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Thursday, October 1, 2015

A Martial Artist's Look at Seattle

In between some of my more ridiculous antics in Seattle, I had some rather sobering experiences.  Here are a few of them.

Seattle Dojo - America's Oldest Judo School

Seattle Dojo has been in this stand-alone building since the 30's, but the school was originally established in 1902.  The building looks and feels old, and the way the room shakes when students practice their breakfalls is only a little disconcerting.  I am sure this school has many stories to tell, but here I am telling only one, regarding the calligraphy on the walls.

Inside the oldest Judo school in America.

Seattle Dojo's calligraphy was done by Jigoro Kano, who is more famous for founding judo than he is for calligraphy.  However, the calligraphy on the walls today are copies of the originals.

It happened during World War II.  The Japanese Internment is a shameful chapter in America's history, in which Americans of Japanese ancestry were uprooted from their homes and relocated to concentration camps.  It was driven by fear in the wake of the attack on Pearl Harbor.  Anyone of Japanese descent was given a few weeks notice to pack a single suitcase and leave everything else behind.  Many believed that they would not survive the ordeal, and even if they did, they would never be allowed to return to their property.  Many chose to destroy their farms and homes rather than allow them to be confiscated.

A sign at the entrance to Seattle Dojo.

The school had to close from January 1942 to September 1947 during the Internment, but the building survived thanks to one of the students, a Jewish corporate attorney, who kept the deed to the school and many other Seattle area Japanese-American properties in the vault at Seattle First National bank. The FBI did not attempt to confiscate it, as they did with almost all other Japanese-American property.  It was gutsy, but it paid off.  When the people were released from the internment camps and allowed to return home, the school had survived.
However, after reopening the school, it was discovered that the calligraphy was missing from the walls.  It is unclear if there was a break-in or if the calligraphy was removed for safe-keeping, and then accidentally lost, during the chaotic three weeks in December 1941 when Japenese-Americans were forcibly removed to various camps. Jigoro Kano had passed away even before the start of the war, so the school had to commission copies to be made to replace the originals.

One of Kano's last visits to Seattle Dojo.

Even though it's always sad when a piece of history is lost, that's not my takeaway from this story.  This is a story of resiliency.  This is a story about a community coming together in the face of adversity.  One might attribute it to the martial spirit of the judoka who carried the school through events that should have killed it, so that today it has not only survives but even thrives.  I have never trained at Seattle Dojo, but I think if I did, I would be very proud to be part of that legacy.

Japanese Garden

Completely surrounded by city, Washington Park Arboretum includes the Seattle Japanese Garden.  This would be an amazing place to sit and relax, read, or just enjoy a leisurely walk.  Of course, I did none of those things.  I zoomed through, hoping to save time to experience as much of Seattle as possible.  Yeah, I fail at vacation.  Though the sky was just a little too overcast to take perfect pictures, I did get to take some good ones.

Every few steps there's a completely different but equally beautiful view.

I've never been to a Japaense garden before, but this park reminded me greatly of certain venues in Korea.  The style is one of people whose open space is at a premium.  While I certainly appreciate Western botanical gardens and arboretums, they have a very different feel.  Here, every few steps provides a view substantially different from the views around it.  There's no symmetry here.  Taking a picture from one side of the pond could never be confused with the view from the other side.

A lantern by the water.

This park was built in 1959, with its construction delayed from the anti-Japanese sentiment in the wake of World War II.  Despite its newness, I was acutely aware of the history here.  The Nihon Shoki includes the earliest written mention of a Japanese garden. This is an art that has been in development for literally thousands of years.

Duck-sized koi in the pond.

In true Seattle fashion, it began to rain shortly after I arrived.  Not an unpleasant rain, but the kind of thing that is awful for taking pictures.  I'd love to return on a clear day and do it justice.

Bruce Lee Remembered

Bruce Lee is buried in Seattle.  I've only dabbled in kung fu, but even if I hadn't done that, I'd still feel his impact on martial arts.  He inspired so many people to start training.  He opened doors for so many people by advocating for kung fu to be available to everyone, not just Chinese.  He is less known for his involvement in promoting women in martial arts. I think it's fair to say that the martial arts landscape in America would look pretty different if not for what he did.  I took a moment to appreciate how much richer my martial arts experience has been because of him.

Thank you, and rest in peace, Mr. Lee.

It also crossed my mind to wonder what he might think of the reason I was there.  He is well known for his mixing of styles, and that gives me hope that he would have liked the spirit of this project, even if the execution is, for the time being, unproven.

The Wing Luke Museum had an exhibit for him called Do You Know Bruce?  They didn't allow photography, but the surrounding area was fascinating.

The Western entrance to the International District.

I want dragons to hold up power lines everywhere.

Seattle has a lot to offer the martial artist.  Should you find yourself there, I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.


  1. Greetings Gretchen,
    I heard about your blog via a tibetankungfu.net podcast. My name is Felix and I teach Taji, BaGua, Kali, and other Combatives. Just wanted to say hi and drop me a line if you are ever in San Antonio, Texas.
    fsnarayan@yahoo.com or visit xcaliburnartialarts.com
    I like what you are doing for the Martial Arts community with you 'Quesr'. Be well.

    1. Hi Felix! For some reason I missed the notification for this message and didn't notice it until just now. Thank you for contacting me! I'm having trouble viewing the website. Is it temporarily down, or maybe there's a typo in the link? Thanks again for introducing yourself. It's always great to hear from like-minded martial artists!