The Beginnings of Kodokan Judo,
By Paul McMichael Nurse, Ph.D.
is sad to think about but the first Asian fighting
system to gain worldwide acceptance has been -- for
the most part -- relegated by much of the public and
many of its practitioners to the category of a mere
sport, a form of jacketed wrestling of no real value
as a combative art and little worth beyond that of
a recreational activity.
This art, discipline, sport, recreation -- and for
many, a way of life -- is, of course, Kodokan Judo,
a modern budo (a generic term referring to modern
martial arts) form founded by the Japanese educator
Jigoro Kano over 100 years ago as a means of instilling
physical and moral education in Meiji-era Japanese
youth. Since those first fledgling days in the late-nineteenth
century, judo (the way of flexibility) has grown to
become one of the most popular activities on earth.
Over 8,000,000 people in Japan practice it regularly,
with another 3,000,000 followers worldwide. Judo's
debut as a sport in the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games has
further cemented its status as a truly international
Gratifying as these figures are, it is nevertheless
well to remember that judo's success as a sport lies
outside its founder's original intentions, and that
shiai, or tournament contest, was in many ways the
least important of Kano's objectives. Thus it is perhaps
well to pause and re-examine the origins of Kodokan
Judo, for by returning to the source of the art we
may rediscover what is in great danger of being lost.
Jigoro Kano was born October 28, 1860, the third
son of a well-to-do merchant family in Kobe, in Hyogo
Prefecture. As a youngster Kano was highly intelligent
but sickly and physically underdeveloped, and thus
a favorite target of school bullies. To
strengthen his physique and deal with the bullying
he began an intensive program of physical exercise,
participating in gymnastics, baseball, rowing and
hiking. Within two years his health had markedly improved
- so much so that at the age of seventeen he began
the study of Tenshin Shinyo ryu jujutsu (a modern
offshoot of the Edo Period Yoshin ryu, or tradition)
under Hachinosuke Fukuda. As a jujutsu system the
Tenshin Shinyo ryu was noted for its striking techniques
(ate-waza) and katame-waza (grappling techniques).
Fukoda's death a few years later, as well as that
of his successor, Masatomo Iso, prompted Kano to transfer
to the Kito ryu under Tsunetoshi Iikubo. Unlike the
Tenshin Shinyo ryu, the Kito ryu emphasized nage-waza,
or throwing techniques, and laid stress on abstract
symbolism in addition to the physical aspects of the
art. Kano's exceptionally tattered uwagi (training
jackets) used during this period, are today among
the Kodokan's most treasured artifacts -- mute testaments
to the vigor with which the young man approached his
jujutsu training. Although he had many injuries, Kano
persevered with characteristic determination and eventually
gained some proficiency in both systems.
At this time jujutsu (the art of limberness) had
something of a bad reputation within a Japan which
was rapidly modernizing to compete with an industrialized
West. The loss of status among disenfranchised bushi
(samurai) forced many former members of the warrior
class to teach their arts to any and all who could
pay for lessons. A number of these were rough types
looking to prey on the weak and helpless, and thus
jujutsu gained an undeserved reputation as a practice
of the lower sorts of society.
Kano, however, knew firsthand the benefits jujutsu
practice had provided him and what social gains might
be had by correct training in combative arts. Disturbed
by public opinion regarding jujutsu, as well as by
what he considered dangerous practices within jujutsu
itself, he resolved to do something about it. To this
end he undertook an intensive examination of the unarmed
systems he had actively studied, as well as an academic
study of many others, especially the unarmed combat
methods of classical bujutsu (ancient martial traditions)
such as the Sekiguchi ryu and Seigo ryu. He came to
the conclusion that not only did jujutsu have a bad
reputation within Meiji society, but the study of
jujutsu itself was often dangerous to the participants
since it contained many kicks, strikes, joint locks
and pain-holds which often resulted in injury and
the occasional death. Nevertheless, Kano believed
that with changes, training in jujutsu-style techniques
could prove advantageous in the physical and moral
development of people of high character, especially
Japan's youth who would comprise the next generation.
At the same time that he was developing his notions
of a reformed jujutsu, Kano was a student at the Tokyo
Imperial University, studying literature, politics
and political economy. He graduated in 1881 and the
following year became an instructor at the prestigious
Gakushuin, or Peersí School, in Tokyo, a school
for children of the nobility. Kano continued his lifelong
involvement with academic education, earning a doctorate
and eventually becoming Headmaster of the Tokyo Teachers'
Training School. The same year that Kano became an
instructor at the Gakushuin, he was ready to begin
teaching his brand of jujutsu.
He decided to call his system Kodokan Judo, "the
place for studying the way of flexibility," deliberately
employing the already-extant word judo because he
wished to differentiate his system from the bad odor
surrounding jujutsu. Starting with just nine students
on a twelve tatami mat area at the Buddhist Eishoji
Temple in the Shitaya area of Tokyo, the formal date
of the founding of the first Kodokan was June 1882.
During these early days all judo practitioners (judoka)
were required to place a seal of blood on an open
register and declare five oaths:
1) Upon admittance to Kodokan, I shall not discontinue
my judo study without good reason.
2) I shall not bring dishonor to the dojo.
3) I shall not tell or demonstrate the secrets I
have learned to anyone without authorization.
4) I shall not teach judo without authorization.
5) First as a student, and later as an instructor,
I will always obey the dojo rules.
Sometime the following year (1883) Kano initiated
a kyu/dan (ungraded/graded) ranking system within
Kodokan based on the concept of colored belts worn
by participants. For the first three grades students
wore a white belt or sash, while for the next three
grades he wore brown. All these kyu levels were considered
mudansha (literally unranked; mu coming from the Japanese
word for "nothing") before the student became
yudansha (holder of rank) -- a so-called "black
belt," although only the first five yudansha
ranks (dans) actually wear a black belt. Six, seven,
and eighth dans wear a sectioned red-and-white belt,
while ninth and tenth grades wear a solid red belt.
It might be noted that (the only exception to normal
ranking) Dr. Kano was awarded a posthumous twelfth
dan consisting of a novice's white belt, but twice
the width of average ones -- an indication that one
of judo's main concerns and themes is circularity.
Kano's kyu/dan and belt system, as well as adoption
of standard uniforms (which evolved over time) initially
gave judo recognition. They were later adopted by
other budo forms, such as kendo, aikido, karate-do,
as well as many other systems from around the world.
Unfortunately, the ranking and belt system has become
fragmentized with addition of other colored belts
and even stripes on colored belts to the point that
meaning has been lost.
In terms of technique, however, Kano was not so much
a great inventor or originator of a fighting form
as he was a great synthesizer, a figure who masterfully
took various aspects of other systems and blended
them into a new whole. Perhaps his greatest innovation
were the teaching of ukemi, or "breakfalling,"
before a new student begins the study of technique.
This ensures that when a novice is thrown, he or she
has already learned how to land safely and efficiently
on the mats without danger. This was a significant
departure from many of the jujutsu systems Kano had
examined previously, where students were thrown --
sometimes having their limbs deliberately wrenched
in the bargain -- and had to land as best they could.
Certain techniques such as dojime (leg-scissoring
around the abdominal region with the thighs), which
Kano deemed too dangerous, were also removed from
the Kodokan curriculum. Also matches were begun by
opponents stepping forward and grasping each others
judogi (training suit) in a prescribed manner before
commencing free practice (randori). However, some
of what Kano excised from the general Kodokan syllabus
were kept for the study of certain kata (prearranged
forms), or as special study for higher grades.
Kano's precepts for judo are contained in two founding
principles he developed during his career: Seiryoku
Zenyo, the "Principle of Efficient Use of Energy,"
and Jita Kyoei, or the "Principle of Mutual Welfare."
A Kodokan disciple was enjoined to strive to attain
the best manner of his physical and mental energy
in both judo and everyday life, as well as to have
a sincere consideration for others. Stress was placed
on education and moral development rather than the
concentration on pure technique lying at the heart
of most jujutsu systems. To this end only those applicants
with impeccable characters were permitted to join
Kodokan; in its original structure it was emphatically
not developed to be taught indiscriminately to everyone.
For the first few years of its existence Kano's system
fought something of a rear-guard action against the
decaying jujutsu systems. Many are the tales in Kodokan
lore of how Kano's students had to defend themselves
and their art from disciples of other, more established
budo schools who challenged the upstart Kodakan. In
particular, a hot rivalry developed between Kano's
school and jujutsu master Hikosuke Totsuke and his
resurgent Yoshin ryu.
A crucial test came in 1886. The Tokyo Police Department
Board, casting about for a system of unarmed combat
with which to train their forces, sponsored a tournament
between these two leading ryu to decide which to adopt.
Failure against the Yoshin ryu could conceivably sound
the death-knell for Kano's judo. Fifteen men were
selected to represent each side. The result was a
brilliant triumph for the Kodokan. Led by judo legends
Sakujiro Yokoyama and Shiro Saigo, Kano's group won
all but one of the matches and that was deemed a draw
(some sources indicate that thirteen matches were
won and two were draws). With this victory judo's
reputation as an efficient system of unarmed combat
was assured and the art became officially sanctioned
by the Japanese government.
Judo's popularity grew so rapidly that by the early
twentieth century many jujutsu systems, fearful of
falling into abeyance, merged with the Kodokan --
as much for the preservation of their techniques as
an acknowledgment of Kodokan's ascendancy. Their inclusion
injected a number of new waza into the Kodokan system,
which continued to develop until July 1906 when Kano
and a gathering of jujutsu masters met at the Butokuden
(Martial Virtues Hall) in Kyoto to formulate modern
kata and finalize the judo syllabus. Within a relatively
short time judo, along with kendo (the art of fencing
with mock swords), became popular activities at Japanese
universities, inducing the Japanese Ministry of Education
to include both arts as required parts of the school
syllabus (1911), a position they retain to this day.
At the same time, not all jujutsu ryu accepted Kodokan's
supremacy and strived to keep judo (by now the word
had gained general acceptance as a virtual synonym
for jujutsu) more of a combative art. In Kansai Prefecture
a movement developed, especially centered in the Butokuden
and supported by the Dai Nippon Butokukai (All Japan
Martial Virtues Society, founded in 1895), toward
retaining some of the techniques that Kano had discarded
in the formation of his system. A number of techniques,
particularly of the pain-hold variety rejected as
too dangerous for Kodokan students, were retained,
as well as a distinct emphasis on katame- waza (grappling
techniques on the ground) as opposed to the emphasis
on nage-waza within the Kodokan system. It should
be stressed that this Kansai brand of judo (one occasionally
reads of it described as "Budokan Judo,"
but this is an inadequate translation) was not considered
a distinctly separate system or tradition of judo,
but was viewed more as a stylistic rival of Kodokan
-- a "country cousin," so to speak, of the
Kanto variety (Kanto is the prefecture where Tokyo,
and the Kodokan, resides). Evidence of this may be
seen in the fact that Kansai yudansha ranks issued
by the Butokukai up to and including nidan (second-grade)
were accepted without question on application to the
Kodokan in Tokyo, but those students wishing recognition
from Kodokan regarding higher ranks had to undergo
rigorous scrutiny by Kodokan authorities to ensure
that their technical proficiency was sufficient. By
1907 the movement had a significant following in colleges
and technical schools, but did not survive the end
of the Second World War.
Technically, judo's "Golden Age" may be
said to have been the period between World War I and
World War II.. During this time the art reached a
state of technical excellence it has not approached
since. Although contest participation was considered
part of judo training, the activity's ne plus ultra
was considered to be seishin tanren, or "spirit-forging"
Here the practice of judo was the vehicle by which
students advanced themselves spiritually through rigorous
Kano never intended his system to become merely a
sporting contest, but it was perhaps inevitable that
as judo became ever more popular with the public at
large, shiai would likewise take on popular dimensions.
During the 1920s the most prestigious tournament was
the Emperor's Cup, open to all judoka who were subjects
of the Japanese Empire. The first "All-Japan"
Championships were inaugurated in 1930 and lasted
until the outbreak of the Pacific War. As with today's
All-Japans there were no weight categories; contestants
were divided into Young Men's (under thirty years
of age) and Senior or Master's division above thirty.
Elimination was of the simplest form: one loss and
the contestant was out. Thus the eventual champion
was always undefeated. Contestants were required to
win by two full points, either by double ippon (one
full point, gained by a clean throw) or the equivalent
cumulative half-points (wazari). The current method
of decision by fractured points would have been anathema
to these old-time practitioners, who put their hearts
and souls into defeating their opponents by the best
possible technique -- the judo equivalent of a boxing
Kano's ardent desire to gain worldwide acceptance
for his system resulted in his undertaking a number
of foreign journeys to promote judo at the international
level. During one of these sojourns, in London in
1933, Dr. Kano spoke of his desire for a world judo
federation and the dissemination of Kodokan Judo teachings
throughout the world as a means of aiding in achievement
of world peace. Already he had become Japan's first
representative on the International Olympic Committee
(1909), as well as the first president of the newly
formed Japanese Amateur Sports Association (1911).
But the warlords of Europe and Asia were in the ascendancy
during this period, and Kano's dream of a Tokyo Olympic
Games in 1940 wherein his beloved judo would be a
demonstration sport was never realized. Returning
from an International Olympic Association conference
in Cairo in the spring of 1938, Kano fell ill with
pneumonia aboard the ship Hikawa Maru. On May 4, 1938,
at age seventy-eight, he died at sea between Vancouver
and Yokohama. It is perhaps as well that he did not
live to see the defeat of Japan in 1945 and the subsequent
prohibition of judo and a number of other combative
arts during the period of Allied occupation (1945-52).
The great educator's dream of an international judo
movement was merely deferred, however, not dead. In
1952 the International Judo Federation (LIF) was formed
from the European Judo Union (IJU) to promote and
regulate judo throughout the world; by the Kodokan's
centenary (100 year's ) celebrations in 1982 it had
more than seventy member nations. The first World
Championships were held in Tokyo in 1956, followed
by a repeat hosting in Tokyo in 1958 and then Paris
in 1961, where the Dutch giant Anton Geesink became
the first non-Japanese world champion. At long last
judo made its debut in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics to
a tremendous reception. Except for the 1968 Games
in Mexico City, it has been a featured sport of every
Truthfully, however, judo's internationalization
as a competitive sport is something of a mixed blessing.
Certainly Dr. Kano's vision of an international judo
organization has come to be realized, but at the cost
of many of his educational aims. Classical Kodokan
Judo is a system of physical training leading to improved
individuals; originally, training was to be evenly
divided between kata, randori, and shiai, with supplemental
lectures on judo principles and other matters for
students' edification. Contests were considered only
a part of training, and decidedly were not the primary
objective. Whatever their reasons for studying judo,
today's practitioners could benefit from keeping their
founder's ideals in mind.
About The Author:
Paul McMichael Nurse has a Ph.D. in History from
the University of Toronto and a researcher and writer
on judo and other martial arts. His articles have
appeared in Kick Illustrated and Black Belt Magazine.
He is also a member of the International Hoplology
Society (the academic study of combative systems)
and has been a student of judo, he says, "sporadically,"
us | magazine