Dr. Jigoro Kano was the thinker who loved jiu jitsu. Because of his educational background, he could see that there was educational value to be derived from the practice of jiu jitsu. Not only did jiu jitsu allow him access to power over larger opponents, he found that his confidence level increased. He could see that physical exercise changed him psychologically and emotionally and not just physically.
Kano was also adept at English. The San iku shugi or three guiding principles came from English philosopher Herbert Spencer’s idea of how to educate the individual. As Japanese education adopted these principals for its education system, Kano capitalized on the third area to be developed, the body. Because of his understanding of educational goals; the languages of German, Chinese and especially English; his experiences and understanding of the valuable lessons that could be learned in jiu jitsu; and his position and contacts in the upper crust of Japanese society and education, he was able to preserve and protect the martial arts which he housed under the roof of education. It was only Kano who had the requisite qualities necessary to accomplish this feat. He was the right man, in the right place, at the right time.
With access to understanding the nature and importance of physical education’s role in strengthening the population of other countries, he set out to bring Japan up-to-speed. Jigoro Kano could see that through the practice of sports and games individuals could develop important qualities that could define a culture. Discipline, skill, understanding potentials and possible limitations, coolness and bravery under fire, leverage, teamwork, indomitable will and a number of other positive qualities necessary in a cooperative society could be stoked in the microcosmic crucible of the martial arts as a part of Japan’s physical education system. To this day, from the time when Kano introduced many of the martial arts into Japan’s education system, they are still a part of their educational curriculum.
What is even more impressive than the fact that he founded the Kodokan in 1882 at the tender age of 22 is that Kano developed judo into a sport that is practiced in more than 120 nations around the world. This he did while becoming a famous educator, the first Asian member of the International Olympic committee, and president of a Normal school. Somewhere in between all his endeavors, he eventually had and raised eight children; an Olympian feat in and of itself.
Drawing upon his knowledge and interactions with some of Japan’s great thinkers, Kano set out to define the importance of physical exercise in building a strong nation. Many of these ideas were borrowed from the West and, as is the case with many Japanese items, developed into a better product. One can only marvel at some of the words and ideas, simple yet powerfully promulgated in short aphorisms that would be expanded upon in the years to follow. Employing the Japanese custom of writing akin to haiku or Japanese Zen poetry and the art of sumie and brush lettering, words would be artistically brushed on rice paper, conveying powerful ideas whose meaning readers would be compelled to contemplate in one intuitive instant. Some were long and some were short. Some of these sayings were written over and over, some were painted only once, and some were completed in one continuous stroke, without breaking contact between brush and paper. Each was judged by the merits of the person and the energy and ideas that the finished work of art projected. You may have seen some of these displayed in glassed in frames hanging in a dojo. Here are a few:
1. Speaking of the body Kano said, “The body is the instrument for the purpose of life, without which we have nothing”.
2. “Because we are human, we must abide by the rules of humans.”
3. Self-Perfection (Jiko No Kansei)
4. Mutual Welfare and Benefit (Jita Kyoei)
5. Maximum efficiency with minimum effort. (Seiryoku Zenyo)
Additionally, Jigoro Kano emphasized that judo at its finest was not just a martial art dedicated to defense and aggression. He did this by differentiating judo into two categories, naming them as large judo and small judo. “Small judo is concerned only with the effectiveness of techniques, whereas 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.” Although the exact dates and how Kano came to attach these ideals to judo are unclear, similar thoughts were being proposed in other parts of the world including the United State, usually with medical doctors espousing the healthy benefits of exercise while others pushed sportsmanship and character development aspects found in sporting activities.
As for Kano, he believed that if physical activity was merely to build the body, it should be termed as physical education; if physical activity was used for living better it should be considered a means for the elevation of the purpose of life.
While these ideals seem far-fetched from the actual practice of judo, in reality they are not. Judo is a tough sport to master. It is physically demanding and sometimes downright scary if you’re taking a pounding, being arm-barred, or strangled. It will test your character! In order to throw correctly you need to pull the opponent off balance first, place your fulcrum, usually your hip, in the right place so as to increase the force lever arm, while decreasing the resistance lever arm. Following these Newtonian steps you may get to understand “maximum efficiency with a minimum of effort.” More simply put, you will know what it feels like to do a correctly executed, effortless throw. It’s not strength–its technique! You also increase your learning curve by competing with a partner: something that would take longer if you were to try to learn judo by yourself, hence, “mutual welfare and benefit.” You begin to understand that cooperation of this kind is also evident in our greater society, and that many of the principles learned in judo can be applied to life, which is Kano’s “large judo” concept. These are but a few examples of the many lessons learned in the practice of judo, applied to our everyday life.
Belt Rank System
Another example of the genius of Jigoro Kano’s is his invention of a uniform in 1907. Undoubtedly the uniform was the first of its kind, devised specifically for the unique type of practice that judo required, which set it apart from many of the other schools. Formerly, many of the techniques were very dangerous and had to be practiced much like a slow dance, with each party knowing what the next step would be and cooperating with the proper response. Rather than employing this type of prearranged practice of techniques (Kata), Jigoro Kano took out many of the more dangerous techniques and had his practitioners attack and defend each other at random. This practice was termed “randori” which literally means, “to catch chaos.” A likely drawback to randori was that the tugging and pushing could cause many a tear in regular Japanese kimono-type street clothes, which was what most practitioners wore for practice. In its stead, Jigoro Kano employed a happi-coat such as those worn by the firemen of old Japan, which was made of heavy woven material (resembling that found in a double-weave judogi), along with western style pants.
Added to the uniform was a belt to keep everything neatly together. This was the beginning of yet another of Jigoro Kano’s brainchildren, the belt ranking system. Like many of Kano’s ideas, it didn’t just appear out of thin air but most likely from his experiences in education, where one progresses in small steps to reach a certain level of expertise. Prior to a model of increments to denote higher levels of ability, jiu jitsu schools had mainly two levels, basically practitioners and those that were given a mensho or certificate of mastery by the master validating expertise in the particular system. To Kano the educator, the mensho was probably synonymous to a graduation certificate, which represented an end to learning rather than a point on a larger continuum. Thus, beginning in 1886, his advanced students (yudansha) wore a black obi or belt, while those not yet having the requisite abilities (mudansha) wore a white belt. The Japanese word for level is “dan.” Originally there were only five levels of dan grades, which were awarded for one’s ability to perform under stress (contest) conditions. It is unclear as to why Kano chose black as a designation for dan grades, but the era, the availability of various colors and possibly the yin and yang of black and white may have dictated the use of black.
In 1930 Kano added five other levels to mark the progress of his now more elder judoka. The increase in membership and the number of judoka near the top end of the five level ranking system may have prompted a need to differentiate, reward, and give higher levels of incentives to those who persevered and continued to contribute to judo. The color designation for the higher ranks of 6th, 7th and 8th degree black belt were now allowed to wear a red and white alternating striped belt. The color designation of pure red belt worn by 9th and 10th degree black belts didn’t come into existence until 1943, put into play by the Kodokan Judo Institute; thus Kano (who died in 1938) never had a chance to award a purely red belt but did award 9th and 10th degree black belts.
The use of other colors came much later by Mikonosuke Kawaishi, the father of French judo, around 1935. His travels around the world ended in France, where he devised the system to encourage children and young adults to stay on in the practice of judo. Until then, there were no visual incentives to denote progression or excellence in young practitioners. Many may have quit, given the long time span needed to go from white to black or even white to brown belt as an adult, much less a child. Also, as a foreigner in a strange land, Kawaishi had to make a living. All of the students who stayed on and paid for their examinations allowed him to remain and build judo further. Today Kawaishi’s colored belt system has helped to motivate children around the world to continue their study of judo and provides a method of recognizing the creation of a level of excellence for both the student and the instructor. This is something akin to a perpetual motion machine.
With the advent of judo as an international sport practiced in more than 120 countries throughout the world, emphasis has shifted from promotional authority lying in one country, Japan, to that of the International Judo Federation. The International Judo Federation has in its wisdom deferred this responsibility to each National Governing Body. Here in the United States there are three National Organizations that are empowered with the authority to grant judo ranks recognized worldwide. They are; The United States Judo Association, the United States Judo Federation, and USA Judo. Each have their own promotion boards and systems but are so similar in requirements that they have agreed to reciprocally recognize each other’s rank.
The original USJA ranking system was authored by one of the founding members of the United States Judo Association, Major Phil Porter. From its inception in 1965 to the present day, the promotional system has undergone tremendous changes, but always with the goal of improving American judo and honoring its deserving members. Notable people to come out of our Ranking System among the men include Olympians and World Champions; U.S. Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell, James Bregman, George Harris, James Pedro, Allen Coage, Jim Wooley, and Ed Liddie, and among the women include; Lynn Raethke, AnnMaria Burns,’ Kayla Harrison, and Ronda Rousey, to name but a few.