Japanese martial arts in the Middle Ages were centred on the bow, those of early modern times on the sword, but after the Meiji Restoration the leading art was judo. A key person in that evolution was Kanō Jigorō. He took the jūjutsu of early modern times and rearranged it in a way to suit modern Japan. Kanō established the Kōdōkan, and built a foundation for its long prosperity.
Kanō was born in 1860. He was a small child and was physically very weak. Because he had an inferiority complex to other children, he took an interest in jūjutsu when he heard that it would allow a man with a small body to throw or subdue a bigger opponent. Jūjutsu’s characteristics are summarised in the sentence “the soft controls the strong”: i.e., a big, physically strong man can be dealt with and thrown by a smaller person. Kanō was greatly attracted to this aspect and is the main reason why he started jūjutsu. At first, he studied the ryūha called Tenjin Shinyō-ryū, and later on the Kitō-ryū.
During his jūjutsu training, he made three important discoveries. First, that training in jūjutsu increases physical strength; second, that it had an effect on the mind as well; and finally, that the laws of victory and defeat could be applied in daily life. With these discoveries, Kanō believed that if he could reorganise the corpus of techniques into something that suited the modern era, then it could be a valuable means for educating youth. He founded the Kōdōkan Jūdō (its formal name was Nihon-den Kōdōkan Jūdō) with the idea of teaching the virtues of this traditional physical culture and its underpinning philosophy.
Kanō started jūjutsu because of his weak body, and he found a real strength after he started training. However, he did not emphasise power or strength; on the contrary he was acutely aware of the educational value of jūjutsu and continued his activities as an educator. He became instructor in various prestigious schools such the Gakushuin School, the Fifth Senior High School in Kumamoto, and finally the principal of the Tokyo Higher Normal School. With his deeper understanding of the depth of this martial art, he made a distinction between the words –jutsu (“technique”) and –dō (“way”), and created “jū-dō”. The word dō emphasises educational aspects encompassing physical education (proper growth of muscles, physical health, freedom of limb movement); competition (dealing with victory and defeat in actual combat); and training of the mind (ethics in life, morals). The distinctiveness of Kanō’s way of thinking was that he wanted to make judo tool for character education.
Furthermore, Kanō announced in 1922 his two mottoes of “seiryoku-zen’yō” (maximum efficient use of strength), and “jita-kyōei” (mutual benefit and prosperity). Before Kanō, jujutsu wasvery technical as indicated by the adage “soft controls the strong”; but his maxims were designed to benefit society. Kanō became the first Asian member of the International Olympic Committee, and he maintained a profound friendship with Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympic Games. Because of his connections, Kanō’s ideals were deeply influenced by Western ideologies.
The Meiji period was a time in which Japan sought to copy many aspects of Western society and technology to the detriment of traditional culture such as the martial arts. He took aspects of traditional culture and remodeled them to suit the educational needs of people in the modern era. This was Kanō’s greatest achievement.