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This website is about Brazilian jiu jitsu (BJJ). I'm a purple belt who started in 2006, teaching and training at Artemis BJJ in Bristol, UK. All content ©2004-2016 Can Sönmez

09 June 2008

Book Review - The Pyjama Game (Mark Law)

I saw The Pyjama Game recommended over on the European Fight Network by J-Sho, which caught my interest as that thread mentioned the book discussed early judo history. As I've noted a couple of times in my blog, I've been compiling a long history post (currently just UFCs), so any further sources are always welcome. Glancing over the content page on the book's website, I was sold: this looked perfect.

Mark Law, the book's author, is an experienced journalist who has worked for The Times and The Daily Telegraph. To those who have read E.J. Harrison's classic The Fighting Spirit of Japan, Law's book feels very much like a modern equivalent (and indeed quotes from Harrison's work). The Pyjama Game has that same middle-class, journalistic perspective, featuring an appealing mix of professional polish with personal enthusiasm for the topic, along with a willingness to delve deeply into the historical and cultural background.

Law states that he began studying judo at the age of fifty, whereupon the book draws some parallels to the obvious comparison, Robert Twigger's Angry White Pyjamas. Not only are the titles similar (Twigger also provides the positive review quoted on the cover), but both open with that same carefully humble apology for athletic ineptitude, making it clear to the reader that the author had never previously taken any interest in sports. Martial arts were something new, something strange, something frighteningly physical.

At least initially. As the author proceeds along his remembered journey, the perspective quickly changes from a bewildered outsider to an eager participant. Law goes through the typical experiences on the judo mat: the sounds, the people, the grading, the tournament, randori. This is engaging, immersive and quite informative to a non-judoka like myself. Yet as interesting as these details are, the main reason I bought this book was for the historical summaries. Judo's beginnings are traced, from the battlefields of feudal Japan through to the study of Dr Jigoro Kano, outlining his vast contribution to combat sports and martial arts in general, then moving on to the adventures of Yukio Tani and the foundation of the Budokwai.

There is also more recent history, with a focus on various judoka related to pivotal events in the development of the sport, or sometimes more specifically to judo in the United Kingdom. These add a rich texture to the book: Percy Sukine teaching judo from his makeshift dojo in a German PoW camp; Dickie Bowen puffing nervously on a cigarette at the first world championships; Masahiko Kimura getting out of bed to perform a series of push-ups shortly after major surgery.

In addition, Law runs the reader through some of the famous champions of the sport, like Yasuhiro Yamashita and Ryoko Tamura-Tani. Alongside them are the big names in British judo, like Neil Adams, Karen Briggs and Brian Jacks. The discussion of women's judo was the most interesting of these chapters, during which Law contrasts two very successful coaches of female judoka: Britain's Roy Inman and the enormous figure of Cuba's Ronaldo Veitia Valdevie.

Amusingly, Helio Gracie is first referred to as "a Brazilian judoka", which may or may not have been tongue-in-cheek. Either way, it raised a smile, given the associations that immediately produces for anyone who has ever perused JudoForum or similar sites (which I'd assume includes Law himself, as he references JudoInfo.com), where the tired 'Judo vs BJJ' debate has been dragged out ad nauseam. In the chapter entitled 'When Judo Steps Into The Cage', which I was especially looking forward to (my instructor, Roger Gracie, enters the picture at this point), Law goes further, holding up Royce Gracie's success in the Ultimate Fighting Championship as a victory for judo:

The strikers – boxers and karate men – were shown to be extremely vulnerable to the grapplers, and judo proved itself in two ways. The winner of the first Ultimate Fighting Championship in 1993, and on two subsequent occasions, was Royce Gracie – the man whom Hidehiko Yoshida, the judoka, was later to beat in their first encounter and hold to a draw in their second. Moreover, the origins of Gracie's jujitsu technique lay in the judo which Maeda had brought to Brazil in the 1920s. Gracie thus owed his victories substantially to early Kodokan judo; in essence Gracie jujitsu was judo. These events confirmed judoka in their belief that their discipline was constructed around immutable principles that could handle a whole spectrum of threats. Even here, in prize-money fuelled contests against the world's hardest men, exponents of 'the gentle way' could more than hold their own. (p226-227)


BJJ is undeniably an outgrowth of judo, but I find it a bit of a stretch to actually claim Gracie's wins as proof of judo's viability in the cage. Law rather has his cake and eats it here, as not only does he point out Royce's loss to Yoshida as an example of judo succeeding in mixed martial arts, but Royce's wins somehow also signify the triumph of judo. This is especially jarring as a judoka was in fact present in the early UFCs: Christophe Leninger, an accomplished judo competitor, lost to Ken Shamrock in UFC III and Guy Mezger in UFC XIII (though he did rack up some wins in other promotions, eventually achieving a 3-4 record).

That's a minor point, however, as the link between judo and BJJ is very strong, even if it is a bit excessive to imply they are interchangeable. Law's book is a consistently entertaining read, buoyed by his journalistic experience (including footnotes and sources, something all too often missing from martial arts books), which I can happily recommend to any martial artists, particularly those of us in the grappling styles. If Angry White Pyjamas is a disgruntled teen having an entertaining bitch about a disciplinarian teacher, then The Pyjama Game is a jovial, slightly bookish grandfather, pulling out anecdotes from a long and eventful life. Available to buy here (for the US, click here).

3 comments:

  1. Great review fella. Thumbs up!!

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  2. I've just started reading this book.I think it is possible to argue that BJJ is basically just judo. In particular there was a style of Judo that inflicted a rare defeat on the kodokan. I'd have to research it but I think it was Kosen Judo.

    It is amazing to me that Judoka have simply forgotten a significant aspect of their sport/martial art.

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    Replies
    1. I agree, it's definitely possible to argue BJJ is basically just judo. I would say the more accurate description would be pre-war judo that concentrated on newaza and became specialised, but they're still from the same source. :)

      Kosen judo, as far as I'm aware, is merely a competition ruleset that emphasises groundwork, it isn't a different style of judo. You might be thinking of Fusen ryu, a style Danaher talks about in his book, though some doubt has been cast on that too. I talk about it more here.

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