What is Judo

What is judo – the single greatest martial art here is why

Judo is a grappling based martial art and later sport that is derived from Ju-Jitsu. Translated into English Judo literally means the gentle way, it is this philosophy that under pins the art. Judo is not intended to be a test of the practitioner’s strength but of there understanding of the movement of the body.

Kanō Jigorō

The history of Judo is inextricably entwined with that of its founder Kanō Jigorō. If you attend any dojo (training place) you will almost certainly come across a photo of the founder hanging on the wall somewhere watching over the classes. Quite simply without Kanō Jigorō there would be no Judo as we know it today.

Kanō originally trained in Ju-Jitsu at a time when the appeal of that art was deteriorating. Japan was undergoing much change as it opened its traditional culture up to integrate its self with the west. Many of the teachers of Ju-Jitsu had stopped teaching and the prevailing sentiment was of disinterest as Japanese society saw no place for Ju-Jitsu.

Despite this Kanō persevered and trained under several different sensei until he opened his own dojo in 1882. This is the point many refer to as the founding of Judo. Much of Kanō’s principles were based on those of Ju-Jitsu he believed any attempt to resist an attacker would be futile for a smaller weaker defender. To beat a more powerful attacker Kanō realised you must evade his attacks so he loses his balance at which point his power has been mitigated and he can be defeated. Kanō decided that any techniques that did not conform with this principle were to be disregard as he focused on developing efficient technique.What is Judo

Kanō who was well read in Confucianist ideas from a young age saw the new art he was creating as having ideals that were more far reaching than those of Ju-Jitsu. To this day there remains a philosophical and self-development element to the learning of Judo which Kanō was always keen to focus on in his lifetime.

How it works

Judo can essentially be broken down in to three elements two of which are fully trained and utilised in competition today nage-waza (throwing techniques) and katame-waza (grappling techniques). The third element is atemi-waza (striking techniques) is practiced only in kata (forms) and is illegal in Judo competition. The person who performs the waza (technique) is referred to as the tori and the person receiving the waza (technique) is referred to as the uke.

When practicing nage-waza (throwing techniques) the tori is attempting to throw the uke so they land flat on there back. To achieve this the tori must move through the following steps;

  1. Kuzushi – breaking the balance of the uke
  2. Tsukuri – fitting in to throw, which is the act of positioning their body in the best place to execute a clean throw
  3. Kake – The actual execution of the throw

The katame-waza (grappling techniques) are further split down into three sub categories.

  1. Osaekomi-waza (holding techniques) this is the act of pinning the uke’s back to the floor
  2. Shime-waza (strangulation techniques) the tori attempts to make the uke submit by ether choking or strangling
  3. Kansetsu-waza (joint techniques) the tori attempts to make the uke submit by placing locks on there joints which are painful and can result in damage to their joint

Training methods

The training of Judo usually takes two forms the kata (forms) and randori (free practice).

Kata – Is a pre-arranged technique which is practiced with a partner. Kata focuses on development of good technique, training of techniques that are longer used and practicing and preserving techniques that have been banned in Judo. Kata has its own competitions in which individuals work in pairs to perform the techniques which are scored by a panel of judges. Those who can demonstrate the best technique are the victors.

Randori – Is a more combative type of practice. The intensity varies based on number of different factors but most commonly the skill level of those taking part. Often when a higher grade engages in randori with a lower grade they will take it easier than if they were training with an equivalate grade. Randori is the practice type that can be used to replicate competition when conducted in its hardest form.

Here is an example of Uchikomi practice, which about working on positioning.


The origin of the grading system in Judo remains unclear to me, having attempted to research this there are claims that the system was invented by Kanō himself, but he never awarded coloured belts to his students. The coloured belts are said to have been introduced later to try and maintain the interest of westerners who wanted an outward display of progress. Another theory suggests the system of coloured belts was lifted from a local swimming club which used the method to distinguish between its best swimmers.

Either way in Japan most schools only operate a three coloured belt system of white, brown and black.  In western Europe and Australasia, the common ranking system is white, yellow, orange, green, blue, brown and black. And in the US, they operate a slightly different system where there are generally 6 grades to pass through before reaching the Dan grades.

In Judo there are ten Dan grades to progress through with the highest grades being reserved for a very select few. Most of those who reach the higher echelons of the Dan grades will have dedicated there lives to Judo and done something extra ordinary to advance Judo.

To move up a grade there will usually be a grading where the skills of the Judoka will be tested to ensure they reach the necessary standard. For the lower ranks this will be completed by the sensei at the club but for the Dan grades a more rigorous form of testing usually takes place and is often performed under the supervision of the governing body.

Most governing bodies will also allow students to advance through the grades based on there competition success. There is usually a points system in place and if a Judoka reaches the necessary number of points in a set time frame they will be promoted. This way of promoting has been criticised for allowing Judoka’s who have lower technical abilities to progress. However, it is also argued that it is unfair for a Judoka who hasn’t been competition tested to be ranked higher than one who has both the technical skills and competition experience.

Judo for kids

Judo is a great hobby for children and Judo has been welcoming children into its ranks for a very long time. Most of the time children will be taught in separate classes to the adults. In children’s classes a strong emphasis is placed on respect and discipline. Some of the techniques such as the chokes, strangles and joint locks will not be taught to children at a young age for safety reasons.First four Judo belts

Most of the focus in the sessions will be on building good technique and having fun. There are competitions available to children, but it is not advised that they become too focused on competition success as there overall abilities are often diminished in the long run. Effective but harder to learn techniques are neglected which results in a diminished repertoire of techniques. This point is equally applicable to adults who become too competition focused.

There are loads of benefits of training Judo that have been covered in another article here if your interested in learning about the physical and psychological development of practicing Judo.

Competition Judo

One of the great benefits of training Judo is the opportunity to compete against similar level practitioners. Due to the popularity of Judo there are lots of competitions going on all over the world, there are probably more opportunities to compete in Judo than in any other grappling form other than wrestling in the US.

The rules of Judo are frequently being modified as the politics of the sport change, but changes are also made to ensure athletes are protected from injury. Under the current rules set by the International Judo Federation (IJF) there is a list of techniques which are banned in competition these are known as Kinshi-waza (forbidden techniques).

The aim competition is to score ippon or one point this can be achieved in three different ways;

  1. A controlled throw which places an opponent on their back
  2. Pinning an opponent on there back with a recognised osaekomi-waza (holding technique) for longer than 20 seconds
  3. Forcing an opponent to submit by using a Shime-waza (strangulation techniques) or Kansetsu-waza (joint techniques).

A half point (waza-ari) is scored if a throw is not performed cleanly enough to warrant ippon. A half point can also be scored by pining an opponent for longer than 10 seconds but less than 20. Two half points don’t make an ippon, so the contest will continue until either ippon is achieved or time expires.

In the even of a tie the contest is resolved by golden score the first Judoka to score a point wins the contest, if a foul is committed then the Judoka’s opponent wins the contest.

There are two types of penalty in that can be conceded in competition a shido (guidance) which is used to deal with minor infringements of the rules and hansoku-make (foul play defeat) which is used to deal with more serios violations of the rules. Hansoku-make will result in expulsion from the whole tournament if it is awarded for a serious infringement. It can also be awarded if a Judoka incurs three shido’s but this doesn’t result in expulsion from the tournament.

Here’s some excellent techniques been executed in high level competition Judo.

Effectiveness for self-defence

Although Judo is derived from Ju-Jitsu which was designed to be used in combat situations, it is generally agreed that Judo is not an ideal choice for self-defence. Most of the teaching is aimed towards developing the skills that are required to be successful in a sporting contest rather than a self defence situation. Judo is practiced in a Judogi which further restricts its self defence capabilities as many of the throws rely on establishing strong grips on the Gi.

If a Judoka were to take their skills and specifically try to adapt them to self-defence situations this would likely aid them in developing effective self-defence skills, but it would also mean what they are training wouldn’t be Judo anymore. Lots of what is taught in Judo can have relevance in a self-defence context the problem is the techniques are not taught and drilled with this goal in mind.

If self-defence is your primary goal I would recommend looking for classes that are specifically designed for that purpose. There’s lots of good reasons to start Judo but self-defence is not one of them.

Influence of other arts

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu – Judo is the primary influencer of BJJ which took the ground work (katame-waza) element of Judo and created its own martial art. Judo was taken to Brazil by Mitsuyo Maeda and it was his students Carlos and Hélio Gracie who went on to create the foundations of BJJ. There are similarities in the principles of BJJ which promotes the idea of a smaller, weaker person being able to defeat a more powerful attacker using proper technique. You can find out more about BJJ here.

Sambo – Is a Russian/Soviet martial art and sport which draws on influence from a range of other martial arts one of which is Judo. Vasili Oshchepkov one of the founders of Sambo spent a number of years training Judo under Kanō Jigorō.

How do I get started?

So, you’re thinking about giving Judo a try, but you don’t want to fully commit yet. The best thing to do is find a local Judo club and contact the instructor and find out when the next class is. You don’t even have to participate to begin with as most clubs will allow you to watch a session. If your keen to get started straight away, then I would recommend wearing some old sports clothes, most cubs will let you train for a session or two before making you wear a Judogi.

Judogi’s can be bought online and range from the very reasonable to the very expensive. If you are just starting I would recommend getting a cheap Gi to start off with. If you are going to be training regularly you will need more than one Gi unless you want to be endlessly washing and drying.