By Thom Sakata
Judo critics frequently complain that judo is not what it used to be. Modern day judo concentrates too much on sport and not enough on combat and self-defense. The double knee drop seoinage for example is a modern day creation that works great on the competition mat, but who would ever consider using it on a concrete sidewalk? Sure, executing a successful drop seoinage on concrete may break your assailantÕs neck, but you yourself would risk two broken knee caps in the process. Such an example is a fair assessment of how modern judo concentrates much more on the sporting aspects of the art over its self-defense and combat lineage. So, are the critics right? Is modern day judo too sports oriented? True, modern day judo is much more sports oriented than the Kodokan Judo of the past, but I believe that sport judo training and competition have direct applications to combat and self-defense situations. The following are my top ten reasons why sport Judo is still effective for combat and self-defense training:
#10) Available, Portable and Economical
Judo is practiced worldwide, in just about every country on earth. There are over 700 Judo dojos listed on the Judo Information website for the United States alone. Why are the numbers so important? Because self-defense or martial arts training should not be isolated to a weekend seminar. Such training does not even get you to the “I know enough to be dangerous” level. To be proficient in any martial art one should practice with diligence and over an extended period of time. With judo you can be quite certain that wherever life takes you, there will be a Judo dojo close by to continue your training (and all you need is your gi to bow onto the tatami). Additionally, most judo dojos run as not-for-profit entities and club dues tend to be relatively low when compared to other martial arts classes, allowing you to train even when cost of living funds are tight.
# 9) Grips and the Utilization of Clothing
Critics say judo techniques rely too heavily on the gripping of the gi and are ineffective when an opponent has no garment to grab. These critics are obviously evaluating the effectiveness of judo techniques from a mixed martial arts perspective, where a majority of the contestants fight bareback, wearing nothing more than board shorts and a pair of four ounce gloves. In combat and on the street, however, an enemy combative or assailant will more than likely be fully clothed. And consider this: if you are ever attacked by someone wearing nothing, there is always Hadaka-jime (a rear naked choke).
#8) Grappling over Striking
Many traditional jujitsu atemi (striking) techniques utilize the fleshy blade of the hand or palm when delivering a blow, rather than a closed fist. There is good reason for this. The human hand is comprised of twenty-seven small bones, fourteen of which are fragile digital bones that can be easily broken upon impact with a solid object, such as a human skull for instance. Without proper padded glove protection, the popular closed fist punch exposes the digital bones to a high risk of injury. For those who have followed the Ultimate Fighting Championship since its inception, recall how Keith Hackney broke his hand from repeatedly striking Emmanuel Yarborough’s head, when a rear naked choke was right there for the taking.
So now imagine being on the battlefield, not being able to pull the trigger on your weapon due to a broken finger sustained from delivering a punch. Or imagine trying to execute a spinning back kick in heavy combat boots, with canteens and ammo pouches hanging from your hips. Striking techniques are more hindered by battle dress attire, and expose the executor to a higher degree of self-inflicted injury than grappling techniques. By contrast judo’s nage (throwing) and katame (grappling) wazas are less affected by physical attire and safeguard the body’s limbs, allowing the soldier to “fight another day.”
This is not to say that you should never punch or kick or disregard the value of learning proper striking techniques. Even Jigoro Kano realized the importance of atemi waza and kept the techniques alive in judo katas. However, one should also recognize the limitations and risks of striking techniques in combat and on the street. Consider the United States Army Field Manual on hand to hand combat which states: “Strikes are an inefficient method of ending a fight. However, they are a significant part of most fights, and a solider must have an understanding of fighting at striking range. It is important to note that while at striking range, you are open to being struck. For this reason, it is often better to avoid striking range.”
The judoka trains at grappling range, developing avenues to end a physical conflict without having to deliver a single blow.
#7) Explosive Newaza (Groundwork)
In judo competition ground grappling techniques must be executed within seconds of the action hitting the floor or tori (the attacker) risks being stood back up by the referee for a lack of progress. Article 16 of the International Judo Federation Referee Rules explains that a standing attack can transition to a ground attack only if it is continuous and uninterrupted. Let us consider limited groundwork time from a combat and self-defense standpoint.
Unlike the controlled environment of competition that pits two opponents against one another, the urban streets and the battlefield make no restrictions as to the amount of participants a physical confrontation may allow. Thus, there are too many opportunities for standing participants to inflict serious injury on those rolling around on the ground. A ground grappling chess match typical of submission grappling contests that extends into minutes is neither practical nor ideal for combat or self-defense situations. In combat and self-defense it is best to stay on your feet, seizing an opportunity to end a conflict via a groundwork submission technique only when the technique can be applied and finished in a matter of seconds. The Marine Corps Manual on hand to hand combat shares such a philosophy and states: “Marines should avoid being on the ground during a close combat situation because the battlefield may be covered with debris and there is an increased risk of injury. However, many close combat situations involve fighting on the ground. The priority in a ground fight is for Marines to get back on their feet as quickly as possible.”
Current Judo rules on groundwork foster such a mindset – execute and explode into a groundwork submission technique in a matter of seconds or get back on your feet.
#6) Ukemi, the Art of Falling
Dojo fees: $20 / month.
Being unafraid to fall in just about every direction: Priceless.
A major factor in surviving any physical confrontation is being able to remain as calm and in control as possible. For those who are not used to being thrown to the ground, it is at this point that a sense of control is lost and panic sets in. Judo teaches one to seamlessly transition from a standing physical struggle to a struggle that goes to the ground. This transition is accomplished through ukemi or the ability to break one’s fall in such a way so as to minimize impact and injury. Judo’s emphasis on throwing techniques and ukemi makes falling safely second nature-eliminating, or at the least minimizing the panic attack brought on by being taken to the ground.
#5) Shizentai, The Natural Stance
As a grappling art judo is unique in that it favors a natural upright posture over a crouching (jigotai) stance. From a pure wrestling competition standpoint an upright posture would be ill advised, but from a combat and self-defense standpoint it is the best stance to deal with the variety of ways an enemy or assailant could launch an attack. Remember that in combat and on the street there are no rules, so an attack can come in the form of a fist, a single leg take down, a swung bottle, a thrown rock or a bayonet at the end of a rifle. The typical wrestling crouch may be an effective defensive stance against the single leg take down, but it would be a horrible posture against the fixed bayonet. Shizentai, the natural upright posture, is the only posture that gives the defendant the maneuverability he or she needs to deal with a multitude of attacking angles and forms.
#4) Uchikomi and Muscle Memory
The stress of a physical confrontation does not allow one to think about self-defense techniques; one must simple react and execute. Uchikomi supports this self-defense requirement. Uchikomi or form fitting a throwing technique is a judo training regimen that utilizes repetition to develop a throw as a natural body movement. With enough uchikomi a throw becomes second nature and the judoka does not think about its execution, but merely flows into the technique when the opportunity arises. Uchikomi is thus a form of neuromuscular facilitation or muscle memory exercise. From Wikipedia: “Muscle memory is fashioned over time through repetition of a given motor skill and the ability through brain activity to remember it. As one reinforces these movements day after day after day, the neural system learns these fine and gross motor skills to the degree that one is no longer required to think about them, but merely reacts and performs.” In a self-defense class you will be lucky if you run through a technique more than ten times; but judo training may have you doing hundreds of uchikomis in a single session, thus building muscle memory.
#3) Randori and Shiai (Free-practice and Competition)
In 1886 the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Academy hosted a tournament between the Kodokan and the prominent Jujutsu ryu, Totsuka-ha Yoshin-ryu, to determine which “style” the Academy would adopt into their training regiment. Of the tournament’s 15 matches the Kodokan won 12, drew one and lost two (Muromoto 2005). The reason why the Kodokan was so successful at this historic meeting lies in one word: Randori. Randori or free sparring trained KanoÕs judokas in as close to real life and death combat as possible.
Randori training, unlike kata training, pits you against a fully resistive, uncooperative opponent. Only through randori and shiai does one truly test the mind, body and spirit under adverse conditions. Judo competition demands that its participants execute techniques against a fully resistive opponent, when physically drained, out of breath, and gasping for air. Such an experience can never be gained through self-defense training via kata or form work alone, no matter how realistic the scenario may be.
#2) Judo, The Giving Way
Unlike martial arts competitions, the battle field and the streets do not segregate participants into weight classes. A 160 pound solider may be facing an enemy weighing 200 pounds. If the 160 pound soldier were to engage his adversary in a head on strength versus strength confrontation, surely he or she would be on the losing end of the stick. The principle of ju, or “giving way” attempts to minimize physical disadvantages in height and weight. The founder of Judo, Dr. Jigoro Kano explains it best: “To understand what is meant by gentleness or giving way, let us say a man is standing before me whose strength is ten, and that my own strength is but seven. If he pushes me as hard as he can, I am sure to be pushed back or knocked down, even if I resist with all my might. This is opposing strength with strength. But if instead of opposing him I give way to the extent that he has pushed, withdrawing my body and maintaining my balance, my opponent will lose his balance. Weakened by his awkward position, he will be unable to use all his strength. It will have fallen to three. Because I retain my balance, my strength remains at seven. Now I am stronger than my opponent and can defeat him by using only half my strength, keeping the other half available for some other purpose. Even if you are stronger than your opponent, it is better to first give way. By doing so you conserve energy while exhausting your opponent.”
#1) A Sport for All Ages and Abilities
A self-defense curriculum should incorporate techniques that can be performed by the average person. Martial arts styles that are reserved for the physically talented offer little to the general public as a whole in terms of self-defense training. This may seem to be the case with judo, but the opposite is actually true. Walk into any judo dojo and you will find a variety of judokas, not just super athletic human specimens. You will find judokas from all walks of life, both men and women, young and old, and just about every body size and shape imaginable. Even those physically impaired participate in judo. In fact, of all the contact Olympic sports which include wrestling, judo, taekwando, and boxing, judo is the only combat sport included in the Paralympic games. After all, it is those in society who are at a higher risk to unsolicited attacks who are more in need self-defense training, not the physically gifted. Judo is a sport for anyone who wishes to participate in it, regardless of athletic ability, age or gender.
There you have my top ten reasons why sport judo is effective for combat and self-defense. Certainly, sport Judo has its shortcomings, but when you examine all the martial arts and self-defense systems in the world today, sport judo still holds its own as one of the best ways to prepare yourself for a physical conflict. In fact it is because Judo is practiced as a competitive contact sport that it is inherently effective on the street and in the field of combat.
Combatives, US Army Field Manual FM3-25-150, Department of the Army, 18 January 2002, Washington D.C.
US Marine Corps Close Combat, MCRP 3-02, Department of the Navy, 12 February 1999, Washington D.C.
Kano, Jigoro. Kodokan Judo. Kodansha International. 1994
International Judo Federation, IJF Referee Rules, 2003.
Muromoto, Wayne. Judo’s Decisive Battle. http://www.furyu.com/archives/issue3/judo.html
About the author: Thom Sakata is a Sandan at the Denver Buddhist Temple Judo Dojo in Denver, Colorado and a veteran of the United States Army.
“The techniques of Judo are limitless and the spirit of Judo is sublime.”