Judo – from brutally effective martial art to Olympic Sport – Part 1

I didn’t have the opportunity to watch very much of the recent London Olympics, except for the Judo.  It got me thinking about the evolution of those martial arts that have passed into the mainstream, and then on into that grey area between a functioning combat art and a sport form – not that one need necessarily preclude the other.

When I was very young I foolishly dismissed Judo as a functioning martial art, though I revised that opinion by the time I was 16.  My younger sister, Anna became an international Judo-ka, though her ambitions in the art were curtailed somewhat by motherhood, as is often the way, but through her example I’ve continued to try to understand the art properly, though I cannot pretend to have any skill in the discipline.  Despite this, and through my association with the Jay family, and knowing that Prof. Wally Jay based his technical innovations in ju-jutsu on the foundation of his judo training with the great Hawaiian champion, Ken Kawachi, and how he pressure-tested those innovations by developing his judo team, I’ve remained fascinated by the form.  

At Prof. Wally’s Remembrance convention in Sacramento in June I also had the pleasure of finally getting to meet two judo-ka of whom he had spoken with enormous respect to me for more than twenty years, Brad Burgo and Dave Quinonez.  To see them perform and teach made me aware of the extraordinary potential of the art, and their young students were an absolute model of what all we teachers hope to produce one day, so with the Olympics coming up, Judo was very much in my thoughts.

Judo was the first martial art to become an official Olympic sport having already become the first to gain international recognition.  Its founder, Jigoro Kano was an educator and an innovator.  Amongst other highlights of his career he was the director of Primary Education for the Japanese Ministry of Education, and it was largely due to his efforts that both Judo and Kendo become part of the public education system in the nineteen teens.  He was the first Asian member of the International Olympic Committee, serving from 1909 to 1938; he served as Japan’s official representatives at most of the Olympic Games between 1912 and 1936, and was the leading spokesperson for Japan’s Olympic Games bid in 1940. 

As might be expected Kano was a highly educated man.  He was born to a sake brewing family in Mikage, now part of Kobe prefecture.  His father was himself adopted and didn’t enter the family business, working instead as a senior clerk in a shipping line.  Having a deep belief in the transformative power of education, Kireshiba Kano gave Jigoro, his third son, a comprehensive and excellent education, ranging from Confucianism to English and German.  Kano was small and slight; at 14 years of age he was 5 feet, 2 inches (1.57m) and weighed only 90 pounds (41 kg) and wished he were stronger.  A family friend, a member of the Shogun’s guard, recommended that he enter jujutsu training to become physically fitter and stronger, and he showed Kano a few moves and how they might overwhelm a larger, stronger man.  Kano was keen to enter training, even though Nakai, the family friend explained that the training was somewhat outdated and could often be dangerous.  Neither was Kano’s father keen on his taking up the arts, suggesting he try more modern sports. 

Three years later Kano entered Tokyo Imperial University and he immediately set about finding jujutsu teachers.  It has to be borne in mind that this was 1877 and the Meiji Restoration almost a decade before had created radical and rapid changes in Japan, some of which resulted in jujutsu coming to be seen as not only old-fashioned and out of step with the pro-modern, pro-Western thinking of the day, but little short of thuggish. 

Kano began his search for jujutsu teachers by consulting bonesetters, called seifukushi – I also received some training as a bonesetter and a herbalist also as part of my martial education.  Kano’s logic was that the traditional doctors would likely be either jujutsu-ka themselves or have sensei as clients.  Yagi Teinosuke, who was a student of Tenjin Shin’yo Ryu put Kano in touch with Fukuda Hachinosuke, another bonesetter who taught the art; the style was a combination of two older schools, Yoshin Ryu and Shin no Shindo Ryu

Fukuda was a highly pragmatic teacher who stressed practical application over form, and his method consisted largely of throwing the student repeatedly until they began to understand the mechanics of the move.   After describing the technique to the student he had them engage in randori, or free practice, until they mastered the technique through experience; only then would Fukuda teach the traditional forms, or kata.  Fukuda’s dojo consisted of a space next to his medical practice that was equipped with the traditional Japanese floor covering of rice straw tatami over wooden floors – these bear no resemblance to modern mats in terms of protection from impact, so taking falls would have been painful to say the least.

Kano began studying a variety of techniques from other arts in order to find a way to defeat a more senior student at the school, Fukushima Kanekichi.  At one stage he tried a ‘Fireman’s lift’ technique he learned from a book on Western wrestling on his opponent; the technique worked and kataguruma – or ‘shoulder wheel throw’ – became part of the judo arsenal of techniques. 

Fukuda Sensei died at only 52 years of age in 1879, so Kano began to study with his friend, Iso Masatomo, who was himself 62 years old, and stood only 5 feet tall, but who possessed a powerful build from his training.  Iso specialised in both kata and atemi (striking vital points), and his students progressed from kata to free-style practise or randori.  Kano quickly became an assistant instructor at Iso’s school and achieved a kyoshi menkyo – or teaching licence in Tenjin Shin’yo-Ryu at only 21 years of age in 1881.

Kano came to believe that superiority could be achieved by combining the best techniques and tactics of a variety of ryu, a line of thought partly inspired when he attended a demonstration of Yoshin-Ryu jujutsu given by Totsuka Hikosuke and then had the opportunity to practise free-fighting with his students.  Hikosuke was immensely talented and so Kano started to think about how he might defeat a practitioner of superior ability.  He came to the conclusion that one must have a variety of tactics available in order to have a flexible enough approach and he began to seek out other ryu to refine his arsenal.

Iso Sensei died in 1881, and Kano began to study Kito-ryu under Iikubo Tsunetoshi, a teacher expert in throwing and kata and a great believer in free-style practise.  Kano believed Iikubo’s throwing to be greatly superior to the other schools he had practiced and so he committed himself to mastering the ryu’s techniques.  At that time it would have been hard to distinguish Kano’s jujutsu from that of any of his teachers, and Tsunetoshi sensei would often attend Kano’s classes in support of his teaching.

At some point Kano began to successfully throw Tsunetoshi in randori, which it seems surprised both exponents.  Kano said, “What I had done..was the result of my study of how to break the posture of the opponent…together with that of reading the opponent’s motion.  But it was here that I first tried to apply thoroughly the principle of breaking the opponent’s posture before moving in for the throw…”   When he explained this to Tsunetoshi he agreed, and shortly afterwards he initiated Kano into the highest level of Kito-ryu and received all of his books and the scrolls of the school.

Kano was pragmatic in his recycling and recombining of ideas, for example in naming his school, Kano revived a term first used by the former head of the Kito-ryu, with the characters translating as ‘method of pliancy’, itself an expression of his practical approach.  The core of Judo was a combination of the Kito-ryu throwing techniques and the pinning tactics of the Tenjin Shin’yo-ryu; these are preserved in the Koshiki no Kata and Kime no Kata respectively.  Following this initial period of continual hybridisation, there was a consolidation and standardisation of kata and free fighting techniques for the sake of consistency.  This was also motivated by probably Kano’s greatest triumph as he introduced Judo into the Japanese school system guaranteeing both its longevity as a form and its iconographic status as an emblematic Japanese art.

The next instalment will discuss the continuing development of what became one of the most widely practiced and influential martial arts in world-wide culture and sports.

©John Mellon M.A., and The Martial Arts University, 2011. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to John Mellon M.A. and The Martial Arts University with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


About themartialartsuniversity

In daily training in the martial arts for the last 53 years; teaching almost daily for 43 years. Hold teaching ranks in 27 martial arts, Master ranked in 4 arts, Headmaster of 3 systems, the Founder of 2 arts, and the co-Founder of 2 others. Has been the official Technical Advisor to Profs. Wally and Leon Jay of Small Circle Ju-jitsu since the 1990's. Assistant Headmaster of Small Circle Ju-jitsu and the co-founder and joint Headmaster of Small Circle Concepts with Prof. Leon Jay. Has three Bachelor degrees and a Masters Degree in History. Experienced writer - published or featured in all of the UK martial arts magazines and in Inside Kung Fu in US, as well as: Esquire; She; Elle; Woman's Journal; Health and Fitness; Zest; Marie Claire and The Independent (UK national daily newspaper). Has been featured on BBC and ITV news programmes as expert on weapons defence and usage in relation to law enforcement issues. Former CPO (Bodyguard), and still active as a Bodyguard trainer.
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