An Incomplete History of Grappling – Judo

There’s the history of judo that we’re all taught. Kano spent his childhood learning various forms of jujitsu and in the late 1870’s learns Tenjin Shinyo ryu jujitsu, followed by Kito ryu jujitsu, and in 1882 he founds the Kodokan. The styles that go in to judo, and even the dates around the history are really fuzzy. Andy Adams claims that “jujitsu was flourishing during Jigoro’s boyhood. One might even term the mid-19th century the golden age of jujitsu.” Conversely sources like Allen Gordon refer to jujitsu as a “dying art” at this time. And while Wikipedia indicates that Kano had difficulty finding a teacher, implying that his studies in jujitsu started around 1877, we have sources like Gordon noting an earlier relationship with Teinosuke Yagi who teaches Kano the “rudiments of jujitsu”.

Kazuzo Kudo gives us other clues that Kano’s jujitsu may have started even younger. He notes some of the same jujitsuka that the Wikipedia page references and the story meshes that no one will teach Kano all of jujitsu as he is too young. Kudo’s story and Gordon’s story seem at odds though. Gordon notes Yagi teaching Kano, while Kudo describes Yagi simply as being the man who points Kano toward Fukuda.

Fukuda is the point where we start seeing a consistent narrative. Kano trains Tenjin Shinyo ryu jujitsu under him for a number of years. Both Kudo and Adams note him dying in 1879, though Wikipedia seems to erroneously place this during 1880. It’s possible he falls ill in 1879 and passes in 1880, but it seems that Kano departs in 1879 to continue his training elsewhere. At this point all sources agree Kano went to continue his study of Tenjin Shinyo under Masatomo Iso. Where Fukuda emphasized randori, Iso emphasizes kata. Sources remain consistent that in 1881 Iso falls ill and Kano begins his study of Kito-ryu jujitsu under Tsunetoshi Iikubo. Iikubo, like Fukuda, emphasizes randori.

Fuzzy dates come up in a lot of the stories. I’ve always been told (and had found resources which noted) that Kano trained with Fukushima Kanekichi under Fukuda. Kudo tells us this is under Iikubo (though in the previous section you’ll note he dreams of kata-guruma while attaining his mastery of Tenjin Shinyo under Iso, a technique he had not yet discovered by this account). It doesn’t really matter which it is. We know it’s Fukushima who drives Kano to discover the technique. Though, this actually introduces another mystery as Kano is said to have searched out jujitsu because he was small and bullied, while the mythos surrounding kata guruma notes that Kano had previous experience in sumo and had turned first to those techniques before finding a book on western wrestling and adapting the fireman’s carry. I find it a bit odd because aside from this story I have trouble finding any history of the Kodokan that notes Kano had a sumo background.

The most finite date we come across in the history of judo is 1882. It is in February of that year that Kano opens his own school, the Kodokan. After this, things get fuzzy again.

Probably one of the oddest subjects is how judo gets its ground game. We tend to attribute it to Fusen ryu jujitsu, but the more I learn, the more I doubt that the style itself had a strong ground game. StackExchange had a solid answer to the question of Fusen ryu having a history of newaza. The TL;DR is – no. Fusen ryu seems to be a very typical koryu. It likely had an emphasis on standing joint locks, throws, and weaponry with the elements of ground work present, but by no means the focus. Rather, what we find is that Mataemon Tanabe was a great ground fighter and likely influenced a lot of the ground work of judo. DdlR of Bullshido’s post which the most complete answer draws upon is here. The TL;DR of it is exactly as expected – Tanabe was a beast on the ground, independent of Fusen ryu. What we do know from the continued tradition of Fusen ryu, which does still seem to exist and have schools, is that Tanabe was a master of it who taught it to others. In this way, similar to how people who train with me will learn unorthodox grips for throws, Fusen ryu probably did acquire a reasonably strong ground game due to Tanabe being in the lineage.

Probably the best person to ask about Tanabe is Tanabe. Luckily, he has a little autobiographical piece on his study of jujitsu that was translated to English. This is where we see that he had an explicit nickname of “Newaza Tanabe”. It also leads us to question if Tanabe ever ran a school, which would be required for the story I’ve always been told. It also implies that at some point Tanabe learned judo as he was a judo instructor at various places, and that at least of one of his students, Yuko Tani, was among the five men who traveled across the world to prove the efficacy of judo. The five men are Yuko Tani, Mitsuyo Maeda, Shinshiro Satake. Akitaro Ono, Taro Miyake. Their travels will result in some great mythos of their own, including the founding of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, but that’s a history for another day.

With any history it’s hard to say what really happened since at this point most of our sources are secondary or tertiary sources. We’ve been taught by oral tradition save a few dates committed to paper. What we can say is Kano definitely knew jujitsu, that at least Kito ryu and Tenjin Shinyo ryu found their way into judo, and that Tanabe was probably a strong driving force behind the newaza we know today. Everything else, well, I can say I don’t have any definitive answers.

Prep work and blitzkriegs

Tomorrow starts my (relatively) intensive next two weeks of prepping for the test.

If I end up teaching judo, my plan for tomorrow morning is to cover renwaku waza. However, I don’t plan to cover the traditional go-with-the-flow style of combinations I have seen a lot of. I plan to cover imposing your game on the other guy with an all-out blitzkrieg. The difference between the two is that how I’ve traditionally been taught is to do attack 1, and depending on if they do A or B to counter, follow up with 2a or 2b. An example is that you may go in for a hip throw, if they counter by checking your hip with theirs you can switch to an ouchi gari, but if they counter by circling or posting you’re generally in a good position for osoto gari. Instead, I’ll be focusing on a 1 > 2 > 3 approach using a simplified scenario where you can always impose how they need to counter if they’re going to.

Alex, a great wrestler at Fight Prime, worked with me on Tuesday on a really powerful ippon seoi nage from a tight overhook. I plan to teach and incorporate that. I already do a powerful osoto gari and ouchi gari from the tight overhook, and they each afford a drastic simplification over the traditional judo variants – there’s only really one way out. You’re in too close for most of the normal counters to be viable, so stepping out to try to make space is a requirement to not get thrown in these cases. That simplification means we don’t need to focus on having multiple options. We get to focus just on the attacks and the timing of the follow-up without guessing which follow-up will be appropriate.

Uke steps in for ogoshi > step around and sink in the deep overhook (whizzer) > immediately go for osoto gari > [if they step out] immediately go for ouchi gari > [if they step out] immediately switch to ippon seoi nage. It’s a lot of steps, and more throws that we’d normally cover in a single judo class. However, they’re just four basic throws that everyone already knows – even if they come rarely. Obviously if Matt or Tim want to teach something else I’ll defer to their expertise, but this is my plan if I end up covering tomorrow.

After the 1.5 hours of judo will be between 2.5 and 3 hours of BJJ with an explicit focus on the purple belt curriculum. Submissions and transitions from every position is the goal. Thoughtful practice makes for exceptional execution.

Preparing for purple

I’ve talked to Thales and moved my purple belt test up to the beginning of May instead of the end. I’m half nervous about it and half completely cool about it. I definitely know enough techniques from each position that I’m not worried about freezing up and not knowing four different armbars from closed guard or two double-leg takedowns. What I am worried about is making sure the techniques are as technical as possible.

For the next two weeks I’m going to be trying to get as much rolling as possible in. Saturday’s open mat is going to be trying to find anyone going for their blue or purple belt soon to work with (or brown, I don’t discriminate).

Why Do Judo

Today a co-worker asked if I did jujitsu or Brazilian jiu-jitsu. I explained that I do both. He asked the difference and I explained that there wasn’t one – some guy in South America was doing what everyone else was but called it something else. When people ask me for advice about which martial art to do they’re usually looking for some eastern mysticism and hokey concept of structure or discipline. I always make perfectly clear that what I do (judo, BJJ, jujitsu, whatever we call it) is fundamentally the same as wrestling. I grab a guy, go to the ground, and hold him until someone tells me to stop. I don’t practice in environments where there are senseis, dojos, or ritual the way people think of martial arts. In judo we bow and we talk in Japanese, but that’s a simple sign of respect and the use of a universal language to avoid ambiguity. In BJJ we “shake” hands and talk in English for the same reasons.

The co-worker noted that he had been told that BJJ, unlike something like kickboxing, was supposed to be good because you have definitive resolutions. You don’t have to pull your punches to prevent injury – you can move on the ground with the other person at full speed. You can know that the choke will work, that the armbar will work. There is no question about maybe I would have gotten out. They submit or they do get out. That part is true. Unlike boxing or karate, we don’t need to pull our punches (literally or metaphorically) to prevent injury. We just need to be cognizant of the limitations of our and our partners’ bodies. I also clarified that when looking for a kids martial art, BJJ starts younger than most people think because there are no submissions for kids. It’s like a very relaxed wrestling class.

So here’s the thing: knowing that what you do works is great, but it’s not why I’d recommend judo. I’m by no means saying it’s false. I’m just saying that if you work where I work and live where I live it’s grossly unlikely that you’ll actually be in the skirmish where you need to know it works. My ecosystem just doesn’t lend itself to violent encounters. You will however find yourself at a high risk of using judo six months out of the year (more like five, but it sounds more ominous if I say winter is a six-month season here).

I am talking of course about the risk of falling and busting your ass on the ice. We get to freezing temperatures usually between late October and Early November, and heck if it’s not still freezing at night in early April. The difference between knowing ukemi from a combat sport like judo and not knowing ukemi is the difference between your hand really smarting from slapping the concrete and fracturing your tailbone. Trust me, you’d rather your hand hurt for a couple days.

I’m serious though. You’re at a way higher risk of needing falling skills than needing fighting skills, and you should know them. There was a story in the Budo club about a guy getting hit by a car while he was on his bike. His ukemi was so good that the six pack of beer in his backpack was completely in tact (albeit shaken) from the collision because he fell properly. Urban legend or totally this guy that Brant knows? I’m not really sure. The point stands: ukemi comes up. Be it falling down stairs, tripping over the invisible bench that found its way into your walking path (that’s a thing, right?), or slipping on ice you can and will benefit from knowing how to tumble.

If anyone ever says they’re looking for something they can use, that’s my answer. Learn judo, if nothing else you’ll learn how to not break your collar bone when you fall.