The Larger Lessons of Judo

By Neil Ohlenkamp


When asked what Judo is, some people would say that it is a modern international Olympic sport. Others would put it into historical perspective and describe it as a uniquely Japanese cultural activity. Still others would say it is a martial art, a self-defense system, or a form of combat. The collection of techniques known as Judo can also be used for purposes of recreation, physical fitness or physical education. Judo in it’s physical manifestations as practiced on the mat is sometimes referred to as Gedan Judo (Judo in the narrow sense). In this article the term Gedan Judo will be used to refer to the practice of Judo within the training facility.


Judo, however, has a much more profound impact on the lives of its practitioners than any of these descriptions imply. Daisetsu Suzuki said, “Technical knowledge is not enough. One must transcend techniques so that the art becomes an artless art, growing out of the unconscious.” Virtually all black belts, and many other students, understand that Judo can be a way of life. It has core principles and objectives that can be viewed as purely physical. Alternatively these principles can be seen as evidence of philosophical truths which can be applied to all aspects of a person’s life. These principles can be a positive force, useful in guiding behavior, developing the spirit, and serving humanity. The study of these principles has been called Jodan Judo (Judo in a wide sense).

We can say that Judo is an art because it is a method of arriving at self-realization and true self-expression. We can further say that Judo is a science because it implies mastery of various laws of nature: gravity, friction, momentum, velocity, weight transmission, and unison of forces. In its most important phase, it constitutes a kind of higher logic developed through practice and the ascension of the true personality: a realization of the spiritual self in the philosophical rather that the religious sense of the word. — The Secrets of Judo, Watanabe and Avakian

The true value of any art form — whether it is music, painting, flower arrangement, sculpture, or Judo — is that it has the goal of discovering and developing the true potential within the artist.

Since the fundamental principle acquired through the practice of Jujitsu has been elevated to a finer moral concept called Judo, “The Way of Gentleness,” it may well be said that the primary objective of practicing Judo is perfection of character. — H. Seichiro Okazaki

How does one learn about Jodan Judo?


Judo’s unique character is that its higher moral and philosophical ideals are fully revealed only through years of hard practice and application of its physical techniques. While it is certainly possible to understand these principles through discussion, reading, or intellectual study, the active Judo practitioner gains a greater conviction and affirmation of the applicability of the principles to different situations. The basis for understanding the larger ideas comes through training in technical elements of attack and defense. The lessons to be learned from this type of practice cut across cultural and political boundaries, accounting partly for the international appeal of Judo. Even though Judo training is seldom initiated in a search for its higher goals, the understanding developed is remarkably similar among Judo students of all kinds around the world. The physical training naturally leads to an appreciation of the higher principles.

If you want to obtain the secrets of such wonderful techniques, drill yourself, harden yourself, undergo severe training, abandoned body and mind; follow this course for years and you will naturally reach the profoundest levels. To know if water is hot or cold you must taste it yourself — Yamaoka Tesshu, master swordsman and calligrapher (1836-1888)

So it is difficult to learn the principles of Jodan Judo without fully practicing the physical techniques and going through a process of self-discovery. A factor contributing to the difficulty is that teachers have sometimes been reluctant to talk or write about the principles. In the days of old, Jujutsu masters would speak of the secrets of their arts and protect them at all costs from outsiders. For example one typical pledge of secrecy, signed in blood, went as follows (Darrell Max Craig, Japan’s Ultimate Martial Art, Boston and Tokyo: Charles E. Tuttle Co., 1995):

When I become a member of the Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto-Ryu, which has been handed down by a Great Deity of the Katori Shrine, I herewith affirm my pledge of absolute secrecy about matters of this ryu. I will not have the impertinence to discuss or demonstrate my martial technique to nonmembers.

Early students at the Kodokan (the birthplace of Judo) also had to pledge secrecy. While schools of Judo and Jujutsu traditionally protected techniques so they would not be copied or lose their strategic advantage, they also had other interests to protect, particularly as westerners gained an active interest in learning martial arts. When speaking of secrets or hidden teachings they were not always speaking of specific techniques or physical training, but rather the hidden meaning behind techniques. The inner teachings of Judo and Jujutsu were often not discussed openly because of a belief that the way of martial arts practice provides the foundation required for proper understanding, especially for westerners who were not familiar with the Japanese way of thinking. Without this basis the teachings become merely a mental exercise of logic and philosophy as opposed to an experiential reality.

Judo and Jujutsu masters recognized that knowledge in the mind is not the same as true understanding. A Chinese proverb says “Knife sharpens on stone, man sharpens on man.” The purpose of training in martial arts is to forge the spirit, and no amount of discussion, reading, or thought can provide one with the experience and insights that one can achieve through hard training. Another proverb explains it this way “A gem cannot be polished without friction, nor man perfected without trials.”


When the old masters spoke cautiously about revealing the secrets, or inner meaning, of Judo they often warned against misunderstanding or misuse. One danger in transmitting the larger truths of Judo without the proper foundation is that students will try to make the physical techniques fit their understanding of the principles, rather than the other way around. This would be a misuse of the teachings and reflect a grave misunderstanding. The laws of nature must be fully experienced to be understood, they cannot be bent to the preconceived ideas of the observer. To master Judo one must move in a natural manner, which means surrendering oneself to the way things are rather than the way one would like them to be. The masters, then, believed that this discovery of the natural and marvelous principles of Judo must be an intensely personal revelation. As training progresses the details of individual techniques can begin to be correlated with larger principles until Gedan Judo and Jodan Judo become united.

How does one come to understand the larger lessons of Judo?

Train first to develop the strength, flexibility, coordination, balance, and control of your body and ultimately your mind. Train daily with other serious students to maximize your movement skills and physical abilities. Then learn to quiet the mind to attain a relaxed state capable of full-spirited concentration and decisive action. With a sincere attitude begin the quest each day anew. This is called “knowing oneself.” It is in this stage of development that one gains skill in tsukuri, or putting yourself in the proper position to apply technique.

Train second to develop an understanding of how to off-balance the opponent. Become sensitive to the opponent’s tactics so you are not vulnerable, and concentrate on controlling the opponent’s ability to act. This is called “knowing the opponent.” Remember, in breaking the attacker’s balance you must concentrate on his/her mind as well as body. It is in this stage of development that one gains an appreciation for the secrets of kuzushi, or off-balancing.

First you learn to strengthen and control yourself, then you learn to weaken and control the opponent, then you can enter the third phase, how to apply the technique. Tsukuri and kuzushi are merged into kake, or application of technique, without any intervening thought of self or other. This is called “forgetting oneself and the opponent.” It is said, “If there is self, there is enemy. If there is no self, there is no enemy.”

Just as the parts of a technique — kuzushi, tsukuri, kake — are an analogy for learning the deeper meaning of Judo, the physical training methods of Judo help to gradually uncover greater meaning. First a student learns a throw using proper form, or kata. The basic theory and principles are taught the same to all students. Then the student develops his or her body and learns to adapt the technique according to his or her strengths and weaknesses through uchikomi practice. Next the student learns to master randori, free practice, to develop the throwing technique further, adapting it to the opponent’s weaknesses and movement. During this stage one refines the use of the mind as well as the body. The student is then ready to enter shiai, or contest, to develop the spirit and character by testing the technique against a skilled opponent. Finally the student returns to the practice of kata with a more fully developed character and a deeper understanding of the principles of attack and defense. In each stage of the development of technique the student learns progressively about the self, the outside world and ultimately the spirit.

Regarding the relationship of one’s spirit to Judo performance, Shinichi Oimatsu (The Bulletin for Scientific Study of Kodokan Judo, 1984) says:

Since Judo is a form of personal contact the attributes of spirit, technical skill, and physical strength of the opponent can be directly felt. Without a superior spirit you will be overwhelmed by your opponent. As a result, there will be an inability to demonstrate the necessary technical skill or physical strength. There are extremely numerous opportunities in Judo practice and matches to heighten a vigorous spirit that uses all one’s strength in order not to lose to an opponent. It is through practice and matches that instruction is given to elevate a vigorous spirit and courage. In order to make this true courage a part of oneself it must be self-realized and instruction should make one strive harder.

Although training in Judo can be difficult the rewards can be great. Always believe in one’s best, judge the steps to achieve this, and gather all one’s strength and work hard. This is the path of determination-judgement-effort that will help a person contribute something of value to the world. Jigoro Kano wrote, “If there is effort, there is always accomplishment”.

Mastery of Ju or “giving way” is not so simple as it sounds. It is the result of sincere effort. The device of giving way until the proper time involves the use of perfect balance, rhythm and harmony, and perception — the kinesthetic or “sixth-sense” feel — of the opponent’s off-balance movements. It is this that enables the judoist to gain eventual victory. When his opponent attacks, he must harmonize his own movements with the opponent’s brute force in order to gain victory. Thus his preliminary retreat is performed with the goal of ultimate victory in mind. — The Secrets of Judo, Watanabe and Avakian

A Zen proverb describes one of the mysteries of Jodan Judo:

When you seek it, you cannot find it.
Your hand cannot reach it
Nor your mind exceed it.
When you no longer seek it,
It is always with you.


If the marvels of Judo elude you, return to a beginner’s mind. Technicians can be hampered by analytic thinking. According to Zen tradition the mind is originally thought-less, like a bright, clean mirror. However when one elusive thought arises, a shadow appears clouding the mirror. When the mirror is clouded nothing can be reflected. One’s own thoughts, shadows on the mirror, begin to appear if they are reality. Hence it is better to approach Judo training with a clear mind. Teachings must be accepted with an open mind, one that is quiet and focused, as if it was still the first day of practice. One should have no expectations or thoughts of self. Once the obstacle of discursive thought is surmounted, the marvels of Judo can be appreciated. Pursue your study to that end and train until no doubts remain.

Those ignorant of the principles of Judo may fritter away years of training without realizing a thing. Such wasted effort harms everyone. A young person engaged in training may charge ahead without reflecting even for a moment on the lessons. Thoughts of winning and losing may also cloud the mirror. There is an ancient saying, “Thirst for victory leads to defeat; not tiring of defeat leads to victory.” Work tirelessly to strengthen the spirit. When your physical strength fails you, you will then be able to rely on superior technique.

What are some of these secrets, or principles of Judo, that can be applied to life?

Any attempt at explaining higher meanings to be derived from Judo is bound for failure. This is true partly because each individual expresses themselves differently, but also because the lessons are inherently connected to the physical act of practicing Judo. It is said, “If one can fully describe the meaning of Judo, he does not truly understand it and therefore he cannot fully describe it.”

Like a drawing in India ink of the whispering of wind in the pines, the secrets of Judo can only be suggested. Only through personal experience can one comprehend the mystic ecstasy of such secrets. It is said of Jujitsu that it would require ten years of practice to win victory over one’s self and twenty years to win victory over others . . . Only by cultivating a receptive state of mind, without preconceived ideas or thoughts, can one master the secret art of reacting spontaneously and naturally without hesitation and without purposeless resistance. — H. Seichiro Okazaki

After a great deal of study in various schools of jujutsu and years of developing Judo, the founder of Judo, Jigoro Kano, eventually summarized the primary goals of Judo as:

  • Seiryoku zenyo — strive for maximum effect with minimum effort
  • Jita kyoei — strive for mutual welfare and benefit
  • Jika no kansei — strive for perfection as a whole person


These are principles that apply equally to our practice on the mats, and in our lives off the mat. The meaning of each or these principles is very deep and influential to Judo students, taking years to fully grasp. Much has been written about these major principles of Judo. Less well known are some of the other complimentary benefits of study.

Respect and kindness, fidelity and sincerity, are no doubt the essential points which Judo students should particularly observe. We come by daily training to know that irritability is one of our weakest points, and that we have to try to avoid it in our life, as it facilitates our opponent’s efforts to overcome us. Not to be irritated in any emergency, but to always be calm and composed, is one of the first principles of Judo. Prudence, precaution, temperance, perseverance, presence of mind, quick discernment, decision after deliberation, animation with moderation, self-respect, and self-control–all these are surely moral qualities which are inculcated by the study of Judo. Greatness of mind, obedience to duty and abhorrence of extravagance should be among other points observed with no less attention. As we study and acquire the principles of Judo, we should naturally come to understand how these virtues can be enjoyed and utilized. The main object of Judo lies in this point. It seeks to augment human strength, morality and intellect by human means and efforts. It tends to train young people in the habits and condition conducive to the accomplishment of great undertakings. — T. Shidachi, 1892

A thorough study of the meaning of “Ju” will reveal a great deal about Jodan Judo. Lao-Tzu has said, “Softness triumphs over hardness, feebleness over strength. What is more malleable is always superior over that which is immoveable. This is the principle of controlling things by going along with them, of mastery through adaptation.” Kyuzo Mifune, tenth degree black belt, described the meaning this way:

“Ju” means being natural, or in other words the way which is natural and in accord with the truth of the universe and the one that human beings have to follow. Also, “Ju” may mean anything reasonable, just and honorable, accordingly noble: namely the realization of Truth, Good, and Beauty. To show Judo is by means of technique, which is acquired by technical training based on the scientific study. This can also be said to be a direct pursuit after truth, which appears among the activities of human beings with well-matched willpower and physical strength.


Balance is an important element of Gedan Judo requiring many years of study, as well as a major building block of Jodan Judo. Judo student’s learn to react to the opponent’s strength with weakness, and seize decisively on the opponent’s weakness to gain victory. In this way one can discover that soft and hard, strong and weak, gentle and firm are no different. One can bring harmony to these concepts and see them as one. Opposing physical, mental, and spiritual forces must be balanced. For example, through concentrated effort we learn effortless action, and we fight hard while remaining soft. We learn to resist with nonresistance. We begin to see that offense is defense, and defense is offense. We understand that to know is to realize one’s ignorance. Like both ends of a circle, the last and the first, are the same.

This is only a brief hint of the larger lessons that can be learned in the Judo dojo. Without concentrating on achieving a predetermined goal, be reassured that there is more to Judo than meets the eye. Study diligently until you understand these and other principles. No black belt worthy of the rank ever believed that Judo practice was limited to the actual time in the dojo. On no account should you neglect your duty to practice Judo. When you are too old to enter contests you will still be able to participate fully in the practice of Jodan Judo. Even if you are too busy with everyday affairs to step on the mat, you can still improve your Judo by improving yourself. Any work that is well done will improve your Judo by strengthening the spirit.

Maximize your efforts, and you practice Judo. Develop your character, and you practice Judo. Work for the welfare of others, and you practice Judo. Contribute to the betterment of the world, and you practice Judo. Of course, a diligent study of Jodan Judo can improve your performance in the basic Judo mat skills through a deeper understanding of yourself, your opponent and the techniques. More importantly though, it can provide you with a framework for a lifetime of growth.