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Part 6: Sport Influences

This decade, the 1880's, was a profound time. England was master of the world, and yet, it was a tiny nation, with limited natural resources. To Japanese, in many important and reassuring ways, Britain looked like Japan. But, unlike Japan, it was the most powerful nation on earth. It had defeated a continental power, France, in a direct military confrontation in spite of the brilliant Napolean. It had supplanted the first modern commercial and mercantile power, Holland, in a ruthless naval and colonial rivalry that had spanned two centuries. It had eclipsed a formidable industrial and diplomatic power, Germany, on all fronts. The world looked to England for examples, and for someone enamored of the principle of small overcoming large, weak overcoming strong, and flexible overcoming inflexible, little England — Mistress of the Seas and Master of the world — was quite an attraction.

Actually, each seemed to attract the other. Japan saw England as an internationally successful mirror of itself, and became Anglophile. England, always intrigued by foreign cultures, was particularly intrigued by Japan's. One example was Lafcadio Hearn. He had been fascinated by Kano's efforts, and moved to Japan to teach. Kano recalled one elaborate social affair in which all of the Japanese participants arrived in Western-style coats, dresses or military uniforms. The only participant who wore a totally Japanese couture was Lafcadio Hearn.(2)  Hearn was one of many English investigators of Japanese culture. Another prolific writer, E.J. Harrison, was among a group of writers on Japanese subjects. One of his friends remarked on the flood of Japanese studies and commentary that, in England, it was finally becoming a distinction NOT to have written a book on Japan.(3)

The English school system, its economic philosophers, its military strategists, its sports systems were subject to international scrutiny and emulation. The Japanese universities adopted the English system of education almost without modification, including the language. Kano, attending Tokyo University, was so impressed by what he perceived as the power of education, that he resolved to become an educator. As a corollary to this, his passion, Ju Jitsu, he resolved to remake into an educational endeavor. He had his physical key — Kuzushi — which already transformed the methodology.

It is useful to stop and ponder here. Kano already had his revolution in martial arts. He began teaching at Eishoji Temple and gathering students under his own name at his new Ju Jitsu school which he called the "Kodokan" and which taught his new style, which he termed Judo. He had added the "Do" to supplant "jitsu" out of an intent to modernize the old ju jitsu styles. He thought of this modernization not only in terms of his modification of the physical techniques, but in terms of adding educational methods, goals, and tools to his repetoire. The goal of education, in general, was different under Western concepts than it had been under the Shogun. Under the Shogun, education was a method of control and indoctrination; rather to prevent than to promote discovery. 

Under the English system, education was a method of discovery, promoting new ideas and approaches. At the same time, it did so in a well-regulated and well-defined format of providing basic tools, from reading, to memorizing, to writing, to speaking, to debating, to exploring and challenging. Kano saw the "grading" system as inherent to the overall goals of British education, and understood the need for curriculums, not only for the benefit of the student, but for the benefit of teachers and professors. 

The English also had a particular affection for sport in an educational context. Rugby, cricket, and soccer all had well-developed presences within the English school system. This created, it seemed, a different relationship and even ability within English students that was entirely lacking in students of other systems, where sports were a mere adjunct to state-dominated and dictated education.

Kano, becoming an educator, saw the sport element, and knew that it suggested something far more important for martial arts, and for the people in general, than mere self-defense. When Kano became head of the national teacher's university, he saw to it that all teachers have a certain amount of knowledge and experience in some sport or physical education. This he did by encouraging sports club activities at the Tokyo Higher Normal School, and consequently, a sports club was founded with the students forming the regular members, and the faculty participating as special members. This sports club was composed of the following departments: Judo, Japanese fencing, heavy gymnastics, Sumo, lawn tennis, soccer, and baseball. Each student belonged to at least one department of this sports club, and it was compulsory that he practice for at least thirty minutes, every day, the particular sport of the department to which he was affiliated.(4) Kano apparently had no qualms about classifying Judo, in this way, as a sport.

Interestingly, at the same time that Kano was looking at these examples, a Frenchman, Pierre de Coubertin, was drawing similar conclusions. De Coubertin admired the British approach to sport, which emphasized the code of sportsmanship, but also the distinctly British attitude that sport should be a part of daily life, cutting across class and social distinctions. In addition, the British had made sport compulsory in its school curriculums. De Coubertin, seeing Britain at the apogee of its power, could only wonder if Britain’s emphasis on sport was somehow producing different attitudes, different people, and leaders with different qualities. The observation by the Duke of Wellington that Britain’s defeat of Napolean at Waterloo had actually been obtained on the playing fields of Eton was a reflection that British leaders seemed, in those days, to be able to work toward common goals in a "team-spirit" fashion that other nations lacked entirely. Among other things, the British idea of sport required working together, indeed, to make a personal sacrifice of one's own opportunity to score a point to ensure victory. Two ideas, working together for the common good, and personal sacrifice to the common good were distinctly British sport ideals, and strongly represented in British philosophy through Herbert Spencer and John Stuart Mill.

France’s politicians, supported by a country with abundant resources, a people of wonderful vitality, and a civilization unsurpassed, seemed always to lose things like wars when it counted the most. The political leadership of the country, it seemed to de Coubertain, was always crippled by the political ambitions of its own leaders, and he saw that this seemed true in Germany, Russia, and other powers as well; all except for England. There, the leaders seemed to have a different perspective of politics and a different perspective on "team playing." Organizational skills, "people", and quick judgment, were characteristics that the English school system seemed to produce in abundance, and, above all, these seemed like characteristics that inevitably resulted from immersion in, or at least exposure to, a sport culture.

De Coubertin concluded that the British sport culture was a unique but powerful influence on the fate of that nation and its people. He resolved that all mankind should benefit from the influence of a sport culture. From his observations, he resolved to recreate the Olympic Games, as an impetus to developing a worldwide sport culture from which all nations and peoples could benefit, as the British people had benefited in the 19th Century.(4)

Kano, brought up in an Anglophile world, no doubt saw the same things. At the same time, as he became an educated member of the Meiji elite, he reveled in studies of British economics, politics, and philosophy. When he spoke of "maximum efficiency, minimum effort," he was not preserving oriental philosophy; he was injecting John Stuart Mill’s Utilitarianism into oriental philosophy.

This was a revolution because the Japanese had no concept of sport.(6) At the same time that Kano brought British sport concepts to Japan, he sought to combine these concepts with distinctly Japanese elements.

Although Kano sought to preserve, in a sense, the old codes of honor of the warriors of Medieval Japan, he also felt compelled to abandon those aspects which he viewed as anachronistic. The concept, for instance, of "sudden death," the old Samurai ideal of death by one skillful cut of the perfection of the sword, did not survive in the sport context of Judo. Kano saw this as defeating the purpose of sport, of risk to obtain advantage, of development of strategy and skill. Instead, he favored Judo competitions, Shiai, rather than the old-style, sudden death, contests, or Shobu.

"Sudden death" inhibited risk taking; but if no risks were taken, sound judgment regarding risk was not developed. Sport, as a theory, was the natural experience of  developing quick judgment in the taking of risks, under a set of rules, to obtain a goal. Nothing in life was much different. Kano understood this.  Judo rules, under Kano, were three point contests, not sudden death or "ippon".

Japanese militarism, during the 1930's, however, attempted to revive for nationalistic purposes, the Samurai ideal of complete sacrifice of the individual, in one glorious moment, for the good of the nation. The military imposed upon the Kodokan the rule of one point wins.(7) As Kano feared, such a perspective created Shobu, rather than Shiai. "Sudden death" rules punished, and still punish, experimentation, creativity, and use of competition as a means of forging techniques. However, Judo has evolved Randori into a stronger practice than was reflected by Kano's wishes. So perhaps the sport element of practice and risk-taking has merely mutated into a different part of Judo practice.

Shobu has created a caution in Judo matches which degrades their educational purpose. On the other hand, of all sports, Judo does truly reflect the old Samurai ethic that one mistake meant death; that success was a commitment to total victory. In this aspect, it remains unique among the competitive martial arts, which otherwise universally follow a point scoring system, and among non-competitive martial arts, which do not experience the sense of sudden death even though many purport to train with the so-called deadly techniques. It is the experience, not the knowledge, that leads to the Zen state, and so, again, Judo seems to invariably move toward an ideal that many other martial ways can only talk about.

Judo is experience, and although Judo was not founded upon Zen precepts, Judo remains a fundamental expression of Zen concepts. Compared to the other martial arts, even the aerobically furious Kendo, Judo is the supreme test of budo, the martial ideal. As one anthropologist student of martial ways defined it, Judo was "Budo as Ordeal." It is the retention of a "combat vigor" which distinguishes Judo from other martial arts. Judo is not only the comprehension of movement techniques, the but "swift demonstration of the living laws of movement."

... [T]he judoka I practiced with seemed to absorb a tremendous amount of damage during practice. ... I was injured more in three months of judo practice than I had been during the three years that I had studied karate while an undergraduate at college.(8)

Kano’s perception of Budo required the development of ran in a marital setting. Ran, in its most fundamental, simple meaning is freedom. In martial arts, it is "free practice" or free sparring. Some writers have observed that randori is Judo’s "most distinguishing feature."(9)

Kano had seen that many of the ju jitsu ryu had developed an appreciation for perfect form; for the aesthetic component of their movement art. This was a poison handed down from the most admired of the bujitsu, the swordsmen; the Kenjitsu who could not practice fully, because they could not make mistakes without crippling or fatal results. Because they could not make mistakes, and survive, they could not fully learn. Because they could not fully learn, they created a false world of form, which substituted for experience. Eventually it became Kendo, which, to restore vigor, nearly eliminated form (kata) entirely.

Disdaining "competition" as too dangerous, or even vulgar, many arts, during the waning twilight of the Tokugawa shogunate, had abandoned their martial spirit in favor of idealized movement forms. They convinced themselves that such perfection of movement reflected mastery of martial skills. Kano was not the first to see the fallacy of such an approach, which was simply rationalizing a way that eliminated, rather than preserved, the martial sweat, and agony, and ordeal that had characterized the training of men in the olden times; men who understood that perfection of movement held no advantages to the defeated, who were dead. Instead, they knew, above all, that martial spirit was strength, skill, conditioning, and above all, martial timing and ardor in the face of a determined adversary who gave no quarter and expected none. It was the development of "fudoshin" the immovable mind, that met all challenges and surprises with a state of composure but instant and devastating response.

These were missing from most styles, and continue to be absent to this day. Indeed, Kano must have looked to the experience of Kendo, and its transformation from Kenjitsu. Kenjitsu had become stylized and idealized, using its lethality as an excuse not to practice in a spirited manner. It had become, in the words of one observer, a "vacant" system, devoid of martial spirt, martial style and martial ardor.

Kano saw this all around him. So-called martial styles avoided anything resembling combat. There was no ran, but instead highly prescribed movement sets of action, reaction, and counterattack. Forms, literally kata, were the substitute for sweat and fear of defeat. The thought of Budo and the form of Budo had replaced the experience of Budo.

Kano Jigoro was not a Zen master, and aside from an exposure that Kano had to Takuan through his study of Kito Ryu, there is no evidence he was otherwise particularly influenced by Zen Buddhism or any Buddhist ideology. This should not suggest that he did not understand the philosophy of Zen Buddhism, to the contrary, but he did not adopt it as his own. More accurately, Kano was culturally and philosophically a neo-Confucian thinker, and his reflections on Taoist philosophy merely coincided with Zen thought that reached back to similar roots. Even at that, neo-Confucianists viewed Zen Buddhism as a heretical sect and it is doubtful Kano had any affinity for "Zen" all. It was through a Taoist thinking that if a true experience in Budo existed, the martial experience had to exist and this had to include unexpected combat situations, provided by an aggressive opponent, in a situation of "testing" of both skill and spirit against the determined opponent.

But for Zen acolytes, this idea of uninhibited experience, building a natural reflex and response through the natural yielding philosophy of Judo, resonated with Zen thinking. Interestingly, only a "sport" approach seemed to provide the authentic Zen requirement of experience and reliance on the fundamental, rather than the derivative, aspects of the human nature. That is, upon the spirit, stamina, courage and will; as opposed to knowledge, training, education, and a "philosophical" attitude.

Experience, in the Zen sense, could only occur in a state of freedom, not in a prescribed hierarchy of movement forms. Contrary to the writings of some Judo commentators, ran, not kata, was the defining attribute of Judo as Kano Jigoro envisioned it, ran meaning literally "assimilating chaos," more conventionally translated as "free movement," being superior to the kata or vacant "form" of movement.

That is, freedom, not rigidity of form, was the essence of Judo. "Ju" was not "gentleness," it was "flexibility;" ability to change, to yield, to attack, to alter ones position with grace and control rather than in predetermined ideals. Judo is Judo. It is not "Kata"do.

Judo was, in its rough, combative form — randori — an idealized form of Zen. Although Kendo, in particular, as well as kyudo, aikido, and virtually all other forms of Japanese martial arts claim Zen as their philosophical foundations, only Judo personalized the Zen experience. To the frustration of proponents of other martial styles, Zen masters would, in interviews, constantly refer to Judo as a sort of worldly ideal of Zen. Taisen Deshimaru, a well-known modern master of Zen philosophy, constantly referred to Judo as his training ground for understanding Zen.(10) The true Zen masters, on the other hand, rarely considered Japanese Karate as a true Zen-based art, and rarely mention Aikido, which derives from a millenarian religious basis (Omote) rather than Zen, a philosophical approach.

As Deshimaru pointed out:

How can we direct our mind? The answer lies in Zen, not in the techniques of martial arts. Martial arts plus Zen equals Japanese Budo.

How can we education the mind and learn to direct it? Kodo Sawaki, as I said, spoke of kyu shin ryu, the approach or method transmitted by this school in a traditional text, one chapter of which deals with the "tranquil spirit." Here is an excerpt from it:

There is no enemy.

The mind has no form, but sometimes it can have form.

Sometimes our mind can be apprehended but sometimes it cannot.

When the mind's activity fills the cosmos, ... and when we know how to seize the opportunity that presents itself, then we can turn every shift to profit, avoid mishaps, and attack the whole infinity of things in one thing.

No comment. Not an easy text to understand. But those who have had a serious experience in Judo can understand this attitude.(11)

Kano, then, in his understanding of Tao, provided a profound expression of a Zen basis for Japanese martial arts, and, in his modernization of the old styles, appears to have created a much improved method of transmitting the philosophy as well as technical skills and spirit of Budo.

Kano, observing modern sport theory and modern social theory, found resonance with ancient concepts. These ancient concepts, resonating into the modern world through Judo, harmonized with the philosophical expression of Zen.