Almost 160 years ago, the founder of modern Judo was born in Kobe, Japan. After having mastered different styles of Ju-Jutsu with great masters such as Fukuda Hachinosuke and Iso Masatomo, he designed his vision of martial arts by creating his own: Judo. Determined to work for the international recognition of his sport, he created the Kodokan in 1882, where many generations of Judoka will train. On this special day, we would like to pay tribute to this great man through a brief article recounting some essential points of his life and his work for the development of Judo worldwide.
Jigoro Kano was born on October 28, 1860 in Kobe, Japan and is Jirosaku Mareshiba’s third son. His father was a humble sake brewer at the time. In order to follow his father, freshly promoted officer in the Meiji government, he left his hometown to settle in Tokyo, just after the death of his mother when he was eleven.
Raised in an environment where education was the first priority, he quickly showed a real gift for foreign languages and registered to a language private school from the age of fifteen. In 1877, he was admitted in The University of Tokyo (Todai), named Teikoku (imperial) University at the time, where he stood out thanks to his outstanding results, especially in English. It is actually important to note that most of the original texts written by Kano were written in English.
Kano Sensei was only around 160 centimeters tall and physically structured for rapidity and dynamism. This is the reason why he first tried some modern sports such as baseball, athletics or tennis. However, to respond to some bullying he was suffering from others, Kano decided to start a self-defense sport. He was advised to practice Ju-Jutsu (柔術) by a friend who had enrolled in the Shogun’s army, an activity in which he proved rather gifted. Let’s also note that his father was quite against this decision, preferring his son to practice a modern sport.
In order to understand the very essence of the creation of Judo, we need to have a broad vision of Kano’s history with Ju-Jutsu, Judo being one of its direct descendants.
Indeed, learning Ju-Jutsu with Fukuda Hachinosuke, a Tenjin Shin'yō-ryū teacher at the time, strongly built his vision of martial arts and allowed him to develop some new techniques, sometimes copied from western wrestling sports. These techniques will shape the modern Judo later. Fukuda died soon after a demonstration performed for the United-State’s President Ulysse S. Grant, and it is during this period that Kano decided to study with Iso Masatomo, a very close friend of his deceased Sensei. This period gave him great knowledge as well as strong basics in Kata.
When Masatomo Sensei died in 1881, Kano decided to emphasize learning an art rather than a succession of techniques intended to neutralize an opponent, as it was the aim of Ju-Jutsu when it was invented originally in the Samurai era. He started his Kitō-ryū training, a Koryu (traditional Japanese schools) practiced in full armor based on grappling and throwing techniques. Simultaneously, he developed his philosophy based on three fundamental pillars: knowledge, spirit education and physical training. Key values that will shape his art and the behaviors of his practitioners.
Moreover, there wasn’t any real distinction between the Ju-Jutsu taught by Kano, mixing Kitō-ryū’s throwing techniques with Tenjin Shin'yō-ryū’s grappling techniques, and the one taught by other teachers. But in fact, it is during this period around 1882 that the Judo we know today started to appear.
Undoubtedly, Kano launched a new transition in the martial sector aiming at transforming a “technique” into an “art”. A trend that will inspire other Sensei in the creation of their “Ways” (道), with which he always maintained friendly relations. Indeed, in order to improve their techniques and have a broaden vision of their art, Kano also sent some of his Judoka to train with Morihei Ueshiba, the creator of Aikido, an art also based on several Ju-Jutsu styles but emphasising on arm and wrist-locks.
In order to create his art, Jigoro Kano drew inspiration from the reed writhing without giving away under the sometimes violent power of nature. This flexibility and this discipline has greatly influenced Judo’s techniques repertoire as well as the spirit that practitioners need to adopt in order to become someday a master.
Kano has created the Kodokan around 1882 and the first aim of these premises has always been since the beginning to provide a place to share Judo’s values, organize its evolution and trained future masters. However, even though the Kodokan embodies Judo’s values and has a worldwide recognition nowadays, it took at least thirteen years for it to begin its rise in the martial art world. At the beginning, the Kodokan was not even as huge as it is today, sharing a small 12-mates space that belonged to the Buddhist temple Eishō-ji (永昌寺), located in Higashi Ueno. It is only in 1958, that the Kodokan settle in its current 8 floors, including whole sections dedicated to research and as much as five Dojo.
Furthermore, although Jigoro Kano taught at the Kodokan, he was also in charge of attributing the grades to his students. With this responsibility, he never had the opportunity to be graded during his lifetime. However, he was posthumously awarded the 12th dan by Jiro Nango, his nephew, creating a gap that even the greatest current 10th dan masters will ever be able to reach.
Despite all its efforts, Kano Sensei will not be able to see his art introduced in the Olympics Games, in 1964 in Tokyo. Nevertheless, he had the occasion to participate in a demonstration during the Los Angeles Olympics in 1932, showing Judo for the first time to the world on the international scene.
Since its 22 years old and a life spent to enrich his art as well as to promote its values, Kano remains one of the pioneers who shaped the modern Japanese martial arts world. Without a doubt, Judo had a huge influence over other Budo, ideologically undeniably, but also in a more tangible way, with the Judogi that imposed itself as the reference when talking about martial arts Keikogi, as we saw in our article The Story of the Iconic Judogi.
Kano died in 1938 during his trip on the boat Hikawa Maru. He was enthroned in 1999 as the first member of the International Judo Federation (IJF), and is still considered nowadays as a master and a father by thousands of Judoka across the world. Nowadays, Judo became the most popular martial art in the world, carrying on the values and the traditions that Jigoro Kano strived to hand down during his life.