101. Book Review: John Stevens’ “The Way of Judo: A Portrait of Jigoro Kano & His Students”

 A happy confluence of events happened this weekend.  I read a wonderfully written biography of Kano Jigoro by John Stevens, titled The Way of Judo: A Portrait of Jigoro Kano & His Students, printed by Shambhala Publications, Inc., and I let my wife choose a movie for our Saturday night date. I was expecting a weepy romance date movie, but she inexplicably chose The Grandmaster, a highly fictionalized biopic about Ip Man, the teacher of martial arts movie star Bruce Lee. Both were superlatively entertaining and, from a martial arts point of view, enlightening.

Both, coincidentally, tread on about the same time frame: Asia in the early to mid-20th Century, and how martial arts in respectively China and Japan underwent transformations through the life and times of two great masters of their generation.

In The Grandmaster (video trailer: http://youtu.be/uC5amKLgnFU), a kung fu action biopic of Ip Man is transformed by director Wong Kar Wai into a visually stunning, complex movie that takes, for me, one step beyond Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in turning kung fu movies into an arthouse rendition. There were other movies about the life of Ip Man, but this movie transcended the genre. And who could not enjoy seeing the beautiful Zhang Zhiyi perform kung fu in slow motion? But enough of that; I’ll leave the movie reviews of Chinese movies to someone else.

But back to Steven’s book. As the title says, the book is a compilation of the history of Jigoro Kano, his life, his times, and the students he influenced. It also summarizes his philosophy of life and martial arts. The value of the book is that it gives us an insight into the goals and mindset of the founder of a preeminent modern budo; the man whose influence, in many ways, formed what budo is to this day. His influence reached far past beyond even his own invention, judo, to affect the histories of aikido, karatedo, even kendo and the survival of older koryu arts. A devoted shepherd of his Kodokan judo, Kano was deeply concerned about the propagation and survival of all forms of budo.

Kano, as Stevens notes, was also a quintessential Meiji man; that incredible person born in the turn of the 20th Century Japan who had one foot in Japan’s feudal past, and one foot firmly in its future, who was inculcated both with traditional Confucian ethics and a samurai-influenced code, but who eagerly studied Western culture and traditions to forge a new, modernized nation. Because of his training and intellect, Kanos’ influence was not limited to just budo. He was one of Japan’s great educators of his era, founding several academies, serving as an educational leader, and working tirelessly on behalf of sports education and the Olympic ideal. Kano was pivotal far, far beyond judo, in Japanese modern history.

One of the many strengths of Stevens’ book is that it places Kano and his students in the context of his times. While some of his students appear less than laudatory in their political and personal lives, Kano struggled to embody and promote culture, education, international peace and goodwill in a time of chaos and Japanese ultranationalism. While the overall arc of Kano’s life was positive, on a larger scale, it embodied a bit of tragedy, as he tried in his own way to promote peace in a country running headlong into perpetual war and imperialism.

It is also instructive to note that Kano himself began to criticize his own creation as the years went on and judo became more and more a competitive sport, rather than an ideal physical regimen that complemented a sound mind in a sound body. He felt the overemphasis on tournament play and winning was detrimental to an art which he wanted to use to create well-rounded gentlemen (and women), but by then, the cat was out of the bag, so to speak. How to return the genie to the bottle and cap it when it was already well past its time to do so? So what to do now? One can only wonder. As a youngster, I loved the rough and tumble of judo randori. As I aged, I found greater insights in its kata, and was inspired by the open-mindedness of Kano’s beliefs, his rational, systematic approach to training, and his acceptance of other forms of budo.

But judo changed even in my generation, and I also changed as well. Now I look at it from afar as a concerned outsider. The book will inspire both judo practitioners and non-practitioners alike. But it should arouse some introspection on the part of judoka as to the true purpose of their sport, and serve as both an example and a warning to other martial artists about the paths their arts could take.

14 thoughts on “101. Book Review: John Stevens’ “The Way of Judo: A Portrait of Jigoro Kano & His Students”

    1. John,

      That scene was great. I thought the film ran a bit too long overall, and could have used a few less fight scenes. But overall, the cinematography was great.

  1. There’s a bit of controversy in Japan over Judo right now since Budo has become a required part of the curriculum in public schools in recent years, and the injury rate is quite high – http://judojiko.net/eng/ – for example. It’s interesting that Judo was originally turned down for inclusion into the school curriculum for some of the very same reasons: http://kenshi247.net/blog/2013/08/08/budo-in-schools-in-the-early-meiji-period-pros-and-cons/

    1. Chris,

      Interesting note. I wasn’t aware that judo may become part of a compulsory phys. ed regime, and I really think it’s a dangerous decision. Even Kano, if I understand him correctly, would probably not agree with teaching judo as a requirement, rather than as a free choice. Plus, as it is with the emphasis on competition, you are bound to sustain injuries as long as you have a competitive component of throwing, joint locks and chokes. As a pastime for children who elect to do it freely, it’s wonderful. As something mandatory in public schools…bad idea, I think. Stevens’ book notes that Kano was Japan’s representative to the Olympics, but he never pressed to make judo an Olympic sport. He felt that making it so competitive would take away from the true nature of randori and the goals of judo as a budo.

  2. Where else can you get a book and a movie review with insight in one blog! I have been holding off on seeing the movie thinking it was just another overly commercialized Kungfu movie that would kick off yet another a video game.

    Stevens, never really been a fan of his writing to be personally. The insight and review about the book is appreciated.

    No doubt Kano was the major pioneer of modern budo, who had a huge dynamic influence. The problems he faced to maintain his vision for Judo was a losing battle. I think what he was up against was traditional feudal culture ingrained deeply into the Japanese people. Along with human nature to be competitive. Kano like others who didn’t favor competition for their arts where up against a monstrous and powerful detour. I don’t think any founder of any modern art was able to stay on course avoiding competition in some form or another.

    I applaud the efforts of the vision of modern budo, in what it was and trying to do. I don’t think too many people understand the monstrous and monumental of an undertaking change is, and what was obstacles are faced. How interesting would it have been read Kano’s most internal thoughts and feelings on this matter. I think one of the contributing factors that becomes a barrier to success is the Japanese way of isolation, thereby effecting leadership and ultimately the achieving of goals in relation to change. Effective communication and broaden scope is vital to any successful social change.

  3. To see your vision succeed it takes leadership. Effective leaders use effective communication and a broaden scope of their vision, if they want successful social change. The Japanese budo leadership model back then was heavily influenced by feudal military leadership. The model for leadership being changed -primarily away from a heavily influenced military structure and cultural philosophy and practice of isolation- where effective communication methods took place Judo may have better fulfilled Kano’s vision.

  4. When I have read my judo-classics correctly. Kano promoted judo much more as an physical education system, with additional benefits of self-defence and mental well-being than as a sport.
    So it seems to me that in case judo – as envisioned and meant by Kano and practiced as such – could be a very usefull instrument in physical education regimes in schools.

    That is judo as it was intended to be by Kano, not the Olympic judo sport is has become.

  5. I read the book almost as soon as it was published. I have always found the writings of John Stevens informative and interesting, and this volume was no exception. However, I did find something that bothered me concerning Mr. Steven’s comments on Kano Sensei’s foreign students.
    I am referring to the short reference to ‘Alan Smith’, starting on page 188 and concluding on page 189.

    I believe that my comments which follow on Mr. Smith, should not detract from the fine work produced by Mr. Steven’s in this and other of his works. My purpose is to share some clarification on an oversight which bears amplification. Allan Corstorphin Smith, a Scot, who journeyed to Japan between 1907 and 1909 received his Black Belt 1st Dan rank in 1916, as Mr. Stevens states. The passage I take exception to is the following: “…Smith’s whereabouts are unknown after 1920. Maybe he was a spy too.” (page 189 top of the page)

    However, despite Mr. Steven’s assertion Allan Corstorphin Smith did not disappear after 1920. He travelled to America shortly after receiving his 1st Dan rank from the Kodokan and enlisted in the US Army during WWI. He received a Captain’s commission, some months after his enlistment, and taught ‘modified’ Judo, or Jujitsu techniques as he called it, to US Army recruits, in Georgia. The United States Army Signal Corps have photo stills of Capt. Smith instructing soldiers and one can find on “YouTube” very intersting film footage of Capt. Smith teaching the troops during this period. He also wrote a 7 phamplet series on “The Secrets of Jujitsu”, as he called it, and settled in the United States, after his active duty time. The phamplet series was published in 1920 and I have a complete set of the original phamplets. This set of phamplets incited my interest in Captain Smith and I did some research on him, several years ago.

    I found that Capt. Smith migrated to NY State and during his time in NY, he lived in NYC for the majority of his life in America. Captain Smith transitioned to the NY State National Guard after WWI and while on detached duty taught Jujitsu/Judo Self Defense techniques to the New York State Troopers, soon after their creation in the mid 1920’s. In the 1930’s He served as the Commandant of the Knickerbocker Greys (a civilian cadet corps in NYC), and was in charge of Boy Scout volunteers during the 1939 World’s Fair. He was on active duty during WWII, serving in the United States. He also taught teenage candidates for the soon to be Isreali Irgun officers corps, in America. I have a 8″x10″ print of him supervising young Jewish recruits in Jujitsu/Judo at a NYC Harlem Gym in 1946. He died in 1962 and is buried on Long Island.

    I am aware that the section I am referring to was not the focus of Mr. Steven’s research on Kano Sensei, but I really thought that if the research effort could not be done thoroughly then the statement could have been worded better, or even be left out of the manuscript altogether. For what it is worth, I believe there is ample evidence that Captain, later Major, Allan Corstorphin Smith whereabouts after 1920 were not unknown.

    1. Tom,
      Thanks for the note. This is certainly an addition to Steven’s book, and I think even Stevens would be happy to hear about this further historical information about the once-mysterious “Mr. Smith.”


      1. Thank you Wayne for the complementary reply.

        Every item I mentioned about Mr. Smith is documented and can be verified. I have been researching his life for 8-10 years in a very part-time manner. Thank goodness for my undergraduate time as a History major and my 2 year stint in Graduate school for the same discipline. This is somewhat ironic as I wound up earning a living as an Industrial Engineer in the Public Transportation Industry. I am what happens when the economy plays havoc with your aspired to vocations. 🙂

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