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Jigoro Kano Autobiography (1)

by Jigoro Kano

Aiki News #80 (April 1989)

The following article was prepared with the kind assistance of Brian Workman of the USA.

The name of Jigoro Kano, Founder of judo, is known to practically every practitioner of Japanese martial arts. In addition to his efforts in the establishment and popularization of judo, Kano made many contributions to the theory of physical education and was chairman of the Japanese Olympic committee in the early years of this century. With this issue, we are beginning a fascinating series of autobiographical essays by Kano himself.


I am often asked why I started Judo training and founded the Kodokan. My reasons for beginning Judo and how I explain the art today are quite different. When I was a young man I studied many things. For example, I went to teachers of Chinese classics, the English language and calligraphy. I entered the English Institute in Karasumori-cho in Shiba [Tokyo] in 1873 and boarded away from home for the first time.

The headmaster of this school was Dutch and his assistant German. All subjects were taught in English. Since I had studied some English books at the school of Shuhei Mizukuri before entering the Institute, I was able to keep up with my studies. However, at that time there was a tendency among boys for the strong to assert dominance over the weak. Much to my regret, I fell behind in this respect. Although now I am in better than average health, at that time, though not sickly, I was of a delicate constitution and physically inferior to most people. Therefore, from time to time others would make light of me. As far as studies were concerned, though I considered myself no less intelligent than most others, physically speaking, other boys would sometimes be domineering. I had heard from the time I was a boy that jujutsu was a way for the weak to overcome the strong. Thus, I decided to learn jujutsu. At that time there was a man named Nakai who had been a direct retainer of the shogun who was a regular visitor to my house. He spoke a great deal about himself and how he had once practiced several schools of jujutsu. Consequently, I asked him to teach me the art, but he disregarded my request saying that it was not necessary for me to learn the art.

In those days, my father’ss villa was located in Maruyama-cho, Koishikawa and a man named Katagiri was the caretaker. As he was knowledgeable in several styles of jujutsu, I also asked him to teach me, but neither would he comply with my request giving the same reason as Nakai. In addition, there was another visitor to my house named Imai from Higo who practiced Kyushin-ryu jujutsu. I asked him to teach, but he too refused. Thus I had no opportunity to learn jujutsu and day after day I would complain about my weak health. Later the English Institute moved to the former residence of Marquis Okuma which is the present Okuma Hall. Then in 1874, I transferred to the English Department of the Tokyo Foreign Language School where the present Commercial College is located. At that time, the late Prime Minister Kato, Dr. Kumazo Tsuboi and others took the entrance examination and we entered the school together. (Thus we were classmates until graduation in 1881.) Soon after that, the English Department of this school was separated and became a government English school located in what is now the Asahiro Inn on a small street in Hitotsubashi. I studied at that school and then in 1875 I enrolled in the Kaisei School. While a student at the Foreign Language School, I commuted from the home of an acquaintance of my father. I did not need physical strength at that time since there were few students. However, when I was a student of the Kaisei School, I increasingly felt the need of physical strength because there were many students hailing from the various feudal clans.

Naturally, in that school, emphasis was placed on studies, but physical superiority was needed more than at the English Institute. Here too, in an academic sense, I could keep up with the others if I applied myself, but I had to make allowances for my physical condition. Therefore, my desire to learn jujutsu became more and more strong. I asked my parents to have a jujutsu expert who often visited our house teach me, but my father declined saying I had no need to learn the art. By that age, however, I became old enough to begin thinking for myself and tried to find a skilled master on my own without my parents’ help. I did not intend to oppose my parents in any way and thought that my father would allow me to train if I arranged it by myself. It was then that I began looking for a jujutsu master in earnest.

In the meantime, I entered the Literature Department of Tokyo University which was founded in 1877. If I remember correctly, around the time I entered the University, I happened to know that those practicing osteopathy (sekkotsu) included people who were former jujutsu experts. For that reason, I visited many places which displayed osteopathy signs and asked whether they were teaching jujutsu. Most of them answered that they did not know jujutsu. Some said they used to practice it and then ignored me. Thus, it took me a long time to find a skilled exponent from whom I could learn the art. One day I spotted an osteopathy sign on the Ningyo-cho Street, not far from the Benkei Bridge, and I immediately entered the street. I met a man called Sadanosuke Yagi whose appearance was immediately imposing. He was hard-muscled, dignified and of extreme intelligence though his hair and beard were already gray.

When I asked him whether he did jujutsu he stared at me and wanted to know why I asked him such a question. I told him it was my long-cherished desire to learn the art and requested that he teach me. He listened to me attentively and hit his knee saying that my desire was extremely admirable and very rare in this world. He was very glad. He explained to me that he was a direct student of Mataemon Iso and had obtained a jujutsu license. However, in the spirit of the times, he quit jujutsu and was only practicing osteopathy; he wished to satisfy my desire by all means, but there was only one eight-mat tatami room which contained a cloth box and charcoal brazier. We could not practice there. Then he reflected for a while and struck on the idea of contacting a certain Hachinosuke Fukuda who was a fellow student living in what used to be Daiku-cho in Nihonbashi. He mentioned that most of those people who trained at the time he did had already quit jujutsu, but that Fukuda might have a dojo. Mr. Yagi told me to go to him.

I immediately paid a visit to Mr. Fukuda and found out that he only had a ten-mat tatami room, one of the tatami being occupied by a ladder. The rest of the room, about nine mats in all, was used as a dojo. Fukuda practiced osteopathy in the adjacent three-mat room. Sometimes the nine-mat dojo was used as a waiting room. Even though the dojo was wretched, this proved to be the first step in fulfilling my long-cherished desire to study jujutsu. That is when I began learning Tenjin Shin’yo-ryu jujutsu. This school is a combination of Yoshin-ryu and Shinno Shindo-ryu and was originated by Mataemon Iso. As a child his name was Hachiroji Okayama and he later became Mataemon Kuriyama. He was adopted into the Iso family because of his high social standing and became a vassal of the shogun. He was called Iso Mataemon Yanagi Kansai Minamoto no Masatari. At that time, Mr. Fukuda had four or five students who came occasionally, one who came every day, and another who came almost every other day.

Mr. Fukuda was teaching at the Kobusho (where martial arts were taught) of the shogunate as a sewakokoroe, roughly equivalent to an assistant professor today. At the Kobusho, kenjutsu, sojutsu and several other martial arts were taught. Of course, jujutsu was also taught as one of the subjects. Thus there were masters of various martial art schools such as Kito-ryu and Yoshin-ryu and they practiced with each other. The students of Tenjin Shin’yo-ryu thus had matches with students of other schools. Hikosuke Totsuka was one of the shogunate instructors and had many strong pupils. For that reason, Yoshin-ryu was the most popular martial art at the Kobusho. I heard that Mr. Fukuda was harassed by Shin’yo-ryu students a great deal even though he was strong.

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