If we take a closer look at the timeline, we realise that Jigoro Kano was only 22 years old when he founded the Kodokan, although we often imagine him to be an old man, especially because his most famous portrait is the one found in many dojos around the world, an image that shows him towards the end of his life.
We tend to forget how extraordinary it was that he was able to create an activity like judo at such a young age. Once again, knowing Kano's origins, social background, influences and motivation helps us understand how the great man managed to lay the foundations for an activity that we still know today, although it has continued to evolve over time, to make it a major player in the international and Olympic sports movement.
Understanding all this does not take away the admiration we can and should have for Kano; on the contrary. The question we can legitimately ask ourselves is: would we have been able at 22 to create a sport like judo, with all the philosophy and values attached to it?
To establish judo, Kano therefore had to initiate a real revolution of mentalities, at the heart of a Japan which itself was going through profound political, social and economic change. This revolution is linked to the very nature of the jūjutsu of the time. We have seen that many schools or currents of jūjutsu existed at the end of the 19th century. They all represented the legacy of centuries of warfare, battles and conflicts, during which the arts of war had flourished. By nature, the different jūjutsu thus kept a secret dimension because there was no question that the adversary knew your methods of attack and defence. Jūjutsu was only one of the dimensions of warfare, corresponding to the art of fighting without weapons or sometimes with small arms.
Kano, who had studied different jūjutsu, realised that the secrecy surrounding jūjutsu was no longer appropriate. The revolution he initiated was therefore to make people understand that judo, which he was about to create, was open to as many people as possible and that it was not intended to develop a warrior's physique, but that he thought of it as a tool for educating young people. Judo was intended to become popular, without being reserved for a caste of initiates passing on knowledge in the shadows of dojos hidden from the public eye. From the start, judo therefore took on a dimension that is both physical, linked to the very practice of an activity that builds the body, and mental, with the aim of transmitting values that are useful to society as a whole. We still find today all those dimensions in the practice of judo and in the development projects that are carried out both locally and internationally.
If we are interested in the physical dimension only, we can notice that the different jūjutsu forms provide part of the answer to the question: how to learn to fight without a weapon? To win, one can throw violently, strangle, immobilise the adversary so that they can no longer move, or twist the joints so that the pain is unbearable. So, dependent on the particular school of jūjutsu in which you learn, you could perform all the techniques or only some of them. The objective of the Samurai was to kill or incapacitate the adversary. Some schools therefore specialised in the kicks (atemi) while others identified themselves more with a form of wrestling such as existed then in the four corners of the globe, in different cultures.
What differentiated the different forms of jūjutsu from the rest of the fighting arts developed elsewhere in the world, although influences from elsewhere in Asia showed that the physical dimension was not the only one, is that there was a mental and philosophical side intimately linked to the practice of jūjutsu. It was nonetheless true that the objective of jūjutsu was to disable the enemy.
Kano's genius was to have been able to synthesise everything he had learned, to extract what could be dangerous for physical integrity, and to focus on the mental, moral and educational aspect. With Kano, jūjutsu, with the objective to hurt, became a tool for the education of the youth and of emancipation: a healthy mind in a healthy body, for the benefit of society. If from the beginning he thought about the education of Japanese youth, he quickly realised that judo could become a fantastic tool for the youth around the world. His openness and his vision would do the rest.
The historical context of Japan at the time contributed to favouring Kano in his approach. The opening of the country to the West had several consequences. On the one hand, the country could benefit from new contributions from abroad in many fields, but on the other hand, this put the country in a situation of competition that its isolation until then had prevented. Paradoxically, the opening of Japan facilitated a refocusing on ancestral values. Inspired by what could help development from the West, Japan rediscovered the path of the philosophy that had made it strong. By carefully studying what other countries had to offer, the Japanese understood that art and morality were inseparable. Among these Japanese thinkers, of course, Jigoro Kano was one of the defenders of an approach that combined tradition and modernity.
This paradigm shift was at the origin of philosophical battles which led part of the population and the leaders to develop nationalist ideas. Those, later in the 20th century, pushed Japan towards a dangerous ideology but from the beginning Kano stood out from this approach, favouring understanding between communities and peoples, an approach which was the cornerstone of judo and its teaching and which Kano always lived by.
We know of Kano that he loved to teach and that he saw in education the only means of freeing the youth. Later, in 1916, during a lecture to the students of the university in Tokyo, he declared, "When I was young, coming out of university, I thought of becoming Prime Minister or even a multi-millionaire. But becoming Prime Minister, wasn't it being a worthless man and wasn't it boring to become a multi-millionaire? Finally I came to the conclusion that it is only in education that I will devote my life, without regret for me. I then turned to teaching. And this is how in the future I built the man that I am. Nothing is more remarkable in this world than teaching. The knowledge of man must contribute largely to other men. The knowledge of one generation must benefit a hundred others." (source: Jigoro Kano, Père du Judo - Michel Mazac - Budo Editions, 2014)
It is therefore, according to him, only through learning and the accumulation of knowledge that one could envisage a more just society, in order to be free. In 1882, Kano established his professional career and at the same time he refined his judo, the fruit of years of learning and reflection. Faced with a growing number of students who followed his teaching, Kano decided, in February 1882, to move to Eishoji. It was in the temple of the same name, which can still be visited today, that he founded, in May of the same year, the Kodokan.
It became literally the ‘Building for the Teaching of the Way.’ Nine students attended from the beginning. Kano therefore developed the first modern martial art with an objective which was no longer to fight victoriously or to fight oneself but to elevate people to serve humanity. Kodokan Judo was born, just one year after Kano graduated from Tokyo Imperial University in different specialties. He was only 22!