“The Way of Judo: A Portrait of Jigoro Kano & His Students” by John Stevens

jigoro-kano-way-of-judoReview by Robert Noha


This is an important biography of a major figure in both martial arts and cultural history. It is a detailed study of the founder of Judo and his students. The students include male and female, Japanese and non-Japanese. This includes a very interesting section on his Chinese students and their influence on political developments in China.

The author, John Stevens, is well known in Aikido circles. He is the author of two biographies of Morihei Ueshiba, founder of Aikido (both published by Shambhala in 1987 and 1997) and over 30 other books on Aikido, Buddhism and other related topics. A partial list of his books and translations is available at Amazon and Wikipedia.

John Stevens says in his preface: “Jigoro Kano was a seminal figure in the modernization of Japan who also played an important role on the world stage. He was the founder of Kodokan judo, the most important educator in the country, a member of the Diet, the father of physical education in Japan and an international spokesman for both the Japanese Olympic Committee and the nation itself.” (Page vii)


The book is divided into five chapters with a resource section at the end. Each chapter is subdivided into sections. Here is a brief summary of each chapter.

1. The Public Career of Jigoro Kano

The opening chapter focuses on Kano Sensei’s ancestors and his early life and education. It also highlights the tremendous social transformation of Japanese society as the country raced to modernize itself during the Meiji restoration.

“Japan ended its long isolation on March 31st, 1854, with the signing of the Treaty of Kanagawa…It was a period of stupendous change and immense challenge: the entire social, political and economic landscape of Japan would be transformed within a few decades. Just as this new era was dawning in Japan, Jigoro Kano was born on October 28, 1860 in Mikage.” (Page 1)

An interesting part of his early education was Kano Sensei’s emphasis on learning English.

“Kano’s assiduous study of English under difficult conditions was remarkable…keeping a diary in English most of his adult life.” (Page 4)

It is fascinating to imagine that, if we could meet Kano Sensei today we could converse with him in English.

The chapter also provides a detailed account of Kano Sensei’s training in various systems of jujutsu and other martial arts. It provides insights into how he used his remarkable tenacity and intelligence to adapt what he learned to both his own needs and that of a modernizing country:

“Kano had fallen in love with jujutsu and believed it must be preserved as a Japanese cultural treasure; however he also believed it had to be adapted to modern times…a discipline of mind and body that fostered wisdom and virtuous living.” (Page 17)

The chapter outlines the development of Kodokan Judo through intense contests with the older jujutsu schools and Kano Sensei’s refinements of the practices and principles of his new art.

There are also discussions of Kano Sensei’s role in founding several schools, a university and his educational philosophies and reforms.

“The ideal education was like that Kano had received, a harmonious blend of Eastern and Western learning.” (Page 45)

Aikido students will be interested in Kano Sensei’s relationship with Aikido founder Morihei Ueshiba.

“In October 1930…Kano paid a visit to Ueshiba’s temporary dojo in Meijiro. Like everyone else he was dazzled by Ueshiba’s seemingly superhuman performance…after the demonstration, Kano sent Ueshiba a letter of appreciation and asked him to teach several advanced students from the Kodokan.” (Page 51)

The chapter concludes with information on Kano Sensei’s work in politics, his extensive foreign travel and membership on the International Olympic Committee.

“He was always on the move, seeking better, more efficient, and beneficial means of presenting his message…As he believed, ‘The teaching of one virtuous person can influence many: that which has been learned well in one generation can be passed on to a hundred.” (Page 65)

2. Kano, The Man Himself

This chapter provides a picture of Kano Sensei’s personality and habits. It gives a view of the man who was a world renowned public figure.

“In his personal life, Kano followed his maxim ‘Focused effort, maximum efficiency’…He was not interested in dealing with trifling details. He ate the same thing every day for lunch so he wouldn’t be bothered by having to decide what to order. He always carried an umbrella so he wouldn’t be troubled about whether or not to take one with him.” (page 70)

“Despite his extraordinary workload Kano never complained of fatigue; he even disliked hearing the polite phrase Otsu kare-sama deshita (‘You must be very tired”). When that was said to him, Kano replied, ‘I’m not tired.” (page 78)

The chapter also chronicles his views on religion and education.

“Kano disliked all organized religion…Kano’s educational philosophy is that education must be completely separate from religion…The bedrock of ethics for Kano was Confucian philosophy.” (pages 79 and 80)

The chapter concludes with a review of Kano Sensei’s relationships with some of his famous contemporaries. Included in this section is Ernest Fenollosa (1853-1908) the famous professor from Harvard who both helped Japan establish a modern university system and re-interested them in their own culture. There are profiles of many prominent politicians and intellectuals.

“In both his public career and his private life, Kano was the consummate ‘Meiji Man.’ The outstanding men and women of this period in Japan believed that with hard work, anything could be accomplished. They were keenly aware of the need for Japan to be modernized, but equally convinced that the traditional values of Japanese culture had to be renewed and maintained. They were internationalists who wanted the best for the entire world. Such was the purpose of Kano’s life.” (page 91)

3. The Challenge of Creating Kodokan Judo

This chapter describes the process that went into creating Kodokan Judo from the older jujutsu systems that Kano Sensei studied.

“Kano was constantly tweaking the technical curriculum… the most dangerous techniques…were gradually weeded out…At first, Kano emphasized randori, but then realized that trainees needed kata, set forms, a ‘grammar’ that would help them build a balanced approach to training.” (page 97)

One of the central problems that Kano Sensei faced was trying to balance the competitive aspect of Judo with its primary focus of physical education and character building. This problem would plague him for the rest of his life.

“Unfortunately as soon as formal competition was introduced, people wanted to compete, and rivalries… became intense… Kano wanted Kodokan trainees to compete sincerely without regard to results.” (page 99)

One part of this issue was finding the balance between standing throws and ground work.

“Judo training and contests need to be concentrated on standing techniques and throws, not ground work. That is the message Kano always tried to convey, with varied success.” (page 102)

The chapter also describes some of the high profile matches between judo and wrestling. Kano Sensei condemned these matches and expelled some of the participants from the Kodokan.

“Participation in professional matches will turn Kodokan judo men into fighters and entertainers first, not individuals seeking development of character and moral sense through training.” (page 107).

The overemphasis on competition was a great disappointment to Kano Sensei.

“Kano sadly realized that he was losing the battle to other forces in the Kodokan organization. As we have seen, the competitive side of Kodokan judo had spun out of control even during Kano’s lifetime.” (page 111).

A central theme of the book is how far Judo has moved from the vision of its founder.

4. Kano and His Students

This chapter highlights the many and varied students of Kano Sensei. Included are both his well-known students such as Shiro Saigo (the subject of the famous novel and film Sugata Sanshiro), Yoshitsugu Yamashita (who taught Judo to President Theodore Roosevelt in the White House) and the great master technician Kyuzo Mifune.

The book greatly distinguishes itself by going much deeper and highlighting the stories of two prime ministers and others who went on to distinguished careers. There are also profiles of some of Kano Sensei’s female students including the great Keiko Fukuda who came to America and taught Judo for almost 60 years, attained the rank of 10th Dan, and lived to be 99 years old.

The book also breaks some new ground in Judo scholarship by providing information on the Chinese students who studied with Kano Sensei in Japan. Many had a significant impact on China’s future. This included Yang Changji (1871-1920)

“Yang Changji became a teacher of ethics and education at Hunan First Teacher College. Yang Changji was the favorite teacher of Mao Zedong, who was a student there. Yang Changji is known as the ‘Man Who Molded Mao Zedong.’ Yang Changji introduced Mao to Kano’s ideas; in 1917 Mao wrote a paper, ‘Research on Physical Education,’ based on Kano’s educational theories” (page 180)

The chapter concludes with information on some of Kano Sensei’s western students including E. J. Harrison (1873-1961) who wrote several books on Judo and the famous memoir The Fighting Spirit of Japan. Also profiled is Moshe Feldenkrais (1904-1984) founder of the Feldenkrais System of Awareness Through Movement.

5. The Teachings of Jigoro Kano

The book concludes with a summary of Kano Sensei’s philosophy and teachings. Here are six of his basic principles:

Do not let victory enthrall you.
Do not let defeat defeat you.
When it is safe do not be careless.
When it is dangerous do not be afraid.
Above all, move forward on your path to the end.
In order to defeat the enemy without, you must defeat the enemy within.
(page 192)

A core teaching of Kano Sensei was that Judo should be applied in all aspects of life not just in the dojo.

“Kano’s mastery…enabled him to build the two pillars of his philosophy: seiryoku zenyo, ‘focused effort, maximum efficiency’ and jita kyoei ‘mutual well-being and benefit.” (page 194)

The chapter concludes with a discussion and some beautiful examples of Kano Sensei’s calligraphy.

The book provides a resource section with both primary and secondary sources in Japanese and English.

Personal Reflections

Having lived with the book for about a month I’d like to offer a few personal reflections.

A biography can have several goals. It provides interesting facts about the life and times of its subject. This book certainly does that.

It goes much further by offering an inspirational picture of the life, accomplishments and philosophy of a great man. For students of the martial arts it is a great example of how a life dedicated to martial arts training can lead to the development of a refined character and the making of tremendous contributions to the betterment of the world.

A careful reading and re-reading of this book will help you connect your training with the goals of a full and productive life.


Jigoro Kano Sensei lived an exemplary life guided by his training in the martial arts. By providing us with a window into Kano Sensei’s life and accomplishments, John Stevens has offered us the opportunity to follow Kano Sensei’s example.

Domo arigato

“Although the last thing Kano would consider himself is a Zen philosopher, for many years there was huge signboard displayed above the main stage of the Kodokan brushed by Katsu Kaishu describing his impressions of judo:

With no mind, naturally enter marvelous activity;
With no effort, manifest unlimited magic movement.” (Page 197)

The Way of Judo
A Portrait of Jigoro Kano & His Students
By John Stevens
Published by Shambhala Publications Inc.
Release date-August 13th, 2013
ISBN 978-1-59030-916-2
Cover Price $15.95, 225 pages


  1. I’m looking forward to this book. I’ve been a great admirer of Kano-sensei since I was a boy. It’s amazing to see how large an influence he has on our world so many years later. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that he was also an active educator, headmaster, and politician, in addition to be a martial artist and founder of a major modern martial arts school.

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