Noam Kot
Galit Levy


The History of Judo - Highlights

By: Sensei Yonah Melnik and Dr. Margalit Schwartz

Many articles have been written about the history of judo, and the reader is welcome to browse. It is not our intention to repeat what have already been said, but rather to point out the emphases from our point of view.

Background - The Martial Arts

Judo has one, clearly identified founding father - Jigoro Kano, and it's birth date is also clear - 1882. But the dynasty of judo is long and expansive and is related to the dynasty of the martial art in Japan and China, which has been in existence for thousands of years. The number of martial arts that have existed over the years is tremendous, and if we take into account the fact that these arts were passed from teacher to pupil, and thus divided into infinite schools, their number can be counted in the hundreds. The general name for many of these schools was and remains "Jujutsu", which means martial art. The goal of jujutsu was one: the decisive subduing of the opponent, sometimes meaning his death. These arts, including Kendo (art of the sword) included clear techniques for subduing and killing the opponent in different ways: blows, taking control, throws, strangle hold, armlocks on all the joints and the use of various weapons. These arts were used by the samurai in their time, and with the decline in value of these, the martial arts lost their special values and evolved into forms of wrestling used by doormen, street fighters, in exhibition bouts and in the exploit of various rabble. The occupation with the martial arts was considered an inappropriate occupation whose time has passed, and in the eyes of the intelligentsia of the nation, nothing but a waste of time.

Jigoro Kano

In the midst of this atmosphere Jigoro Kano was born in 1860. He was born into a family that emphasized the importance of education and enlightenment. His father was the owner of a shipping company, which demanded that he travel often to Tokyo and be absent from home. He was orphaned from his mother at the age of nine and moved to live in his father's house in Tokyo. His father enrolled him in private and prestigious schools, where he began to study English. At thirteen, he transferred to a prestigious boarding school in which the teachers were European and studies were conducted in English and German. The entrance of Kano to boarding school was a central point in his life and to the future of judo. At the boarding school, Jigoro encountered for the first time the need to defend himself, and, there he began to suffer as he was a small child and weak in body. The bigger kids abused him. Jigoro was helpless and found himself trapped, frightened and often in tears. He would return miserable to his father's house. At the house, he sometimes met Mr. Nakai, a friend of his father's, who in youth served as bodyguard to the Shogun. Mr. Nakai was the first to tell Jigoro about the existence of jujutsu whose students learn to defend themselves even in front of bigger opponents. Jigoro was an ambitious child, determined and conscientious, and giving up was foreign to him. Nakai's words acted on him as a revelation. He decided that he must learn jujutsu. His father,however, was far from supporting this. It was unsuitable for an educated and bright child to occupy himself in "inferior pursuits" such as martial arts. Jigoro, however did not bend, until his father had no choice but to allow him to look for a teacher. At the age of 17, Jigoro succeeded in finding himself his first teacher, not before knocking on many doors in distant quarters of Tokyo. From the time he began his studies, he pounced on hislearning and his training, just as he had applied himself to every new topic he studied. Just as he was an excellent student in all the prestigious schools he attended, so too was he excellent in jujutsu. He quickly became the assistant to his teachers and was even called upon to take charge of the management of the dojo when both his first and second teachers passed away.

The personality of Jigoro Kano

We emphasize here the personality of Kano as it is impossible to understand the birth of judo without taking it into consideration. The following traits characterized Kano's personality: studiousness,conscientiousness, thoroughness, ambition, keeping sight of the goal, and gentleness which enabled him to be well liked and to acquire a good reputation and reliability. Kano was a man of learning, he began in a young age to study languages, principally English. At the age of 17 he studied at the Emperor's University in Tokyo where he completed his studies in literature, economics and political science. Afterwards, he continued his studies in Philosophy and became a teacher, educator and school principle. The subject closest to his heart was always education. He started teaching at the age of 22. He saw in education supreme value from the standpoint of individual development and from the standpoint of the development of Japanese society as a whole. It is possible to state that Kano dedicated his life to education and to this end dedicated all of his endeavors. He claimed that most efforts have to be directed towards the education and qualification of good teachers, which in turn will educate generations to come. He managed schools and for 30 years he run the Tokyo Teacher's Training College which was the most prestigious school of education in Japan. He himself founded this college which eventually became a university long after his death. He took the post of special advisor to the Japanese Ministry of Education, and one of his many tasks was to oversee the curriculum. In this regard one can see the beginnings of the foundations of judo. Kano, with his personal experience, realized that the subject of physical education in the schools was sorely lacking and claimed that the physical development of children had importance in their personal development as healthy adults and as individuals vital to society as a whole. Thus, he interested himself in many branches of sports, but he noted that jujutsu had unique value in the educational system. He understood, through his own experience that jujutsu develops not only the body. He saw in jujutsu an excellent way to develop mental and moral values. The trainee could develop his sense of determination, his ability to uphold his principles, his refusal to accept defeat and his perseverance. Moreover, because of the necessity of training with a partner, he saw how mutual responsibility could develop and how each partner is dependent upon the other in order to progress and has to watch over him. He also emphasized that jujutsu is easy to perform: there was no need to travel distances, and no need for two groups to gather in order to train - a few friends and a tatami were sufficient.

The Birth of Judo

This is the background on which Kano brought forth the judo. The goal was first and foremost educational. Thus, he saw a need to incorporate changes in jujutsu. It was unacceptable to allow difficult and dangerous techniques into the schools. It was necessary to transform it into a gentler system whose goal would be physical fitness for everyone. He went from teacher to teacher and from one school to another in order to gather information. One teacher emphasized striking techniques, another emphasized throwing techniques, while still another emphasized subduing the opponent by strangulations and armlocks. He ploughed into libraries and did research. Thus, his characteristic openmindedness and ingenuity came into expression. It wasn't generally accepted to move from teacher to teacher, but he claimed that if he were to concentrate on one method alone, jujutsu would never progress and remain static. "world is changing and jujutsu should change accordingly". Thus, in January 1882, he opened the first dojo of his own. A small side room of the Buddhist Eishoji temple. He gathered his few students and told them that from now on they will be training in a new method which was an integration of many different methods, and that will be different in the sense that it's goal was to protect the well being of the trainees. He explained that his system was designed to provide physical, mental and moral education. This method would be called "judo" to emphasize that it was not another martial art but a "way" based on the principles of gentleness and flexibility. It would be suitable and appropriate for everyone and a way through which one could become a better person, more sound, moral and more fruitful to society. The school he established would be called "The Kodokan" to say, the place where the "way" is taught.

The struggle for survival

Kano's work did not end with the foundation of the Kodokan. It only had just begun. He was then confronted with two tasks, each onemore difficult than the other. 1. getting recognition for his method 2. Spreading his system and make it available for all. 1. A rumor spread in Tokyo that a group of jujutsu disciples was training seriously in a new method, claiming their method to be more efficient in building better warriors. The first to take up the challenge was the Tokyo Police. All the policemen received jujutsu training, and the heads of the police force felt obligated to see that their men receive best training from the best qualified teachers. They could not remain indifferent to the rumors, especially in light of the fact cited above, that the status of jujutsu was far from glorious. Therefore, it was decided to organize a competition between the police force and Kano's group. Fifteen men were selected from each side for the competition. Kano knew very well that upon this test, his system would stand or fall. The Kodokan was victorious in 12 bouts, defeated in 2 and one bout ended in a tie. The Japanese have always been persuaded by facts, and indeed, this granted final recognition to Kano's system. His students began to train the police force and additional dojos were opened. 2. After gaining this desired recognition, Kano invested all of his efforts in the spread of judo. He began in the schools that were in his charge, and through his various posts in the ministry of education, saw to it that judo was incorporated in the schools as part of the curriculum. This alone, however, was far from satisfying Kano. He emphasized the importance of young Japanese receiving a broad education, and accordingly organized special programs enabling the most talented students to receive education abroad, mainly in Europe. Years before, he had opened a school for the study of English and English literature, and he demanded that it be opened to all. He also organized groups of Chinese students to come and study in Japan as a contribution to the improvement of relations between China and Japan. He claimed that Japan should be willing to learn from the western world, and grow from those things the western world has to offer all. However, he in no way took his stand from a position of inferiority. He suggested that the western world learn and profit from what Japan offered, and referred to judo as one of these contributions. His dream and his message to the world was that people everywhere could learn judo as a method of physical, mental and moral education. Kano did not just talk. He initiated journeys throughout the world - 13 such journey in his lifetime. One should remember that at that time a journey meant spending several weeks on a ship at sea. On each journey, he investigated the varied educational systems he encountered, studied them and composed reports. He wanted to learn from the various western educational systems, and in turn, to offer them what he himself had learned. He made acquaintance with various Education Ministries and government personnel from all over the world. Everywhere he went he gave demonstrations of the art of judo. At the same time he invited heads of universities throughout the world to visit the Kodokan. The first to do so were from Yale University in the U.S.A and from Cambridge in England. The Russian consul visited the training center of the Japanese Army and observed the judo training sessions. Kano quickly won international recognition. Students from Europe began to arrive at the Kodokan to learn judo, and in turn, Kano sent several of his own students abroad to teach. The most famous story is that of Yamashita, one of Kano's foremost students, who was sent to the United States and taught President Roosevelt himself.

The Olympic Path

It was not at all surprising when in the spring of 1909 Kano received a visit from the French ambassador in Japan. Up to this point, Kano had heard nothing of the Olympic games, or even of their existence. He also had not heard of Baron Pierre de Coubertain who in 1894 established the International Olympic Committee and organized the first Olympic Games of the new era in Athens in 1896. He came to enlist Kano on the IOC, and thus to make him the first Asian representative in the committee. He introduced him to the Olympic values of de Coubertin: that the goal of the olympic games should be to develop cooperation amongst the nations, to support international peace, to contribute to each other and to utilize sport as an instrument in accomplishing these goals. It is unnecessary to point out that these values enlisted Kano's greatest energies and he became a very active member in the IOC. Japan competed for the first time in the Olympic Games in Stockholm in 1912. Kano remained active in the committee until the day of his death, and he was known and honored for his infinite attempts to find creative solutions for the various disputes that quickly errupted amongst the committee members as part and parcel of world politics.

And The Rest...

The rest is already known and well recognized, and there is much to be sad about but this isn't the place. In 1928 in Berlin, Kano suggested establishing an international body whose role would be to organize judo activity around the world. Only in 1951, however, the International Judo Federation came into being. In 1938, Kano traveled to Cairo to a meeting of the IOC, with the intention to convince the committee to hold the Olympic Games of 1940 in Japan, despite the world situation. Japan had turned its back on world democracies by joining forces with Germany and Italy and with its renewed militaristic leanings. Despite these facts, Kano, with his unique personality, succeeded in his mission and the IOC agreed that the 1940 games be held in Japan. On his way back home, aboard ship, on the fourth of May 1938, he succumbed to a severe pneumonia, and he died at the age of 78. The games of 1940 were never held, and there are those that say it was a blessing that Kano never saw what happened.


In 1945, after Japan's surrender, the Allies banned judo and kendo in Japan's schools, and in 1946 the activities of Japanese Association for Budo were allowed again. Rizei Kano, the son, was nominated as the third president of the Kodokan. In 1948, the European Judo Union was established. In 1950, the practice of judo was restored to Japanese schools as part of their curriculum. In 1951, the International Judo Association was established. In 1956, the first World Judo Championship took place. 21 countries participated. There was only open weight category, and Japan's Natsui was victorious. In 1961, the Third World Judo Championship was held, and for the first time, a non Japanese judoka won the title: it was Anton Geesing, a Deutshman. In 1964, the eighteenth Olympic Games were held in Tokyo, and included Judo competition.There were three weight categories and open weight. Again, Geesing won the open weight category, and is the first non Japanese Olympic champion. In all other three categories, the winners were Japanese: Nakatani, Okano and Inokuma. Nowadays, we are frequently witnesses to discussions (to our regret - theoretical) about Kano's approach concerning the inclusion of judo into the Olympic Games. Kano wanted, above all, to see judo spread throughout the world, available to all, in the benefice of society. There is no arguing that his principal wish was educational and societal. Competition and victory were for him only instruments. And now, hoping that we have succeeded in giving the reader understanding of the roots from which judo came to life, and the path of the man whose life work was the establishment and spreading of the art of judo, we leave the discussion open…