What is Judo?

Judo, 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.

Meaning of “judo”
The word “judo” shares the same root ideogram as “jujutsu”: “jū” (柔, “jū”), which may mean “gentleness”, “softness”, “suppleness”, and even “easy”, depending on its context. Such attempts to translate jū are deceptive, however. The use of jū in each of these words is an explicit reference to the martial arts principle of the “soft method” (柔法, jūhō). 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 (jūjutsu) means the “art” or “science” of softness, judo (柔道, jūdō) means the “way” of softness. The use of “dō”, 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.

Judoka (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 practicing 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 (nage-waza), and groundwork (ne-waza). Throws are divided in two groups of techniques, standing techniques (tachi-waza), and sacrifice techniques (sutemi-waza). Standing techniques are further divided into hand techniques (te-waza), hip techniques (koshi-waza), and foot and leg techniques (ashi-waza). Sacrifice techniques are divided into those in which the thrower falls directly backwards (ma-sutemi-waza), and those in which he falls onto his side (yoko-sutemi-waza).

The ground fighting techniques are divided into attacks against the joints or joint locks (kansetsu-waza), strangleholds or chokeholds (shime-waza), and holding or pinning techniques (osaekomi-waza).

A kind of sparring is practised in judo, known as randori (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. 

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.

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 Games in Tokyo. With the persistence of Rusty Kanokogi, an American, 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. Dutchman Anton Geesink won the first Olympic gold medal in the open division of Judo by 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.

Rank and grading
Judo rank is generally not of primary importance among jūdōka who participate in tournaments. Modern judo is primarily practised as a sport, so there tends to be more emphasis on tournament records than on rank. Since rank does not totally determine competitive performance, and since tournaments are not structured by rank (except at the lowest novice levels), it is not uncommon to see lower-ranked competitors defeat higher-ranked opponents. An active competitor may not pursue high ranks, preferring to focus on preparation for competition; for example, a silver medal was won by an ikkyu (brown belt) female competitor, Lorena Pierce, in the -70 kg category at the 2004 Paralympics. Apart from knowledge and ability, rank requirements typically include a minimum age.Therefore, it is not uncommon to find teenage competitors at national-level competition who have been practicing judo for 10 years who can beat adult practitioners, but who are only purple or brown belts due to being too young to qualify for a dan rank. Once an individual attains the level of a dan rank, further promotions can be granted for a variety of reasons including skill level, competition performance and/or contributions to judo such as teaching and volunteering time. Therefore, a higher dan rank does not necessarily mean that the holder is a better fighter (although often it does.)

Jūdōka are ranked according to skill and knowledge of judo, and their rank is reflected by their belt colour. There are two divisions of rank: below-black-belt-level “grades” (kyū), and black-belt-level “degrees” (dan). This ranking system was introduced into the martial arts by Kano and has since been widely adopted by modern martial arts. As initially designed, there were six student grades ranked in descending numerical order, with 1st kyū being the last before promotion to first degree black belt (shodan). There are ordinarily 10 dan ranks, which are ranked in ascending numerical order, though in principle there is no limit to the number of dan ranks.

The tenth degree black belt (jūdan) and those above it have no formal requirements. The president of the Kodokan, currently Kano Jigoro’s grandson Yukimitsu Kano (Kano Yukimitsu), decides on individuals for promotion. Only fifteen individuals have been promoted to this rank by the Kodokan. On January 6, 2006, three individuals were promoted to 10th dan simultaneously: Toshiro Daigo, Ichiro Abe, and Yoshimi Osawa. This is the most ever at the same time, and the first in 22 years. No one has ever been promoted to a rank higher than 10th dan, but:

Theoretically the Judo rank system is not limited to 10 degrees of black belt. The original English language copy (1955) of Illustrated Kodokan Judo, by Jigoro Kano, says: “There is no limit…on the grade one can receive. Therefore if one does reach a stage above 10th dan… there is no reason why he should not be promoted to 11th dan.” However, since there has never been any promotion to a rank above 10th dan, the Kodokan Judo promotion system effectively has only 10 dans. There have only been 15 10th dans awarded by the Kodokan in the history of Judo.

Although dan ranks tend to be consistent between national organisations there is more variation in the kyū grades, with some countries having more kyū grades. Although initially kyū grade belt colours were uniformly white, today a variety of colours are used.