Yone---The Book Review


In 2003, at the urging of a Washington, D.C., journalist for the Sankei Shinbun, Yoshisada (Yone) Yonezuka penned his autobiography, Yone, originally written and published in Japanese for their market.

 In 2011, the book was translated into English and made available in the United States. Yone can be purchased at the website of Cranford Judo & Karate Center, http://cranfordjkc.com.

 I assume this is the first review of the book in English. Yonezuka Sensei gave the book to my father at a recent judo tournament in Florida, who later came out to California and loaned it to me.

 Though not customary, I’d like to share a little foreword for my review.

 I first arrived at Yone's dojo as a six-year-old and stayed until my father opened his own dojo when I was around nine or 10 years old. More than 40 years down the road, I'm still in awe of Yone. His judo was as near perfection as I have ever witnessed.

 Since my father was in the adult class and I was in the kids’, I had to stay after and watch the adults. During all that time I watched Yone handle men as though they were children. Allen Coage, Yone's student and 1976 Olympic bronze medalist, once said there was only one man that could really kick his butt, and it was Yone. Allen wasn't just paying homage. I got to watch it during a visit to Cranford JKC, shortly before the 1976 Olympics in which Allen won bronze. Yone commanded respect from everyone. Grown men on the mat shook their heads in disbelief like young kids watching from the bench.

 I saw Yone do the spectacular countless times, and probably heard a thousand stories more. I doubt there is a black belt from New Jersey or New York who lived during that time and doesn't have at least a few stories.

 So, I guess I write this review out of love. But I also want to approach it as I think Yone might—tough, but fair. Here goes. Maybe I can score a yuko in my review.

 The book is titled Yone, with a cover shot taken when he was an Olympic coach in his mid-fifties, but looking more like his mid-thirties. A few words written by Yamashita, Yukimitsu Kano and Matsushita from the AJJF are below the picture. The back cover photo is taken from the USJF magazine of Yone and Allen around the time of the 1976 Olympics. The side binding is blank where the title of the book should be.

 The book is a translation from the Japanese version and I think that is a weakness. I wish Yone had written a separate book for the USA market. I don't know if it is a cultural thing, but the chapters and stories didn't flow easily for me. Different time periods and tangents can be discussed within a few paragraphs then jump back, and I found myself a little lost at times. I also wish there were more pictures throughout the years to help with the telling of his life story.

 I look at Yone's story as a compelling one, and probably best told with a definite beginning, middle and end. If I had to give the 15 second pitch for the movie it would be: "The story of a poor, fatherless child’s rise in war-torn Japan to the greatest ambassador to the United States for his sport, Judo." I think an American author could have helped Yone write that book and script.

 Another criticism. There are several typos and bad translations of names (“Freeland” becomes “Freeman,” “Tommy” is printed as “Tammy” etc.). I wish it had been proofread a little better prior to publication. Maybe in the second or third printing it will be fixed.

 The book begins with Yone's humble beginnings in Japan. His father passes away when he is one-year-old, and he is raised by his mother, Yae with help from his elder sisters, Teruko and Nobuko, along with older brothers Yoshie and Kaneharu. The family survives by his mother working the fields, fishing and during the cold winter months, bringing her work inside.




 Yone pulls no punches in his self-critique of his younger days. He admits to being a "mischievous" child and relates that there were many times in those years his mother and siblings would have to apologize for his actions. Yet, the apologies don't lead to much of a change in behavior.

 Yone dons no mantle of false humility in writing of his talents. He is bigger, faster, stronger and, in his estimation, smarter than his peers. He speaks fondly of his success in grade school with sumo, scholastics and his later introduction to judo in high school, where he excelled. Yone lets you know he was the tough guy. 

 He revels in the details of many schoolyard fights, often justifying them by saying the victims of his beat-downs were brats. As he put it in an early chapter, "Talk about a big fish in a small pond. So, in those days, child as I was, I believe that I was born to win fights and sumo wrestling by the gods' will." The picture of a very driven youngster emerges.

 Juxtaposed against the multitude of Yone’s victorious early-life battles, one story touches on a softer side. He writes about the secret crush he had in high school in Part 2-Chapter 12, telling the story of his admiration from afar of a young lady. He arrives early at school every day to stare at her as she walks through the school gate, called "Go-ko." Though he shows no signs of fear in battle, we learn that he does not summon the courage in his school days to express his feelings to her. Knowing this was a translation from Japanese to English, I was still pretty shocked at how it retained a certain poetry.

 Between fights, sports, school and one crush from afar, the overwhelming theme of his early years in Japan surrounds his passion for food and beer. There has always been a strong correlation between judo and beer, and Yone—being the epitome of judo for me—expresses that correlation almost perfectly. There were several humorous passages about beer, mostly from when he arrived in the United States. The story of his first beer in the United States after practice at George Yoshida's New York Dojo is one of those old classic stories many of us already know, yet laugh at decades later.

 Yone takes us through his early years in the USA after being invited here and working for judo dojo pioneer Jerome Mackey. His early escapades are with another legendary judo instructor, Shiina, his Nihon University contemporary. He is later followed by other Nihon alumni, as well as judokas from Japanese universities.

 Those early years are comprised of not only teaching in New York, but prize fighting against boxers, wrestlers, and even other judokas. The judo of the 60s and 70s on the East Coast may not have been elite, but it certainly had its share of colorful characters. Yone introduces us to a few of them.

 There is a particularly funny story about a 10-man line of judoka that Yone beat in Pittsburgh, which was arranged by Nick Zafuto in the beginning of Part 5-Chapter 29. I will spare you the punchline. Succinctly, Mr. Zafuto knows an opportunity when he sees it.

 Along the way, Yone tells the parts of his life story he wants to tell. I wish I had time to ask him why he chose some of these stories before writing this. I can think of many stories I feel would have been more interesting to the reader. As an example, he met some of our U.S. presidents at the White House, and it is not discussed.

 Yone addresses this in his postscript. In the first paragraph he writes, "For me, some memories remain vivid in my mind, and some remain in others' minds; when I am reminded by others, and those memories begin (to) return to my mind, you may hear, ‘Ah, remember now. Yeah. That did happen.’"

 A few paragraphs later, he expands on this and adds, "When I happen to see my old students I have not seen for many years, most of the time they talked about their memories, which could be some stories related to me. There are some I cannot remember, but it seems that each of their memories remains deeply in each of their minds. Sometimes, one says, ‘Sensei, this is a memory I will never forget, and I hand down it to my children and grandchildren as a heroic story.’" Let me add an "Amen."

 Yone will not win a Pulitzer Prize. What it will offer you is a glimpse into the life of one of the most interesting and driving forces of judo in the United States, and in particular on the East Coast, during a special time in judo history. At 228 pages, it takes just a few dedicated hours to get through. I wish the book could capture the magnitude of the man, but maybe that was an insurmountable task to begin with. If you're a judo fanatic, it's good enough for your library and you'll get a few laughs out of it, as well. 


i will order it soon.