“Your Jiu-Jitsu is no good here.” If T-shirts with snappy sayings had been fashionable in 1880, Jigoro Kano would have stood at the gate of Eishoji temple proudly brandishing this phrase across his chest. After studying several different styles of Jiu-Jitsu, Kano took the best parts of each, added his own principles of throwing and off-balancing, and founded Judo. Within a few years, he wiped his mats with Jiu-Jitsu pupils and indirectly spawned two more martial arts that have had a lasting effect on MMA. And that wasn’t even his day job.
The Kid Can’t Sit Still
A history of Judo is essentially the history of its founder, Jigoro Kano, and the conditions under which the art was formed. He was born into a sake-brewing family during a time of great change in Japan. It was six years after Admiral Perry’s steamships had entered Tokyo Bay and proved the futility of the feudal system to the Japanese people. By the time Kano was eight years old, his country had endured a revolution that deposed the ruling Shogunate and reinstated Emperor Meiji. His formative years were fi lled with excitement and a burgeoning curiosity about the world beyond the seas, which the Shoguns had defi antly guarded the population against for three centuries. His teenage years were a tornado of new social and intellectual changes that fueled his desire to know more—a characteristic that would defi ne his life.
Despite being a government employee at a time when the government was crumbling, Kano’s father wasn’t destitute. He ensured that his kids were well educated by Neo-Confucian scholars and European private schools. Thus Jigoro, the youngest of three, wasn’t a stereotypical street-tough candidate for the title of “pioneer of fi ghting.” But bullies are a staple of any society, and since Kano was a scrawny fi ve-foot-two, and the very defi nition of a ninety-pound weakling, he was easy prey. Fortunately, the youngster didn’t take kindly to playing the role of victim, and he dedicated himself to learning self-defense despite his father’s protestations (Jiu-Jitsu was known for developing aggressive youth).
Kano enrolled in college at Tokyo Imperial University, where he became absorbed in academia. He loved learning and didn’t limit it to the classroom, especially when it came to the ancient ways that were dying out so rapidly under a blossoming Japanese intellectual society that craved everything western. Oddly enough, Jiu-Jitsu was being maintained at the time by osteopaths (sometimes called “bonesetters”), so Kano sought out a doctor who could teach him how to stop getting his ass kicked. Unfortunately, Kano chose Jiu-Jitsu masters who had a bad habit of dying. His fi rst instructor, Hachinosuke Fukuda, met an untimely demise shortly after Kano walked through his door, so you would think Iso Masatomo would have kept young Kano out. He didn’t, and died shortly thereafter.
Kano found a new school and discovered that moving around like an Army brat had its advantages. The constant upheaval from school to school gave him an opportunity to compare styles and determine what worked and what didn’t. In the waning days of the nineteenth century, Jiu-Jitsu was taught in two forms: kata, or rigid form, and randori, which meant “free form,” similar to what we would call open mat grappling today. Fukuda’s Tenjin Shinyoryu style stressed randori over kata, and favored actual practice over rigid forms. Masatomo’s style stressed free-form grappling as well, but he was also a master of striking vital areas. Kano’s third teacher was Iikubo Tsunetoshi, who taught him Kito-ryu Jiu-Jitsu, as well as the throwing techniques for which Judo would eventually become renowned. Kano didn’t stop there. When he repeatedly lost to a larger student in his dojo and needed a way to compensate for his smaller stature, he added Sumo wrestling moves to his repertoire. It was his open mind and willingness to try whatever worked that formed the basis of Judo, which was technically the fi rst mixed martial art. But he wasn’t there just yet.
I Did It My Way
In only four years Kano was licensed to teach Jiu-Jitsu and, in 1882, at just twenty-two years old, he felt the time had come to teach on his own. The precocious youth took nine students and twelve tatami mats to Eishoji Buddhist temple, in Kamakura, to teach his reformed style of Jiu-Jitsu. Kano focused his teachings on breaking his opponent’s posture before moving in for the throw—an unheard-of technique at the time. “The transition from Jiu-Jitsu to Judo was made slowly but surely,” says author Andy Adams, “although it is diffi cult to pinpoint the day when what that handful of students were learning was no longer Jiu- Jitsu, but Judo.” Symbolically it was the day he tossed his former master, Tsunetoshi, around the dojo like a couch pillow during a randori match.
Two years later, he had his own school, with its own set of bylaws. Kano would later write, “By taking together all the good points I had learned of the various schools and adding thereto my own inventions and discoveries, I devised a new system for physical culture and moral training. This I call Kodokan Judo.”
Ju means “pliancy” and do means “the way,” which some have translated as “the gentle way.” Kano’s Judo blended the pinning and choking techniques of Tenjin Shinyo-ryu Jiu-Jitsu, the throwing techniques of Kito-ryu, and some Sumo wrestling into a unique martial art. The revolutionary part of it was kuzushi, or off-balancing. Judo’s core was to use an opponent’s weight against him to disrupt his balance and throw him to the ground. There he would be vulnerable to a pin, choke, or joint lock. Kuzushi led to an effi ciency of effort, and that effi ciency led to a superior technique that enabled a smaller man to defeat a larger one. Kano found his motto: “The maximum effi ciency with minimal effort.”
His Judo was taught mostly via randori (free exercise under contest conditions: throwing, pinning, choking, and joint locks), although kata (form or prearranged exercises: hitting, kicking, weapons) was also part of the curriculum. Randori promoted creativity, free thinking, and free movement. Kata was formulaic, embodying the Shogun-era view of education as indoctrination, not the Meiji-era appreciation for discovery. It’s a teaching style, seen in almost any dojo today, in which an instructor teaches a move and then allows his students ample time to practice it with a partner. Judo also embodied the core belief that experience was more important than strength or power, so an older, wiser judoka (practitioner of Judo) could defeat a stronger, faster student.
But Kano didn’t limit his art to a simple means of self-defense. He saw in it a way to make people and society better through the three pillars of Judo: self-defense, physical culture, and moral behavior. The three were interrelated and inseparable. “Since the very beginning, I had been categorizing Judo into three parts,” Kano wrote, “a physical exercise, a martial art, and the cultivation of wisdom and virtue. I anticipated that practitioners would develop their bodies in an ideal manner and also improve their wisdom and virtue, and make the spirit of Judo live in their daily lives.”
Chivalry Is Reborn
It’s important to note that Japan in the late nineteenth century had no concept of sport. It was a society quickly coming out of three hundred years of isolation that didn’t understand the meanings of “team” or “fair play.” Japan was on the other end of the spectrum from the most powerful nation on the planet—Britain—which imbued its adolescents with the spirit of competition and exported its games around the world, including Ameri
ca (rugby and cricket were the bases for football and baseball). British youth grew up knowing the meaning of selfl ess sacrifi ce, that the victory of the team is greater than the victory of the individual. The British saw sport as a part of life that brought people together peacefully.
Kano believed in the western concept of fair play, and saw the need for organized sport in everyday life. As the headmaster of the elite Gakushin School, he mandated that all students participate in a sport (thus starting the tradition of gym class hazing). Until that time, the ruling samurai culture believed that the one perfect cut of a katana blade was all that was needed to end a contest, so its fi ghting style was aptly called shobu, or “sudden death.” Kano saw shobu as stifl ing creativity because it was risk-averse and detracted from the student’s ability to formulate a strategy. If a game had multiple opportunities to score, participants would have to develop plans of attack and take risks to win, so he organized Judo contests around point-scoring systems instead of shobu.
1884 was a big year for Judo. Kano had written the fi rst bylaws of his Kodokan (judo school), instituted the rice cake cutting ceremony to start his hellish winter training session, and inaugurated the fi rst Red and White tournament that is now the longest running competitive sporting event in the world. As Wayne Muromoto wrote in his magazine, Furyu: The Budo Journal, these early competitions had rules, but they were still trying to defi ne themselves. “You scored an ippon (a full point) with throws, chokes, holds, or arm locks that would, in an actual situation, completely overwhelm your opponent. You usually went until someone dropped from sheer exhaustion or the judge ended it, awarding the match to the clear victor.”
These achievements, though remarkable, were still known only among the practitioners of Kodokan Judo. It wasn’t until 1886 that Judo announced its presence with authority to the public by soundly defeating the powerful Totsuka-ha Yoshin-ryu Jiu-Jitsu school at a Tokyo Metropolitan Police Academy challenge (fi nal score 12-2 with two draws, but historical accounts differ ). Suddenly people took note of the frail Kano and his ability to toss aside a larger, stronger man effortlessly. The police challenge was to Judo what the fi rst Stephan Bonnar-Forrest Griffi n fi ght was to the UFC, and for the next fourteen years, Judo enjoyed a meteoric rise in popularity.
But at the turn of the century, the art tasted its fi rst bitter pill of defeat. In 1900, the Kodokan lost a challenge match to the Fusen- ryu Jiu-Jitsu school, which emphasized newaza, or grappling techniques, over tachi-waza, or throwing techniques. Kano was not about to sit around and let his art take a black eye. He sought out the Fusen-ryu master, Mataemon Tanabe, to learn his repertoire of grappling techniques, and immediately incorporated them into the Kodokan’s teachings. This was a milestone because it started a trend toward grappling Judo, with major ramifi cations for the martial arts that can still be seen today.
They Call Me Janus
While Jigoro Kano was obsessive about evolving Judo, it wasn’t his day job. Kano was fi rst and foremost an educator. In 1901, after nineteen years as the Gakushin School headmaster, he was appointed as director of the Tokyo Higher Normal School. Kano made great strides in blending sport into everyday life for his students, and in 1911 Judo offi cially became part of the Japanese school system’s curriculum. His efforts to use sport to foster better relations were recognized when he was appointed the fi rst Asian member of the International Olympic Committee. At that time, the Olympics were not the spectacle of grandeur that they are today (the 1908 games listed Tug-of-War as a sport), but his appointment was still another major milestone in the history of Judo.
By 1912, Judo dominated the Japanese martial arts landscape, and Jiu-Jitsu was in jeopardy of dying out altogether. Kano’s obsession with learning kicked in and, in order to salvage what he could from a seemingly doomed art, he pulled together the remaining authorities on Jiu-Jitsu and adopted their most effective techniques for the Kodokan. But this had an unforeseen side effect. Along with a trend toward newaza, which began after the Fusen-ryu victory, an infl ux of new ground techniques generated a highly effective form of grappling Judo, especially at high school tournaments. It was called Kosen Judo, and the style was so dominant that, by 1925, Kano’s core tachi-waza throwing techniques were in danger of becoming extinct.
For the fi rst time in his professional life, Jigoro Kano displayed a close-minded approach to learning. He changed the rules of Judo tournaments so that athletes were required to start from a standing throwing position, so they were forced to learn the core principles of kuzushi. No matter how close throwing techniques were to his heart, however, Kano recognized the need for the art to evolve. Applying a clear double standard, he withdrew his rule change for a few select schools known as the “Seven Universities.” To this day, their tournaments are held under different rules from those of the rest of the Japanese school system ; and it’s in those tournaments that Kosen Judo still fl ourishes.
The Judo Virus
Kosen students were the green berets of Judo. They were seen as the cream of the grappling crop, and their attitude of “I’ll let it snap before I tap” earned them a great deal of respect in the sport. It also spawned two Judo offshoots that would become world renowned: Sambo and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.
Mitsuyo Maeda, long credited with having taught the Gracie family his fi ghting style, enrolled in the Kodokan in 1897 and was trained as a judoka during the golden age of grappling Judo. He proved himself in multiple tournaments, so in 1904 Kano sent him on a world “Judo is great” tour that eventually ended in Brazil. Known as the Conde Coma (“Count of Combat”), Maeda reportedly won over 1,000 matches on four continents as he challenged anyone and everyone to a fi ght. His mix of Judo, Jiu-Jitsu, and striking, which he’d gleaned from so many fi ghts, formed the nearly perfect street-fi ghting technique that he taught in his new school in Brazil during the 1920s. In 1925, Brazilian politician Gastão Gracie took notice and hired Maeda to teach his sons Carlos and Helio. If you don’t know the history of Gracie Jiu-Jitsu thereafter, grab a copy of my book and read chapter two.
Shortly after World War II, one of the greatest milestones in Judo history occurred in Brazil. Gracie Jiu-Jitsu enjoyed an explosion in popularity, and the country was captivated with the family’s resident bad ass, Helio Gracie, who had proven to be a master of fi ghting. In 1949, the Gracies challenged the best in Judo to a fi ght in front of 20,000 Brazilians. The result was the epic battle between Helio and Masahiko Kimura. In eighteen minutes Helio was overwhelmed, and his elbow was broken when he refused to tap under the duress of Kimura’s signature move. (If Kimura had been Tito Ortiz, he would have immediately put on a “Your Jiu-Jitsu is no good here” tee-shirt). It would be 34 years before the Gracie family traveled abroad to stage another challenge, but when they did, it would be big. They called it “The Ultimate Fighting Championship.”
On the other side of the world, another Kosen Judo student was taking his own show on the road, though it’s doubtful he ran into any spicy Brazilian ladies along the way. Vasili Oshchepkov was awarded his second dan (grades of Judo black belts; there are fi ve) from Jigoro Kano himself, and he took his art back to Russia. There he mixed it with various ethnic styles of wrestling (Georgian, Moldavian , Uzbek, and Armenian) and developed the framework of what would event
ually become the Soviet art of Sambo. Along with Victor Spiridonov, Oshchepkov taught it to the Red Army starting in 1923.
During the Cold War, Soviet Sambo had evolved enough to become become a new form that was distinct from traditional Judo. In typical Soviet fashion, Sambo practitioners thought themselves to be superior to Judo fi ghters. That all changed in 1972, when judokas Katsuhiko Kashiwazaki and Nobuyuki Sato entered a national Sambo competition in Riga, Latvia, and destroyed everyone. Suddenly, Sambo clubs converted back into Judo clubs. Those wacky Soviets had a habit of overestimating themselves.
Back in Japan, Judo had gained nationwide prominence when the fi rst all-Japan tournament was held in 1930. But just when it seemed as if Judo would become the national pastime, Japan entered one of its darkest periods. The 1930s saw the start of a bloody phase of violent Japanese expansionism that didn’t end until atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. During this time, with most of the country’s fi ghting-age men deployed around East Asia, Judo stagnated. It suffered an additional blow in 1938, when Jigoro Kano died on a ship while en route back to Japan from an IOC meeting in Cairo.
Under the U.S. occupation after World War II, Japan experienced a period of nonaggression that reinvigorated the art and even spread it back to North America. In 1951 the International Judo Federation was formed and, just fi ve years later, it held its fi rst World Championships in Tokyo. The IJF opted not to restrict the competition to weight classes since the philosophy of Judo was that a smaller man could easily throw a larger one. That theory was literally tossed out the window at the third world championships, in 1961, when Dutch judoka Anton Geesink won the world title. The domination of Judo by a non-Japanese was a shocking revelation, and it changed the sport. Reluctantly, the IJF instituted weight classes, but this bad tiding produced good news. The installment of weight classes meant that the competition was getting better. Judokas around the world were becoming more and more skilled at their art, so the division of competitors into classes based on weight evened out the playing fi eld to compensate for their prowess. In 1964, Men’s Judo was introduced in the Olympic Games, and it became a permanent sport in 1972. In 1988, the open weight class was dropped from Judo Olympic competition, and in 1992 Women’s Judo became an Olympic sport.
Judo’s infl uence on Mixed Martial Arts is evident. Several judokas are successful in MMA, including Pride FC and UFC vet Rameau Thierry Sokoudjou, who won the US Open Judo championship in 2001. One of the greatest fi ghters of all time, Fedor Emelianenko, comes from a Sambo fi ghting background. And in a moment of history repeating itself, Renzo Gracie refused to tap when caught in a Kimura lock by Kazushi Sakuraba at Pride 10, resulting in a badly broken elbow.
“Judo almost gives you an unfair advantage in a fi ght,” says UFC welterweight Karo Parisyan. “If a guy comes at me like a beast or tries to get my back, I just use his strength and aggression against him and dump him on his head.” Karo needs to wear a printed t-shirt after a win: “Your Jiu-Jitsu is no good here.”