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Our Man in Tokyo
Judo: The King of Japanese Sports
By Mark Buckton
Special Correspondent
Kano Jigoro (嘉納 治五郎: 1860-1938) was the founder of judo.

There is arguably nothing more representative of Japanese culture than judo.

Yes, other sports, pastimes and aspects of the society of Japan and her people invoke just as much an image of the Land of the Rising Sun, but few have gone as global quite as fast as judo.

Today judo is both an Olympic sport – featuring in the London Olympics at time of publication – and also an activity practiced in sports clubs, gymnasiums, school classes and homes around the planet – yet is still, relatively speaking, in its infancy given that it did not exist until the early 1880s when founder Kano Jigoro changed one of the kanji of the name jujitsu to a more modern, socially accepted and soon to be hugely successful ‘way’ we now know as a sport in the West, but in Japan still taken as something more, something deeper.

The sport has long since made it onto the International Olympic Committee’s list of accepted sports and is one of the most watched events during any Summer Games in Japan even if the rules of international judo do differ slightly and differences in the appearance of participants (judoka) has caused some consternation in Japan; in international competitions the color of the judo outfit is different to help spectators differentiate between those fighting.

In Japan, judoka who do well in tournaments on the international scene are often household names and the nation has a reputation for success at the very best level in the men’s and women’s game – hardly surprising given the culture of judo in Japan and the fact that judo features at schools, in local neighborhood clubs and just about anywhere with a reasonable sized population.

Perhaps the most famous Japanese judoka of modern times is Ryoko Tani, a two time Olympic gold medalist and a seven time world champion in the 48kg category from Fukuoka on the island of Kyushu. Hugely popular, Tani’s best days are behind her but when active she once went over 80 matches unbeaten. She has now moved into grappling in the world of Japanese politics – far messier and likely less rewarding than winning on the mat.

The Kodokan

The Kodokan is unrivalled in the world; quite rightly so perhaps some may say with judo have been founded in these islands. But, best of all in this regard for non-Japanese readers capable of understanding English is an incredibly comprehensive homepage at

If you are interested in attending one of the many courses offered, all the details on dates, admissions and costs can be found on the pdf form files linked – as can minimum experience requirements for those looking to hone existing skills.

Further links to clubs around the world, upcoming events, an Osaka branch off the Kodokan and even an online shop dovetail with other pages explaining judo techniques.

Perhaps most interesting for the casual visitor to the site or individual looking to learn a little more about the facility known as the International Judo Center is the page listing the facilities in the building.

In addition to accommodation for those here on intensive courses, a museum and library, and of course necessary changing and eating facilities, the size of the 5 main practice areas never fail to impress.: the Main Dojo on the 7th floor of the building is an incredible 420 (tatami) mats in size, with additional school, international, women’s and boys dojos plus a special dojo allowing for a combined 786 plus further mats of practice space – something to see for yourself if ever near the Kodokan in North Central Tokyo and even the slightest bit interested in the sport.

Kano Jigoro

The founder of the art that is judo

Kano Jigoro, as the founder of judo is a figure revered in judo circles around the globe.

As a small boy Kano was bullied. Discontented with the way his life was going as a youngster, the eventual result of his nineteenth century quest to rid himself of his bullies was judo.

Whilst ‘eventually’ true, this simple ‘invention of judo as a form of self defence’ overlooks the years Kano spent in the pursuit of a teacher from whom to learn ‘jujitsu’. This was something the man born in 1860 was able to achieve only with a great deal of effort and along the way he supplemented what he had learnt about jujitsu with moves and techniques he himself thought up.

Jujitsu at the time was losing favor with the Japanese, and the modernization of the nation following the 1868, Meiji Restoration. The easiest way, in part, to thus maintain the art he had learned from others came about with a simple name change – and with the change of one of the characters jujitsu was written with, judo was born.

It was now the early 1880s and judo was in reality still so closely related to jujitsu as to be very hard to distinguish. It was to be another long half century before judo first made an appearance at the Olympics – a long held dream of its founder, Kano. Los Angeles, 1932 was thus the first appearance of judo on the truly global stage.

At this period of his life, now in his early 70s, Kano was still offering demonstrations of the sport he loved so dearly and would not give this up until just a few years before his death in 1938 aged 77.

The boy bullied as a child had not yet given the world one of its most popular sports in the modern era for that was only to come later when Europeans took judo to heart, but without his contributions the world would have had nothing to build upon.

By his death, however, he had seen judo take its first teetering steps beyond Japan shores with a demonstration at the LA Games six years earlier.

It would be a further 32 years after that first demo that mens’ judo would appear as a fully fledged and recognized sport – in 1964 at the Tokyo Olympics. Twenty four years later women’s judo also became an Olympic Sport.

Judo/Kano_Jigoro.jpg Judo/kosotogake.jpg Judo/seoinage.jpg Judo/uchimata (better).jpg Judo/uchimata.jpg

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Mark Buckton, a Tokyo-based freelancing journalist contributes his articles to a number of world's noted newspapers including The Seoul Times.






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