My lifelong friend, Goichi Hayashi (middle), who has had a great influence on me, at his sophisticated home. (Tatsuo Hayashi is on the far left; Photo courtesy of Yohji Yamamoto)

Gyosei Elementary School days: Yohji Yamamoto (5)

Meeting lifelong friends


I can't quite recall what was on the admission exam for Gyosei Elementary School. There were two of us taking the test, the other being a boy whose family name was also Yamamoto. Fortunately, there was a vacancy, and we were both admitted. In 1955, I became a 6th grader at Gyosei.

Located in Kudan in central Tokyo, Gyosei was known as a "young masters school" for the children of wealthy families. The school uniform, with its shiny gold buttons, was modeled on the French military academy uniform. Dressed in a stiff collar, cap and leather shoes, I commuted to school every day on the Tokyo metropolitan tram from Tsunohazu to Kudan-ue.

Gyosei was a Catholic school, with Bible study classes and excellent language education, including French. Many students there were unique and talented. Toru Minegishi, who later became a popular actor, and Kunihiko Murai, who founded Alfa Records Inc. and became a well-known music producer, were also graduates around my age.

I would meet and become lifelong friends with Goichi Hayashi, who later helped me found the ready-to-wear clothing company Y's. Our seats were close together, and for some reason we got along well. His father was a millionaire from Taiwan. His home had an air of high culture and the lifestyle of foreign countries.

You could see it first in his clothes. When I visited him one weekend, I was taken aback to find Hayashi in bright blue jeans. Jeans suited him very well, with his slim build and long legs. Jeans were not yet popular in Japan at that time and I could not help but stare wide-eyed at my first sight of American casual fashion.

He also opened my eyes to contemporary music. In the modest but stylish living room, there was a large German stereo with hundreds of imported music records. My heart skipped a beat as I heard Elvis Presley's rock 'n' roll for the first time. I was also exposed to the blues and jazz of black artists, and I was influenced by many different cultures.

Hayashi and I formed a band in high school, which inspired his younger brother, Tatsuo Hayashi, to later become a professional drummer. Another close friend was Katsumi Itoh, the brother-in-law of Yukihiro Takahashi of the popular music group YMO (Yellow Magic Orchestra).

I made so many connections at Gyosei. While I enjoyed myself there, the spirit of burai, or outlaw that I had cultivated in Kabukicho, would not allow me to be mocked as a "weak lad from Gyosei".

So I began attending the Kodokan, the head temple of judo, located in central Tokyo, to learn judo in earnest. Unlike the police dojo, the Kodokan was home to many fierce fighters. Once, when I looked into the room next door, I saw a famous judo wrestler Antonius Johannes Geesink, a giant man nearly 2 meters tall from the Netherlands, lifting a barbell that looked so heavy the bar might creak. "I'll die if I have to grapple with someone like him", I thought with a shiver.

I also experienced the amazing "air toss", while I trained with the legendary judo master Kyuzo Mifune, who was already in his 70s at the time. No matter how hard I tried to throw him over during the randori - a type of freestyle judo training - he evaded me with ease. The next thing I knew, I would be the one being thrown. I was left speechless by the master's techniques.

Injuries were inevitable in judo. One day, a middle-aged man who was an expert in kendo (Japanese swordsmanship) but a beginner in judo asked me to spar. I responded lightly, thinking, "Well, there's no way I'm going to lose". But he easily came at me with a sweeping leg throw, and the crown of my head hit the tatami mat with a thud.

I had absolutely no memory for some time afterward. The next thing I knew, I was staggering around outside the Kodokan, having changed out of my judo uniform and into my regular clothes.

"Uh, excuse me. I hit my head pretty hard in judo practice earlier. Can you see anything wrong with me?"

This rather dumb question scared the passerby badly, who hurried away with a frozen expression.

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