A brief history of Judo: The rise of the Kodokan

The first article in this series dealt briefly with the origin of Judo. How Jigoro Kano, as a young man, looking to for a way to improve his physical prowess began his training in Japanese Jujutsu (for clarity, jujutsu will from here on out be spelled in the more common jujitsu), and immersed himself in the art, becoming a very proficient and dedicated student in short order.

We will now turn our focus to Judo’s development. How from very humble origins, it became one of the largest and most well-respected grappling arts. In 1882, Kano was able to procure some funds and with these, found a very small jujitsu academy in the precincts of a local temple, the Eisho Ji. It wasn’t by any means a big space, being only a few mats. But it was a start. As the head instructor, he was now able to begin to formulate something different than what had come before him.  Kano did not want to just develop another fighting system. There were enough of those in Japan. And they had gotten a bad reputation at the time.

Most people saw jujitsu students as trouble makers, kind of like football hooligans in England in the 1980’s. Dojos were often politically affiliated. Brawls and extreme violence were common between members of rival schools. Many styles also emphasized what in the west we call “fighting dirty”. Cheap shots to the groin, or face, the violent wrenching of limbs, and throwing or body slamming an already dazed or practically unconscious opponent were common place. But Kano had higher ideals. At this point, his style was being called Kano Jujitsu. But he wasn’t too happy with this. He needed a name that was unique, something that stood out. He decided on the prefix Kodokan.  A word meaning “place to study the way”. He also changed the Jitsu (art of, skill) to Do(way of, doctrine, lifestyle). This subtle nuance changed the emphasis from fighting with the sole purpose of learning to fight just for fightings sake, to learning skills that benefited a person in mind, and body. The concept among the best of the ancient masters of using grappling as a method for attaining self perfection and development appealed greatly to him. His schools name, Kodokan Judo, decided on, and a place to teach, he set out on his mission to bring judo to the masses.

Kano was strict. He demanded obedience and extreme attention to detail. He knew basics needed to be firmly understood through long question and answer sessions, drilling and muscle memory before a student could start free training. The main tenant he first tried to emphasize was the basic idea of minimum effort, maximum efficiency. He often explained that softness controls hardness. That “if you try to use force against a much stronger opponent, you will be crushed. It is better to adjust to and to evade his movements. This will cause him to lose his balance.” He used the number ten in an illustration to explain. “If your opponent pushes with 5 units, you pull with 5 units. 10 units result. If they push at you with 8 units, you respond by pulling with 2 units. The result is still 10”. This idea, can be simplified as “when pushed, pull. When pulled, push”  Were the main tenants of Judo.

Kano also realized he needed a ranking system. He had after several years begun to expand his teachings, and was overseeing many students. There was a problem however. Previous methods of ranking and grading in Jujitsu had been by the awarding of scrolls, the Makimono. As a student progressed in a specific system, they were awarded these scrolls of transmission containing handwritten techniques, written by the master. The scrolls contained all the techniques they were to have mastered. But this process took time. And was unique to each school. Some had dozens, others just a couple. Kano needed a more efficient method, he simply had too many pupils, and the constant free training meant many were becoming extremely proficient. There were so many students, some in various places around the country, that Kano didn’t personally know well, that he would sometimes forget, or other instructors would not be aware of, the skill levels of various students. Some students had been high level Sumotori, some were jujitsu masters from other systems who came for studying under Kano. He needed to be able to know a students skill by looking at them. He thus began to award a colored belt system. With this method, he could look at a student, and assess their skill level. It was unremarkable at the time, but the “Kyu / Dan” system was quite an idea. It has now become the standard ranking system in most martial arts.

Tomita Tsunejiro, and Saigo Shiro, were Kanos  first black belts. They, along with Yoshitsugu Yamashita, and Sakujiro Yokoyama, were known as the Kodokan Shitenno “four guardians of the Kodokan”. Yokoyama and Shiro  were the most feared. Yokoyama being known as a man willing to fight anyone at a moments notice. Known for his strength, he carried a rope with him were he went, should he ned to move logs or heavy rocks in the country roads by his home. Saigo was a man of amazing skill. He had several names;  nekko, “the Cat”, and “octopus foot” being the most common. He observed how cats always landed on their feet, and started jumping off two story buildings to try and emulate this. Octopus foot came from his uncanny ability to never lose his footing during grappling, much to the chagrin of those attempting to throwing him. He too was quite ready to fight, known for beating up tall and burly Americans and British guests to the Kodokan who thought themselves a force to be reckoned with. He never lost. A match in 1884 however earned him the ire of Kano. Traditional jujitsu was still quite a force to be reckoned with, and Saigo, Yokoyama and Tomita had been called out by three fighters from the Yoshin academy. Kano was out of town, and so they accepted the challenge. The Kodokan members defeated their opponents, with Saigo throwing one of them so hard he suffered a concussion and had to be taken away on a stretcher, and Yokoyama, pinning his opponent and choking him unconscious. Kano, although not happy with the behavior, could not deny the renown which followed, and tended to turn a blind eye to these kinds of matches. There were many other matches which he entered, and all had similar results. But alas, it was not to be. In 1890 he and his friends, other Kodokan wrestlers, got into a drunken brawl with some Sumo. Saigo knocked out several of them with throws, and even knocked out a few police who came to break it up. Kano was forced to bail him out of prison, but after this, Saigo retired. He devoted the remainder of his life to archery.

There are numerous matches, most of which end in broken bones and concussions to read about. In short, they showed the martial community of Japan that the Kodokan was serious. Observant  schools now took note, many sending their best men to train under Kano and his “free training” or sparring method of training. For anyone interested in more details on the early Kodokan days, a book entitled “The fighting spirit of Japan” is a must read. Written by the first westerner to sudy judo in depth, EJ Harrison.

In the early 1900’s with his personal and his schools reputation solidified in Japan, Kano began to spread Judo to the rest of the world. He decided to send some of his best (and some of his most gifted but hot headed and troublesome)students abroad. They were sent to Europe, North and South and America, and Russia. They would engage in challenge matches with local strongmen and grapplers, typically which was Catch wrestling. Among the foreigners who showed interest were many from affluent circles, such as Teddy Roosevelt. Of course to anyone who trains in Brazilian Jujitsu, the name Mitsuo Maeda also is familiar, bringing Judo to Brazil in November of 1914.

By the 1930’s, Kano had successfully lobbied for Judo to be taught in all Japanese public schools. His devotion and efforts had also allowed for Judo to be accepted into the Olympics. Although by now at the height of his fame, Kano’s health was failing. By 1934 he had stopped giving public demonstrations, but still tried whenever possible to attend formal functions at the Kodokan. Kano died on May 4th, 1938 on an ocean liner. The official cause of the death was listed as pneumonia. Some have speculated that due to Kano’s rather vocal opposition to militarism in Japan, he may have been assassinated. But to date, no verifiable evidence or proof has been presented.  

Giles Alexander

Giles Alexander is a purple belt residing in Seattle and representing Kindred Jiu-Jitsu.