Judo dojo lands on its feet as a student gives
Villager photos by Jefferson Siegel
Students spar at Oishi Judo at 547 Greenwich St. near Charlton St.
By Lucas Mann
Last fall, it seemed that yet another small business would disappear from Downtown Manhattan as a long lease finally expired. Shiro Oishi had been running Oishi Judo for more than 30 years first on Sullivan St., then West Broadway and then, for more than a decade, on Leonard St. in Tribeca when his landlords told him to get out. He had a local following from always being able to stay in the area and his dojo was something of a neighborhood institution, but there was no way Oishi could afford another new space in the current real estate boom.
That’s when one of his students decided he simply couldn’t live without his weekly dose of rolling and grappling and decided to help Oishi get back on his feet.
“I’d been playing judo for five years and I took my son there,” said the benefactor, who preferred not to be named. “Sensei [teacher] is like a big kid, just a lot of fun. So I said, ‘Hey, why don’t I see what I can do?’”
It turned out that he could do a lot. Oishi was tired of relocating to new spaces only to have the rent go up on him. So, after an exhaustive search Downtown, his student presented him with a better option.
“We finally found a broker who had had a lady looking to sell her small theater space in 547 Greenwich St.,” the nameless philanthropist said. “The building is a co-op, so my company bought the shares for the space. Sensei leases that space from us for just the cost of maintenance and insurance.”
Oishi did indeed fit the description of “a big kid” during a recent Monday afternoon class as he bounced around his new dojo. The students were men who devotedly use their lunch breaks to get thrown on the ground instead of eat. Oishi was right in the fray, stopping the group from sparring to demonstrate the proper way to do a certain throw. As his foil, a student decades younger and inches taller than Oishi crashed to the mat, his class of grown men beamed like children at his flawless technique.
“Judo is educational,” Oishi said. “It’s repetition, it’s practice. You learn safety. You get strong, but you’re not trying to hurt anybody.”
Around him, men wrapped their hands around each other’s necks and tripped each other to the floor, but nobody got up angry or screamed in pain. In fact, they would hop up smiling through their sweat, and bow to each other, happy to have taken the spill.
Also noticeable in the group of 15 loyal students, many whom had already earned their brown or black belts, was the diversity that an activity like judo allows. Some were young and fit, others paunchy, others over 60. They were a mishmash of sizes, athletic abilities, income brackets and ethnicities, each grappling with his classmates and getting his daily workout.
Oishi, who is 65 which one would only guess by the gray in his hair emphasized how good judo was as an exercise alternative for older people.
“Judo is the most efficient way to use your mental and physical energy,” he said. “If you’re an old guy like me, it’s great, because you’re learning how to move and even fall down without hurting yourself.”
Behind him on the mat one of his older students launched a strong man in his 30s to the ground and a small smile crept across his face.
The men in the lunchtime class each had a different story and a different take on why they came back to Oishi’s dojo. There was a high school teacher, a lawyer, a construction worker, a computer programmer, a graduate student, a sake distributor from Japan and even a Newark undercover narcotics officer.
“You play your opponent, you fight yourself,” said the teacher. “I get to fight a lot of demons when I’m out there on the mat.”
The graduate student said he came back for the “discipline combined with the beauty of the art.”
For his part, Oishi assumes that, whatever else they get out of judo, his students should be having fun while they exercise.
“Here, you are meeting each other and talking to each other and getting to grab on to people,” he said, gesturing around the room. “I hope this is a little more interesting than pushing weights around.” It did look interesting as, at one point, in place of push-ups or squat thrusts, the men gave each other piggyback rides around the mat.
Oishi said he had not lost any business in the move because his new location is close enough to Leonard St., and, as he put it, “You look in the yellow pages and you’re not going to find another judo school around here.”
It’s also gratifying to Oishi to get recognition for his service to the community over the years. When he moved into the Greenwich St. space, he received a letter from the Japanese ambassador thanking him for the “continued cultural exchange” that his dojo fosters.
“And a couple of weeks ago,” he added, “a guy walked in here saying that he remembered me teaching judo to him when he was 12. He’s 55 now.”
Shiro Oishi has finally found a dojo space that he can feel secure calling his own. Since coming to America in his early 20s and winning the national lightweight judo championship in 1969 a feat he downplayed as “sort of accidental” his life has been dedicated to teaching the martial art and to his painting, another skill that he has kept throughout the years. Now he has a spacious, well-lit space, with money invested in it to keep the floor padding as soft as possible and the layout the way he wanted it.
His wife, Barbara, works in the dojo’s office, keeping things in order and being, as Oishi smilingly put it, “the boss.” Now they can both relax, thanks to their own hard work and the generosity of a student.
Andrew Bartle, one of the architects who handled the renovation of the space, summed up the story nicely.
“These days, we’re taught to only think about ourselves,” he said. “It was really nice to be involved in a project that was all about people looking out for each other.”