The Invention of Martial Arts

Judo Throw

Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger are two Marxist historians famous for promoting the concept of the ‘invention of tradition’. This concept is based around a Marxist inspired analysis of traditions which questions the validity of any assumption that they are timeless edifices created organically and haphazardly. Instead, Hobsbawm and Ranger contend that in reality ‘traditions’ are often relatively modern constructions created in the service of specific agendas and hence are ‘invented traditions’.

This concept was originally applied by Hobsbawn, Ranger and their co-authors in 1983 to the ‘invention of traditions’ in an European and, in particular, a British Colonial setting. In 1998 however the Mirror of Modernity edited by Stephen Vlastos was published which comprised of a collection of articles looking specifically at the ‘Invented traditions of Modern Japan’. There were many interesting and quite suprising topics covered in the articles and I hope to address several of them in future posts but the one I am interested in examining now is Inoue Shun’s examination of Judo and it’s role in ‘the invention of the martial arts’.

Now before I get started I should stress that I am well aware that not all martial arts derive from Japan and therefore ‘the invention of the martial arts’ may seem like a slightly misleading title. The point of the article however is not to address the origin of ALL martial arts but simply to discuss the role that Judo and its founder Kanō Jigorō played in the development of what most people today would recognise as features of ‘traditional’ Japanese martial arts.

Shun’s overall thesis is laid out quite clearly in his introductory paragraphs, which explain: 

This essay explores the modern invention and subsequent reinvention, of the Japanese martial arts by an examination of Kōdōkan judo. Founded by Kanō Jigorō in the late  nineteenth century, Kōdōkan judo is the earliest example of the invention of budō; specifically, the transformation of jujutsu, a Tokugawa-era martial art into a ‘national sport’ (kokugi) and body culture, which came to symbolize Japan’s modern national identity.

Budō, of which Kōdōkan judo was the prototype, was originally conceived as a hybrid cultural form produced by modernizing ‘traditional’ practice. With the rise of militarism and ultranationalism, however, budō was reinvented as a counter to Western values and to infuse Japan’s modern sports culture with ‘Japanese spirit’.

Building on this, Shun then provides an account of how exactly Kanō Jigorō went about creating judo from jujutsu. What may be suprising to some is just how far Kano emphasised the scientific nature of his newly developing martial art explaining in 1889 for instance that “following scientific principles, I have selected the best elements of established schools of jujutsu and discarded the rest, thereby creating a new school, which is best suited to today’s world”. Kanō was a rationalist and his advocation of a scientific approach was to last throughout his lifetime, as can be seen in an interview recorded toward the end of his life in 1935, in which he stated: 

Of course it was not possible to thoroughly investigate every technique of Kōdōkan judo on a scientific basis. But on the whole, becaue they were fasioned in accord with science, their superiority to older schools was readily apparent.

For those involved in, or interested in, martial arts Kanō’s concepts of distilling the most effective moves from a variety of traditional sources might sound remarkably familiar to the ethos of modern mixed martial arts (as popularised in the Ultimate Fighting Championship in America). Which is quite suprising given that judo is often, in the modern martial arts environment, regarded as an example of a ‘traditional’ martial art system. 

Kano and other martial artists

Kano and other martial artists

Another interesting aspect of Kanō’s eclectic approach to techniques was that it was, in part, only possible due to the high tide of enthusiasm for all things Western in the early Meiji period.

This enthusiasm had lead to the devaluing of traditional Japanese martial arts which were regarded by many as being anachronistic and, as a result, Kanō was able to purchase a variety of martial arts techniques manuals from a variety of traditional jujutsu schools which had previously been closely guarded secrets.

Other developments of Kanō’s judo which Shun identifies and are almost ubiquitous with martial arts today are:

  1. A graded belt system: Kanō pioneered the dan-kyu ranking system which was designed to “not only attract but to retain students”. Traditional schools had varying ranks of mastery but these usually consisted of only three ranks: mokuroku- mastery of a set of techniques, menkyo- liscense to teach and kaiden– initiation in all the secrets. Kanō regarded the gaps between ranks to be so large as to be discouraging and thus designed a system of ten ascending ranks- the dan system and a subsystem of kyu six ascending ranks achieved prior to dan grades.
  2. An increased emphasis on free sparring: Traditional martial systems in the Tokugawa period had become increasingly artistic endeavours due to a long lasting peace. As a result kata’s- the performance of a series of predetermined techniques- had become increasingly emphasised. Kanō considered such kata to be the grammar of martial arts but argued that mastery of grammar on it’s own was not enough to produce fluid composition thus he emphasised the importance of free sparring which became the main component of judo training. He believed that this enabled the student to cope with unexpected moves, perform better in competitions and was more interesting to students (once again, pre-empting debates which still rage on martial arts forums today).
  3. Treating students as clients: Kanō promoted a strong relationship between teacher and student and enforced Japanese etiquette however at the same time he also pioneered “a new mode of instruction and a new relationship between teacher and student”. His innovations mainly came in his promotion of the importance of cognitive learning alongside direct physical experience and his willingness to teach his students all of his techniques. For instance, Kanō stressed the importance of verbal communication and rational explanations and his students often attended lectures and question-and-answer sessions to discuss technique.
  4. Promoting sporting competition: Kanō played an instrumental role in promoting judo to the status of olympic sport although this was not to occur until 1964 almost 30 years after his death. Regardless of this delay much of the credit for this achievement must go to Kanō who unceasingly advocated for Japan’s participation in the olympics and made  “persistent efforts to foster Western-style sports”. This ties in very closely with the emphasis he placed on free sparring and is also reflected by his students frequent participation, and success, in competitions.

Another development of Kanō’s, which Shun does not discuss, is his development and promotion of a standardised martial arts training uniform- the now infamous white pyjamas- that can be seen in use in a vast array of martial arts. This was undoubtedly not the sole invention of Kanō but once again his role in it’s widespread adoption is hard to overestimate.

Kanō also promoted his system as a means of self-perfection and as a way of life. In this he was not necessarily a pioneer when considered on a worldwide stage however in the context of Meiji-era Japan this was certainly an innovation. The older martial systems were widely regarded as unsavory and as being primarily orientated around learning and performing techniques. Kanō set out to challenge this negative perception and thus chose the name ju-dō (dō meaning way) which suggesting an underlying guiding principle to the training over the word ju-jutsu which simply envoked notions of practical application. He thus claimed that judo was “no longer merely a martial art but names a principle applicable to all aspects of human existence” and that the ultimate goal of judo training was “to perfect oneself and contribute something to the world”. 

Shun argues that Kanō’s promotion of judo in this manner and his extensive use of writing “can be understood to represent the triumph of the word over the sword”. However, it seems to me that promoting martial arts as a way of life had an extensive history in Japan and as such regardless of the manner in which he chose to promote this ideal, it is an ideal that was very much in accord with older martial traditions.

If all this is sounding as if it is crediting Kanō with a bit too much influence. It’s worth remembering that the article is effectively arguing that much of what is regarded as ancient or ‘traditional’ in Japanese martial arts actually dates from the Meiji period and the Japanese government’s adoption, patronage and eventual manipulation of Kano’s ideas. The role of the Meiji government and it’s use of the concept of budō (which Kanō helped to develop) as an element of propaganda is the final point of the article I want to address.

As described in detail above, Kanō’s conception of budō as expressed in judo was “neither narrowly nationalistic nor socially conservative” instead it was a kind of hybrid stressing traditional Japanese values while introducing many new innovations. Increasingly, in the Meiji period however budō as a concept came to be as Shun describes “appropriated by strident nationalists, who propagated an essentialist conceptoion of Japan’s martial arts”. The practice of martial arts thus became increasingly associated with nationalism and emperor-centred thought as the government funded the construction of large training halls, schools and shrines dedicated to martial arts and promoted martial arts throughout the military and even made it part of the state education curriculum. Under state control Shun describes how:

… the goal of budō training diverged sharply from Kanō’s goal of pursuing self perfection and improving society. Now budō was encouraged as a means of fostering the spirit of ‘self abandonment’ and ‘devotion to the nation state’.

In such an environment Kanō’s emphasis on modernising and sport was distinctly out of step with prevailing nationalistic rhetoric which contrasted ‘imported sports’ supposedly based on individualism and liberalism with Japanese ‘cultural treasures’ such as the martial arts which embodied ‘timeless’ Japanese spiritual values.

In an ironic twist Shun concludes by pointing out that after Japan’s defeat in the war in 1945 budō’s relationship with sports had to be reversed in order for it to survive in the post-war political climate which regarded anything with a close association to the militarism and ultranationalism of Meiji government with extreme suspicion. Budō thus became sports-ified and it was a result of this reversal in attitudes that judo was eventually able to become established as an olympic sport.

What struck me most in reading Shun’s article was 1) how far the debates of Kanō’s era continue on in martial arts circles today and 2) how many of the aspects I had associated with ‘traditional Japanese martial arts’ where actually developments of Kanō’s new ‘scientific’ martial art developed during the Meiji era. The ‘invention of tradition’ may occasionally overemphasise the role of  artificial creation yet as Shun’s article on judo exemplifies it can provide a very useful framework for re-examining so called ‘timeless traditions’. I am also left with the niggling question of how judo was able to flourish in pre-war Japan if Kano’s ideals were at such great odds with the governments ideals as Shun suggests.

Judo Ippon- Kano would approve

Judo Ippon- Kanō would approve


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