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 Jigoro Kano

     Kano was undoubtedly of genius caliber, and, in his mastery of many intellectual areas of study, a genuine polymath as well. Combined with these talents was an extraordinary capacity for work, and a stubbornness about attaining the goals he had set for himself. It is difficult to imagine, when his father forbid him to study ju jitsu at age 16, that he would go out and do so anyway. From a skinny 90 pound 16 year-old, we see the results of his ambition to be physically stronger when at age 22, and still only 5'2" tall, he weighed an astonishing 165 pounds. Kazuzo Kudo recalled that Kano had broad shoulders  and chest and big calves. "Shihan was so proud of his calves, he was always pulling up his hakama to show them off." Kudo also recalled Kano's own Judo skills: "I was surprised at how quickly he threw me."(1). He invariably treated all students in the same way. Saburo Nango, Kano's nephew, recalled that "Keichu Tokugawa, son of a former shogun, was treated no differently in Judo training than any of Kano's other students."(2)

Kano was thought of as a "confident and broad-minded president" by his peers at the Tokyo University, where he served as president.(3) As an instructor, he was "unusually" strict. His nephew, Jiro Nango, came to study Judo under Kano and recalled that, as a student, "I had to get up at 5 o'clock" every morning and help clean the rooms and the garden." (4) His son-in-law, Takasaki, recalled that Kano was easy to anger, but just as easy to laugh and had a keen sense of humor. "He laughed deeply when he was pleased," and was generally always seen to be smiling, even when angry.(5)

Kano did not smoke, but did occasionally drink sake. Kudo recalled that "he liked his sake and his face got red quickly when he was drinking," but he knew his limit and usually stopped before he had too much. "If he over-imbibed, he invariably got sick." He rejected the Japanese tradition of exchanging sake cups with fellow drinkers as unhealthy. Japanese farmers, among whom the tradition was particularly strong, invariably attempted to swap cups with Kano, and he would become angry.

At home, Kano lived in the tradition style of a "kokushi" father. Although he had tried to teach his son, Risei, Judo at home, Risei apparently had no talents in that area. Other than that, he had little personal contact with his children. He kept a refined distance from his children, and his word was law. His daughter Noriko recalled, in her book Recollections of my Father, that "when he returned home, he would go straight into the living room, which meant on most days I did not see my father at all." If they did, it was when they lined up at the front door to bid Kano "okaeri-nasai mase" as he arrived. This was the typical Meiji-era family structure, and Kano seemed to feel comfortable with this traditional setting. Still, "he wept when he heard of Noriko's death."(6).

Professionally, Kano was often at odds with his superiors over educational theory and teaching. He was an avid student of John Dewey's revolutionary approach, but not all Japanese educators were of the same mind. One writer noted that Kano never submitted a letter of resignation over such disputes, because of course Kano never thought he was wrong, they should resign, not him. He was sometimes accused of giving boring lectures, however, and once, when only three students showed up, he was so angry he declared that "Everyone in this course is dropped."(7).

He always took a personal interest in his Judo student's welfare. Even while he was a tough disciplinarian he made barley tea and rice mixed with lotus roots for his students at the Eishoji Kodokan, and provided his poorer students with practice clothes, which he even laundered.(8) Another student, Takasaki, recalled that after he graduated from Waseda University in 1925 and joined an army Imperial Guard unit, he received a telegraph from Kano: "Your father has been looking for a good wife for you. What sort of woman do you have in mind for a wife?" Three years later, Takasaki married Kano's youngest daughter, Atsuko. (9)

Kano's multiple efforts at organizing, developing, and spreading Judo, coupled with his work developing the Japanese educational system can only be viewed as remarkable particularly in view of his ongoing efforts to organize Japanese amateur athletics. He was founder and first president of the Japanese Amateur Athletic Union, bringing him a seat on the International Olympic Committee in 1909. There, he became "revered," but, as World War II approached, Kano saw the divisions and fracturing of mankind as inevitably leading to war. He blandly attempted to defend Japanese occupation of Manchuria on the grounds that China had been tearing itself apart with "warlordism," and that was true. He saw Japan as trying to help.

As the military took over more aspects of Japanese life, Kano resisted the use of Judo for military purposes. Over the militarists strenuous objections, Kano sought to have the 1940 Olympics held in Tokyo. "Sportsmanship is above war," he told one press conference. He succeeded, amazingly, at a time when Japan was seen as suspect and ruthless in its colonization of its neighbors. That Kano was successful can only be attributed to the great respect he had from the world, and also, undoubtedly, respect at his courage for seeking the games, to bring the spotlight of the world on Japan.  America and England, both resolutely opposed to Japanese policies in the Far East, ultimately supported Kano's controversial bid.

It could not have been to reward Japan. Rather, the IOC delegates must have understood Kano's wish, that the idea of sportsmanship, of bringing humanity together, was of paramount importance in dangerous times. Kano needed to bring the Olympics to Japan to derail his government's reckless military preparations, to focus attention on them, as well as remind Japanese that they had a moral obligation to the world in return.

The IOC overwhelmingly approved Tokyo. But, on his way home, one newspaper writer in Seattle saw that Kano was tired, and seemed, already, disappointed. He was "a gracious, kindly little old man, whose heart was wrapped up in youth and amateur athletics," wrote Seattle PI sports editor Royal Brougham. He should have been celebrating his great personal achievement, but Brougham noticed that  nothing "could hide the disappointment within."  Kano had spent his entire adult life trying to build a new Japan. His Judo had tried to eradicate the ruthless, Nietschean concepts of old Budo. His school teachers had fanned out from Tokyo for over a generation, bringing Kano's enlightened ideas to every facet of Japanese society. His personal stature as defacto foreign minister, representing Japan on countless occasions, had given him a highly influential voice. 

Kano was a devout pacifist. He would not, his children noted, even intentionally kill an insect. His seeking the Olympic Games was at odds with the more radical members of the military government in Japan. Kano was glad to chat pleasantly with Seattle newspaper men on his way home to Japan, in early May, 1938. "Outwardly, Jigoro Kano was confident that shot and shell in the Orient would not interfere with his country's elaborate plans for the 1940 Olympics. 

"Those of us who were thrilled and awed by the never-to-be-forgotten scenes at the Berlin Games, and at Los Angeles four years before, can feel just a small part of the disappointment in Count Kano's soul. Nothing has contributed half so much to better understanding and friendly relations among men of different race and tongue as athletics."

" In his soul, he probably knew differently. Count Kano will not be there to witness the Olympic spectacle he planned and worked for."

Kano died on his way home, May 5, 1938, while aboard the Japanese ship, Hikawa Maru. His death was officially attrributed to pneumonia. "The doctors had a name for the disease but a heart heavy and broken from the shattering of his Olympic dreams probably contributed to his sudden death."  

Within a few weeks of Kano's death, the government of Japan cancelled the games, and within a few months, invaded China from Manchuria. The prime minister and his cohorts were all avid proponents of Budo.

  Back to Part Ten, "History of Kodokan Judo                 

Kano, a "revered Olympian"
 leads the IOC delegation at the 1932 Los Angeles Olympic Games



Jigoro Kano, aboard the Hikawa Maru, May, 1938.















Memorial to Jigoro Kano
 at the Kodokan