“Kyuzo Mifune, Master of Judo,” by Robert Noha

Kyuzo Mifune (1883-1965)

This is the first in a series of articles on the teachings of master martial artists from arts other than aikido. They have proven useful in my aikido training and teaching. Our own training experiences, teachings from O-Sensei, his students and our own teachers will always form the core of our aikido. But we stand on the shoulders of the giants from previous generations, not all of them from aikido. I am offering these perspectives in the hope they will be of value to you as they have been to me.

Each article will start with a brief sketch of the teacher’s life. Next, will be a discussion of an aspect of his teaching that I have found helpful. The conclusion will be some suggestions on how to apply the teaching to your own practice.

The first teacher to be profiled is Kyuzo Mifune, judo 10th dan and author of the classic book, Canon of Judo (Seibundo-Shinkosha Publishing Co. LTD., Tokyo 1956).

His Life

Kyuzo Mifune Sensei was born on April 21, 1883 in Kuji City, in Northern Honshu and died on January 27, 1965. He entered the Kodokan in 1903. He attended Keio University and majored in economics. In his early life, he supported himself through the creation and publication of a highly successful local newspaper, but judo was his passion. By age 30, he was already a 6th dan and on May 25, 1945 he became only the fourth person (up to that time) to be promoted to 10th dan. He taught at the Kodokan, where he became the chief instructor and at numerous universities, police departments and military academies. He received many awards including the Order of the Rising Sun from the Japanese government. Prof. Mifune was active in judo throughout his life, including acting as a referee in the Tokyo Olympics, in 1964, less than a year before his death.

From my research into his life and personality, two particular aspects stand out.

First is his tremendous love for judo. He would often wake up the uchideshi (the live-in students) in the middle of the night to practice a new technique. He had an enormous feeling of gratitude for the opportunity to train. His gratitude included every aspect of life. He even expressed thanks for his small stature (5 feet 4 inches and 110 pounds) that made him fast and difficult to throw and for injuries that forced him to explore aspects of his training he might otherwise have missed.

Second is his great kindness toward his students and a sincere interest in their well being and progress in the art.

Minoru Mochizuki (founder of Yoseikan Budo) practiced with Mifune Sensei as well as Dr. Jigoro Kano (judo founder) and O-Sensei. Mochizuki Sensei described an event that occurred when he was washing himself in a well. He had left his home at midnight to walk to the Kodokan for 4:00 am winter training. The story continues from an interview in Aikido Masters:

“Anyway, I ended up walking and running the whole way, and by the time I made it to the Kodokan I would be dripping with sweat. There was a small well there but the top was always frozen over. I would smash the ice and splash water over my body from head to toe and then run into the dojo to practice. Well, one day when I got to the well, my usual bucket was missing. Someone must have carried it off some place. I didn’t have a lot of time to spend looking for it or I would have been late for the start of class so I just jumped right into the well for a few seconds. When I went to pull myself back up out of the hole, I felt someone pulling me up by the hand. I turned around to thank the person for helping me and who do you think it was? Mifune Sensei of all people!

I was rather taken aback and stiffened up. Of course, I had just crawled up from the ice. I finally managed to say good morning. Sensei stared me in the face. “What on earth are you doing?” He asked. I answered, flinching, that I was rinsing myself off in the water. Maybe Sensei felt sorry for me because he gave me a small towel and told me to dry off. Then he asked me why I was splashing myself with cold water? I explained that I had to walk every day from Tsurumi (Mochizuki Sensei’s home). At that, Mifune Sensei said to me, “Tonight you can come to my house. You fool you’ll ruin your health like this!”

From that day on I stayed at Mifune Sensei’s house. In essence, I became one of his dependents. At that time, there were hundreds of students who lived at his expense in order to learn judo, but of course Sensei couldn’t have that many staying in his own home.”

In addition to his generosity and love of the art, Mifune Sensei was a great competitive judoka and fighter. He never lost a competitive match and won the first All-Japan Championship in 1930. He also won a celebrated challenge match at age 40 with a sumo wrestler who was six feet tall and weighed 240 pounds!

He enjoyed as much success in teaching as in competition. While he never traveled to the West to teach, he did have many good foreign students. He worked with Anton Geesink who won the first judo gold medal in Tokyo in 1964. He also taught Walter Todd, a pioneer in American aikido. He gave Todd Sensei one of his own gi (uniform) as a gesture of friendship when he left Japan to return to America.

In 1971 Prof. Mifune received perhaps his greatest tribute. A bronze statue was unveiled at a ribbon-cutting ceremony attended by his wife, daughter and other family members, opening the Mifune Memorial Hall. The hall is a training center for young judo students in his birthplace, Kuji.

His Teaching

Jigoro Kano throwing Mifune, c. 1936

I’d like to summarize some of Mifune Sensei’s teachings that may prove beneficial for aikido practice.

He taught along with many of the other greats of his time (Morihei Ueshiba O-Sensei, Dr. Jigoro Kano and Gichin Funakoshi) that training in the martial arts was not about winning.

“The real purpose of judo is not to win victory only, but is to personify the truth contained in judo.” (Canon of Judo, p. 29)

“The very essence of judo is to depend on heaven’s will.” (Ibid, p. 27)

He also believed, as did his contemporaries, that Judo was about perfecting the character.

“Action of a man, for instance, done without the unity of mind and body, may be indecent and cause harm to the people around him.” (Ibid, p. 27)

Mifune Sensei had some unique ideas about the relationship between nature and human intelligence in training. From the great masters of the past he inherited the belief that nature was an important source of martial arts training. But he also believed that martial training came from equal doses of human and divine intelligence. He taught that human intelligence is essential in the pursuit of self-perfection through training. His philosophy of judo rested on both a respect for tradition and the value of the human creative spirit.

“The gist of judo is to find the original characteristic of the man… and to personify true freedom of thought and action.” (Ibid, p. 30)

“The true feature of judo is to show justice through reason: that no action is to be done without reason is most important.” (Ibid, p. 27)

“But man, having the ability to think, judge, select and act, seeks to obtain stability in both his psychology and the law of nature.” (Ibid, p. 29)

Practice Suggestions

I have found two aspects of his teaching especially helpful in my own practice. The first is the way techniques work to unbalance a partner. Second is the timing in which parts of a technique come together to form a whole.

The importance of breaking a partner’s balance is very basic to judo and other throwing arts. Mifune Sensei has some very interesting things to say about it.

Tsukuri is to deprive the opponent of his center of balance, induce him to an unstable posture. Kake is to apply to opponent’s (unbalanced) posture the technique you have formed… fundamentally speaking tsukiri proceeds kake at any time.”

He goes on to explain the deeper meaning of unbalancing an opponent.

“It is quite natural that you should apply a technique the moment when the opponent reveals a broken form, but it is more important to read the opponent’s intention quickly and apply a technique the moment just before his broken form is revealed. Because the moment both you and the opponent meet in contact is when the posture is broken…the case admits of no minute (time) between tsukuri and kake.” (Ibid, p. 45)

This teaching greatly helped my shomenuchi ikkyo. I always had trouble at the point of contact, not only in breaking my partner’s balance but even in avoiding a clash. The technique only seemed to work with a cooperative uke. I learned from the above passages to move slightly off the line of attack, which creates a draw that unbalances my partner’s lower body first, right at the moment of contact. Once his lower body loses its root, the rest of the technique proceeds smoothly. This realization carried over into other techniques in the sense that they all have a draw to unbalance the lower body as well as the more visible extension that connects to the upper body.

Mifune Sensei’s beautiful timing is wonderfully illustrated in the video available through Masters Martial Arts Supply (see below). It provides about 40 minutes of stunning footage of throw after throw against much younger and larger opponents. It is truly inspirational, especially since it was shot when Mifune Sensei was in his seventies. At no time is there any sense of forcing or hurrying to get to the end of a technique.

He taught that “unhurried timing” is an important aspect of judo and of life as a whole.

“In a match, if a contestant thinks of some technique to try on an opponent, his idea will be detected out by the latter and will cause his failure. This is because his idea is fixed on one point, which hinders his free action.” (Ibid, p. 30)

He also points out that a technique never exists in the abstract but at a specific moment in time.

“However the center of gravity of an object or the center of a form cannot be in existence before hand, but it comes into existence (only) the moment when an object or form is fixed.” (Ibid, p. 29)

Studying these passages helped to improve two aspects of my understanding of timing in aikido. First, I realized why it is so important to wait until the attacker’s form is fixed before moving. Moving too early does not establish a good connection with your partner and leads to forcing the rest of movement.

Second, it taught me the importance of allowing the partner to move first (to fix his form before you fix yours) in each major part of the movement. Besides the initial movement, already mentioned, it also includes the circling or blending part of the movement and the throw or finishing part of the technique.

For example, in munetsuki kotegaeshi, feel the point at which the attacker is committed to the punch and cannot pull back before moving. After turning and blending, feel the attacker’s intent to move before you move them. On the throw, feel the attacker’s intent to move toward you before throwing.

This teaching has really helped me to allow a technique to unfold more naturally, instead of forcing it, by focusing too early on the throw or pin.

Both the naturalness and humanity of Mifune Sensei’s teaching are truly inspirational.

Mifune Sensei’s life and art are a shining example of what can be achieved through training that is both passionate and intelligent.

I will close with one of his most famous teachings about the importance of never giving up. It has helped me to continue to the end of many classes: “seven times down eight times up, never give up.”

For further study:

Author Robert Noha

Canon of Judo, Kyuzo Mifune Seibundo-Shinkosha Publishing Co. LTD., Tokyo. (1956) Out of print but sometimes available in used bookstores.

Aikido Masters, Stanley Pranin Aiki News, Tokyo (1993) available through Aikido Journal website,

Budo Secrets, John Stevens Shambala Publications, Inc. (2001)

The Fighting Spirit of Japan, E.J. Harrison, W. Foulsam & Co. LTD. London (no date) also available in paperback

Black Belt Magazine, Feb. 1972. “Last of the Judan,” by Andy Adams, from which much of the information on Mifune Sensei’s life is drawn.

Judo’s Mifune, videotape available from Master’s Martial Arts Supply, Toronto, Ontario (416) 368-7585


  1. Thank you for a wonderful article. Many years ago i met a man who was on the 1950’s USAF Judo team. The team traveled to Japan for demonstrations at USAF bases in Asia and while there went to the Kodokan. There they met Mifune Sensei and every one got a chance to train with Sensei. He told me they lined up from the lightest to the heaviest and took their turns at trying to throw Sensei. No one succeeded! He told me as soon as you touched Mifune Sensei’s gi you were on the mat!!! The heavyweight on the USAF team was thrown so quickly he was literally stunned. The man told me that Mifune Sensei was extremely kind and proceeded to give them a lesson showing every technique he used on them.

    • Thanks WG,

      Great story about Mifune in the 1950s.

      He was a remarkable teacher.

      I recently learned he and O Sensei had dinner together.

      It is recounted in Kobayahsi’s Sensei’s autobiography.

      Bob Noha

  2. An admirable gentleman, and useful thoughts. Suggestions: possibly the author meant ‘tsukuri PRECEDES kake’. The date of his 10th dan promotion is interesting. At that historic moment, Japan was preparing to sacrifice perhaps 20 million lives to resist American (and Russian?) invasion of its home islands. Patton and MacArthur were sharpening their elbows in the politicking as to which of them and whose proteges would effect the assault on Tokyo.

    Lastly, the title of Pranin Sensei’s e-mail is simply one of those problems of putting practice into words. I can read at a few hundred words per minute. That’s WAY slower than the perception necessary for applying any martial technique. It would be interesting to compare elapsed time for reflexes, such as the classic knee jerk the doctor induces with his little rubber hammer, to some simple martial technique, such as a back-knuckle punch. My guess is that if an observer “started the camera” with the impact of the hammer in the one case, and with the first perception of the technique in the second, the back-knuckle punch would start at about the same time as the knee jerk. As the distance covered by the strike is longer, so would the total elapsed time be.

    First perception of an attack, by the way, is an excellent exercise in timing. Almost anybody can see an undisguised attack from the instant before it gets into real motion. Seeing the intent to attack is more subtle.

    Another thought would be related to the process of eye movement when reading. Again, eye movement is a neuro-muscular phenomenon. As the knee jerk is a smaller movement than the strike, so is the movement of the eye, and necessary time, smaller than the knee jerk. Perhaps there is no practical benefit to considering the size-speed relationship of the eyes versus other body parts, but it seems a bit interesting in and of itself.

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