judo 226x300 JudoJudo meaning “gentle way”, is a modern Japanese martial art (gendai budō) and combat sport, that originated in Japan in the late nineteenth century. Its most prominent feature is its competitive element, where the object is to either throw one’s opponent to the ground, immobilize or otherwise subdue one’s opponent with a grappling maneuver, or force an opponent to submit by joint locking the elbow or by applying a choke. Strikes and thrusts (by hands and feet) – as well as weapons defences – are a part of judo, but only in pre-arranged forms (kata) and are not allowed in judo competition or free practice (randori).

Ultimately, the philosophy and subsequent pedagogy developed for judo became the model for almost all modern Japanese martial arts that developed from “traditional” schools (koryū). Practitioners of judo are called jūdōka.

History and philosophy

Early life of the founder

The early history of judo is inseparable from its founder, Japanese polymath and educator Jigoro Kano (嘉納 治五郎 Kanō Jigorō, 1860–1938). Kano was born into a well-to-do Japanese family. His grandfather was a self-made man: a sake brewer from Shiga prefecture in central Japan. However, Kano’s father was not the eldest son and therefore did not inherit the business. Instead, he became a Shinto priest and government official, with enough influence for his son to enter the second incoming class of Tokyo Imperial University.

Founder pursues jujutsu

Kano was a small, frail boy, who, even in his twenties, did not weigh more than a hundred pounds (45 kg), and was often picked on by bullies. He first started pursuing jujutsu, at that time a dying art, at the age of 17, but met with little success. This was in part due to difficulties finding a teacher who would take him on as a student. When he went to university to study literature at the age of 18, he continued his martial arts studies, eventually gaining a referral to Fukuda Hachinosuke (c.1828–c.1880), a master of the Tenjin Shin’yō-ryū and grandfather of Keiko Fukuda (born 1913), who is Kano’s only surviving student, and the highest-ranking female jūdōka in the world. Fukuda Hachinosuke is said to have emphasized technique over formal exercise, sowing the seeds of Kano’s emphasis of free practice (randori) in judo.

A little more than a year after Kano joined Fukuda’s school, Fukuda became ill and died. Kano then became a student in another Tenjin Shin’yō-ryū school, that of Iso Masatomo (c.1820–c.1881), who put more emphasis on the practice of pre-arranged forms (kata) than Fukuda had. Through dedication, Kano quickly earned the title of master instructor (shihan) and became assistant instructor to Iso at the age of 21. Unfortunately, Iso soon took ill, and Kano, feeling that he still had much to learn, took up another style, becoming a student of Iikubo Tsunetoshi (1835–1889) of Kitō-ryū. Like Fukuda, Iikubo placed much emphasis on free practice. On the other hand, Kitō-ryū emphasized throwing techniques to a much greater degree than Tenjin Shin’yō-ryū.


By this time, Kano was devising new techniques, such as the “shoulder wheel” (kata-guruma, known as a fireman’s carry to Western wrestlers who use a slightly different form of this technique) and the “floating hip” (uki goshi) throw. However, he was already thinking about doing far more than just expanding the canons of Kitō-ryū and Tenjin Shin’yō-ryū. Full of new ideas, Kano had in mind a major reformation of jujutsu, with techniques based on sound scientific principles, and with focus on development of the body, mind and character of young men in addition to development of martial prowess. At the age of 22, when he was just about to finish his degree at the University, Kano took nine students from Iikubo’s school to study jujutsu under him at the Eisho-ji, a Buddhist temple in Kamakura, and Iikubo came to the temple three days a week to help teach. Although two years would pass before the temple would be called by the name “Kodokan”, or “place for teaching the way”, and Kano had not yet been accorded the title of “master” in the Kitō-ryū, this is now regarded as the Kodokan’s founding.

Judo was originally known as Kano Jiu-Jitsu or Kano Jiu-Do, and later as Kodokan Jiu-Do or simply Jiu-Do or Judo. In the early days, it was also still referred to generically simply as Jiu-Jitsu.

Meaning of “judo”

The word “judo” shares the same root ideogram as “jujutsu”, which may mean “gentleness”, “softness”, “suppleness”, and even “easy”, depending on its context. Such attempts to translate are deceptive, however. The use of in each of these words is an explicit reference to the martial arts principle of the “soft method”. The soft method is characterized by the indirect application of force to defeat an opponent. More specifically, it is the principle of using one’s opponent’s strength against him and adapting well to changing circumstances. For example, if the attacker was to push against his opponent he would find his opponent stepping to the side and allowing his momentum (often with the aid of a foot to trip him up) to throw him forwards (the inverse being true for pulling.) Kano saw jujutsu as a disconnected bag of tricks, and sought to unify it according to a principle, which he found in the notion of “maximum efficiency”. Jujutsu techniques that relied solely on superior strength were discarded or adapted in favour of those that involved redirecting the opponent’s force, off-balancing the opponent, or making use of superior leverage.

The second characters of judo and jujutsu differ. Where jujutsu means the “art” or “science” of softness, judo means the “way” of softness. The use of ““, meaning way, road or path (and is the same character as the Chinese word “tao”), has philosophical overtones. This is the same distinction as is made between Budō and Bujutsu. Use of this word is a deliberate departure from ancient martial arts, whose sole purpose was for killing. Kano saw judo as a means for governing and improving oneself physically, mentally, emotionally and morally. He even extended the physical principle of maximum efficiency into daily life, evolving it into “mutual prosperity”. In this respect, judo is seen as a holistic approach to life extending well beyond the confines of the dojo.

judo2slam 225x300 JudoJudoka (practitioner)

A practitioner of judo is known as a judoka or ‘judo player’, though traditionally only those of 4th Dan or higher were called “judoka”. The suffix -ka, when added to a noun, means a person with expertise or special knowledge on that subject. For example, Benkyo-ka means “scholar”. Other practitioners below the rank of 4th dan were called kenkyu-sei or “trainees”. However, today the term judoka is used worldwide to refer to any practitioner of judo without any particular level of expertise being implied.

A judo teacher is called sensei. The word sensei comes from sen or saki (before) and sei (life) – i.e. one who has preceded you. In Western dojos it is common to call any instructor of dan grade sensei. Traditionally, that title was reserved for instructors of 4th dan and above.

Judogi (uniform)

Judo practitioners traditionally wear white uniforms called jūdōgi, which simply means “judo uniform”, for practising judo. Sometimes the word is seen shortened simply to gi (uniform). The jūdōgi was created by Kano in 1907, and similar uniforms were later adopted by many other martial arts. The modern jūdōgi consists of white or blue cotton drawstring pants and a matching white or blue quilted cotton jacket, fastened by a belt (obi). The belt is usually coloured to indicate rank. The jacket is intended to withstand the stresses of grappling, and as a result, is much thicker than that of a karate uniform (karategi).

The modern use of the blue judogi was first suggested by Anton Geesink at the 1986 Maastricht IJF DC Meeting. For competition, a blue jūdōgi is worn by one of the two competitors for ease of distinction by judges, referees, and spectators. In Japan, both judoka still use a white judogi and the traditional red sash (based on the colours of the Japanese flag) is affixed to the belt of one competitor. Outside Japan, a coloured sash may also be used for convenience in minor competitions, the blue jūdōgi only being mandatory at the regional or higher levels. Japanese practitioners and purists tend to look down on the use of blue jūdōgi.

Techniques & practice

While judo includes a variety of rolls, falls, throws, hold downs, chokes, joint-locks, and strikes, the primary focus is on throwing, and groundwork (ne-waza). Throws are divided in two groups of techniques, standing techniques (tachi-waza), and sacrifice techniques. Standing techniques are further divided into hand techniques, hip techniques, and foot and leg techniques. Sacrifice techniques are divided into those in which the thrower falls directly backwards, and those in which he falls onto his side.

The ground fighting techniques are divided into attacks against the joints or joint locks, strangleholds or chokeholds, and holding or pinning techniques.

A kind of sparring is practised in judo, known as randori, meaning “free practice”. In randori, two adversaries may attack each other with any judo throw or grappling technique. Striking techniques (atemi-waza) such as kicking and punching, along with knife and sword techniques are retained in the kata. This form of pedagogy is usually reserved for higher ranking practitioners (for instance, in the kime-no-kata), but are forbidden in contest, and usually prohibited in randori for reasons of safety. Also for reasons of safety, chokeholds, joint locking, and the sacrifice techniques are subject to age or rank restrictions. For example, in the United States one must be 13 or older to use chokeholds, and 16 or older to use armlocks.

In randori and tournament (shiai) practice, when an opponent successfully executes a chokehold or joint lock, one submits, or “taps out”, by tapping the mat or one’s opponent at least twice in a manner that clearly indicates the submission. When this occurs the match is over, the tapping player has lost, and the chokehold or joint lock ceases.

Kata (forms)

Forms (kata) are pre-arranged patterns of attack and defence, which in judo are practised with a partner for the purpose of perfecting judo techniques. More specifically, their purposes include illustrating the basic principles of judo, demonstrating the correct execution of a technique, teaching the philosophical tenets upon which judo is based, allowing for the practice of techniques that are not allowed in competition, and to preserve ancient techniques that are historically important but are no longer used in contemporary judo.

Knowledge of various kata is a requirement for the attainment of a higher rank.

There are seven kata that are recognised by the Kodokan today:

  • Free practice forms (Randori no Kata), comprising two kata:
    • Throwing forms (Nage no Kata)
    • Grappling forms (Katame no Kata)
  • Old style self-defence forms (Kime no Kata)
  • Modern self-defence forms (Kodokan Goshin Jutsu)
  • Forms of “gentleness” (Ju no Kata)
  • The five forms (Itsutsu no Kata)
  • Ancient forms (Koshiki no Kata)
  • Maximum-efficiency national physical education kata (Seiryoku Zen’yō Kokumin Taiiku no Kata)

There are also other kata that are not officially recognised by the Kodokan but that continue to be practised. The most prominent example of these is the Go no sen no kata, a kata that focuses on counter-attacks to attempted throws.

Randori (sparring)

Judo emphasizes a free-style sparring, called randori, as one of its main forms of training. Part of the combat time is spent sparring standing up, called tachi-waza, and the other part on the ground, called ne-waza. Sparring, even subject to safety rules, is much more practically effective than only practicing techniques on their own, which is what jujutsuka were used to doing. Using full strength develops the muscles and cardio-vascular system on the physical side of things, and it develops strategy and reaction time on the mental side of things, and helps the practitioner learn to use techniques against a resisting opponent. A common saying among judoka is “The best training for judo is judo.”

There are several types of sparring exercises, such as ju renshu (both judoka attack in a very gentle way where no resistance is applied); and kakari geiko (only one judoka attacks while the other one relies solely on defensive and evasive techniques, but without the use of sheer strength.)

Combat phases

In judo, there are two main phases of combat: the standing (tachi-waza) and the ground (ne-waza) phase. Each phase requires its own (mostly separate) techniques, strategies, randori, conditioning and so on. Special training is also devoted to “transitional” techniques to bridge the gap. Jūdōka may become quite skilled in one phase and be rather weak in the other, depending on where their interests most lie, although most are balanced between the two.

Judo’s balance between both the standing and ground phases of combat gives judoka the ability to take down opponents who are standing up and then pin and submit them on the ground. This balanced theory of combat has made judo a popular choice of martial art or combat sport.

Standing phase

In the standing phase, which has primacy according to the contest rules, the opponents attempt to throw each other. Although standing joint-lock and choke/strangulation submission techniques are legal in the standing phase, they are quite rare due to the fact that they are much harder to apply standing than throws are. Some jūdōka, however, are very skilled in combining takedowns with submissions, where a submission technique is begun standing and finished on the ground.

Strikes (i.e. punches, kicks, etc…) are not allowed due to their certainty of injury, but an athlete is supposed to “take them into consideration” while training by, for example, not fighting in a bent-over position for long, since this position is vulnerable to knee-strikes and other striking attacks.

The main purpose of the throwing techniques (nage waza) is to take an opponent who is standing on his feet, mobile and dangerous, down onto his back where he cannot move as effectively. Thus, the main reason for throwing the opponent is to control the opponent and to put oneself in a dominant position. In this way the practitioner has more potential to render a decisive outcome. Another reason to throw the opponent is to shock his body through smashing him forcefully onto the ground. If an opponent executes a powerful yet fully controlled throw, he can win a match outright (by ippon) on the basis that he has displayed sufficient superiority. A lower score is given for lesser throws. A score for a throw is only given when executed starting from a standing position.

In keeping with Kano’s emphasis on scientific analysis and reasoning, the standard Kodokan judo pedagogy dictates that any throwing technique is theoretically a four phased event: off-balancing (kuzushi); body positioning; execution; and finally the finish or coup de grâce. Each phase follows the previous one with great rapidity – ideally they happen almost simultaneously.

Ground phase

In competition, combat may continue on the ground after a throw occurs or if the contestants otherwise legally end up on the ground; a contestant is not allowed to simply drop to the ground to commence ground fighting.

On the ground, the contestants aim to either obtain a hold down, or to get their opponent to submit either by using a choke or strangulation or armlock (locks on joints other than the elbow are not allowed for safety reasons.)

Hold downs

Hold downs are important since in a real fight the person who has control of his opponent can hit him with punches, knees, headbutts, and other strikes. If osaekomi is maintained for twenty-five seconds, the person doing the holding down wins the match. An osaekomi involves holding an opponent principally on their back, and free of their legs.

According to the rules as they stood in 1905, it was only necessary to hold down an opponent, on his shoulders, for two seconds – said to reflect the time necessary for a samurai to reach his knife or sword and dispatch his held opponent. The newer longer requirements reflect the combat reality that a fighter must immobilize his opponent for a substantial amount of time in order to strike effectively.

The score for a hold down is determined by how long the hold down is held. A hold down may sometimes result in a submission if the opponent cannot endure the pressure from the hold down.

The ‘guard’ and ‘body scissors’

If the person being held down has wrapped his legs around any part of his opponent’s lower body or trunk, he is pinning his opponent as much as he is being pinned, because his opponent cannot get up and flee unless the person on the bottom lets go. While his legs are wrapped around his opponent, the person on the bottom can employ various attacking techniques, including strangles, armlocks and “body scissors” (do-jime), while controlling the opponent so that he cannot effectively strike from above. In this position, often referred to as the “guard” in English, the person on top does not have enough control over his adversary for the position to be considered osaekomi. (Note that while the guard is commonly used, do-jime is no longer legal in competition judo.) The person on top can try to pass his opponent’s legs and in turn hold down or submit him, or he may try to break out of his opponent’s guard and stand up. The person on the bottom can try to submit his opponent from his guard or roll his opponent over to get on top of him.

Joint locks

Joint locks (kansetsu-waza) are effective combat techniques because they enable a jūdōka to control his opponent through pain-compliance, or if necessary, to cause breakage of the locked joint. Joint locks on the elbow are considered safe enough to perform at nearly full-force in competition to force submission from one’s opponent. Judo has, in the past, allowed leglocks, wristlocks, spinal locks and various other techniques that have since been disallowed in competition to protect athletes’ safety. It was decided that attacking those other joints would result in many injuries to the athletes and would cause a gradual deterioration of these joints. Even so, some jūdōka still enjoy learning and fighting each other informally using these techniques that are banned from formal competitions, and many of these techniques are still actively used in other arts such as sambo, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, and jujutsu.

Chokes and strangulations

Chokes and strangulations enable the one applying the choke to force the adversary into unconsciousness and even death. Strangulation cuts off the blood supply to the brain via compression on the sides of the neck, while a choke blocks the airway from the front of the neck. The terms are frequently interchangeable in common usage, and a formal differentiation is not made by most jūdōka. In competition, the jūdōka wins if the opponent submits or becomes unconscious. A strangle, once properly locked in, can render an opponent unconscious in only a few seconds, but normally causes no injury.

As a sport

Although a fully featured martial art, judo has also developed as a sport.

The first time judo was seen in the Olympics was at the 1932 Games in Los Angeles, where Kano and about 200 judo students gave a demonstration. Judo became an Olympic sport for men in the 1964 Tokyo games. With the persistence of an American woman by the name of Rusty Kanokogi and many others, judo became an Olympic sport for women as well in 1988. It is often stated that the men’s judo event in 1964 was a demonstration event, but according to the International Judo Federation (IJF) and International Olympic Committee, Judo was in fact an official sport in the 1964 games. At that Games Dutchman Anton Geesink won the gold medal in the open division defeating Aiko Kaminaga of Japan. Judo then lost the image of being “Japanese only” and went on to become one of the most widely practised sports in the world. The women’s event was a demonstration event in 1988, and became an official medal event 4 years later. Men and women compete separately, although they often train together. Judo has been a Paralympic sport (for the visually impaired) since 1988. Judo is also one of the sports at the Special Olympics.

Collegiate competition in the United States, especially between UC Berkeley and San Jose State, contributed towards refining judo into the sport seen at the Olympic Games and World Championships. In the 1940s Henry Stone and Yosh Uchida, the head coaches at Cal and SJSU, developed a weight class system for use in the frequent competitions between the schools. In 1953, Stone and Uchida successfully petitioned the Amateur Athletic Union to accept judo as a sport, with their weight class system as an official component. In 1961, Uchida represented the United States at the IJF meetings in Paris, where the IJF adopted weight classes for all future championships. The IJF was created largely based on the earlier European Judo Union, where weight classes had also been used for many years.