An advocate for peace and international understanding, Eiji Yoshikawa is a motivational speaker and philanthropist who spreads his message via an unexpected platform — boxing. His efforts earned him the nickname of the “Compassionate Pugilist” from Japan Inc. magazine in 2004, and this moniker has since become his byline.
Growing up in Kagawa, Yoshikawa loved sports as a boy but admits he never dreamed he would end up pursuing boxing. Things changed when he left home to attend university in Tokyo.
Yoshikawa quickly became disillusioned with the drinking and partying student culture he saw around him. “I wanted to try something that none of my classmates would ever choose, and so I settled on boxing,” he says. He subsequently joined the Kyoei Boxing Gym, which has trained many champions, including Yoko Gushiken, one of Japan’s best-known boxers.
Even after university and entering the corporate world, Yoshikawa continued to march to the beat of his own drum.
“I was a ‘salaryman’ for seven years in Tokyo while working as a boxing trainer in the evenings,” he says. “My colleagues would go for drinking parties after work or for long business lunches, but I didn’t join them. I used to run during my lunch break instead.”
In order to be able to leave work on time for his boxing, Yoshikawa made a habit of going into the company very early to clean the entire office. “Then nobody would complain when I left before all the others at night!” he recalls with a grin.
While Yoshikawa was steadily developing his coaching career, with some of his boxers going on to national and international success, he also began to explore the idea of using boxing as an avenue for community outreach. In 2001, he started Japan’s first neighborhood watch program, the Meidaimae Peacemakers, in an area of Tokyo that was experiencing a rise in crime at the time. Initially he patrolled the neighborhood solo, but in due course he began inviting his boxing buddies to join him.
“Boxers have this tough guy image, but many are actually misfits in society,” he says. “We would chat as we walked around, and so I could encourage them to tell me what was on their minds.”
Having spent a year abroad in New York to further his boxing training immediately after college, Yoshikawa had become comfortable speaking English. He put his language skills to good use by reaching out to young foreign boxers who came to Japan. According to Yoshikawa, many arrived with big dreams of bettering themselves, but in reality faced a hard time and even potential exploitation in Japan.
“They came from places such as Thailand, Venezuela, Mexico and the Philippines. They were very poor and perhaps had little education or no family to help them,” he explains. “Boxing was maybe the only choice for them, but their life outside the ring was even harder than inside it.”
Moved by what he was seeing and hearing, Yoshikawa went on to make a documentary about the hopes and dreams of young Filipino boxers. Inspired by the epic 1974 bout between boxing legends Muhammad Ali and George Foreman in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo), Yoshikawa titled his film “Rumble in the Jungle.” The project was completed in 2013. He has since shown the documentary to various groups as part of fundraising efforts to support families in the Philippines.
In a roundabout way, it was Yoshikawa’s passion for helping young people, and encouraging them to gain a broader view of the world, that led to his move to Vancouver in 2014.
A regular speaker at schools in the United States, Europe and Japan, Yoshikawa points out that while most young Japanese today are rich in the materialistic sense, many of those he encounters lack confidence and direction.
“I meet Japanese junior high students who are under pressure from high school entrance exams and their parents’ expectations. They often tell me, ‘I’m the saddest kid in the world. My teachers and parents don’t listen to me!'” he says. “But after learning about the lives of kids in the Philippines — who have so little but are still happy — their outlook changes.”
His move to Canada came after encouraging a group of teens in Japan to expand their horizons by spending time in Vancouver. Yoshikawa followed them over and liked the Canadian lifestyle so much that he decided to stay.
He cites the democratic society and clean air as some of the aspects of life that he particularly enjoys, along with the friendly vibe. “People smile at each other in Vancouver. Meanwhile, in Tokyo they have posters telling people to ‘Say hi and greet others!,'” he says with a wry smile.
In Vancouver, one of Yoshikawa’s newest community outreach programs is teaching boxing classes to seniors coping with Parkinson’s disease. He says that through learning boxing moves, the seniors can develop both confidence and resilience.
Teaching such programs does not mean Yoshikawa has hung up his competitive gloves, though. Since 2010 he has been stepping into the ring for occasional exhibition bouts — sometimes against boxers less than half his age. It’s not about winning. He has no illusions there. The bouts are organized to raise funds and awareness for charity, or to simply show people that anything is possible if you put your heart and mind into it.
Going forward, the Compassionate Pugilist says he plans to keep on trying to helping others whenever the chance arises.
“I actually feel that I never ‘left’ Japan as I look at the planet as a piece of little rock with some islands surrounded by a pond,” he says. “Serving the world is the rent I pay for my space on the planet.”
Name: Eiji Yoshikawa
Hometown: Kagawa, Shikoku
Key moments in career:
1979 — Starts to learn boxing after going to Tokyo for university
1983 — After graduating with a degree in French Literature, heads to New York to further his boxing training
1984 — Returns to Japan and starts working as a boxing trainer
1987 — Otomo Iwao becomes Japanese Lightweight Champion One, the first of Yoshikawa’s students to win a national title.
2001 — Initiates Meidaimae Peacemakers, Japan’s first neighborhood watch, in Tokyo
2010 — Returns to the ring at age 49 for an exhibition match in Tokyo against a boxer 20 years his junior
2013 — Produces his documentary “Rumble in the Jungle” about Filipino boxers and their families
2014 — Moves to Vancouver, Canada 2018 — Starts Outfight Parkinson’s boxing classes in Vancouver for seniors with Parkinson’s disease
My boxing hero: “Nelson Mandela. As I followed events in South Africa in the 1980s and 1990s, I always felt that he had this boxer mentality. Much later on, I learned that Mandela had been a top-level boxer and it made sense to me.”