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Part 2: Young Kano

Jigoro Kano was born October 28, 1860 in the seaside town of Kikage, near Kobe. Kano's father, Jirosaku Kano,was a Shinto priest, but also an important government official in charge of purchasing agents for naval and shipping supplies. Other members of the Kano clan were sake brewers.

Kano was the third and last son in his family, which also included two girls. Kano and his family moved to Tokyo in 1871. The restoration of the Emperor Meiji had occurred in 1868, and great changes were sweeping Japan. Japanese intellectuals were absorbing as much of the newly-available European culture as they could, and new political winds, such as the idea of democracy, were astonishing the people. Young Kano was coming of age at a unique time in Japanese history. 

As the son of a government official, Kano no doubt saw all around him the political and economic rot of the Tokugawa Shogunate. No doubt his family, by its privileged position within the government, was acutely aware of its technical and spiritual hollowness.

The Tokugawa Shoguns had ruled Japan since Tokugawa Iyesu had unified Japan at the Battle of Sekigahara in 1601. The enduring power of the Shoguns derived from three sources: 1) they ruled in the name of the emperor, whom they kept virtual hostage, 2) they ruthlessly controlled military and police power by banning anything resembling the Samurai practices of old, and 3) they obsessively monopolized education, public discourse and exposure to outside influences. For nearly 300 years, Japan had been hermetically sealed to the outside world. Its education system indoctrinated the superiority of the Japanese civilization and race and eulogized the warriors of old who gave Japan its national character. A rigid class or caste system formalized the relationships within society, simplifying the administration of legal codes immensely. The law was the Shogun. The Shogun was the law.

Like all dictatorships, time and genetics robbed the Tokugawa dynasty of important qualities of leadership, and of its rationale for existence. The Shogun’s ideal of protecting Japanese uniqueness became, more and more, an excuse for repression. Japanese civilization, the excuse for iron rule behind an iron curtain, began to wilt and wither when isolated from the dynamic changes in the world at large.

A few years prior to Kano Jigoro’s birth, then, a warship representing not a great power, but a young, vigorous one, sailed into Tokyo Bay, and said, in essence, "open up." The Shogun, aware of his nation’s weakness, knew that resistance was futile. The Dutch had been poking around Japan for two centuries, peacefully though, in the name of trade, but had shown the Shoguns that the military might of the West was beyond Japanese comprehension. When, in that pivotal year of 1854, the American Admiral Perry took the direct approach that the Dutch had been unwilling to take, the ruling Shogun knew that the dynasty was over.

Kano’s formative years, then, were filled with the excitement and discussion and intrigue of contact with the new civilizations. Japan, its mind and culture not so much protected as straightjacketed for 300 years, seethed with excitement at the discovery of the rest of the world.

It was a new age; full of ideas, and talk, and discussion of new ways of living and new ways of thinking and doing things. The Shogunate, grown politically feeble with age, simply fractured and vanished at the demands of intellectuals that the Emperor be given back the power to rule Japan. By 1868, the newly-emerging intelligentsia of Japan was in full embrace of Western ideals and Western thought. Loving Japan nevertheless, they could not reject their Japanese history, but could easily rationalize Japan’s weakness by shouting that the Shogun had imprisoned the Japanese Emperors, the true fathers of the country, and thereby kept Japan from its true destiny. The Emperor, Meiji, became the symbol of old Japan, rising against the anomaly of dictatorship and militarism and isolation.

In 1868, the Emperor was restored to his full glory as the true ruler of Japan. The Meiji Restoration was a revolution in every true sense, as important in Asia as the French Revolution was in Europe, or the American or Russian Revolutions were to the world at large.

Kano was eight years old; that impressionable age, as the world changed before his young eyes.

The intellectuals who brought about the restoration set about to "Westernize" Japan. "People were elated with the so-called ‘civilization." Its education system was thoroughly overhauled in a western model. Books by the tens of thousands were brought to Japan about all manner of technology, economics, philosophy, history and science. Japanese students and professors were sent out to all corners of the globe to study and understand the world that had evolved since Japan last looked at it 300 years before. The official language of instruction at major universities was English, so that the lingua franca of education and commerce would be natural for the intellectual class, and so that Japanese students would not be handicapped in the fullest understanding of guest lecturers from England, America and other countries.

Kano’s formative intellectual years, then, took place as this revolution in thinking was occurring. Every idea was, in Japan, genuinely new. Kano spent his teenage years in a veritable hurricane of social and intellectual change. Europe, the reader must recall, spent nearly four centuries changing from its medieval societies to the industrial, modern societies. Japan did it in about 15 years. Perhaps Japan is still trying to do it.

Kano’s education proceeded with these new influences all around him, and Kano was a deeply perceptive, highly intelligent observer. At the same time, he was small and frail. The revolution in society going on around him could not obscure the normal day-to-day interactions of young men. Bullies exist, whether in enlightened post-revolutionary France, or in the most backward, totalitarian province of any particular People’s Republic. Part of growing up is dealing with frustrations, harassment, perceived deficiencies, and the diversity of human nature. Being strong-minded, Kano resolved not to be intimidated by these travails of adolescence.

The only place he could turn, interestingly, was to the old Japan. The Meiji Restoration, like many revolutions, dominated the main streets, the places of education, and government, and commerce. But, in the back alleys, the countryside, old ways persisted; carried on by people too old, or set in their ways, or unwilling to embrace change.

As he reached his full growth in mid-teens, he was only 5'2". Literally a 90 pound weakling, he was beaten up so often that he had resolved to study ju jitsu, which had earned a reputation as making young men tough. Kano's father, however, refused to permit him to study ju jitsu, believing it was uncivilized and uncultured. Kano's father told him that jujutsu was a thing of the past, and quite useless now. Most probably father Kano thought that the boy should learn something more up-to-date.(1) How did young Kano react to this? According to his own words: "I am no more a child and my ideas have become fixed to a certain extent, so I do not think that it is necessary to depend on my parents in selecting a jujutsu master" (2) This is remarkable in a traditional Japanese household, and suggests the enormous strength of Kano's character and mind.

He began looking for a teacher. A few still taught the old fighting arts. Martial arts in general had been swept away by the Meiji Restoration, "out of vogue as being stale and awkward and by the celebrated masters only were they kept."(3)

Kano resolved to study these old ways, simply out of a necessity to learn fighting methods. Kano, at a young age, exhibited a determined sense of his own destiny, and began taking lessons anyway, from a teacher named Ryuji Katagiri. Katagiri apparently felt Kano too young for so serious a study, and gave him a few formal lessons, and told him to study hard.(4)

Kano enrolled at Tokyo Imperial University in 1878. Kano sought out an osteopath, as that profession had historically included ju jitsu instruction. Through Teinosuke Yagi, a local bone doctor, Kano was introduced to Hachinosuke Fukuda, a master of Tenjin-Shinyo Ryu ju jitsu. Unlike many ju jitsu schools, Fukuda emphasized a free-style practice over kata (forms). The next year, however, Fukuda suddenly took ill and died. Kano was taken on by another Tenjin-Shinyo Ryu instructor named Masatomo Iso. Iso also stressed a form of free movement, and so over the next two years, Kano made a full use of all his free time from studies to work on his ju jitsu, to the point where he would go home exhausted, fall asleep into nightmares, and awake shouting ju jitsu words and kicking off his quilts. But, by the time he was 21, Kano had become a master of Tenjin-Shinyo Ryu ju jitsu. 

In the process of this training, Kano was discovering Old Japan. He studied the intricate fighting methods of hand-to-hand combat, and of weapons-based combat. He learned that many of these methods had been handed down for centuries. He was intrigued at the evolution of unarmed fighting styles since the great Samurai wars prior to 1500. He began to realize that the great arteriosclerosis which had paralyzed Japan for centuries had also preserved some ancient concepts of idealism and of fighting movement which had value.

Unfortunately, Iso became ill and his Dojo, training hall, was shut down. Kano was again in search of a new instructor.  He met Tsunetoshi Iikubo, a master of Kito Ryu. An earlier master of Kito Ryu, Kuninori Suzuki, had changed the name of Kito-kumiuchi to Kito-ryu Judo in 1714. Over the passage of time, Kito-ryu Judo had slipped into common usage as Kito-ryu ju jitsu, but the seed for the later Kodokan Judo sprang from this source.

In any case, Kito Ryu emphasized free movement of practice, and particularly specialized in throwing techniques. Kito-Ryu's methods still relied on older folk ways of throwing and movement, and young Kano, with his bright and questioning intellect, began to see ways to change and modify the techniques he was learning, and improve their effectiveness immensely. During this process, he began inventing new techniques entirely, by studying other ju jitsu styles and even Western wrestling styles. While under Iikubo, he developed the new throws of kata guruma, uki goshi, and tsuri-komi-goshi. He also refined the idea of off-balancing, or kuzushi, as an integral means of executing techniques. Jujitsu styles had relied on leverage, not off-balancing, for execution. 

"Off-balancing." It was a new concept. Although it had undoubtedly been used before, no one had recognized it as an organizing principle. "Kuzushi." It was one of those "moments" of revelation brought about by years of hard work, sweat, study, and realization. Suddenly, the real meaning of "ju" became apparent, and much more obvious. The word "ju" had been applied to a myriad of physical styles and techniques, before the true physical nature of the concept was discovered. "Ju" was effective particularly when "kuzushi" was used. Ju and kuzushi are not the same thing. Ju is a strategy. Kuzushi is a tactic. Kano found a most effective tactic to implement the strategy.

Kano’s success with this new principle was unparalleled. It was apparent to all who studied that something new had happened in these back alleys and byways of feudal Japan. The old masters, trapped in a medieval methodology, using it as their shield against modernity, were suddenly confronted by the new ways intruding even upon their exclusive domain. A radical had penetrated their midst, and shown them new thoughts and ways clearly superior to their own. 

One day, he threw Iikubo three times. Kano's kuzushi had made the difference. "From now on, you teach me," Ikubo was reported to have remarked. Kano was accredited a master in Kito-Ryu, but Judo, in essence, was born that day.

Few people have the opportunities of living during a time of revolution; the smallest percentage of those actually participate in the revolution. For Kano, it was time for Ju Jitsu to join the revolution of the Meiji Restoration. 


Young Jigoro Kano (right)