Mitsuyo Maeda (Count Koma) Biography

This Article originally appeared on The entire archive of information is now available on OntheMat.comThis article is a review of the Japanese biography”A Lion’s Dream, the Story of Mitsuyo Maeda”, by Norio Kohyama.

I recently finished reading a biography on Mitsuyo Maeda (better known as Conde Koma) and thought I would write a summary. Before you go look for it on the shelves of your local bookstore, let me explain that it was written in Japanese and as far as I know there is no English translation in the works. For those of you who are bilingual, I will include more information about the book at the end.

The book is entitled A Lion’s Dream, the Story of Mitsuyo Maeda (my translation). The author is Norio Kohyama. This book won an award as the 21st century International Best Work of Non-Fiction, from a Japanese weekly publication called SAPIO. I have no idea if this award is as prestigious as it sounds as I am not familiar with the magazine.

The author did a great deal of research in writing this book. He traveled to Cuba, the U.S., Europe, and South America and dug up old newspaper and magazine articles in library archives in these places. He talked to Japanese immigrants in Cuba and Brazil in order to learn more about the experiences of Japanese settlers and understand what Maeda’s life might have been like. The author even went so far as to find Maeda’s grades from a school he attended in his home prefecture (Maeda was a poor student and failed English).

The book itself is about 250 pages long. There are two pictures of Maeda on the cover flexing his muscles. Three more are inside. In one picture he is dressed in a suit, in another he is grappling with someone else, and in another, he is wearing a judogi and has his hands on his hips.

Maeda was born in Aomori Prefecture in 1878. Aomori is the northernmost prefecture on Japan’s main island. He moved to Tokyo when he was about 18 and began judo. The first record of him entering the Kodokan is in 1897. He had a natural talent for judo and moved through the ranks very quickly, establishing himself as the most promising young judoka in the Kodokan.

In 1904 he was given a chance to go to the U.S. with one of his instructors, Tsunejiro Tomita. The first and only place they demonstrated judo together was at the U.S. Army academy in West Point. Contrary to what has been published, they never went to the White House nor did they ever meet the American president at the time, Teddy Roosevelt. It was the Kodokan great Yoshitsugu Yamashita who taught Roosevelt judo at the White House and later engaged in a match with a wrestler nearly twice his size at Roosevelt’s request, but this match took place at the U.S. Naval academy in Annapolis. Yamashita won with an arm bar and was given a teaching position at the academy for what was then considered a great deal of money.

The demonstration at West Point did not go over well. Tomita and Maeda started off with kata, but the Americans did not understand what they were seeing. Maeda was challenged by a student wrestling champion and a match ensued. A misunderstanding occurred when the student pinned Maeda (wrestling style pin) and thought he had won. Maeda, not familiar with wrestling, continued to fight until he got his opponent in a joint lock and made him tap out. The students then wanted to see Tomita fight. Since he was the instructor, they figured he must be the better of the two. The truth, however, was that Tomita was in his 40’s and past his prime. He had brought Maeda along to help with demonstrations, but had not intended to engage in challenge matches. He had no choice, and hesitated when his much larger american opponent rushed and tackled him. Tomita was caught under the weight of the bigger man and forced to give up.

Tomita and Maeda parted ways with Tomita heading to the West Coast and Maeda staying in New York for the time being. Maeda began teaching at Princeton University part-time when he won some challenge matches there. He also taught in New York City, but the Americans did not take to the Japanese style of teaching and he often found his students did not stay long. Maeda was approached to engage in a match for money. Since his income was limited at the time, he accepted. This, however, was a violation of Kodokan rules which prohibited members from engaging in matches against other styles. Maeda did not appear to be worried about this and thus his career as a fighter began.

It is widely believed that Maeda was expelled from the Kodokan for participating in matches against fighters from other styles, and later in life, Maeda himself lamented to other Japanese he met during his travels that he feared this was true. The author states that there is no record of him being expelled and this is nothing but a groundless rumor which still exists today.

Maeda is said to have fought over 2,000 matches in his career, many unrecorded. He traveled throughout the Americas and Europe, taking on all comers. He was only about 165 cm tall so he his opponents were usually far larger than he was. Nonetheless, he became a legend in the fighting world and his name is still well known amongst Japanese settlements in the Americas. Maeda was not undefeated. He lost two matches in the catch-as-catch-can world championships held in London. In this tournament, Maeda entered both the middleweight and heaveyweight divisions, advancing to the semi-finals and finals respectively. In matches where judo gis were worn, however, Maeda was undefeated.

Maeda thought of judo as the ultimate form of self-defense. To him, western arts such as boxing and wrestling were only games with a set of rules. Maeda’s strategy in an anything goes fight was to set his opponent up with an elbow or low kick. He would then go for a throw and then finish his opponent off on the ground with a choke or joint lock.Maeda was never afraid to prove the superiority of judo. Once while in London, he saw an article in the paper where a Russian wrestling champion was quoted as saying that wrestling was better than judo. He tracked the wrestler (who was much larger than Maeda) down and issued a challenge on the spot. The wrestler refused on the grounds that he was misquoted and could not risk losing to a non-wrestler. Maeda also wanted to challenge Jack Johnson, the world heavyweight champion at the time, but figured he would never accept such a challenge.

The ring name “Conde Koma” came about when Maeda was in Spain in 1908. Maeda heard about another Japanese in Spain who was billing himself as Japan’s number one. As Maeda was already famous, he knew this judoka would leave town if he discovered that Maeda was somewhere near. Maeda considered this a problem. At the same time, he had other problems, mainly financial. To describe his own state, Maeda used the Japanese verb “komaru” which means to be in trouble or to be in a fix. He thought about calling himself Maeda Komaru, but decided it didn’t have a good ring to it. He dropped the final syllable and just went by the name “Koma”. A Spanish aquanitance suggested adding the word “Conde” which means count. From then on, Maeda went under the name “Conde Koma”. In later years, that became part of his legal name. (The author never says whether Maeda was able to challenge the so called judo champion).

Maeda continued his travels. In 1915, he ended up in Brazil in a town called Belen [the capital of Para state in Brazil]. He considered this to be paradise and settled down here permanently. He still engaged in challenge matches and became famous throughout the region. He also returned to Cuba, Mexico, and the U.S. when the opportunity arose, but Belen was to become his home.

In 1925, the focus of Maeda’s life changed from judo to helping Japanese immigrants in Brazil. Maeda believed the Amazon was the ideal place for Japanese settlers. He discouraged immigration to the U.S. because of the anti-Japanese sentiment there. Brazil was very open to Japanese immigrants and the Amazon presented an unexplored world of unlimited opportunities. He fully cooperated with Japanese government officials who visited Brazil to explore the feasibility of Japanese immigration. In 1928, a Japanese company was formed to help Japanese settle into a town in the Amazon jungle called Tomeasuu (the spelling in katakana). This town was part of a large tract of area the Brazilian government had set aside for Japanese immigrants. For the rest of his life, Maeda worked tirelessly to help the settlers begin a new life. Unfortunately, the settlement turned out to be a failure. Malaria and other diseases were rampant. The settlers, not understanding the Brazilian diet, went into debt to grow rice, eggplants, tomatoes, and other vegetables which had little market demand. The immigrants began abandoning the settlement in large numbers for port cities. Maeda always tried to help out where he could. The company which funded the settlement eventually gave up on it and turned to overseas trade. Maeda was deeply saddened by the turn of events, but never stopped helping Japanese immigrants

Maeda became a very prominent member of his community. He was given executive positions in many companies and even received a large tract of land from the governement. In 1931 on the advice of a friend, Maeda became a Brazilian citizen. He is said to have married the daughter of the French consulate, but there is no record of this in a Japanese register, so the author says they probably only lived toghether. They had a daughter, but both mother and daughter died when the daughter was 2. He remarried at the age of 44 to a Scotish born woman and they had a daughter.

In 1940, the Japanese government offered to pay Maeda’s way for a trip back to Japan in appreciation of all he had done for Japanese immigrants. He refused at the time, reportedly telling a friend that he wanted to finish building a house for his family. His wife apparently feared that if he went back to Japan he would never return to Brazil. Although, he showed no strong urge to go back to Japan, his final words when he died a year later of kindey disease were said to have been “I want to drink Japanese water, I want to go back to Japan.”

I enjoyed the book and found it very educational. Surprisingly, much of the book was not about Maeda, but about Japanese immigrants in Cuba and Brazil, the early days of the Kodokan, the Russo-Japanese War, and Teddy Roosevelt. The author maintains that although Roosevelt appeared to be Pro-Japanese, he really wasn’t, and cites a letter Roosevelt wrote to his son as evidence. I suspect that this book may have been written due to the interest in Maeda’s life that has come about since the Gracies became known worldwide. Surprisingly, the only mention in the book of the Gracies are Royce’s victory at UFC 1, a quote from Rorion about the origins of Gracie Jiu-Jitsu, and a mention in passing that while Maeda was teaching in Brazil, Carlos Gracie, the founder of Gracie Jiu-Jitsu, was a student.

For those interested in obtaining a copy of this book, the ISBN is 4-09-379213-5 and the publisher is Shogakukan.

Finally, for those living in Japan or who plan to visit, there is an epitaph to Maeda in his hometown of Hirosaki, Aomori. It is located at the entrance of Hirosaki Castle Park on the left side. Unfortunately, it is now sandwiched between a tennis court and a restroom.

Editor’s note: A slightly different account is given in the book “Three Budo Masters”, by John Stevens:

Much less successful was the visit of Jojiro Tomita and Mitsuyo Maeda (1880-1941) to the White House in 1904, the following year. President Roosevelt wanted a judo instructor to stay in the captial since Yamashita was teaching elsewhere. Kano recommended Tomita, his senior disciple. Tomita was a dignified, cultured man with some knowledge of English, but his judo was not on a par with that of Saigo, Yokoyama, or Yamashita. Furthermore, some years back he had seriously injured his shoulder. Kano was aware of Tomita’s limitations, as can be seen from the fact that he assigned Maeda, who at the time was considered the strongest young judo man at the Kodokan, to accompany him. Evidently, the plan was to have Maeda engage in matches while Tomita explained the theory of Kodokan Judo.

This plan worked well enough during a demonstration at West Point, where Maeda countered the attacks of first a football player, then a boxer. At a White House reception, however, things did not go so well. After a formal demonstration of Kodokan Judo by Tomita and Maeda, an American football player in the audience issued an impromptu challenge. This time Tomita took the floor instead of Maeda, with unfortunate results: he failed with a throw and was helplessly pinned beneath the football player’s bulk. President Roosevelt diplomatically called off any further matches, adding that Tomita was obviously under the weather, and the entire party was escorted into the White House for dinner.

Tomita made his way back to Japan not long after this incident, but Maeda, abashed by Tomita’s poor showing and frantic to reassert the superiority of Kodokan Judo, stayed on. He pursuaded some Japanese businessmen to stake him $1,000 in prize money and embarked on a long career of challenging all comers throughout North and South America. The 5’5″, 154-pound Maeda was said to have engaged in 1,000 challenge matches, never once losing a judo-style competition and only once or twice suffering defeats as a professional wrestler. In Brazil, where he eventually settled, he was feted as Conte Comte (“Count Combat”) and his savage system of fighting, now called “Gracie Jiu-Jitsu,” is employed by certain fighters in present day “no-holds-bared” professional matches.

This second account suggests that Maeda did indeed visit the White House.

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About the author

Mark Gorsuch