Module: Judo and Philosophy

Lesson: Judo and Philosophy

Judy: I just don’t get it.  What does judo, a physical activity, have to do with a mental activity like philosophy?

Philip:   That’s a good question.  We do see some outward manifestations of things like, discipline, hard work, skill, toughness, and respect, but we usually have to dig deeper to find out about the philosophy of judo.

Jack:  That’s just it.  Everyone seems to talk about the philosophy of judo but where do we find it?  Besides, I certainly didn’t find any judo names in my philosophy book.  I saw figures from Plato to Derrida, and a whole lot of names in between, but no one from judo or any philosophy of judo.  Maybe Judy is right.  What does judo have to do with philosophy?

Robert:   What does it matter?  Judo is fun and I’d be doing it, philosophy or not.

Key Points

  1. How do we define philosophy?
  2. What does philosophy have to do with judo?
  3. How did Jigoro Kano come to develop a philosophy for judo?
  4. What are the important issues raised by Kano?
  5. How do some of these principles evolve out of the practice of jujitsu or judo?
  6. What implications can some of Dr. Kano’s ideas have on judoka?


Philosophy speaks to a number of issues amongst which are: epistemology; the science of knowledge, ethics and morality; the idea of good and evil, logic; how to reason, existentialism, finding meaning of our existence through our free will, metaphysics; God, a supreme plan, the soul, death, and beyond, consciousness.  Philosophy is the love of knowledge.  In the loose sense of the word, it is a well from which ideas about the things we do not know may be molded into subjects, which we then may study.  In some instances philosophy developed into a systemized science laying the foundation for chemistry, physics, astronomy, as well as the basic disciplines like psychology and law.

Western Philosophers

Some of the early champions of western philosophy were Plato and Aristotle.  Much of the original methodology of philosophy came from these Greek men.  It was Plato who told us that Socrates was famous for questioning answers rather than answering questions.   Aristotle, a student of Plato, was teacher to Alexander the Great.  The influence of both men was felt far and wide, and helped to continue the practice of a love of knowledge.  In addition, Athens, 470-399 B.C., conditions were just right with a leisure class that had time to reflect on the question why which marked a key point in the development of philosophy.

Jigoro Kano and Modern Japan

The phrase critical mass is often used to illustrate the idea that various conditions are just right or ripe for an event to occur.  Critical mass assumes a causation factor.  In other words, because of certain preceding events, the following event is primed to occur.  Judo philosophy also had events surrounding its development.  Japan had come out of isolation by the 1854 Treaty of Kanagawa with the United States.  In 1868, Emperor Meiji was restored to power and there was a great push to modernize Japan.  Along with the feudal system, all things connected to it were discarded.  This included all of the old martial arts of ancient Japan. Modernization for Japan meant learning from the West; the West that had so traumatically invaded their isolation.  Language became an important tool of advancement and those who possessed the ability to speak foreign languages, especially English, were in demand.  It was necessary to import new ideas and ways of thinking in order to build a nation.  These ideas would eventually knit together the fibers that would make Japan more than a loose collection of islands.  Emperor Meiji called for quick action to modernize.  The result was Japan’s first railroad system, postal service, modern military system, constitution, civil codes, and an education system.  Jigoro Kano, who was born in 1860, was only eight at the time when all this began.  Even at this young age, Jigoro’s future was being shaped, as he was enrolled in English classes while still in Kobe, Japan.

Young Jigoro Kano was educated in Confucian classics from the age of ten and continued his studies even after his move to the Tokyo area.  The Confucian classics provided Kano with his first formal introduction into ethics, morality, which provided him with an awareness of social obligation.  Additionally, he studied English even after his arrival in Tokyo under Shuhei Mitsukuri a fellow student of famed educational reformer, Yukichi Fukuzawa.  His father’s foresight was in preparation for life in the new Japan.

A young Jigoro Kano embarking on a journey that is to change the face of education and sports, not only for Japan but for the world.  He took jiu-jitsu, added philosophy and created judo.

Shuhei Mitsukuri, Yukichi Fukuzawa, Arinori Mori, and Masanao Nakamura were known as the “Meirokusha” and were the equivalent of a modern think tank.

At seventeen, Jigoro Kano entered Tokyo University and studied political science, economics, and philosophy, under Harvard trained Ernest Fenollosa.  Among the philosophers Kano studied were Spencer, Mill, Burnham, and Sidgewick.  No doubt, the influence of these men and philosophers, like his use of English, was to remain with him and serve him well in the era of an emerging Japan.  In addition to Jigoro Kano’s ability to absorb information was an emerging talent to analyze, synthesize, and create new and interesting ways by which progress could be realized.

The Birth of Judo

At about the same time that Jigoro Kano was in Tokyo University he was also pursuing his study of jujitsu.  He had begun his study of the art due in part to his small stature and large appetite for confrontation.  In his youth, he was short tempered, but seemed always to lose his battles to larger opponents.  He needed an equalizer and jiu-jitsu was what interested him.  At first his practice of this art was not looked upon kindly by his father but eventually his father was reported to have said, “Well, if you are so intent.”  On his father’s advice, young Jigoro earnestly studied Jiujitsu, with physical and mental zeal.  Through his study of Jujitsu various questions constantly plagued him.  These questions or stumbling blocks became the eventual cornerstone to the development of judo.  Naoki Murata lists them as follows.

  1. When Jigoro Kano started jujitsu under Hachinosuke Fukuda, one of his first lessons found himself flying to his back by a throw. He got up and asked, “How did you throw me?”  Fukuda merely motioned to come on.  So Kano attacked, and gain, he found himself on his back.  Once again, he inquired, “How did you do that?”  Still no answer.  Only a hand gesture to come on.  Obediently, Kano got up and attacked, all the more determined to overcome Fukuda’s upright posture.  Alas, a third time Kano was, unceremoniously bounced on his behind.  Undeterred Kano again asked, “How did you do that!”  This time the master’s reply was “Don’t talk.  Just keep trying 1000 times and you will learn.”

Despite all his years of education, Kano could not explain how he was being tossed aside like some unwanted crumpled up piece of paper.  Why wasn’t there some logical explanation for this physical phenomenon!  Was there not a better way to teach these techniques other than just practice?

  1. His second mental stumbling block came after four years of having practice jiujitsu. One day during practice with his instructor Tsuneotoshi Iikubo, Kano was able to throw him repeatedly.  Master Iikubo stopped and asked, “How did you throw me”?  Kano replied, “I noticed that each time that you where about to throw you first pulled or pushed your opponent off‑balance first, before entering in to finish the throw.  I merely did the same.”   Iikubo then awarded Kano a certificate of graduation in recognition of his understanding of the art.  Kano, in his own mind wondered if his insight and explanation into how a throw was set up was a good enough.  By this explanation alone, could he teach jujitsu?  On one hand, there was his former instructor, Hachinosuke Fukuda who had no ability to verbally explain what was occurring in the process of a throw, but was expert at throwing, on the other hand would mere words suffice to teach a throw?
  1. Jigoro Kano was an avid collector of jujitsu manuscripts.  Many of them still can be found at the Kodokan Institute in Tokyo, Japan.  In them, he found his third question.  He was perplexed as to which one was truly the very best system of techniques.
  2. One of the important principles in jujitsu was a principle of “Jiu‑no‑ri.”  The principle of giving way rather than opposing force.  For example, if a force of 10 units were in direct opposition to another force of 3 units then, the 10 units of force would be 7 units.  If instead of being in direct opposition, the 3 units returned in the same direction as the 10 unit force, a force could be turned to the advantage of 13 units.  This was an explanation that was often use in reference to the application of a throw, where someone larger was rushing forward to attack and a smaller person turned and used this onrushing force against the opponent.

Unfortunately, this principle did not always work well in all instances.  In some examples where a choke or an arm bar, giving way may not produce the best results.  Search as he did Jigoro Kano could not find a universal principle, which would work in every instance.

  1. A fifth question that Professor Murata cites is really not a question or doubt but rather a revelation on the part of Jigoro Kano.  It was through his long and arduous practice of the art that he found himself changed.  He was much stronger and healthier.  Because of his physical prowess, he had more confidence in himself.  With more confidence, his demeanor also changed.  This led him to believe the physical activity of judo could improve the character of the practitioner.  Moreover, if jujitsu could improve one person why not many persons, better yet a large group, or benefit society.

Basically, these were some of the stumbling blocks Kano solved, leading to the idea and formulation of judo as a mental as well as a physical activity.

The Three Guiding Principles

Parallel to Jigoro Kano’s questions were the ideas prevailing during his time.  San-iku-shugi or the The Three Guiding Principles included the concepts of intellectual (chiiku), moral (tokuiku), and physical (taiiku).  “These were new terms,” states David Waterhouse, in his paper, Kano Jigoro and The Beginning of Judo, 1983.  He believes that they were taken directly from Herbert Spencer, whose paper was entitled, Education, Intellectual, Moral, and Physical, published in 1861.  Speculation though it may be his contact with philosophical ideas added to his beloved physical activity of jujitsu and suited the needs of an emerging nation as well.  Prior to the Meiji era, there was no national educational system, much less a concept of physical education or sports.  These were important ideas, which Jigoro Kano played an important part in instituting into Japan.  Kano was one of the first Japanese to play baseball in Japan.  This had a profound effect on the concept of team type activities, as he also included team competition into the Kodokan menu.

In Japan’s newly formed educational system, Kano played a large role in the development of one of Spencer’s three needed areas of development; the physical area.  Moreover, Kano included in his statements and awareness of the other two areas of Spencer’s areas of development.  Character was also discussed by Kano, “Because we are all alive in this world as humans, we must abide by the rules of humans.  Once we lose the desire to live as humans, we lose our worth.”  As to intellect, he wrote, “For the realization of a fuller life.  It is imperative that we have and strive to develop our intelligence.  Intellect aids greatly in building character.”  For his efforts in the physical realm, Jigoro Kano is often referred to as the father of modern sports in Japan.

For the West, the idea of gamesmanship had been popularized by the 1500 with knights who participated in mock battles during tournaments.  This activity found favor with kings as a  exercise in warring skills  while keeping mortality to a minimum.  This tradition was passed on to where today’s mock battles are fought in the form of football games and wrestling matches.  During World War II Winston Churchill stated, “The battles at Dunkirk were won on the playing fields of Eaton.” acknowledging the contribution of sports to the war effort.  Actually, the 19th century, provided the world with many new sports and games.  Games added not only to a nation’s competitive spirit, but also to its health.  The emergence of the modern Olympic Games in 1896 also added to the ideals of sportsmanship, character building, a sound mind in a sound body, and acted as a weathervane to a nation’s vitality.

It was within the Meiji era that Jigoro Kano became an educator, physical educator, and later statesman, writer, member of the International Olympic Committee, and founder of many of Japan’s prestigious organizations, but for the judoka his most important legacy to the world was Judo.  He was the right man at the right time.  Jigoro Kano’s ability to speak English was one of his greatest assets.  Through his language skills, he was able to glean Western ideas on education and physical education.  One auspicious event was his meeting with American Educator John Dewey, with whom he had many valuable exchanges.  Through his ties with the Ministry of Education he reintroduced many of the martial arts, not as a feudal way of fighting, but as a means of developing the fitness level and the character of its participants.  Dr. Kano’s was reformulation of the reasons for the practice of the martial arts, was revolutionary for Japan.  The idea was that martial arts were to be practiced, not to inflict damage or death, but rather as a means of enhancing life.  Amongst these martial arts, was his newly formed jujitsu which he named judo, the “gentle way.”  an activity that could bring to life the ideals of “san-iku-shugi.”

John Dewey was one of America’s architects of modern education, and was a leading exponent of pragmatism.  It is unclear as to what extent he may have influenced the fledging Japanese educational system but he did befriend Jigoro Kano and exchange many ideas as evident by the letters  which remain.

 Small Judo — Large Judo

From almost the very start, serious thought was put into what we so loosely know as the gentle way, judo.  According to Asian studies professor, David Waterhouse of the University of Toronto, “The name judo, the pliant way, comes from Kito-ryu, having been long used in Jikishin-ryu, an old branch of it.”  The use of the suffix do in judo has ties to Taoism and Buddhism and in Chinese characters when written means road or way.  According to Professor Naoki Murata, Kodokan historian, “The reason that the ju of judo was kept by Professor Kano was out of respect for tradition.”  Together judo took on a different flavor.  Not only was there a tradition of power but thought, philosophical thought that could aid in the development of a thin emerging nation.

In the case of judo, its meaning was that through its practice, one would develop concepts, skills, and attitudes that would assist one in everyday life situations.  Dr. Kano in his writings also emphasizes the idea of small judo versus large judoSmall judo is concerned only with techniques and building of the body.  Large judo is mindful of the pursuit of the purpose of life: the soul and the body used in the most effective manner for a good result.

One of Dr. Kano’s more interesting statements concerning education, and in particular, physical education was, “The body is the instrument for the purpose of life, without which there is nothing.”  Such a simple but ever so profound statement.  The implication is that care must be taken to ensure its proper functioning.  In addition, that the mind cannot function, experience, or learn, without having a body.  The body is the package in which the mind functions and that their functioning is integrally linked.  One Japanese word for experience, taiken, means to experience with the body.

The Judo Maxims

Although Dr. Kano was widely known as a scholar, there was a side of him which favored experience over knowledge purely based on books.  Many of his maxims are derived from life experiences that led to a certain conclusion.  David Waterhouse, in his paper, “Kano Jigoro and The Beginning of the Judo Movement” writes, “As far as I can judge, Kano’s thinking evolved to meet the changing circumstances of the movement, which he created”.  He was a pragmatist (in a loose sense of the word) and he mistrusted abstract principles based on book learning.  In a note written in 1902 or 1903, he made a distinction between learning which is alive and learning which is dead.  The former was a practical use, the later serve no purpose.  “If one reads books, excessively, even if one does many things, what one knows may or may not be useful, depending on the circumstances.”

“Mutual Welfare and Benefit”

The maxim, Mutual Welfare and Benefit Ji-ta Kyoei, can be thought of as referring to Kano’s concept of the interdependence of body and mind, but more importantly here, the interdependence of one person working with another person.  It was the resulting revelation of years of physical practice that enable Kano to understand the benefits of mutual encounters.  In Buddhism, the two paths are ji-riki (self strength) and ta-riki (other’s strength).  In judo, there is also the strength of the individual, which is pitted against the strength of others resulting in a positive change.  An example is the mutual benefit found in judo’s randori practice, which is done, not by oneself, but with another and results in the eventual development of both individuals.  Judo is mindful of this resulting benefit from the practice of two individuals, and thus bow in gratitude and respect before and after the practice session.

Ji-Ko No Kansei

A seldom quoted maxim is that of Ji-ko no Kansei or self-perfectionMost likely ignored because of the seemingly egocentric motives at the time of judo’s mass importation into the United States just after World War II.  In addition, the other maxim of Mutual Welfare and Benefit, already has inherent in the word mutual, implication that oneself as well as another is involved.  Today it has been told that we must improve ourselves.  Scores of self-help books attests to this fact.  The dilemma, however, arises when one asked, “How is it that you can have both self centered act and mutual welfare and benefit at the same time?  Doesn’t someone lose out when one person thinks of improving himself?”  Kano explained it thus.  “Needless to say, there is a gap between utopia and the sometimes reality of things.  Let’s say that rather than two individuals we think on a larger scale and have two countries at war and one of them is your country.  Whose side would you favor then?”  He continues, “Build yourself first, then you may help others.”

In the short-term, one side suffers a loss, but both have gained from the experience, and at a later time under different conditions the outcome may be different.  One need only think of our next randori practice session or shiai tournament.  Who will win?  What was gained?  Competition tends to breed excellence, and in the long run there is mutual gain from the encounter.

Seiryoku Zenyo

Seiryoku Zenyo is commonly translated to mean Maximum Efficiency with Minimum Effort.  When Dr. Kano was still a student he found his roommate would always finish his homework earlier and in addition get better grades.  Why was it that he had the same amount of homework, as his roommate, same instructors, yet this result?  He decided to observe his roommate which eventually resulted in the maxim of Seiryoku Zenyo, maximum efficiency with minimum effort.  He states, “In order to study the maxim of Seiryoku Zenyo we must first know what energy is.  Energy is life force or the essential force for living.  A correct use of this energy will result in maximum efficiency with minimum effort.”

As per energy expenditure and a judo throw, do we expend more energy to throw a person if he is off-balance or on balance?  Do we expend more or less energy if we have our center of gravity above or below our opponent’s center of gravity?  Do we use energy more effectively if we do the technique quickly or slowly?  Is it possible that there is a more efficient way of applying energy?  Could one say from this use of energy, one could learn and understand the principle of maximal efficiency with minimum effort?

It is through practical experiences that judoka may learn lessons.  The lessons may have to be translated from the practice of judo into words and usable concepts but the body experiences of judo are kept for reference and understood at a very basic level.  Here are a few concepts that are realized through practice, and with a little imagination can be translated into usable concepts for everyday living, large judo:

  1. Over a period of time and through diligent practice, one can become better at judo(at a hobby, sport, work, etc.).
  2. There are subtle techniques that allow one person to do better than another person who does not have technique.
  3. Although one may not be so skilled to begin with, if one has heart one may still succeed.
  4. There are different types of strengths in each of us.
  5. Over a period of time we rely on different strengths at different times.
  6. Energy utilized in a successful ways can instill confidence.

While different ideals may abound within philosophy, it is more an ongoing process rather than a set of immutable ideas.  There are philosophical thoughts surrounding judo.  Initially in the martial art of jujitsu, the sole thought was how to kill, maim, or control.  At that time, it entailed a philosophy based on survival by hand-to-hand combat.  With the opening of Japan, it had to change or disappear.  Kano remolded jujitsu. This replacement became a way of life, with lessons in its practice that could be applied to everyday life.  He named it judo.  Today it is an Olympic sport, which is practiced in over 200 nations worldwide.  The emphasis of the goals and philosophy of judo have been broadened and while there is a current emphasis towards the idea of judo being a sport concerned mainly with winning and losing, there are still other elements to judo which keep it grounded to the grass roots development of individuals into productive citizens.

The goals of judo are diverse.  They provide for a wide range of participants with varied interests: It can also serve as a means of self defense; the police use many of the techniques of judo to subdue criminal offenders; For children, judo provides a positive atmosphere where they learn discipline and mutual respect.  Children account for more than 75% of our judo population; older participants practice it for recreational and fitness value, and education’s use of judo is to change behavior in a positive way.  Each has it’s own set of specialized ideals and goals concerning judo.  Each draws from judo’s philosophical core.

Lesson 2 Review:

  1. List and discuss at least two major areas of philosophy.
  2. List the names of two Greek philosophers that influenced western philosophy.
  3. What critical event, in which the United States played a part, changed the course of Japan forever? Give dates, place, names, and events?
  4. Who was the person instrumental in the modernization of Japan?  What was the date he started and what things did he change?
  5. Name three subjects that Jigoro Kano studied that had a great influence in his life?
  6. List the names of two instructors who taught Jigoro Kano.
  7. List the four great questions that Jigoro Kano encountered in his study of jujitsu.  Also, include the great revelation he had after many years of practice.
  8. Discuss the san-iku-shugi and its origin.
  9. What did Jigoro Kano say about the following topics: character, intellect, and the body?
  10. Discuss what is meant by small and large judo.
  11. What are the three maxims of judo?
  12. List three lessons that might be learned from the practice of judo.
  13. List four reasons people engage in the practice of judo.
  14. List and explain two important concepts of judo.