History of judo

In Japanese, judo means “the gentle way” and traces its origins to ju-jitsu, an ancient Japanese hand-to-hand combat technique developed by feudal warriors (samurai) as a grappling technique for fighters in full armor. Though ju-jitsu had different names back then, its unifying principle was that it didn’t require brute strength to overpower opponents. Rather, its practitioners could even win by seeming to surrender – then outwitting the opponent with displays of finesse, balance, flexibility, and skill. In its classical form, ju-jitsu was part of the feudal warrior’s training, but the art began to splinter and specialize over seven centuries of war (the late-1100s to the mid-1800s). And when the warrior class yielded to the rise of the common man, the ancient martial arts added a spiritual element to transcend fighting, becoming instead, a way of life.

The founder of modern judo, Dr. Jigoro Kano, was a pacifist and a physical education teacher who was born in the seaside town of Makage, Japan, in 1860 and started studying ju-jitsu at age 18 in order to strengthen his body. Four years later, he established his own school in Tokyo and called it the Kodokan, meaning the “school to learn the way.” His system was built on three major techniques: throwing (with hand, hip, foot, half-body, and full-body), groundwork (holds, strangulation, locks), and striking (of the upper and lower limbs). He also added a strict code of ethics that required all of judo’s practitioners to be outstanding examples of good character and honest action. Dr. Kano traveled to Europe and America to promote his art at the beginning of the 20th century. In the 1930’s Kano proposed founding an international judo organization, but the IJF didn’t come to be until July 1951 – 13 years after Kano’s death. The first world championships were held five years later, in May 1956 in Tokyo, featuring 31 athletes from 21 nations. Judo made its Olympic debut (for men) at the 1964 Tokyo Games. Women’s judo appeared as a demonstration sport at the 1988 Seoul Games, and first appeared as an official Olympic sport at the 1992 Barcelona Games.

Leaders of the pack

Perhaps not surprisingly, the Japanese are the all-time Olympic medal leaders in judo. The Japanese have also won the most gold medals in Olympic history. The Japanese have won at least seven judo medals at each of the last six Olympics. Brazil, which has more people of Japanese descent than anywhere in the world outside of Japan itself, has developed into somewhat of a judo power in recent years. The hosts of the 2016 Olympics won four judo medals in London, while Sarah Menezes became the first Brazilian woman to win judo gold. The United States also had a breakthrough at the London Games, as Kayla Harrison became the first American, man or woman, to win a gold medal in judo.