LOYALTY in Judo and in Life


Nothing is more noble, nothing more venerable, than loyalty.
Cicero (106 BC – 43 BC)

After having lived in Japan for some time, one comes to realize that the concept of loyalty is considered by many Japanese as a highly-regarded virtue. Loyalty, a basic moral principle, is thoroughgoing in that it is not merely casual but is one of wholehearted commitment. Upon reading some of the related myriad incidents that have occurred throughout Japanese history, one soon understands why this is manifested so in the national character.

In days gone by, the code of chivalry favored by the ruling Shogunate stressed the importance of fidelity and other obligations that the samurai was to abide by in his relationships with family members, friends and especially so with his lord and his clan. Likewise, the support gained by the shogun was based on genuine respect that the population had for his martial prowess. The sword was considered to be a symbol of such allegiance and as such was a representation of personal honor and emblematical of the spirit of self-sacrifice. Samurai placed great emphasis on the military virtues of bravery, honour, self-discipline and the stoical acceptance of death. Normally, such devotion was interpersonal and because ‘blood is thicker than water’ human loyalties with biological links were generally the strongest.

Nevertheless, often the major ethical dilemma for the samurai was one of conflict arising from dual loyalties. When occurring between, say one’s family members and one’s lord, the samurai was unable to serve two masters equally well; in actual fact though, the samurai did not really have much of a choice, for his stipend was paid largely in koku (150 kilograms of rice) the amount that he would receive yearly from his lord. In such case, it was accepted that he owed undivided fidelity to his master, thus the authority that a lord had over his samurai retainers was often vice-like.

During the feudal era in Europe also loyalty was a potent force for it was regarded as an ‘allegiance to the sovereign or established government of one’s country’ and also ‘personal devotion and reverence to the sovereign and royal family.’ It referred to fidelity in service, or to an oath that one had made. It meant one who is loyal, in the feudal sense of fealty, thus one who is lawful and has full legal rights as a consequence of faithful allegiance to a feudal lord.

To give an indication of modern-day loyalty, or perhaps it would be better to say the following resulted because of intense and complete indoctrination, I here mention the case of a few Japanese WWII soldiers who were discovered on islands in the Pacific and were repatriated to Japan in the 1970s. One in particular was Shoichi Yokoi (1915-1997) an apprentice tailor when the Pacific War broke out; he was conscripted along with thousands of others. Shortly before the war ended in 1945, he was stationed on the island of Guam when it was overrun by US forces. He escaped capture and with a few comrades, fled into the jungle where they remained. Over the intervening years, however, his comrades died.

After surviving in an underground cave for 28 years, Yokoi was discovered by two local men in January 1972. He was subdued and brought out of the jungle. When interviewed upon his return to Japan, he said he knew in 1952 that the war had ended. However, he feared coming out of hiding, saying, “We Japanese soldiers were told to prefer death to the disgrace of getting captured alive and it is with much embarrassment that I return.” After a whirlwind media tour of Japan, he married and settled down in rural Aichi Prefecture. Yokoi became a popular television personality and an advocate of ‘austere’ living. He was featured in a 1977 TV documentary Yokoi and His Twenty-Eight Years of Secret Life on Guam. He received the equivalent of just $300 in back pay, and a small pension, but eventually much more after an intense public outcry. Although he never met Emperor Hirohito while visiting the grounds of the Imperial Palace, Yokoi stated, “Your Majesties, I have returned home … I deeply regret that I could not serve you well. The world has certainly changed, but my determination to serve you will never change.” Yokoi died of a heart attack in 1997 at the age of 82, and was buried at a Nagoya cemetery under a gravestone that had originally been commissioned by his mother in 1955, after Yokoi had been officially declared dead.

I here give another example of faithfulness. In the early 1990s, I was employed as a Japanese/English translator for Toyota UK at Burnaston, Derby. One day, I went by car to pick up a Japanese engineer who had come to the UK for a series of meetings with his British counterparts. On my return journey, as we entered the company car park filled with hundreds of British, German and French-made cars owned by the British workforce, my Japanese passenger said in Japanese, ‘That’s strange.’ I soon realized the reason for his comment. Had we been in Japan, practically all cars in the company’s car park would have been Toyotas, because the Japanese workforce, out of a strong sense of company loyalty, would buy only Toyota cars. It would be considered disloyal for an employee to buy a car made by a rival car maker. Similarly, many Japanese employees, and their immediate relatives too, will quite naturally buy only those TVs, radios, and other products that have been manufactured by the employee’s company, even though there may be available a similar product at a lower price marketed by a rival producer.

In student judo clubs and at some other sports clubs, members are similarly expected to show unwavering devotion to their particular university. If a team loses an important match, for instance, it is not unusual to see them in tears afterwards. Should a member announce that he had decided to resign from his judo club, it is possible that he would be ostracized, for what the members would consider to be his act of betrayal. Therefore, once one has joined a student judo club, one is expected to remain staunchly committed to that particular club. Even after graduation the old boys will attend judo competitions in order to give their former university team moral support, and if need be, financial assistance also.

If an employee is approached and offered a higher salary by a rival company, many employees accept the offer and switch their allegiance to the rival. This happens in all countries, including Japan. However, from my experience, I would say that it occurs less frequently in Japan. The reason for this is yet again – loyalty. Most Japanese, after graduation, join a company and expect to stay with that particular company for the rest of their working lives. One’s employers also fully expect their workers to remain loyal to them for their entire career. Another factor that has a bearing here is that similar to the situation at sports clubs, resignation is considered to be an act of betrayal.

Many male salaried earners will call at their favourite bar before heading home at night. They will usually patronize the same bar for years, maybe the one that they have been long devoted to since student days. Rarely will a Japanese man venture to an unknown bar even though it may offer more convenience and perhaps more comfort. Again, this is borne out by his sense of both loyalty and trust, for he trusts not only the bar owner but also the other regular patrons of the bar. Should he, for example, fall on hard times, the bar owner may well allow him credit and weeks of grace before being required to settle his bill.

Japan is prone to natural disasters such as sporadic earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, fires, tsunamis and typhoons of varying severity that strike yearly from July to October and often results in landslides and flood damage. Whenever such calamities occur, casualties are given medical care and housed in temporary accommodation. Later, on return to their devastated homes, the survivors suffer physically, financially and emotionally, especially so when family heirlooms and photographs have been destroyed. It is then that the hard work of discarding and replacing all broken furniture and ruined tatami mats is begun. Occasionally extensive repair work to the house itself also needs to be carried out. At such time, neighborhood men, women and students will form groups in order to provide assistance to the unfortunate householder in repairing the damage. Such gestures of assistance are of enormous psychological help to victims. Sometime later, when all repairs have been completed, the sufferer will visit the homes of those who helped in order to present them with a gift as a token of gratitude. The victim will usually note down the details and names of all who gave assistance and retain it in the family records. The reason being that at some future date, perhaps decades later, when a similar tragedy occurs to others, this record of names will be consulted and out of a sense of obligation the family members will reciprocate by providing assistance to the newly hapless victims, especially so, if their family name appears on the retained list.

A final word concerns of all things a dog named Hachiko, which has come to epitomize loyalty to the Japanese. In 1924, Mr. Hidesaburo Ueno, a professor at Tokyo University, took Hachikō, an Akita breed, as a pet. Ueno would commute daily to work, and Hachikō would leave the house to greet him at the end of each day at Shibuya Station. The pair continued this daily routine until one day in May 1925, Ueno did not return. He had suffered a stroke while giving a lecture, and died without returning to the station where Hachikō was waiting. Nevertheless, each day, for the next nine years, nine months and fifteen days, before his passing, Hachikō would await Professor Ueno’s return, appearing at the station precisely when the evening train was due. Hachikō’s regular appearance naturally attracted the attention of other commuters for many of those who frequented the station had often seen Hachikō and Professor Ueno together. Initial reactions from people, especially from those working at the station, were not necessarily friendly. However, after the appearance of a newspaper article about Hachiko on October 4, 1932, the dog became somewhat famous and people started to bring Hachikō food to nourish him during his daily wait. No doubt the daily snacks encouraged his ‘loyalty’.

Later, Hachikō gradually became a national sensation since his faithfulness to his master’s memory deeply impressed many Japanese as a spirit of family loyalty to which all should strive to achieve. Teachers and parents especially used Hachikō’s vigil as an example for children to follow. A well-known artist rendered a sculpture of the dog, and throughout the country, a new awareness of the Akita breed grew. Eventually, Hachikō’s legendary devotion became a nation-wide symbol. A statue of the faithful dog was erected in front of Shibuya Station and remains there today. It’s well known as a popular rendezvous spot for Tokyoites, as famous as the Eros statue at Piccadilly Circus is to Londoners. Over recent decades a number of books and movies based on the story of Hachiko have appeared, including a US made movie released in 2009 that starred famed actor Richard Gere in the role of Professor Ueno.

Although some of the above-mentioned instances may seem a little bizarre to the western reader; nevertheless, it is demonstrably evident that in Japan, LOYALTY is regarded as an admirable facet of one’s character.

Brian N. Watson
Tokyo, Japan
13 January 2018

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IL Padre Del Judo, (Italian) B.N. Watson, Edizioni Mediterranee, 2005
Judo Memoirs of Jigoro Kano, B.N. Watson, Trafford Publishing, 2008, 2014
Memorias de Jigoro Kano, (Portuguese) B.N. Watson, Editora Cultrix, 201