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A Samurai Boxer Across the Ocean

Jan 8, 2008
Eiji Yoshikawa

When I was a boxer, I devoted 100% to what I had to do.

When I quit boxing, I lost that 100% and became like a shell with nothing in it. I did my everyday things fine, but I knew that there was no more fire inside. I thought that it was just a matter of time, and it would all be back to normal in a few months. However, even after a year, I still felt like I was running a motel with all of the rooms vacant.

I told myself that I needed to quit boxing “properly.” I had to put a very clear period at the end of the chapter in order to begin Round Two with a refreshed body and soul. On April 1st, 1983, I flew to New York City through Seoul, Korea and Anchorage, taking around twenty hours in all. I chose New York because it was the farthest distance from the Far East, and because I didn’t know anybody there. I had to go somewhere where I didn’t know anyone, so that I wouldn’t carry with me even a bit of a “spoiled heart.” I also chose it because it has historically been the Mecca of boxing.

Arriving in New York in 1983 changed everything for me. When I walked down the street, the hundred people coming from the other direction all seemed to come from a hundred different countries, with totally different backgrounds. Back in Tokyo, those hundred people all looked the same. To me, the city of the Big Apple seemed like an Olympic Village town. It was a great place to emotionally connect with and learn about the world.

Also, a personal shock was the fact that everyone I met said to me, “Eiji, you are a good guy. “You are a nice guy.” I never had that experience when I was living in Japan.

Society in the island of Japan forces you to be just another robot, and forces you to follow a “life manual” that’s designed and supplied by adults to all children. Kids have no free time to play outside. Instead,  they go to two or three cram schools every day after regular school. They come home at 10 p.m., and then work on a heavy load of homework.

I didn’t follow the book and I never fit in. I took my good friends out to a field to play baseball instead of taking exams. I remember that the teachers at school always said to me, “You are trouble; you are terrible; you are unbearable; you have no future”, and so on, simply because I preferred to play in the field and streams.

In my high school and university, everyone took tests all the time, in order to be a lawyer, a doctor or work for the government. It seemed to me that they were like sheep carried on a train, following the railroad that was built a century ago. Sons were expected to be just like their fathers. Daughters were supposed to marry a rich guy, or at least a financially “stable” guy.

They were NEVER supposed to mention their dreams. They were expected to NEVER mention creativity, art or freethinking. I knew that I didn’t want to be a boring person or live a boring life. Thus, I joined a rough and tough boxing gym in the crowded streets of Tokyo to become a professional fighter. People said, “He is crazy. He is insane. It’s ridiculous to be a boxer. What is he doing it for?” Being different makes a person a total outsider in Japan. Luckily, although I was an outsider in school, I had my own teachers and friends: movies.

Instead of listening to teachers in school, I saw a number of great movies, including “City Lights”, “Modern Times” and many others by Charlie Chaplin. I saw “The Grapes of Wrath” by John Ford, “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” by John Huston, “12 Angry Men” by Sidney Lumet, “The Miracle Worker” by Arthur Penn, “In the Heat of the Night” by Norman Jewison, “La Strada” by Fellini and “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Robert Mulligan.

When I saw the three characters in “The Wizard of Oz”, I thought that they were typical Japanese people -- a lion without courage, a tin man without a heart and a scarecrow without a brain. It reminded me of what was happening in Japan’s controlled society. As a Japanese “Ronin” kid, what I mainly saw on the screen in those dark rooms was an outside world where justice was being served by all of those “misfit” guys. They were all alone. No one else was supporting them, but they still believed in love and courage. The men who were kicked around on the screen helped me mentally when I was being kicked around myself. I really thank those film makers.

In the USA, for the first time in my life, I became certain that it’s good to follow your dream, listen to your own nature and believe in yourself. The experience of living in the US not only gave me a great deal of confidence and comfort, but also made me aware of our relationships with other people from all parts of the world.

It was “harmony” that I felt was the most important.

It was certainly a trigger for everything I did later on. The independent “misfit” samurai kid was able to finally realize that he was not the only misfit in the world, and that misfits can do some good together if they help each other out.

Eiji Yoshikawa is a retired Pro Boxer who majored inFrench literature and did his thesis on Jean Cocteau and Cinematography. He founded the "Peacemakers", Japan's first neighborhood watch, and spends much of his time visiting schools and communities teaching children about non-violence. In 2004, Japan Inc. Magazine called him the "Compassionate Pugilist". We are proud to offer "Letters from the Compassionate Pugilist" as our first guestcolumnist. Contact Eiji at www.eiji.tv or via email.

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