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The Story of Judo

The following is an article from Uncle John's Endlessly Engrossing Bathroom Reader.

In the late 1870s, a short, skinny kid started taking jujitsu classes in Tokyo. Martial arts would never be the same. (Right down to their fancy, colored belts.)


In 1878 Jigoro Kano, the 17-year-old son of a saki maker, moved from the island of Honshu to Tokyo to attend Tokyo Imperial University. Shortly after arriving he started taking lessons in the Japanese martial art jujitsu. Kano was small, just over five feet tall, and weighed only about 90 pounds, but he was incredibly focused, and in just a few years became a master in the Tenjin-Shinyo-Ryu, or "Divine True Willow," school of jujitsu. Then he started studying other techniques -including western wrestling styles- and began developing his own moves, primarily takedowns. In 1882 Kano opened his own school, beginning with just 12 students. At the time he felt he was still teaching a form of jujitsu, but in 1884, at the age of just 24, he founded a new school of martial arts- judo, meaning "the gentle way."


Jujitsu had been the dominant martial art in Japan for centuries. The name, which means "the art of softness," was first used in the 1500s, and referred to a wide variety of combat techniques which had been developed by Japan's warrior class, the samurai, since at least the 12th century.

During its formative years jujitsu involved the use of weapons, such as swords and spears, and was used on battlefields by heavily armored samurai. In the 1600s, all that changed when the Tokugawa Shogunate conquered the entire country. Over the following 250 relatively peaceful years, jujitsu naturally evolved, reflecting those more peaceful times. Rather than fighting with weapons in full armor, combatants studied and developed unarmed fighting techniques in schools. This is known as the "Golden Age" of jujitsu, when literally thousands of different schools and styles flourished.

Then in the mid 1800s, everything changed again: The Tokugawas lost power and the country emerged from its primitive, feudal framework, ended its policy of complete isolation, and embraced the West and the modern industrialized world. As a result, old Japanese traditions became very unpopular -and that included jujitsu. The storied martial art was in danger of dying out completely... but then Kano showed up.


Kyuzo Mifune and Jigoro Kano

Jujitsu may mean "the art of softness," but that's deceiving: It includes the use of foot and hand strikes, and can be brutal. To make the art more appealing -to people who didn't want broken bones on a regular basis- Kano removed the strikes, making judo truly more "gentle," relying instead on throws, holds, and choking submission techniques.

But the most important aspect of judo, according to Kano, was kuzushi, or "off-balancing," which referred to moves designed to put an opponent off balance, making it easier to take them to the ground. It was nothing new, but it had never been a central theme in a martial art before -and it was very effective. Within months, Kano began beating one of his former jujitsu teachers, something that he had never done before. That immediately brought judo a lot of notice.

Two years later, because of Kano's growing success, the Tokyo Metropolitan Police organized a contest between Kano's judo students and students of the most popular jujitsu school in the city. Tokyo police officers -who normally studied jujitsu, pledged that if Kano's school won -they'd switch to judo. Kano sent his 15 best students. Out of their 15 matches they won 12. Judo soon became popular all over Japan, and Kano certanly couldn't have known it at the time, but it would eventually have enormous influence on martial arts all over the world.


One of Kano's biggest influences on other martial arts was the student ranking system he chose. Instead of using jujitsu's menkyo, or "license" system, which awarded students certificates based on skill level -and which was not used uniformly around the country- Kano adopted a straightforward system that virtually all Japanese people were already familiar with: It was from an ancient Chinese board game Go. The game had been popular in Japan since the 1600s, and since that time had used a player rating system which made competition more fair. It consisted of first separating students into two groups: the kyu, or non-ranked, beginning students; and the dan, the ranked students. Within each of these were several levels (or degrees): six in the kyu ranks and ten in the dan. In 1884 Kano brought this to judo. Then came the belts.


In 1885 two of Kano's students became the first to reach the first dan level. At the time all students of Japanese martial arts wore simple kimonos with a white sash around their waists. To give his two dan students a visual sign of their achieivement, Kano had them wear black sashes -and invented the colored belt ranking system that is probably the most recognized aspect of any martial art in the world today. By 1895 vitually all of Japan's hand-to-hand martial arts schools were using Kano's ranking system, belts included. And when new martial arts schools later appeared, such as modern karate and aikido, they did, too.

Kano was an especially adept teacher, businessman, and diplomat, and over the following decades he and his students traveled the world promoting the martial art he founded, often at the invitation of world leaders. By the 1920s there were judo schools, or dojos, in most European countries, and several in the U.S.

Jigoro Kado died in 1938 at the age of 77, before his dream of seeing judo competition in the Olympics. It finally made it in 1964, when Tokyo became the first Asian city to host the summer games. The host country gets to add a sport of their choosing- and Japan chose Kano's judo. It was the first Asian martial art to become an Olympic sport, and judo is still one of the most popular martial arts in the world today.

Extra: in 1935 one of Kano's students, Mikonosuke Kawaishi (right), opened a dojo in Paris. To give Westerners more incentive to stay in school, he tried an innovation: he started awarding different colored belts -white, yellow, orange, green, blue, and brown- to the six levels of beginner kyu students, who would normally wear only white. It was a hit and quickly spread to other European schools, and over the years to many other martial arts, and finally all over the world.


The article above is reprinted with permission from Uncle John's Endlessly Engrossing Bathroom Reader.

Since 1988, the Bathroom Reader Institute had published a series of popular books containing irresistible bits of trivia and obscure yet fascinating facts. If you like Neatorama, you'll love the Bathroom Reader Institute's books - go ahead and check 'em out!

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