We are all, when you get down to it, engaged in the same business, that of turning matter into spirit. We eat animal and vegetable, and it becomes laughter or sorrow or anger or fear. We drink wine, and it becomes song. For a few of us, the process is simple and clean and the result is direct. These are the happy people. For others the conveyor belt pauses or lurches and the conversion gets stalled. The spirit comes out crumpled, or pinched, or stale from the delay.
That said, let's travel to a small island country the size of Montana, where 119 million such processing plants awaken every morning. The spirit there has little space to flex or run or ride the breeze, and so the rules of conduct must be different there than in, say, Montana.
It's a cold January morning, and on the streets of Tokyo the people hustle to work. Many are wearing white masks because of the dissemination of germs. At street corners they wait for the traffic light to change at the spot where two footprints painted in white on the sidewalk tell them to. When they turn to each other and speak, they say, "Shitsurei shimasu" (Sorry to disturb you). "Shitsurei shimashita" (Sorry I have disturbed you), they may say when they part.
In a small hive, honeycombed for 119 million, workers must know at all times where to go and how they must behave. Cooperation and loyalty, homogeneity, courtesy and formality are prized; individuality would mean chaos and the death of the hive.
Just off a busy Tokyo intersection, in a dojo (martial-arts gymnasium) for the city's policemen, nearly 100 men in loose, white, heavy cotton outfits and black belts run slow circles on a floor covered with padded mats. The All-Japan judo team has assembled for practice, oblivious to the screams that pierce the ceiling: One floor above, creatures dressed in dark, flowing skirts, hoods, caged masks and heavy, quilted vests are having at each other with kendo sticks and unleashing the cry of the damned.
On the players' second lap, a barrel of a man enters. His face is so round and radiant it reminds you of a 4-year-old's drawing of the sun. His body has the happy roundness of the stuffed bear on the 4-year-old's bed. His hands and feet are thick and wide and calloused, his ears cauliflowered from 17 years of cuffings during practice. The man bows in respect to the dojo, and the others immediately make space for him to join. His shoulders swaying with each shift of his weight, his arms hanging out from his bulk like some great bird in midflap, the greatest judo player of all jogs his laps.
This is Yasuhiro Yamashita (ya-MAH-shita), his sport's first world superstar, undefeated in 194 matches over the last seven years, winner of four gold medals in the world championships, All-Japan champion for the last eight years—and soon-to-be gold medalist in Los Angeles.
Of the flowers, cherry blossoms. Of the warriors, Yamashita.
" . . . and so I'm eating at an expensive restaurant with three other men and the bill comes to $1,000. I've eaten $700 of it myself, and besides beer I've drunk a whole bottle of sake. Like that bottle over there [Yamashita points to a bottle a foot and a half tall]. On the way home, I start to feel a little sick. . . ."
At the command of his sensei (judo or martial-arts master), Yamashita forms ranks with the others on the mat and drops to his knees. He bows to the dojo with its wooden Shinto shrine hanging on the wall at one end and then bows to his sensei.
". . . and when we finally get to my house, they want to see me to my door and I keep saying, 'No, no, just let me out here and you go on.' Then I get out quickly and throw up all over the yard, like a fountain. Seven hundred dollars of food and drink, all over the grass. . . ."
A single beat booms from the large drum in the corner, and the judo players run full speed to match up with their sparring partners. Yamashita's black eyes never seem to leave his opponent's chest. The two men grip each other's jackets and probe and pull and push, feeling for the weakness in the other. Each must harmonize, give with the other's thrust or be thrown. "Oaks may fall when reeds brave the storm"—judo has its roots in this old proverb.
Suddenly comes the storm: Yamashita's leg strikes!
He reaps his opponent behind the knee and thunder-claps him to the mat. Sorry I have disturbed you. Yamashita does such things again and again, for an hour, pausing only for the drumbeat, every 10 minutes, that heralds a new opponent to uproot.
". . . I tell myself I'll wake up early the next morning to clean the mess before anyone sees it, but I sleep too late. When I get up, there's a neighbor lady standing near it. She says, 'Oh, Yamashita-san, some man who ate very, very much has thrown up all over your yard!' And I look at it, and we both wonder who could have done such a terrible thing. . . ."
At the end of practice, he and the others drop to their knees once more and reverse the sequence of bows, first to the sensei and second to the shrine. Yamashita rises, the corona of happiness once more about his face, and trundles out onto the streets. Ordinary Japanese—who wouldn't dream of telling a stranger a story about the time they overate and overdrank and threw up all over the yard—recognize him instantly, as they would the sunrise, and they approach him from all sides to talk to him and touch him. The etiquette and formality that keep them a respectful distance from their other heroes somehow melt away under the glow of Yamashita.
"I don't know what made Yamashita," says his training partner and friend, a 6'5", 225-pound Yugoslavian named Radomir Kovačević (ko-vah-she-VITCH). "I don't know if it was God or woman or nature, but he's really something special. He's different from most others here—he's an individual. He doesn't go with the group. Oh my God, wait until you see the real Yamashita! Wait," he says, "until you see him eat!"
Ice-Cream Sundae: ice cream with sliced banana, pineapple chunks, a cherry and whipped cream, covered with green peppermint goo.
Wearing a brown tent of an overcoat and carrying a shopping bag, the 5'11", 280-pound Yamashita walks into a coffee shop and orders his warmup act. He wants to make something clear. He's an amateur, not a professional; he must teach judo classes during the day at Tokai University, one hour north of Tokyo, for his keep; he has half of Japan calling him to give interviews, to appear at clinics, banquets and parties, to speak at schools, to do commercials for which he receives no money. And he works out four to five hours a day for the Olympic gold medal he must win or cease to exist. The Olympics is the only significant competition he has never conquered, and the 27-year-old Yamashita must ransack it. He was not quite ready for the '76 Games and missed a gold medal in '80 because of the boycott. Now he's obsessed.
"My sensei," he says through Kovačević, who's interpreting, "is my protective wall. If people climb that wall, he tells me, 'Catch a cold.' No matter how important a man is, he can't bother one who is sick. My answering machine has become my best friend. People were calling me at 1 a.m.; I'm not good at saying no." The ground rules here, he says, are these: This is the last interview he will give to the print media before the Olympics, and the bulk of it must be finished by the end of dinner tonight.
He says all this simply, without arrogance. Even his short haircut conforms simply to the roundness of his head, and he sits there radiating animal happiness, scraping the remnants of the whipped cream off the walls of the sundae glass. Then he asks his dinnermates to wait in the coffee shop while he changes into some comfortable eating clothes, throws a sunbeam upon the waiter and lumbers out the door.
Shirataki: a bowlful of white stringy noodles flecked with mushroom and fish.
We walk through the Tokyo night on streets neurotic with neon, Yamashita in sneakers and sweat shirt, swiveling his head in search of the proper restaurant to plunder. Kovačević looks anxious. "How much money has your company got to spend?" he asks. Two women, taking mincing steps in their kimonos, see Yamashita and turn to each other, giggling. "Yamashita!" they say in unison and giggle again.
The champion's effect upon his people is profound. To Japanese elders he's a son, to the children an older brother. "He does nothing to protect himself," Kovačević says, sighing. A few days earlier they'd gone shopping. Ten steps into the department store Yamashita was surrounded. "O.K., you go buy what we came here for, and he'll sign autographs," Kovačević said to the throng.
"No, no, no, don't say that," Yamashita protested.
Ryohei Kanokogi, the Japanese-born sixth-degree black belt and judo teacher who attacked the luggage in the old Samsonite TV commercial, not ordinarily an emotional man, stays up half the night wiping away tears as he reads a biography of the champion. The people of Yamashita's hometown string a banner across the street in front of his parents' store, translating as, "Great Yamashita wins three consecutive world championships and is set to win in L.A." For seven years the Japanese have watched, enraptured, as the cameras have cut back and forth from Yamashita on the mat to his grandfather in the stands, a happy old man with wisps of white hair, a black kimono and a thick knobby cane, who has rooted his grandson on at meets across the world. Yamashita's attraction for his countrymen is the natural magnetism between opposites: They are small, he is immense. They check their emotions, his overflow. They look preoccupied, he looks open. They are committed to a new materialism, he refuses fantastic material offers and remains an amateur. In a blinking, beeping, robot-ridden country, Yamashita is a great chunk of spirited matter waddling among the people, calling them back to elemental truths.
And he is champion of their sport. In the late 1800s, judo was derived from an old form of combat, jujitsu, and today at least a third of Japan's people participate in the sport at some point in their lives. Judo became an Olympic sport in Tokyo in 1964, and today there are seven weight divisions plus an open category; Yamashita in all likelihood would win both the heavy-weight (over 209 pounds) and the open (no weight restriction) golds at Los Angeles, as he did in the '81 world championships, were it not for a rule change that limits competitors to only one event.
Yamashita is blessed with a rhino's torso and a cat's feet; the combination makes it virtually impossible to flip him on his back. "He may not get thrown again, in competition or practice, between now and the Olympics," Kovačević says of him. "Oooof, what strength! I'm the strongest man in judo, for pure lifting strength, but when I grab him I can find no weakness." Since 1977, all but five of Yamashita's victories have been by ippon, judo's equivalent of a knockout. "It's like fighting a tank," says Haruki Uemura, the 1976 Olympic open gold medalist who was later vanquished by Yamashita.
Yamashita approaches each bout in the spirit of the ancient samurai, the sword-carrying warriors who once protected the aristocracy and upheld Japan's moral and legal codes. Two days before competition, Yamashita scrubs the house provided for him by Tokai University, so it will be found spotless should he not return from battle. He hangs his opponent's name on the wall to stare at. He listens to judo songs, walks up the hill near his home and at the top often sings My Way in Japanese. The day before a bout he eats even more than usual to forestall a fuel crisis during the match and then washes himself carefully at the local public bath—"I don't want to be ashamed, even if I should die during competition," Yamashita says.
We enter a small restaurant—or rather, he enters it and the restaurant becomes small—and the waitress' and cook's eyes light up. Yamashita commandeers the menu. "Beer or sake?" he asks. "Both," says the visitor, and Yamashita's face celebrates.
He pours three glasses of beer and three cups of sake and turns his chopsticks loose on his bowl of shirataki. How can such a simple and happy man become such a single-minded stalker when he steps onto the mat?
"In my face I am soft, but in my heart I am rigid," he says. "I hate to lose."
He throws back a beer, smacks his lips, signals the waitress and begins to unfold the story of his life.
Misoshiru: soybean soup with large chunks of tofu (bean curd).
The grandfather with the knobby cane had three girls and a boy. The son and one daughter became ill and died young. The oldest remaining daughter married a man whose four older brothers had all died in or after World War II. Then, on the southernmost Japanese island of Kyushu, in Yabe, a farming village of 16,000 people in the Miharashi-Dai hills, where bamboos and mushrooms grow, the couple produced a big, round baby boy.
The child's grandfather pressed this ball of life to his chest. Living, sadness had taught him, was a battle against death. He would make sure his first grandson would not lose it.
While both parents worked, the old man took the bones cut from the fish at the seafood market and boiled them in pots of seaweed soup so the child would have calcium and protein. When the little boy would grab food from the shelves of the food market his parents owned, his grandfather looked the other way. He massaged the boy with ice and dipped him alternately in hot and cold water at the public baths to toughen him against colds. At the age of one, Yamashita won a local contest as healthiest baby.
By first grade he was wearing the clothes of a sixth-grader and had become accustomed to having his way. In school he would push to the front of the food line. Other children would flee as he approached; some were so terror-stricken they stopped coming to school. Yamashita craved their love, but he didn't understand how to get it: One frustrated teacher actually made the boy sign his name to a non-aggression pact. Another grew so angry that she ordered him to walk home from school and then decided that she must walk home with him because it was too far. When they got there, he looked up and asked, "Can we do this every day?"
He rippled with energy and wasn't satisfied until he'd become the best at everything he tried. He hit baseballs great distances, and his grades were among the highest in his class. He wasn't afraid to fight older and even bigger boys to protect weaker friends. Yamashita's mother spanked him, but he only grew rowdier. She cut back on his rice portions, but he only grew larger.
Now as he eases back on the restaurant bench, Yamashita's eyes crinkle at the memories. He raises his soup bowl to his mouth and slurps it dry. He shakes his head and laughs happily, refills everyone's beer glass and then requests a rematch with the menu. His face turns serious. Yamashita has some very important decisions to make.
Tofu Steak: slabs of tofu with lettuce, steeped in shoyu sauce.
In Japan, people have a saying: Nail that sticks out gets hammered down. Ten-year-old Yamashita needed hammering. His mother took him to the local dojo to learn judo and to unlearn terrorism. Yamashita loved it. He could trip kids, fling them, pancake them and pin them—and win smiles from his instructor instead of angry letters to his mother.
Meanwhile, 30 miles away, in the city of Kumamoto, there lived a little man named Reisuke Shiraishi, sensei of a local junior high judo team and a man obsessed by judo. One day he drove up into the hills in search of the big man he craved to complete his team. He saw Yamashita compete and began to tremble like a small bird. "My eyes stopped," he said later.
Shiraishi asked the boy to move to Kumamoto and vowed to make him a champion. In America, the country of space and movers, such a prodigy would be likely to hop the train. But Yamashita felt the traditionally powerful Japanese loyalty to family and friends and school. He told the sensei no.
Shiraishi was stubborn. On winter nights he used to make the hour-long drive on icy, coiling mountain roads to plead with Yamashita. He'd won over the grandfather, who had moved to Kumamoto and wanted the boy to come live with him and become a great warrior; finally even the father asked his son to go take a look. Yamashita resisted, but one night his father, his younger brother, Toru, and the sensei carried him into the father's truck and hijacked him to Kumamoto. The sensei gave him a white uniform and asked him to practice with the team. To Shiraishi's horror, these well-schooled students tossed Yamashita on his back, over and over. "Oh, now he will hate my school and me," thought the sensei.
When Yamashita had changed into his street clothes, the downcast little man asked, anyway, "Will you come?"
Yamashita had discovered that he hated losing even more than he hated leaving. "Yes," he said. "I will come."
On school days, Shiraishi had Yamashita practice from 4:30 to 8 p.m. When there was no school he practiced twice a day for five hours. The first thing the sensei did was to change his grip from righthanded to left, so opponents would find him even more difficult to solve. It felt awkward at first, and some days Yamashita drove himself so hard that he would run from the mat and throw up.
Shiraishi had grand plans for Yamashita's belly, too. Each night the sensei took him to a restaurant, filled him with rice and eggs and fish and then dropped him off at his grandfather's house, to another full table. "I've already eaten," insisted the boy. "Eat again!" insisted his grandfather. In one year Yamashita gained 55 pounds.
Shiraishi taught Yamashita to see in each opponent a man who had just slain his parents, to bow to his rival in complete respect and then attack him with none. "Even in practice," the sensei would remember, "when Yamashita got thrown, it was as if he had been thrown into hell."
Shiraishi moved on to the local high school, and Yamashita followed. By now the news of this young bear who had led his team to three All-Japan junior-high titles and had won the high school individual national championship as a freshman, already had hop-scotched the four main islands of Japan. Scouts from sumo wrestling, the sport in which near-naked, massive-bellied men bully each other out of a small ring, came to have a look at the teenaged Yamashita's physique. They begged him to take off his clothes, and when at last he agreed, they shook their heads and said, yes, yes, sorry to disturb you, but there can be no doubt that you will be a rich man if you join us when you are finished with your poor-man's sport.
His grandfather's eyes glistened, but Yamashita said, "I do not like sumo. I like judo. I want to win the gold medal in the Olympics."
More strangers came to study him. They were the sensei and the president of Tokai University, the mecca of judo. They wanted Yamashita to finish his last two years at their feeder high school and become the flagship of their dynasty. Their reasoning was logical: The competition at Tokai would be fiercer than anything he could find in Kumamoto. But Yamashita felt bound by that loyalty. He thought of Shiraishi, of his friends and his family. He told Tokai no.
Six months later, halfway through his junior year, he lost in the semifinals of the national high school championships. Defeat made him rumble inside, made him forget the feelings of his friends and teammates. With tears in his eyes, he told his sensei he must take Tokai's offer and leave—not at the end of the year, not in a month, but now. He walked into the dojo and found his teammates standing in a line, crying. One by one he shook their hands and walked away. He had learned something his upbringing hadn't taught him. "To be strong, you must be independent," he says. "To be strong, you must move on."
For Yamashita, it's a rule to eat by, as well as to live by. His tofu steaks have long since moved on, so he directs a pincer movement on the lettuce, mops it in the shoyu sauce, chews resoundingly and asks for an inventory of the refrigerator.
His stockinged feet are propped up, and he sighs as he stretches to massage them. He seems to be sinking deeper and deeper into his puddle of happiness with each progession of the meal, as if the conversion from matter to spirit were occurring right before your eyes . . . until he suddenly notices the emergency just beyond the northern rim of his plate.
"More beer, more sake!" he shouts into the kitchen.
Tan: beef tongue, fried.
Pride and awe are beginning to dawn upon the face of Kovačević as he watches Yamashita attack the tongue. Kovačević shakes his nearly hairless head and for several minutes takes over the telling story, for here he is where Kovačević enters it himself.
At 18, this massive Yugoslavian reincarnation of Zorba left Belgrade to learn judo from the masters in Japan. When he detrained for a look-see at a small station in the middle of Siberia, the train chugged away without him. For three nights he walked across the frigid steppes, until he came to the next town. There he caught another train and continued his 13-day land-and-sea voyage. Once in Japan, he lived in a cold little room off the dojo of a sensei whom someone back in Yugoslavia had recommended, and in the first three months of culture shock and homesickness, he lost almost 50 pounds.
One day, yearning for something familiar, Kovačević had settled down to look at a TV program on Yugoslavia. The sensei forbade him to watch it. "Yugoslavia is manure," he said. When the sensei regained consciousness and felt his shattered jaw, he handed Kovačević a large knife. "You have hit your sensei," he said. "Now you must kill yourself."
"You are not a good human being. Also, you are not a good coach," said Kovačević. "So I am not going to kill myself."
He shortly returned to Yugoslavia, going back to Japan two years later when he was accepted at Tokai. He studied Japanese six hours a day for a year and began taking freshman classes the next (Tokai is not only the world's best for martial-arts instruction, but also an academically prestigious university).
From the start, Yamashita and Kovačević were quite a pair—Kovačević, polishing off two plates of spaghetti and two chunks of cake, and then rubbing his belly, pointing to the waitress and bellowing, "O.K., my stomach is full, now bring me the girl!" and Yamashita, chuckling and asking to see the menu once more.
They became training partners and roommates, Kovačević preparing for Yamashita 10 eggs, a plateful of bacon, five pieces of toast and a pitcher of orange juice in the mornings, after they'd run the hills, where Kovačević would ride piggy-back on the snorting Yamashita to build his strength. As he worked out each day with someone larger and stronger than the opponents his country produced, the baby fat on Yamashita's body became steel and his stamina improved. He smiled so much that older teammates wondered at first if practice was too easy for him, whether he was trying to show off. But that was just Yamashita, and Yamashita, in bloom at 19, became the youngest man ever to win the All-Japan championship, the Japanese equivalent of winning the Heisman Trophy.
All the parts seemed to be in place. In Tokai, he had the university that would produce two world champions in 1983. In Kovačević, who would win a bronze for Yugoslavia in the '80 Olympics, he had the perfect partner. In Nobuyuki Sato, a former All-Japan champion, he now had the country's shrewdest sensei and there was the encouragement of Isao Inokuma, a former Olympic gold medalist in judo now teaching at Tokai. For direction off the mat he had Dr. Shigeyoshi Matsumae, the university president, a brilliant man who had invented a long-distance underwater communications system and would become president of the International Judo Federation. "I shall use Yamashita as a judo leader and coach," Dr. Matsumae would say. "I shall send him to many countries to draw many foreigners to Japan to train under him, to promote friendship and peace."
But in October 1977, Yamashita was jolted. In the final of the Japan student championships, believing in the last minutes that he had bolt-locked the decision, he didn't bother to attack. The decision went to his rival, Tsuyoshi Yoshioka. "Yamashita," Sato recalled, "was like a volcano." Shame flooded him. "I did not fight like a warrior," he says, and he vowed from then on to attack relentlessly every time he stepped on the mat.
After that, through the entire day of a competition, Yamashita's eyes would become wolf eyes, and all who knew him would stay away. He would walk slowly to the edge of the mat, paw at it with his bare feet, then come out and bow to the opponent. His trademark at the onset of a match became his uplifted arms, the palms of his hands open, as if inviting the heavens themselves to come down and join him in his fury. Then the hands would dart to his foe's jacket, grabbing near the throat and near the heart. He became uncanny at sensing his opponent's slightest lack of balance and at committing himself to his move with all his heart and might. Yamashita would not lose a match again.
His practice involved no secret or revolutionary approaches. There were running and some weightlifting in the morning and three hours of sparring and technique work in the afternoon, six days a week. Sato once suggested that Yamashita try Buddhist meditation, a discipline other martial artists often find helpful. But Yamashita, too much of this earth, shook his round head, no.
Graduation day came, and the cameras followed the country's newest hero. The huge man giggled, as he did almost every time he was interviewed, but what he spoke of was his dream of winning a gold medal in the approaching 1980 Olympics. Then, wearing suit and tie, the cameras still tracking him, he turned his back, cleared the phlegm from his throat and spat into his handkerchief. His class buckled with laughter. Yamashita was living proof that nobility, in its truest form, has no need of elegance.
Sashimi: raw octopus, raw squid, raw oysters.
The sixth course arrives at the table, and with it anxiety.
"They will take a credit card here, won't they?" the American asks.
"Yes, I think so," Kovačević, says. "You do have your Japanese Express card?"
As Yamashita happily devours the sea creatures, he's reminded of his country's decision to join the U.S. boycott of the Moscow Olympics. A storm cloud trespasses upon the sun. He even lays down his chopsticks.
"When America sneezes," he says, "Japan catches a cold."
In 1980, before a national television audience and members of the Japan Amateur Sports Federation, Yamashita stood and wept, pleading with the members not to devastate his dream. The decision stood.
It was a week later that he walked onto the mat to face Sumio Endo, six years his senior, at the time his most formidable rival, in the finals of the Japanese All-Weight Class Championships. The wolf wasn't in Yamashita's eyes. Endo, by now thoroughly frustrated at losing to a man six years younger year after year, detected a split-second lapse of concentration. He leaped, split his legs and scissored them shut, one on the front of Yamashita's left thigh and the other behind his left knee. More than a quarter ton of flesh fell upon the lower part of Yamashita's left leg. A sound like that of crumpled cellophane crackled through the arena. Yamashita's ankle was broken, and as the cameras closed in on his face, Japan winced.
For 11 months he didn't compete, for four months he trained only in his head. For a month and a half, he lay in bed. "God gave me that bed," he says. "He gave it to me so that I didn't become a drunkard, or go out and hit someone, I was so frustrated about not going to the Olympics that year."
As it happened, the match with Endo was declared a draw. People whispered behind Endo's back, some in awe, and some in anger, "There goes the man who broke Yamashita's ankle." Some of his countrymen felt the scissor kick was applied too low and was illegal; in any case, the next time they met, Yamashita stormed out and crushed Endo, and Endo, who might have been a famous champion in another era, soon retired. "When I saw I had no chance of defeating Yamashita," he said later, "I quit. I'm not a man who collects second-place trophies. If he was the same age as me, we would have fought to the end of our lives."
Having disposed of Endo, Yamashita in '81 became the first ever to win two gold medals—heavyweight and open—in the same world championships. "Now," his grandfather said, "I can die happily." But Yamashita, who was busy studying for his martial-arts master's degree and teaching during the day and who knew full well that the next Olympics were still far off, felt the furnace inside him cooling. He was still so superior to everyone that he kept winning, but the simple transformation of matter into spirit was disturbed. "I didn't become happy when I won anymore," he says. "I don't fight for money, I fight for that feeling, and it was gone. I didn't burn before matches. I felt more like a coach and like a student than a warrior. I told myself, 'If I feel this way, it would be more honest to stop competing.' I looked for someone to talk to about my problems, but no one else could understand. No one else had ever been champion of Japan six years in a row.