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Judo: a History

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Two men involved in a judo bout.

This is the story of how judo came from being a weapon of war to an Olympic event.

In a judo fight the two protagonists each try to defeat the other, aiming to score 'ippon' and thereby inflict symbolic death on the defeated opponent.

Why symbolic death?

We don't actually kill people in judo any more, but originally judo, or rather its predecessor jujutsu, was used by samurai warriors as a means to kill or maim their enemies on the battlefield. Judo is directly derived from the techniques used by the samurai. The literal meaning of judo is 'the way of softness'. The kanji character for 'ju' is taken from a Chinese military saying that 'softness defeats hardness'. Exactly where these techniques came from is now lost in the mists of time. Jujutsu and sumo seem both to come from the same source stretching back to prehistoric times. In fact there are various accounts of where the concept of "ju" (yielding) in jujutsu, or yawara as it was also known, came from. Here's one famous account, given by the school named Yoshinryu:

There once lived in Nagasaki a physician named Akiyama, who went to China to study medicine. There he learned an art called hakuda which consisted of kicking and striking, differing, we may note, from jujutsu, which is mainly seizing and throwing. Akiyama learned three methods of this hakuda and 28 ways of recovering a man from apparent death. When he returned to Japan, he began to teach this art, but as he had few methods, his pupils got tired of it, and left him. Akiyama, feeling much grieved on this account, went to the Tenjin shrine in Tsukushi and there worshipped for 100 days. In this place he discovered 303 different methods of the art. What led to this is equally curious. One day during a snowstorm he observed a willow tree whose branches were covered with snow. Unlike the pine tree, which stood erect and broke before the storm, the willow yielded to the weight of snow on its branches, but did not break under it. In this way, he reflected jujutsu must be practiced. So he named his school Yoshinryu, the spirit of the willow-tree-school.

The armlocks and chokes/strangles in judo have the potential to injure or kill, since that's what they were designed for. (Choking means constricting the windpipe, whereas to strangle is to stop the blood supply to the brain. Armlocks were used to break arms, although now we use them just to gain submissions.) Judo throws give tori1 the position of advantage over uke2 from which tori can then apply shimewaza3 or kansetsuwaza4.

Of course, we no longer have samurai. They disappeared with feudalism (Emperor Meiji abolished the samurai's right to be the only armed force in Japan in favour of a more modern, western-style, conscripted army in 1873), and the techniques of jujutsu would have disappeared with them had it not been for one man: the founder of judo - Jigoro Kano.

Jigoro Kano

At school he was a slightly built and sickly child, and the victim of bullies. It so happened that this bullying coincided with the Meiji restoration in Japan. (The Meiji restoration culminated in the Satsuma Rebellion of 1877, where the Japanese army used Western technology to quell a violent uprising of Samurai warriors led by Takamori, the 'last true Samurai'). This was a time of great social upheaval, the opening up of Japan to the outside world, the end of the old order and of the samurai. Kano's answer to the bullying was to go to the old jujutsu masters (many of whom were now eking out a living as bone-setters since there was no longer much call for their fighting knowledge) and learn as much as he could about their art. Armed with his jujutsu knowledge he unleashed what he'd learnt on his tormentors.

All the techniques he had acquired from the various jujutsu masters he distilled into a new version containing the most effective under the ethos of 'maximum effect with minimum effort'. He made copious notes, in English so as to prevent others hijacking his work. He integrated 'randori' 5 into judo training. He also introduced kuzushi, the fundamental concept in Judo. This was Jigoro Kano's innovative contribution to the martial arts. It's all about catching your opponent off-balance, or rather creating a disturbance in his balance in order to capitalise on it and propel him onto his back. 'Tori' is the one who executes a technique, 'uke' is the one on the receiving end. If tori just comes and tries to apply a judo technique on uke without creating kuzushi, the chances are his attack will be unsuccessful. However, with good kuzushi, the likelihood is that he will succeed.

EW Barton-Wright (more of him later) developed the art of Bartitsu based on judo. Here he summarises the key points of judo (points one and two encapsulate the essence of what kuzushi means):

The principle may be briefly summed up as follows: (1) to disturb the equilibrium of your assailant; (2) to surprise him before he has time to regain his balance and use his strength; (3) if necessary to subject the joints of any part of his body, whether neck, shoulder, elbow, wrist, back, knee, ankle, etc. to strain which they are anatomically and mechanically unable to resist.

He aimed to demonstrate how a weak man might be able to overpower a strong man who doesn't have the same knowledge of leverage and balance.

Another commentator describes kuzushi thus:

'A critical element in kuzushi is that it should disrupt more than the body...a strong and positive mental attitude can often dominate a weaker state of mind, resulting in effective kuzushi.'
- Neil Ohlenkamp at www.judoinfo.com

This positive mental attitude should always make a throw (or any other judo technique) work more efficiently. This is how Jigoro Kano, the founder of Judo, made the principle of kuzushi one of the fundamental elements of Judo, distinguishing it from old schools of jujitsu.

Kano's embracing of jujutsu had a two-fold effect: it saved the young Kano from the bullies, and it saved the old jujutsu skills from oblivion. Kano was something of a visionary. He saw that the art of jujutsu had potential not only for fighting and self-defence, but also as a form of physical training and a preparation for life.

He envisaged it not so much as a mere 'art', but as a 'way', hence the change of name from jujutsu to judo. Judo is often rendered into English as the 'Way of Gentleness', although breaking your enemy's arm or throttling him to death may not sound very gentle. Other words to describe it would be pliant, yielding or flexible, rather than gentle. The school he founded became known as the Kodokan.

We can see how his thoughts were coming together in this statement of his a couple of years before he set up his judo school:

'The world is changing and Ju Jutsu has to change too...I'd like to take the best techniques from the Yoshin style and the best techniques from a lot of other styles and combine them all to create the ultimate form of Ju Jutsu...That’s what I’d like to teach to the rest of the world." -- Jigoro Kano, 1880

When he founded his judo school in 1882 he was 22 years old.

Tokyo Police Martial Arts Contest

Then came a critical moment in the history of judo. The Tokyo Police Force wanted to adopt a martial art to be used by its recruits. Kano's Kodokan judo school was gaining a reputation. Kano was invited to pit his school against the best jujutsu schools in a contest to decide which school would be chosen. So much hinged on the outcome. Success would seal judo's status, failure could spell disaster for the Kodokan. The bouts were a torrid affair, with no quarter given. The rules were simple: a one-hour time limit (yes, each bout could potentially go on for a whole hour!); you either had to tap out, quit, or have your seconds throw in the towel.

The result was a whitewash in favour of Kano's judo: eleven victories out of twelve, with one ruled a no-contest due to a fatality.

This victory in 1886 gave judo a great boost. The Judo team had defeated the most well-known jujutsu school of the time. It became a part of the Japanese physical education system and began its spread around the world.

Going global

Modern judo is now an Olympic sport, but this was not its origin. To put it crudely, its roots come from Samurai ways to win a fight to the death. As mentioned earlier, Jigoro Kano was a visionary and he had big ideas for his judo. He saw it as having great importance within physical education in schools. Once it had gained pre-eminence in Japan, he systematically set about promoting it around the world. He sent missionaries to various countries. Mitsuyo Maeda, a Japanese expert judoka and member of the Kodokan, took judo to many countries, including Brazil.

Maeda was fundamental to the development of Brazilian jiujitsu through his teaching of the Gracie family. Maeda never trained in jiujitsu. He first trained in sumo as a teenager, and after the interest generated by stories about the success of judo at contests between judo and jujutsu that were occurring at the time, he changed from sumo to judo. In some ways, BJJ (Brazilian jiujitsu - Portuguese spelling of jujutsu) is closer to the original idea of judo than our modern Olympic judo is. BJJ retains many techniques that are now illegal in Olympic judo. One of the main reasons for this sanitisation of judo was the American occupation of Japan after WWII, when General McArthur outlawed the martial arts. In order for Judo to be allowed to be practised it had to be deemed acceptable to the American occupiers. So it was marketed primarily as a sport so as to make it palatable to the Americans and get under the US martial arts radar.

Offshoots ('Bartitsu', Aikido, Sambo and BJJ)

Judo had absorbed many techniques from different jujutsu sources, and possibly even karate and western wrestling. The man often credited with single-handedly introducing karate to mainland Japan, Gichin Funakoshi from Okinawa, was invited to the Kodokan by Jigoro Kano to demonstrate karate there, a step which led on to the art's adoption throughout the country. And the throw 'kata guruma' is known in English as the 'fireman's carry'. And just as judo drew from different sources, so it inspired a number of offshoots.

Incidentally, whereas judo is derived from jujutsu, BJJ in turn is actually derived from judo, and not jujutsu (Brazilian jujutsu/jiujitsu is really a misnomer: some would argue it should be called Brazilian judo because that's a truer reflection of its roots). The Gracie brothers are the most famous exponents of BJJ, due to their success in MMA (no-holds barred 'cage-fighting'). It was their father who learned judo from Maeda and used it to create BJJ.

For Kano, judo superseded jujutsu:

In 1882 I founded the Kodokan to teach judo to others. Within a few years, the number of students rapidly increased. They came from all over Japan, many having left jujutsu masters to train with me. Eventually judo displaced jujutsu in Japan, and no one any longer speaks of jujutsu as a contemporary art in Japan, although the word has survived overseas.

How do judo and BJJ differ? Among other things, Judo fighters are often considered to be stronger when it comes to executing throws, while BJJ fighters are often said to be stronger at grappling on the ground. Other offshoots from judo include Russian Sambo and EW Barton-Wright's interesting concoction, Bartitsu, which includes elements of savatte and boxing. Morihei Ueshiba (1883-1969), founder of aikido, was born around the time the Kodokan was established by Kano. He too was influenced by Kodokan judo and jujutsu. He studied judo under Kiyoichi Takagi c.1911 in Tanabe. Aikido however has a pronounced spiritual side, stemming from Ueshiba's involvement with the Omoto ("Great Origin") religion, which is connected with Shinto.

England, Sherlock Holmes and Yukio Tani

Founded in 1908, the Budokwai in Kensington, London, is the oldest judo club in Europe. However, the history of judo in the UK goes back to before the setting up of the Budokwai.

Barton-Wright had been a railway engineer who had worked in Japan. It was his 'Bartitsu' (a westernised version of judo combined with boxing and savatte, misspelled as 'Baritsu' by Conan Doyle) that Sherlock Holmes used in a fight with Moriarty. Barton-Wright had some interesting advice about foreigners' approach to fighting compared to what was the norm in England and America:

'In foreign countries people never fight for amusement or diversion, as is often the case in England and the United States. Bearing this fact in mind, it will be more easy to understand that when foreigners fall out and fight, they recognise one goal only, and that is to overcome and defeat their adversaries, and any means is considered justifiable and is resorted to, to attain this end... It is to meet eventualities of this kind, where a person is confronted suddenly in an unexpected way, that I have introduced a new style of self-defence, which can be very terrible in the hands of a quick and confident exponent. One of its greatest advantages is that the exponent need not necessarily be a strong man, or in training, or even a specially active man in order to paralyse a very formidable opponent, and it is equally applicable to a man who attacks you with a knife, or a stick, or against a boxer."

Ironically, while Kano had chosen to remove atemi-waza 6 from the main judo syllabus for safety reasons, Barton-Wright, whose system was largely based on judo, saw a need to include striking techniques in his Bartitsu. In 1902 he wrote:

Under Bartitsu is included boxing, or the use of the fist as a hitting medium, the use of the feet both in an offensive and defensive sense, the use of the walking stick as a means of self-defence. Judo and jujitsu, which were secret styles of Japanese wrestling, we would call close play as applied to self-defence. In order to ensure as far as it was possible immunity against injury in cowardly attacks or quarrels, they must understand boxing in order to thoroughly appreciate the danger and rapidity of a well-directed blow."

Yukio Tani was one of three judo practitioners (one of the others was Tani's brother) invited to these shores by EW Barton-Wright to instruct in his school. Perhaps the fees were too high, but for whatever reason, his school failed. The other two went back to their country, but Tani made England his home, never to return to Japan. He began touring the UK, fighting at music halls, and challenging all-comers to try to beat him. Here is the public challenge as it appeared in the Sporting Life:



Special Engagement of Apollo's Wonderful Japanese Wrestler YUKIO TANI

£100 to any man who can defeat him. Notwithstanding the physical disadvantages against heavier men (for Tani weighs 9 stone only), Apollo will pay any living man twenty guineas who Tani fails to defeat in fifteen minutes: Professional champion wrestlers specially invited. To induce amateurs to try their skill, Apollo will present a magnificent silver cup, value 40 guineas (supplied by Mappin Brothers) to the one who Tani fails to defeat. The amateur making the best show will receive a valuable gold medal. All entries must be received each evening before the contests.

Suffice to say, no-one ever managed to claim either the £100 pounds for beating Tani, or the twenty guineas for managing to last fifteen minutes with him. And remember, Tani was barely five feet tall and weighed but nine stones. William Bankier, who became Tani's manager after he split with Barton-Wright, recalled the Oxford music hall where Tani took on 33 challengers, including some well-known continental wrestlers, and beat them all.

One of Tani's fellow exponents of the art, Uyenishi, who also performed in the music halls, is mentioned in Health and Strength magazine:

'I have been fortunate to witness many of these encounters and have never known him fail to polish off any six antagonists well within the space of 15 minutes. In fact I once saw him account for five men within ten minutes, including the necessary waits between the separate bouts. And this, mind you, following on a lengthy and fairly exhausting display of the tricks and resources of ju-jutsu.'

Trevor Leggett remembers Tani as an instructor: 'One evening [during the early 1930s] I had a slight headache and decided to leave the dojo early. Mr Tani noticing me asked what was the matter. I told him and said that I would come on Wednesday, the next practice night. 'If a man comes to rob you on the street,' he said, 'can you say you have a headache and ask him to come back on Wednesday?' I never left early after that.'

He became a regular at London's Budokwai judo club in Kensington. Sadly, he suffered a stroke in 1936, after which he was unable to practise judo, but he continued to attend the Budokwai and offer his insights from the side of the mat.

Yukio Tani died on 24 January, 1950. William Barton-Wright, born in 1860, died the following year.

Suspicious circumstances?

What became of Jigoro Kano? He died aboard ship of food poisoning in 1938 on the eve of World War II while sailing back from a visit to Europe (where he discussed the idea of judo's inclusion in the Olympic Games). Some have argued that the circumstances of his death were suspicious. Kano, who in addition to founding judo was also President of Tokyo University, was opposed to the increasing militarisation of his country in the lead-up to the war, and this would have upset quite a few powerful people.

He visited the Budokwai judo club in London in 1933, where he demonstrated some techniques along with Yukio Tani, and he was invited to a garden party at Buckingham Palace during this trip.

Judo became an Olympic sport at the 1964 Olympic Games in Tokyo.

Great names in Judo

Among the great exponents of judo have been Kyuzo Mifune the so-called 'God of Judo', and Yasuhiro Yamashita who won 203 consecutive fights and five international gold medals. Neil Adams and Brian Jacks rank among the best British fighters.

Former Russian President Vladimir Putin is an avid judoka. British MPs Sebastian Coe and William Hague testify to the benefits of judo training.

British entrants in Beijing 2008:

-63kg weight category women Sarah Clark
-78kg weight category women Michelle Rogers
+78kg weight category women Karina Bryant

-60kg weight category men Craig Fallon
-81kg weight category men Euan Burton
-90kg weight category men Winston Gordon
-100kg weight category men Peter Cousins

Unfortunately the British team, despite success in many areas (especially swimming, rowing and cycling) failed to achieve any medals in judo. In judo, Mongolia achieved its first ever Olympic gold medal. What was notable was that from the refereeing point of view the emphasis was very much on standing judo, with very little scope for groundwork. Once the fighters went to ground, the one attacking was given very little time before the referee called 'matte' (stop) and stood them up to restart. Many argue that this policy, introduced to make the sport more telegenic, is to the detriment of judo.

Further reading

The Pyjama Game - journalist Mark Law tells how he took up judo just as he was turning fifty, despite never having been a sporty person.
1the one applying the technique2the one having the technique applied to him or her3chokes and strangles4joint locks5Light fighting, the equivalent of sparring in boxing, and one of the most popular aspects of judo practice6striking techniques

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