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Kyuzo Mifune, Master of Judo

by Robert Noha

Published Online

This is the first in a series of articles on the teachings of master martial artists from arts other than aikido. They have proven useful in my aikido training and teaching. Our own training experiences, teachings from O-Sensei, his students and our own teachers will always form the core of our aikido. But we stand on the shoulders of the giants from previous generations, not all of them from aikido. I am offering these perspectives in the hope they will be of value to you as they have been to me.

Kyuzo Mifune (1883-1965)

Each article will start with a brief sketch of the teacher’s life. Next, will be a discussion of an aspect of his teaching that I have found helpful. The conclusion will be some suggestions on how to apply the teaching to your own practice.

The first teacher to be profiled is Kyuzo Mifune, judo 10th dan and author of the classic book, Canon of Judo (Seibundo-Shinkosha Publishing Co. LTD., Tokyo 1956).

His Life

Kyuzo Mifune Sensei was born on April 21, 1883 in Kuji City, in Northern Honshu and died on January 27, 1965. He entered the Kodokan in 1903. He attended Keio University and majored in economics. In his early life, he supported himself through the creation and publication of a highly successful local newspaper, but judo was his passion. By age 30, he was already a 6th dan and on May 25, 1945 he became only the fourth person (up to that time) to be promoted to 10th dan. He taught at the Kodokan, where he became the chief instructor and at numerous universities, police departments and military academies. He received many awards including the Order of the Rising Sun from the Japanese government. Prof. Mifune was active in judo throughout his life, including acting as a referee in the Tokyo Olympics, in 1964, less than a year before his death.

From my research into his life and personality, two particular aspects stand out.

First is his tremendous love for judo. He would often wake up the uchideshi (the live-in students) in the middle of the night to practice a new technique. He had an enormous feeling of gratitude for the opportunity to train. His gratitude included every aspect of life. He even expressed thanks for his small stature (5 feet 4 inches and 110 pounds) that made him fast and difficult to throw and for injuries that forced him to explore aspects of his training he might otherwise have missed.

Second is his great kindness toward his students and a sincere interest in their well being and progress in the art.

Minoru Mochizuki (founder of Yoseikan Budo) practiced with Mifune Sensei as well as Dr. Jigoro Kano (judo founder) and O-Sensei. Mochizuki Sensei described an event that occurred when he was washing himself in a well. He had left his home at midnight to walk to the Kodokan for 4:00 am winter training. The story continues from an interview in Aikido Masters:

“Anyway, I ended up walking and running the whole way, and by the time I made it to the Kodokan I would be dripping with sweat. There was a small well there but the top was always frozen over. I would smash the ice and splash water over my body from head to toe and then run into the dojo to practice. Well, one day when I got to the well, my usual bucket was missing. Someone must have carried it off some place. I didn’t have a lot of time to spend looking for it or I would have been late for the start of class so I just jumped right into the well for a few seconds. When I went to pull myself back up out of the hole, I felt someone pulling me up by the hand. I turned around to thank the person for helping me and who do you think it was? Mifune Sensei of all people!

I was rather taken aback and stiffened up. Of course, I had just crawled up from the ice. I finally managed to say good morning. Sensei stared me in the face. “What on earth are you doing?” He asked. I answered, flinching, that I was rinsing myself off in the water. Maybe Sensei felt sorry for me because he gave me a small towel and told me to dry off. Then he asked me why I was splashing myself with cold water? I explained that I had to walk every day from Tsurumi (Mochizuki Sensei’s home). At that, Mifune Sensei said to me, “Tonight you can come to my house. You fool you’ll ruin your health like this!”

From that day on I stayed at Mifune Sensei’s house. In essence, I became one of his dependents. At that time, there were hundreds of students who lived at his expense in order to learn judo, but of course Sensei couldn’t have that many staying in his own home.”

In addition to his generosity and love of the art, Mifune Sensei was a great competitive judoka and fighter. He never lost a competitive match and won the first All-Japan Championship in 1930. He also won a celebrated challenge match at age 40 with a sumo wrestler who was six feet tall and weighed 240 pounds!

He enjoyed as much success in teaching as in competition. While he never traveled to the West to teach, he did have many good foreign students. He worked with Anton Geesink who won the first judo gold medal in Tokyo in 1964. He also taught Walter Todd, a pioneer in American aikido. He gave Todd Sensei one of his own gi (uniform) as a gesture of friendship when he left Japan to return to America.

In 1971 Prof. Mifune received perhaps his greatest tribute. A bronze statue was unveiled at a ribbon-cutting ceremony attended by his wife, daughter and other family members, opening the Mifune Memorial Hall. The hall is a training center for young judo students in his birthplace, Kuji.

His Teaching

I’d like to summarize some of Mifune Sensei’s teachings that may prove beneficial for aikido practice.

He taught along with many of the other greats of his time (Morihei Ueshiba O-Sensei, Dr. Jigoro Kano and Gichin Funakoshi) that training in the martial arts was not about winning.

“The real purpose of judo is not to win victory only, but is to personify the truth contained in judo.” (Canon of Judo, p. 29)

“The very essence of judo is to depend on heaven’s will.” (Ibid, p. 27)

He also believed, as did his contemporaries, that Judo was about perfecting the character.

“Action of a man, for instance, done without the unity of mind and body, may be indecent and cause harm to the people around him.” (Ibid, p. 27)

Mifune Sensei had some unique ideas about the relationship between nature and human intelligence in training. From the great masters of the past he inherited the belief that nature was an important source of martial arts training. But he also believed that martial training came from equal doses of human and divine intelligence. He taught that human intelligence is essential in the pursuit of self-perfection through training. His philosophy of judo rested on both a respect for tradition and the value of the human creative spirit.

“The gist of judo is to find the original characteristic of the man… and to personify true freedom of thought and action.” (Ibid, p. 30)

“The true feature of judo is to show justice through reason: that no action is to be done without reason is most important.” (Ibid, p. 27)

“But man, having the ability to think, judge, select and act, seeks to obtain stability in both his psychology and the law of nature.” (Ibid, p. 29)

Practice Suggestions

I have found two aspects of his teaching especially helpful in my own practice. The first is the way techniques work to unbalance a partner. Second is the timing in which parts of a technique come together to form a whole.

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