January 31, 2019

Eternal Truth of Judo

I was fortunate enough, many years ago to stand in front of the aikido legend John Waite, who graded me in Tomiki Aikido in a drafty hall somewhere near Clapham Common.  I’d heard of John Waite. I knew that he used to be a judo practitioner. His home dojo had been the much-vaunted South London Judo Society and he had learnt his judo under Kenshiro Abbe, amongst others.

Waite had attained the grade of 5th Dan in Judo before devoting his time to aikido, rising up the ranks of that art also. There are only so many days in the week, so his time on a Judo mat reduced and eventually stopped, his concentration being given to aikido. However, what he learnt in judo was, life-shaping for him. When he was asked in an interview when he stopped doing judo, his reply was: “I haven’t stopped. I practice judo every time I walk down the street.”

Now Waite wasn’t, I can assure you, saying that he practiced tsuki-ashi down Clapham High Street.  Neither, do I think, was he referring literally to the way he walked generally, although his gait was that of a confident man, his head held high, his strides purposeful.

Waite, in his own way, was pointing out that judo does not begin and end with what occurs on a judo mat, that it contains life lessons, lessons that he had not forgotten. Perhaps, he was saying more about what judo is not, rather than what it is with that single comment. Certainly the comment has a philosophical aspect to it.

Personally, I think that what he was saying was that judo had shaped him, the way he thinks and acts, the way he approaches problems, probably even the way he studied and practiced aikido. Certainly it is interesting that judo can mean so many things to so many different people. If you consider Kano to be a philosopher above anything else, his reading are a little like those of other great philosophers, in that they can be taken and debated, they can be twisted to suite a particular view point.

Yet, Kano was very clear on a number of issues which modern sport bodies seem to ignore.  Philosophically speaking this is not an uncommon phenomenon. Karl Marx and Leon Trotsky both suffered from their works being re-interpreted, as does the writings of all the major religions. Sometimes the re-interpretation is a simple problem of time changing individual and societal perspectives, or modern inventions creating issues that the original writers did not anticipate.

For a philosophy to survive, however, it must contain kernels of eternal truth. Kano’s did. For it to be relevant, philosophy also has to, in my opinion, at least, contain principles that guide action. Judo does. Hence, John Waite can say with confidence that having attained the grade of 5th Dan in Judo, his understanding of Kano’s philosophy had lead him to behave in a certain manner, to see the world in a different light.

An example of where the proverbial goalposts have been changed in judo is regarding the concept of competition. Kano clearly was not against contest. He organised the red and white contests that still exist in the Kodokan; he had judoka compete with practitioners from other schools to provide training for the Tokyo Metropolitan Police and of course, he was a representative of Japan on the Olympic Committee. However, Kano was against the concept of Champions and therefore championships.  Yet mainstream judo organisations, those that are government sanctioned are geared towards finding and nurturing champions to represent their nations ‘at the highest level.’

This position can be, and is, defended by pointing out that Kano was for competition.

Actually, however, the debate around contest within Judo and as part of Kano’s philosophy goes much deeper than that old chestnut of a debate. At the heart of such a discourse is the definition of the word competition.

The 17th Century Oxford Dictionary stated that competition was ‘A pastime afford by the endeavour to kill wild animals, game or fish.’ A later Collins dictionary had it that competition was ‘an individual or group activity pursued for exercise or pleasure, often taking a competitive form.’ Currently a Google definition states that it is ‘the activity or condition of striving to gain or win something by defeating or establishing superiority over others.’

So what was Kano’s thoughts on competition? We have seen  that he was happy for people to compete. We also know that he was not in favour of judo being included in the Olympic. The giveaway in where he sat on this matter is in the much quoted phrase ‘Jita-Kyoei,’ mutual welfare.  We compete together in judo. With no opponent, for want of a better term, we have no training, no contest.  Both people taking part in judo should benefit.

Modern sport judo does not have this mutual welfare at it’s core. Some modern sports judoka may have, but the core activity of combat sport does not. To convince me it does, you would have to explain a number of aspects of sport that appear not to fit: I interviewed an Olympic competitor years ago who told me he would not train with anybody unless there was something in it for him in terms of his own striving toward titles. I know individuals who consider injuring somebody in shiai is all part of the activity, rather than something that had gone wrong. I know individuals that take that philosophy into their randori training: they are not interested in the control aspect of throwing. And I know far far more individuals that, because they have not been inoculated with any other attitude, will not co-operate with their training partner because egotistically they are not prepared to be thrown.

Ultimately this rejection of mutual welfare negates one of Kano’s other pillars, that the aim of judo is to produce better citizens.

A harmonious dojo really is a sight to behold, or more importantly a place to be. Engage with a genuine sensei and you will be speaking to a person that cares passionately about his club members. Talk to the club members and you will find people that care about each other, that take pleasure in assisting each other develop. It is the sensei’s job to love his pupils, the pupils job is to love each other. Harmony is at the core of Kodokan Judo and it is at the core of civilised human existence too.

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