Act stopping Chinese immigration the demand for Japanese immigrants increased to the West coast. As time went on new laws came along to effect Japanese migration and control it until the Immigration Exclusion Act of 1924 ended all Asian immigrations except Filipinos for many years to come

As the Twentieth Century began the great twenty-five-year period of immigration flowed into the country, especially on the west coast. 100,000 Japanese found themselves establishing communities and filling jobs working in agriculture, mines, canneries, and of course the railroads. As time went on this led to the opening of businesses serving their own needs such as Japanese restaurants, shops, and the like. By 1920 the hard-working Japanese immigrants had control of over 450.000 acres in California.

So where are the Japanese martial arts dojos of this era to be found? Judo had been shared by 10th dan Yoshiaki Yamashita as he toured the United States from 1903 to 1906. Professor Yoshiaki Yamashita of Tokyo traveled the United States instructing the relatively new martial art of Judo. While visiting Washington, D.C., he taught the children of the nation’s elite, political and professional, and traveled to the White House to instruct then President Theodore Roosevelt. In the last two years of his stay, Yamashita was contracted to train midshipmen by the U.S. Naval Academy and at the conclusion of his stay, he returned to Japan in the fall of 1906 and continued to teach Judo until his death in 1935.  But again, where are the dojos, the clubs? There was ample interest concerning the Japanese culture at that time on many fronts. Except for those of us in the martial arts world in America, the general public might not have become aware of our beloved arts until following WWII when our fathers and grandfathers returned with stories of their travels. Perhaps they may have been stationed in Japan as part of the occupation forces and got an early opportunity to witness and or participate in some training. So here is one story of that earlier period, sans the commercialism, the public access, and the practice “just being an activity”.

(Just a footnote: Okinawan Karate was just being introduced to mainland Japan in 1920 so that is a story for another day.)

East Meets West

Destiny plays out in many forms. Amidst the massive cultural, economic, and political challenges occurring in Japan, a migration of people, long limited by their societal chaste roles, began to the west at the dawning of the 20th century lasting approximately 25 years. At first, the agrarian community left for the shores of Hawaii (a U.S. territory at this time) and eventually the West coast of mainland America. Later, during the birthing of the new century, the Japanese business folks seeking a new and more prosperous life set out for the United States to join their farmer cousins in the land of promise. One such family was the Toyota family who possessed a dream of transplanting their marginally successful restaurant to the fledgling American Japanese community and serving its members with the comfort of “home cooking” while expanding their own hopes for a better future. As Issei or migrant Japanese Mr. and Mrs. Toyota birthed their two boys who become known as Nisei or second-generation Japanese and the first-born Americans in the family. The Toyota “Sukiyaki” restaurant, named after a popular meal served in a nabemono (hot pot) with simmered meats and mixed vegetables, became a success in the city of San Pedro, California in the Los Angeles Harbor district in the 1920s. As the landscape in California and the country transitioned during this time of National Prohibition, successful Irish/American Pub owner, Jerry, in the Eastern city of Chicago found the going rough for he and his family of six, which included his wife Catherine, three girls and their newborn son. Selling his Chi-town holdings, they pulled up stakes and went west to join his brother, a Deputy Chief of Police in the Wiltshire district of Los Angeles County in Southern California. They settled in San Pedro and Jerry became a steam engineer for the L.A. County, somewhat typecast, according to his flat-foot brother, for someone who was accustomed to dealing with ‘hot air’ for a living.

Fate stepped in and as time went by the boys of these two families grew into strong, honorable young men and as active boys will do were drawn together as lifelong friends. As Mr. Toyota’s boys matured it came time to honor the family traditions from home and begin the process of manhood preparation which included the instruction of the family art of Toyota-Ha Nihon Ju-Jitsu. Being thick as thieves the Toyota bros and their brother by another mother petitioned Mr. Toyota to include their Irish American brother Jerry and eventually wore him down and the three became one in the transplanted tradition. It so happened that in addition to the Japanese Ju-Jitsu training the young westerner had been also begun receiving instruction in empty hand combat training from the local LAPD close combat instructor as a favor arranged by his high ranking police uncle in the arts of western boxing, catch as catch can wrestling, and a hybrid combat ju-jitsu style favored by the Los Angeles Police Department of the time through the 1920-30s.

The winds of war began to blow fiercely throughout Europe and on December 7, 1941, the United States suffered a surprise attack that severely wounded the US Naval Forces at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii perpetrated by Imperial Japan which drew the U.S., committedly, into the Second World War. The young adult Tres Amigos were then split up and were to not see each other until sometime following the war’s end on September 2, 1945. Jerry’s son was to join the US Navy and consequently fight in North Africa, Europe and then cross the world to the Pacific Campaign hopscotching from battle and island to eventually be one of the first boots on Japanese soil in Kure, Japan, a bay away from the horrific sight of the Hiroshima Atomic bomb detonation. The Toyota family’s fate, along with 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry, were relocated to detention camps throughout the western US taking with them what little they could carry. The restaurant along with home and property were confiscated from all Japanese and American born citizens to take up residence as prisoners in clapboard barracks, behind barbed wire fences, and surrounded by armed guards. The boys, being good American patriots would later join the American Armed Forces in the historic 442nd Battalion (their motto, “Go For Broke!”) of the U.S Army and then entered the war effort in fierce fighting to free Italy from Axis Domination in April of 1944 later being awarded 21 Medal of Honors and 9,486 Purple Hearts.

Later wars would have its veterans return home from combat via relatively quick transcontinental airplane flights but at the end of WWII (August 14, 1945) returning home was slow going by ship in any case. But return they did, a job well done and now would come the getting back to the business of re-entering the workforce, expanding, and building new communities, and retooling of its industries for peacetime. The Irish American young vet, his name was Tom, returned to work in the building trade and helped develop the small fledgling community of Dominquez building homes, businesses, and the local church that served his family and the large Pacific Rim families that settled there. The Toyota bros got to work relocating their parents and themselves to new lodgings in the same community with Tom and the oldest brother “Toy” was given a strawberry field to work as reparation of the family loss home, property and the restaurant at the war’s beginning and encouraged to apply for GI loans for having served. Tom reintroduced himself to his wife, Betty, and finally, in May of 1953 their son, little Tommy, was born into a house Tom had helped to build a couple of years earlier. In 1956, Big Tom spread a sleeping bag out on the carpeted living room floor in front of their red brick fireplace and began wrestling with his pride and joy, Tommy. This was the start of ukemi or break falling practice followed by Nagewaza (throwing practice) as his three-year-old boy began his becoming the seed of the new generation of Toyota-Ha Ju-Jitsu practitioners. Sixty-four years later that little Tom, having grown to manhood has faithfully continued the legacy of his father, Big Tom, and his other martial arts sensei and to this day has professionally taught his beloved martial arts for the past fifty-one years. This story is a true one. If you have not deduced the mystery by now young Tom is me, Tom Spellman, the author of this post. This journey of tradition, and the discipline of its practice has gone across the globe, passed through cultural barriers, adapted, and thrived in adversity often without compromise. It has withstood war and all types of hardships in the human condition while it served those who were influenced by it along the way.

However, this is but one story in an endless universe of versions of the same narrative and is all our story as dedicated martial artists. We carry the seed of this story within us and each day as we awaken, we honor our warriorhood by engaging the world and are reminded we are one link in a chain of warriors and guardians as infinite as time itself. What is your story, what were your challenges and victories and how can you gift the skills you have worked so hard to hone to others, some of which are living lives of quiet desperation? Review and share your stories often and inspire others to write theirs with courage and determination. We at the National Sport Karate Museum will do our part but we need your partnership to assure our mutual, successful future. Osu!