The history of judo is the transformation of a martial art into a modern sport. It specifies how a man, Jigoro Kano, has dedicated his life to the education of the youth of his country, combining tradition and modernity, with the progress of the individual in the service of the community. The beginnings of judo are closely related to the tradition of Japanese combat and life arts and the personality of Kano.

From Jujutsu to Judo

In Japanese, the words judo and jujutsu are written using ideographs that are an illustration of their founding principles. Ju means gentleness. The meaning is giving way. In this, ju is opposed to go, meaning strength. Do, the way, corresponds to the principle of spiritual development. By this juxtaposition, judo wants to be a way of flexibility much more intellectual than physical. Judo and jujutsu use the same ideogram in the beginning. Jutsu means technique. The distinction between jutsu and do is identical to that which differentiates between medium and purpose. Jujutsu assumes an education oriented primarily towards the body based on the principle of non-resistance. Kano considered this too restrictive a dimension. By introducing a semantic breakdown, the founder of judo testified he wanted a radical transformation: raising the combat to the rank of a universal method of education.

Jigoro Kano

Jigoro Kano was born on October 28, 1860, in Mikage. Very early, he received a rigorous education in which Western influences mingled with traditional and Oriental teachings. In the 1860s, Kano’s father worked as a senior official for the shogunate Government. In 1870, shortly after the death of his wife, he decided to move to Tokyo where Jigoro studied classics, and at the same time studied English. He developed a strong fondness for mathematics and languages. As a child, Kano had a fragile constitution but was very gifted, he studied in the company of classmates often older and physically stronger than him and he was repeatedly bullied and teased. He decided to study jujutsu, an art that helps the weak to defeat the strong. He eventually managed to find one of the old jujutsu masters, Hachinosuke Fukuda. After two years of diligent practice, he was chosen to participate in the demonstration given in honour of the visit to Tokyo of the U.S. President, general Ulysses Grant. At the death of Fukuda, he continued his practice under the direction of Masatomo Iso. In 1881, Iso died. He then studied the jujutsu of the Kito School with another master expert in throws, Iikubo Tsunetoshi. He focused on the spiritual dimension.

In 1882, while a student at Tokyo Imperial University, Jigoro Kano created a private preparatory school, Kano Juku, and a school of English. In May, he opened the school of the Kodokan, a school for studying the way, in a 12 tatami room rented in a Tokyo Buddhist monastery. He taught a new practice, judo. His disciples, nine students and friends, met in a small room of 20 square metres. The novelty was not in technical actions but in the way to accomplish them, and in the finality of the techniques. The number of students increased rapidly. The Kodokan dojo moved several times. Kano’s method was adopted by the police and the Navy and introduced into several schools and universities.

An anecdote demonstrates his versatility on the technical level. Helpless against an opponent heavier and stronger than him, Kano failed in all his attempts at throwing him until the day when in one of the books he brought from abroad he came up with a solution. In his memoirs, he tells: “Kenkichi made a step forward, then with lightning speed jumped on Jigoro. It was very quick; with one hand Jigoro took the sleeve of his opponent and the other grabbed his thigh. The body of Kenkichi, which weighed more than ninety kilos, flew in the air barely touching the shoulders of Jigoro and in a deafening uproar, crashed to the ground. “What is this movement?” asked respectfully Kenkichi. “I think to call it kata guruma,” replied smiling Jigoro, with an air of delight.”

The philosophy of Kano is based on the principle of the three cultures: the acquisition of knowledge, the teaching of ethics and the development of the body through the practice of physical education. He explained his point of view by stating: “a healthy body is not only a precondition for the existence but the basis of all mental and spiritual activity.” He insisted on the purpose of the exercise. “However excellent is the health of an individual, his existence remains fruitless if he does not put it at the service of society.”

He emphatically showed, that the effective use of the mind and the body is the key to self-realization. However, he added the Confucian concept of social obligation that leads to help one’s neighbour. The principles of Kano are summarized in the two maxims enacted at the founding of the Kodokan cultural society founded in 1922: Seiryoku Zenyo and Jita Kyoei, everyone must make a just use of his physical and mental energy for the good of all in search of self-realization.

His whole life was dedicated to a cause he described in these words: “nothing is more important than education; the teaching of one wise man can reach multitudes and knowledge from one generation can be enjoyed by another hundred”.

Contemporary History

For thirty years, Jigoro Kano dedicated his life to spreading the sport. His main partner was Pierre de Coubertin, who has been an active member of the Olympic Movement, being the founder and chairman of the International Olympic Committee.

Jigoro Kano died before Judo was introduced in the Olympic Games of Tokyo in 1964 and before the establishment of the International Judo Federation in 1951, which he had proposed since the 1930s.

The International Judo Federation (IJF) was founded on the 12th of May 1951 by nine countries. IJF currently has more than 180 member states. Earlier, in 1948, the European Judo Federation was founded and in 1951 the first European Championship was held.

Since then, there have been changes, but the basic rules of judo remain the same. It is notable that the introduction of weight categories directly affected the development of the sport. Eight years before the Olympic Games in Tokyo 1964, in the same city, the first World Championship was held with the participation of 31 athletes from 21 countries.

In 1980, for the first time, a Women’s World Championship was held. Twelve years later, in the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona, was the first time women judoka competed in the Games.

In Greece, judo appeared shortly after World War II. In 1977 it was officially recognized as a sport and joined SEGAS, while in 1985 the Hellenic Judo Federation was founded, which today numbers more than 150 clubs with over 6,000 athletes.