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As Judo Prepares To Return To The City Of Its Olympic Debut, Learn About The Sport’s Japanese Roots

By Todd Kortemeier | Sept. 18, 2018, 5:25 p.m. (ET)


The Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 run July 24-Aug. 9, 2020, and while they may be two years away there’s a lot to learn on your quest to becoming the ultimate fan. Each Tuesday leading up to the Games, TeamUSA.org will present a nugget you should read about – from athletes to watch to storylines to follow to Japanese culture and landmarks – as part of “Tokyo 2020 Tuesday.” Follow along on social media with the hashtag #Tokyo2020Tuesday.It is fitting that the founder of judo stood just 5-foot-2 and weighed about 90 pounds. 


In his own words, Jigoro Kano said, “Judo is the way of the highest or most efficient use of both physical and mental energy.” Efficiency is the sport’s defining characteristic; it is less about physically dominating an opponent than it is about mastering the sport’s form and using power, balance and movement to prevail.

Judo is derived from jujitsu, another Japanese martial art that traces its history to the 1500s. Jujitsu also is a form in which there are no weapons and no strikes; practitioners use nothing but their own body to defend themselves. The name judo breaks down into ju, meaning “gentle,” and do, meaning “way.”

Kano approached martial arts from an academic perspective. Born in 1860, he grew up in a time in which Japan was opening itself up to the West. Kano showed an innate ability for foreign language, and wrote many of his notes on judo in English, showing the unique way he approached developing this new form of martial arts.

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Angelica Delgado (white) competes at the Olympic Games Rio 2016 on Aug. 7, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro.

Kano studied jujitsu, but added and subtracted aspects of it as he saw fit, which resulted in judo. Kano opened his own dojo called Kodokan in 1882. Kodokan broken down means, roughly, “a place to study the way,” symbolizing Kano’s penchant for study and mastery. Like judo is the “gentle way,” both the sport and the place to study it refer to judo as something to be mastered.

Kano stayed heavily involved with the development of judo throughout his life. In 1909, he became the first Asian member of the International Olympic Committee. But he did not live to see his sport’s Olympic debut, which fittingly took place in Tokyo in 1964. It was removed from the Olympic program in 1968, then returned in 1972. Women were first awarded medals starting with the 1992 Games.

Today, Japan still dominates the all-time Olympic medal table, but other countries are catching up. In 2012, Kayla Harrison became the first American to win a gold judo medal, and she repeated as champion in 2016. The sport’s influence has also been seen in mixed martial arts, with 2008 Olympic bronze medalist judoka Ronda Rousey becoming one of the most dominant women’s fighters in UFC. 

Todd Kortemeier is a sportswriter, editor and children’s book author from Minneapolis. He is a contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.