A brief history of Judo

It is common knowledge to most of us who study Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, that we owe the development of BJJ to Judo, via a certain Mitsuyo Maeda. Most feel that BJJ and Judo are two sides of the same coin. One, focused on the ground aspect, and spending a small amount of time on standing technique. The other focusing on the standing technique, and spending a small amount of time on the ground aspect. What is typically not looked into much by most however, and is of equal curiosity, is how the art was developed.

There are many parallels from that age, to today. People are people. And as the saying goes, “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” The purpose of the following two piece series is to, in short detail, give a recounting of how Judo was developed. How it spread. And how it became so prominent and respected in the world of submission grappling.

Jigoro Kano was born in 1860. The son of the Head priest of a shrine who had married into the family of wealthy sake brewers.  Its very important that one understands the Japan of the 1870’s, when Kano began his training, as it is completely different from the Japan of today.  Post Edo period Japan was a very tumultuous place. Political factions, most that absolutely hated each other, and many of which were ultra nationalist and would today be considered terrorist organizations, vied for power in the new western modeled Meiji government.

As a kid, although academically smart enough, Kano  apparently wasn’t gifted in the physical sense. A fact not lost on his school mates, who wasted no time pummeling him as the school yard makiwara. As with most people who get into martial arts because of being bullied, Kano sought out a jujutsu school so as to learn some way to defend himself from the near daily attacks he faced. However, although the Japan of his time wasn’t nearly as peaceful and calm as it is now, it still was a far cry from the Edo period he had been born into. The First 10 years of Kano’s life had seen momentous changes to Japanese society in many ways.

Edo period Japan was a military government run by men who had never gone to war, generally speaking wer angry and hot headed, and desperately needed an outlet from boring bureaucratic work. Those who turned to martial arts (which depending on where you lived was either frowned on or encouraged) generally sought out sword academies, since samurai were constantly armed with the weapon. But some also sought spear training, archery, and grappling, or Jujutsu. Jujutsu means flexibility art. This is not a flexibility of body, but a flexibility of mind. This kind of mental training relies on being able to adapt to chaotic situations rationally and calmly. Only if one was in control of themselves could one be in control of the situation. Thus allowing you to be able to successfully beat the crap out of someone. The body follows where the flexible mind leads.

There will be more on the origins of  and history jujutsu itself in a subsequent article, but suffice to say that by the time Kano began to study the art, there weren’t too many teachers willing or able to teach him. After the end of feudalism, most were broke and had taken on other jobs, or had become disillusioned, and had no heir to pass on their art. Many schools went extinct. But Kano persisted. A friend of the family agreed to show him some technique, but refused to teach him anything. What that was designed to do other than frustrate Kano we do not know. Several years passed. There were others who he came into contact with who knew the art, but for various reasons, none would teach him.

Years passed. It was not until 1877, now a university student, that Kano was able to find a teacher. In his studies and travels around the campus, he learned that many JJ (jujutsu) teachers had taken up work in the field of Osteopathy. After inquiring, he was referred to a teacher named Fukuda Hachinosuke. Fukuda taught Tenjin Shin’Yo Ryu JJ to a small group of 5 students. He was a unique character, and emphasized strongly the training methodology most strongly associated with Judo and bjj today, free training/sparring, or randori in Japanese. This school also emphasized striking of a vital organ, (i.e. their eyes, temple, throat, liver, knee cap or testicles) along with grappling. However after only 3 years, in 1880 Fukuda died. Fukuda left his scrolls of transmission to Kano, who had by this time become his best student.

After a few years of training with Fukuda’s teacher, a man named Iso Masatomo,Kano then went to Iikubo Tsunetoshi. Here he learned Kito Ryu JJ, a style heavily dominated by the study of throws; Nage Waza. Different JJ schools emphasized different ways to defeat an opponent. Some emphasized strikes, some joint locks. Some emphasized chokes, and some emphasized sweeps, trips, and throws. Others favored stopping an attack just long enough to draw a weapon, or of ambushing the enemy, and stabbing or choking from behind. Still others emphasized combinations of tactics. Some even taught grappling in full armor. It is interesting to note that in both of these schools which Kano studied, the foundation of modern judo can be seen. One style dominated by grappling and striking, and the other by throws and off balancing tactics.

Our next article will discuss the founding of the Kodokan, and the colorful characters it produced.We will also look over the spread of judo across the world. A spread which would take certain men to far off places; America, Europe, and Brazil.

Giles Alexander

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