“Professor Kano and His Judo School” (from “A Woman Alone in the Heart of Japan”, 1906)

  • Originally published on the Bartitsu.org site on Thursday, 14th March 2019

Bartitsu founder Edward Barton-Wright spent three years, between roughly 1895-98, living in Kobe, Japan, where he worked as an antimony smelting specialist for E.H. Hunter and Company.  By his own account, Barton-Wright spent much of his free time there practicing jiujitsu at the traditional Shinden-Fudo Ryu (“School of the Immovable Heart”) dojo of sensei Terajima Kunichiro.  Thereby, he became one of the very first Westerners to known to have made a practical study of the Japanese martial arts.

However, Barton-Wright also mentioned that he had taken some lessons with the famed Professor Jigoro Kano, the founder of Kodokan judo.  Details of their association are scanty, but Barton-Wright also later stated that, when it came time for him to arrange for some jiujitsu experts to travel to England, he had corresponded with “Professor Kano and other friends in Japan”.  This is curious in that, of the three jiujitsuka who originally made that trip, only one – Seizo Yamamoto – had any confirmed prior connection to the Kodokan.

In any case, while Barton-Wright’s experience as a trainee was highly unusual, some other Westerners living at Japan at around the same time did take a more academic interest in the martial arts.  The following account of training at the Kodokan was penned by self-described “nomad” and travel writer Gertrude Adams Fisher, and represents a rare and picturesque glimpse into Professor Kano’s famous academy during the very early 20th century.

A contrasting institution, of equal fame in the land, is the Judo school of Professor Kano, its founder, who is a unique factor in the country. As Kano was journeying in China, Tomita Tsunejira carried on the school and received the guests. Red tape and a special permit secured the entry, and repaid all effort. A score of men jumped to their feet, as my riksha rolled into the court. Spectators are always drawn to the school, and there were idlers, and coolies in blue. The lobby seemed a dressing-room, where scores of suits were pigeon-holed, and where clogs awaited their owners. The urbane manager smiled sweetly and bowed low to my card of introduction, and, in stockinged feet, I curled up like a Turk on the platform, while a score of sturdy men tumbled and bumped and rolled and spun, landing on the classic floor which, for a quarter of a century, had trained athletes and developed wrestlers renowned throughout Japan. The unfurnished room was the cradle of physical skill, the spot where many, by scientific training rather than by weight or power, have learned how to handle men.

Professor Jigoro Kano.

Professor Kano, known as the “Father of modern wrestling,” is a philanthropist, loved by his people. His skill and his devotion have given to the Japanese their reputation as the best tumblers and the most daring acrobats in the world. Neither he nor his manager nor his teachers receive a penny for their work. Love and enthusiasm inspire the workers. Professor Kano has no desire to be wealthy. He is content to draw a salary as professor in the Higher Normal School. There is no sordid motive in his private enterprise, and no school could be more public. “Whosoever will, may come,” without entrance or tuition fee. Money is an unknown element in his school, and its platform is truly democratic. The true sporting spirit for fair play and equal rights prevails. Nobleman, rikman, and coolie are on an equality, and skill in throwing is the only badge of merit. Five thousand pupils have tried their strength on this wrestling field, and they number in their lists a secretary to the British legation. Small boys and mature men are proud to practise here. All wear the same costume, of heavy white, with loose, open jacket and very short trunks. Men of noble families wear a purple sash, while the sash of the ordinary citizen is white, and this is the only mark to distinguish plebeian from patrician, to tell the humblest combatant when he has displaced a man of noble rank. The son of the editor of Japan’s best paper sat by the wall with the humblest natives, and was tossed and thrown by an obscure coolie who outdid him in skill.

The manager declared strongly for the principles which guide the wrestler’s code, and for the value of wrestling in mental and moral gain. The code of ethics is exacting, and many a thoroughly bad boy shows a moral reform after a month at the Judo school. No court code is more precise than the ceremony with which these adversaries approach each other. The ballroom manners of Alphonse to Dulcina, as he asks her for a dance, are no more perfect than those of the opponents in this arena. The suppliant crawls on hands and knees, salaams to the floor, and repeats his fixed form of invitation. The recipient also plays the role of quadruped, bumps his head on the floor, and repeats the ceremonious acceptance. Then they stand erect, come to the centre, and war begins. At the finish follow bows and responses, expressions of mutual gratitude and appreciation; and congratulations, compliments, and recognition of special merit are in order.

The men mark their record in the school register, in strange cabalistic signs dashed on by a brush from a block of India ink. The writing is in columns, beginning at the end, we should say, on the last page of the book, and on the right margin. Here is future proof of each man’s bout, with whom he struggled, and with what result. The test is no child’s play, but deadly earnest from start to finish. Muscles strain, cords swell, eyes dilate, as each man pushes for the mastery. Every movement is thought out for its scientific value. The fray is marked by nimbleness and dexterity. Every sweep of the body is made with lightning flash, and the thought which precedes is quicker than lightning. It is a training of the mental powers and a swift study of cause and effect. The work is based on physical laws. Statics, inertia, the law of bodies at rest, of bodies in motion, of momentum, of velocity, of the lever, the fulcrum, of poise, and the maintenance of gravity, are the foundation of the art. Fair play and a scientific basis are the code.

In his limited English the gracious manager explained the system, and I drank the detested tea, an ubiquitous penance, if one is not fond of the beverage. Tomita Tsunejira explained the word “judo,” which is the key-note to the profession, and which, as he sadly announced, has no equivalent in English. “Ju” means soft, pliant, yielding, and “do” means thoroughness. Freely translated, a thorough doing-up of the opponent, in a soft and easy style. The practical object-lesson did not reveal the softness of the process. Men spun through the air, and fell, slap-slam, on all sides. The soft, yielding matting seemed the only pliant feature. After the toss-up and the thump, men lay for a moment stretched in Delsartean relaxation. Then they rebounded with the spring of a rubber ball, and jumped to the foe, like wiry little spiders. If a shoulder were dislocated, a spasm of pain delayed the game till the bone was shoved back in the socket.

Scientific Wrestling

“I will now show scientific moves,” said Mr. Tsunejira, as he cleared the floor, and called for his two crack teachers. The pupils had been ready for practice. They had held many bouts and brief rests, but they readily retired to give place to the experts. Students knew that rare sport was in store, and they were anxious for the exhibition. With a modest laugh and a smile of pleasure, the men advanced for my benefit. One was short and thick-set, the other slight in figure. They slid along, 1-2-3, as if practising a waltz. Then they twisted their knees, and tied up their bodies in a double knot. They rested, they pushed, and a man was thrown. The beginning and the end were apparent, but only a trained eye could detect the scientific move. Some sudden twist, unexpected, at the right second of poise, had sent the victim sprawling. A few moments were filled with dexterous moves, electric tosses, and quick tumbles. Over the head, on to the shoulder, right, left, across the thigh, a man was tossed like a featherweight in mid-air. The admiring school crouched in envious wonder. The proud manager scanned the play, intent, with knotted brow and wide-open eyes, disapproval and pleasure evident, at the various moves. He would have made a noble daimio in older times, this mixture of courtly grace and stern rigidity. The performers did their best stunts, and gave general pleasure; the manager called a halt, and the teachers retired with profuse expressions of courtesy and compliment. The white and purple sashes of the pupils mingled on the floor, as the men renewed their bouts with fresh impulse and inspiration for the art.

Daily, from three to five P. M., and Sunday morning, from nine to eleven, the school is in session, for that work which makes men ready to see, able to do, willing to dare, courageous in attack, modest in victory, brave in defeat, polite and manly always. The principle and the practice of the school are the making of the soldier, and the humblest men in training here become record-breakers of bravery and endurance at the front.

Here the aspiring lads of Tokio may take few lessons or many, as they choose, and here they have the practice which is one essential in the equipment of every policeman, that he may hand over a scientific touch-down to every tough who needs it.

In the outside court men were drawing water from the deep well to fill the buckets for the after-bath, which is the pleasure and the need of these cleanly people in every walk of life.

For his great and practical philanthropy, Professor Kano has earned the world-wide fame and the national love which he has won. His is patriotic mission work of the highest type, without money and without price, a free gift to the humblest and the highest, for the betterment of mankind, for the making of manly men, who, in time of peace or in time of war, are the strength and bulwark of the nation.

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