A Girl in a Man’s World- Day 1

To take a quick break from Peru, I thought it would be interesting to get a perspective into a different world, the martial arts world. Anthropology focuses on the interactions and growth of groups of people and the interactions in this particular group deserves a point of attention. The first thing I want to be understood by you as a reader in this is that this blog post is in no way meant to talk about myself as a “I am so cool” deal nor as a means to put anyone down. It also especially not meant to be wholly feministic, that is not my intention. I mean it as an academic sense in order to investigate anthropologically as how this group dynamic works and how I got into the unique position that I am now in and how females can thrive in this world.


Watching our sensei demonstrate a technique during a Judo clinic in Roswell

I have been doing Judo for almost four years, and personally, Judo has done a lot for me. It has given me self-confidence and belief that I could do anything as long as I put in a sincere heart and effort to what I do. It has given names to morals that I can now live by, Jita Kyoei and Seriyoko Zenyo (Japanese for “mutual benefit and welfare” and “maximum energy with minimal effort”) as well as a good foot to start my college career in that I made good new friends that I could turn to. However, Judo is a highly male dominant sport, and in the four years that I have been in the New Mexico State University Judo Club, I have been the main, solo female in it, not to mention among the youngest and smallest ones in the club. There have been other girls in our club that have practiced Judo, but it was for a couple months or a semester on an exchange program and then schedules arise and change that prevents them from coming, as it generally is for many college students. There are other clubs in the state of New Mexico too that I work with, and there are other girls in them, but the ratio is always the same, mostly male. Yet, even though our club is hugely male, I have been put in the position of instructing and leading it as president, and currently as one of the higher ranks. Why and How? That is often something I still ask myself and by approaching my brown belt now makes me wonder more.

The first day I started Judo is a funny story, but also proves a good few points. I had emailed the current president of that time to find out about when the club met and how I could join. The response in his email mainly stated “Sure, but you do know what Judo is right?”. I sorta did- I actually googled it after that email to make sure I knew what I was getting myself into and discovered that Judo is a throwing/ grappling martial art used for defense and competitions and particularly good for short people (and being short myself and wanting to stay in shape, I figured doing Judo would be good for me to do. I also thought it would be a cool thing to say that I knew Judo). So I showed up on one of the practice days, found the martial arts room and a couple of the guys standing out in front waiting. I peeked into the room and figured that I should wait too. My plan at the moment was to basically follow the crew. The guys looked over at me and asked if I was there to do Judo, and I simply replied yes and introduced myself as they did the same. A few minutes later, a larger guy comes up to the door and walks in, bowing before fully entering the room. The two other guys I met followed him in, also bowing. I pretty much just went in.
I had a couple expectations when I entered the dojo; I thought there were going to be Japanese posters in the room. I thought there was going to be a mixed group of ages and sex. I thought it was going to be a strict and friendly atmosphere. After a few moments, I realized I had wrong expectations, as more guys came in and I looked around finding that we were in a small room with a set of tatami mats and a wall of mirrors not to mention a few set of odd glances that came my way. I realized that the guys were used to being able to change in the room, and by my presence they were a bit uncomfortable to do so; others didn’t care. I went up to the larger guy and introduced myself, thinking he was the one I had spoken to via email. He wasn’t him, and mentioned that the guy I spoke with won’t be in Judo that day, but I was welcome to stay to watch and try if I wanted to, as he was the one instructing. I figured that since I was already in the room I might as well go the whole way. I also was debating if I should leave, seeing that the glances were almost glares, and the other instructor that I had emailed with wasn’t going to be there.

They allowed me to be in the circle to stretch, each guy taking a turn counting to ten in Japanese with a stretch of his choice. At this point, I felt I was intruding a bit, as the guys constantly watched me, seeing what I would do. It came to my turn for a stretch, and not knowing Japanese at the time, they counted for me. After that, it was time for ukemi (falling techniques). Falling is very important in Judo, so important that you learn it first and never stop practicing it from the first day. There are many falls too; you fall to the side, then the other side. You fall forwards, then backwards. Then after mastering those, you can do a shoulder fall on both sides. Later you leap into the falls and follow the eight directions in falling sideways (but we won’t go into that yet). The head instructor had us line up, with me in the back, to practice the falls. He wanted me to see everyone fall first and then to try myself. The guys then began, falling to their right sides first, slapping the mat as they should- palms down and hard, like thunder. The loud sound surprised me at first, but I watched, curious as how they were not wincing when they seemed to hit themselves on the mat (which I learned better after that you hit the mat first before it hits you). After all of them went I was standing alone on the opposite side of the mat. The instructor looked at me, “Let’s see you try”, and they all stood to watch. I followed the motion that I saw them do their falls in, and was surprised that I thudded. I look up to see some of the guys hiding their laughs and almost snorted, others wincing, and the instructor simply stoic and smiling. He asked for me to try again, and I did, landing with a good thud. Being in the spot was making me a bit nervous and the instructor called me to the side, giving one of the color belts instruction to lead the rest of the ukemi.


Practicing our ukemi (falling techniques) in our dojo.


Taken aside the instructor joked at my fall and showed me step by step how to do a side fall. After being adequate enough to him, he showed me the front and back fall. I did as I was told, doing my best not to wince or delay, although being told to just lean forward and let yourself fall onto a mat is a pretty hard thing to do at first. It took some coaxing, but soon I was able to fall forwards. After came the shoulder falls, which I remember took me so long to be able to do on my own and it got to a point even on that day that the instructor stopped me so that he could continue instructing the guys, having me watch.

I observed, curious as how the hierarchy in the room was working. Obviously the instructor, being an Ikkyu (third degree brown belt) was in charge. There were green belts, seemingly to know more than a couple of the yellow belts, and the white belts were the least experienced. Watching for a bit, the first guys I had met asked if I wanted to try to throw, and I started to practice with them. The instructor did not mind, and after a few fit-in and attempts for a throw, the instructor stopped all of us and gathered us up into a circle to give a talk which I can recall I received quite a few glances as he began, “Remember, Judo is about respecting each other….”. I could tell I was the reason for this speech. After we concluded the practice, and the first guys that I can now call friends asked if I was coming to the next practice. I answered that I would, thinking at how sore I currently was, how I may not be still welcomed by the others, but also that I had the intention of meeting the other instructor to prove that I was interested and see if he had any other comments or advice for me.

I did return, after dealing with two full days of being so sore that I could begin not fathom of being able to do a sit-up. My shoulders and neck hurt for that whole first week, which after I found is pretty much part of the initiation stage of getting into Judo. This first day, however, I want to point out the reactions of the guys. The male dominance and hierarchy is respected in that dojo. The higher rank commands and leads, however the other ranks can lead too, only to those lower than them. Each of them respect and trust each other, part of the principle of Jita Kyoei, and important as you can be severely injured if you do not trust your partner’s ability and your partner not being able to trust yours. For me, this first day was the dabbling into the waters- a test of myself- but my stubborn and curious nature is what convinced me to come back. I had every option that first day to leave, but there was something I wanted to prove, and that was that I could do Judo despite the odd glances, and I wanted to learn it. Having those first two friends in the club certainly helped too. I have the perspective that if I started, I needed to finish; to follow through.

The next few blogs about Judo will cover a few of these experiences I have had in investigating the roles played in Judo and how the interactions within it can work. There are triumphs and frustrations in the stories, but as an anthropologist, they are all part of finding out who we are and what the world can be. I’ll go over the second day and then into the overall dynamics that I observed as a general statement in this club as I came fully woven into it. Look out for more to come!

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