President Roosevelt’s love of physical activity was on display throughout his life. Many manifestations of this are well known; boxing at Harvard, ranching in Dakota Territory, hunting in Africa; but he was also willing to look outside of traditional American recreation. In 1902, Roosevelt turned his gaze to the Orient and briefly became a practitioner of the Japanese martial art of jiu-jitsu.
William Sturgis Bigelow, an American physician and Japanese cultural enthusiast, may have introduced Roosevelt to jiu-jitsu as he provided the contact information for “Professor” John J. O’Brien. According to O’Brien’s business card, he was a “Teacher of Jiu-Jitsu, The Japanese Secret Science of Self Defense and Physical Culture.” He claimed to have acquired his expertise after being initiated into a jiu-jitsu society while serving ten years as a police inspector in Japan. Professor O’Brien believed that he could teach the requisite jiu-jitsu “holds, grips, and twists” in several fifteen to twenty minute sessions over two to three weeks. A student would not even be required to remove their coat.
Letter from John J. O’Brien to George B. Cortelyou regarding teaching President Roosevelt jiu-jitsu, February 6, 1902. From Library of Congress Manuscript division.
Roosevelt took an unknown number of jiu-jitsu lessons from O’Brien and described them to Bigelow as “marvelous” but difficult to learn. These lessons appear to have been short lived but Roosevelt’s interest in martial arts would continue. In 1904, Yamashita Yoshiaki, an early student of judo and pioneer of judo in the United States, gave lessons at the White House for two months. At this time, western interest in Asian martial arts was in its infancy. It is likely that the brief presidential foray into Asian martial arts, and subsequent press coverage, helped these disciplines gain a foothold in the United States.