About Gentle Ways, Inc.

I taught Judo at North Dakota State University from 1980 to 2012. The Judo program consisted of a credit class and a judo club. Over 32 years about 3,000 students took the judo class.

Zen Judo International

Vern Borgen, 6th Dan Zen Judo

Zen Judo and Kyushindo Judo are the only remnants of the Butokukai, a Martial Arts Teachers College established in 1895 in Kyoto, Japan. The Butokukai taught Judo, Karate and Kendo. Kenshiro Abbe was one of the leading students of the Butokukai.

What is interesting to me is the involvement of Jigoro Kano and the Kodokan in the establishment of the Butokukai. In one of the pictures taken in front of the Butokukai there sits front row center Jigoro Kano. We also know that the Kodokan sent instructors to the Butokukai to teach kata. So we are left to wonder.

It is my opinion that Kano, as an educator and a believer in the scientific method would have supported alternative judo programs to see what could be learned by an alternative approach.

I had been complaining to Phil Porter and then Ed Szrejter about the over emphasis, in my opinion, of the USJA on competition judo so was surprised when I received a letter from Keo Cavalcanti, the executive director of Zen Judo in America. Ed Szrejter had forwarded one of my letters to Dr. Cavalcanti.  Keo lived in Richmond and I was going to be traveling to Washington DC for work in a few months so we got together for a workout and food and beers afterward. I was fascinated with the Zen Judo program and wanted to learn all I could so I invited Dr. Cavalcanti to Fargo for a seminar, the first of two.

I adapted the Zen Judo syllabus in my dojo and used it straight for about 8 years. We had great success with the syllabus and several of the Gentle Ways, Inc. Judo Clubs continue to use it exclusively, the other clubs use it for beginners, because it is for beginners that the syllabus really shines.

Zen Judo has several features that set it apart from Kodokan Judo.

1. The syllabus is fixed, students are allowed to learn only the techniques within their grade. Students who work with lower ranked students are required to use only the techniques that the lower ranked knows.

2. The gokyu syllabus contains no “air” throws.  All the throws are takedowns.  This is great way to teach throwing to beginners while their ukemi skills catch up.

3.  The order of techniques taught is arranged in strings. For example, at gokyu, the first beginner rank, ashigake is taught, at yonkyu osotoguruma, at sankyu osotootoshi and at nikyu otosogari. The way the techniques are structured leads the student from one movement pattern, adding the next until reaching the desired final movement.

4. Combinations and counters are introduced from the first level using a set of drills: combination one and counter one; combination 3s, 4s, counter two, counter two by two are added later. A combination and a counter are practiced to each and every throw in the syllabus.

5. The concept of half sacrifices are introduced. Half sacrifices are when a throw is executed by dropping to a knee, such as the techniques in the Koshiki no kata.

Below is a biography of Kenshiro Abbe by Keo Cavalcanti. Following the article are links to the Zen Judo syllabus and the Tao of Judo, also by Keo Cavalcanti.

Kenshiro Abbe, the Kyu-Shin-Do and Zen Judo


By Keo Cavalcanti, 6th Dan Zen Judo

Most Judokas (judo practioners) are familiar with Dr. Jigoro Kano, the founder of modern Judo and the Kodokan, the organization he created to spread his art around the world. What is not common knowledge, however, is that for most of the first half of the 20th Century there were two major Martial Arts organizations in Japan who trained Judokas and awarded Judo ranks. One was Kano’s Kodokan. The other was the Butokukai. (There was a picture taken on the grand opening of the Butokukai, all the instructors and administrators it would appear, with Dr. Jigoro Kano sitting in the front row center. What did Kano have to do with the Butokukai?)

The Butokukai was established in 1895 by the Japanese government to train Martial Arts teachers. In 1911 the organization opened its martial arts training school, the Bujutsu Semmon Gakko, largely known as the Busen. Its aim and purpose was to promote and cultivate Budo in a true Samurai spirit, and to produce teachers to go out and propagate the Japanese Martial Arts throughout the world. Zen Judo’s origins are closely connected to the Butokukai through one of its leading graduates, Sensei (teacher) Kenshiro Abbe.

Kenshiro Abbe, the founder of the Kyu-Shin-Do, was born on December 15, 1915 in the Tokushima Province, Japan. He was the fourth son of Toshizo and Koto Abbe, in a family that had four sons and five daughters. Kenshiro was their youngest child. His father was a school master and a Kendo (way of the sword) teacher. Unfortunately, Kenshiro’s father died young at the age of 51 on September 4, 1919, drowning in floodwater during a Kendo weekend course in the mountains. His sudden death brought the family together and helped to create strong ties among its members.

It was Mr. Manpei Hino, a 20 year old teacher, who became a father figure to Kenshiro and introduced him to the martial arts. Mr. Fukiwara, Kenshiro’s grade school teacher, also helped allowing the students to play Sumo wrestling in their physical education classes. Kenshiro would win many school tournaments in Sumo, eventually becoming the wrestling champion of Tokushima’s schools.

At the age of 14 Kenshiro joined Kazohira Nakamoto’s Judo dojo. Sensei Nakamoto, a former police officer, became Kenshiro’s main Judo instructor until he entered the Busen. That same year Kenshiro received his Shodan (1st degree black belt) rank in Judo. A year later he attained the rank of Nidan (2nd Dan or degree black belt), and the following year he was promoted to Sandan (3rd Dan), when he became the champion of the Tokushima High School Judo League. Sensei Shohei Hamano of the Butokukai was the one who awarded Kenshiro with the rank of Sandan. Kenshiro was the youngest Judoka to receive that honor.

But it was during his Shodan examination that Kenshiro caught the attention of the Butokukai experts. One of the masters from the Butokukai, Mr. Shotaro Tabata, acting as a referee in Kenshiro’s testing, had suggested to Abbe’s Sensei that Kenshiro should consider applying for the Busen. With the help of one of his teacher, Mr. Nakano, Kenshiro prepared for the school’s entrance exam in Kyoto. 300 candidates took the entrance exam. Only twenty would be chosen for Judo and twenty for Kendo. Kenshiro was one of the candidates who got accepted into both programs. He moved to Kyoto with his mother and sister, Toyoka, to attend the school.

At the Busen Abbe received instruction from Ogawa Hanshi (genius), the Butokukai Judan (10th Dan) sword master. While at the Busen Kenshiro also enrolled in Mr. Gen Tanabe’s philosophy class, at the Kyoto Teikoku University. That early encounter with philosophy would be influential in the formation of his system. While the training was arduous at the Busen, Kenshiro managed to receive his Yondan (4th Dan) rank in Judo, being again the young Judoka to attain it. His sister, Toyoka, decided to take Martial Arts too, enrolling in Mrs. Mitamura’s naginata class. She would dedicate the rest of her life to the practice of the art.

Judo matches were held at the Busen every Saturday afternoon. Kenshiro usually competed in them, being very seldom defeated. Each Saturday session involved fighting five opponents in succession, with each bout lasting five minutes. In the Fall of his second year at the school Kenshiro received his Godan (5th Dan) in Judo. By then he was fighting twenty opponents in succession. Kodokan instructors heard of Abbe’s prowess and send representatives to work out with him. Abbe’s relationship with the Kodokan would be rocky given his views of what traditional Judo should be like. After graduating from the school Abbe was invited to become a teacher at the Busen. He was also invited to teach at the Kodokan, but he decided to accept his alma mater. He taught Judo at the Busen until 1937.

In 1937, at the age of 23, Abbe was awarded his Rokudan (6th Dan) rank and in June of that year he enlisted in the Japanese army, serving for four years in a garrison in the Toan-sho Province in Manchuria. It was during the time in Manchuria that Abbe began formulating his theory of Budo (the Way of the Warrior), Kyu-Shin-Do. And it was also at this time that Abbe was invited by O’Sensei, Morihei Ueshiba to study Aikido under his care.

Returning home to Kyoto in 1941, he met Keiko who became his wife. The Abbe’s had two daughters, Junko and Noriko. In 1945 he received his Shichidan (7th Dan) rank in Judo and his Rokudan (6th Dan) rank in Kendo from the Butokukai. After Japan’s defeat in the war all forms of Budo were forbidden, so the Butokukai and the Busen were temporarily disbanded. But Abbe obtained a position as Judo teacher to the Kyoto police department and was allowed to continue his practice. In 1951 he would become editor of the Judo Shinbun (the Japanese Judo magazine) and director of the Judo Social League. He was also the official referee for the All-Japan Police Championships and National Tournaments.

After the birth of his third daughter, Yayoi, Kenshiro resigned from his post with the Kyoto police. Feeling that Japanese Judo was in decline, he decided to go overseas. He arrived in England at the age of 40 sent by the International Budo Council, which had been founded that year. Abbe took residence at the London Judo Society. A year later he and Bill Woods formed the British Judo Council. Kenshiro spent 1956 teaching and studying Judo, Kendo, Aikido, Karate and Katsu (Shiatsu massage).

His time in London lasted nine and a half years. At the end of this period his organization, the Kyu-Shin-Do, had over 3,000 members. For a while Abbe taught Martial Arts around Europe, returning to London from time to time. A car accident in 1960 forced his early retirement. Eventually he returned to Japan in 1964 during the Tokyo Olympics. There he lived until he died in December 1985. His long absence from his family, during his European tour, took a toll on his marriage and Kenshiro ended up alone at an old people’s home. His funeral was held at the Zuigen Temple in Tokushima, where Kenshiro was buried in the family grave.

The Kyu-Shin-Do

Abbe was greatly concerned with the modern trend toward materialism. It was to counter this lack of spiritual interest that he blended ancient Japanese philosophy and Martial Arts, creating the Kyu-Shin-Do. For the Kyu-Shin-Do Judo syllabus Abbe used the same system that he learned at the Butokukai, which explains why the Kyu-Shin-Do syllabus and the Zen Judo syllabus (which is derived from the Kyu-Shin-Do) are different from the Kodokan syllabus. Some of our throws do not appear in the Kodokan Gokyo no waza and the order of throws in the Kodokan Gokyo is very different from the one in our syllabus.

The Kyu-Shin-Do is a specific Budo system where Kyu means to study, to seek; Shin means the heart, the spirit, the true inner nature, the central law or nexus point of life; and Do means the way or path, in the sense of a journey involving one’s whole life – a way of life or self-discipline. The whole system is based on three fundamental principles:

Bambutsu Ruten – all things existing in the universe turn in a constant state of flux. All thing in the universe undergo a succession of change.

Ritsudo – This motion is rhythmic and smooth, a flowing movement.

Chowa – All things act, flow, work in a perfect accord (wa) or harmony.

One can see in Abbe’s principles the influences of both Taoism, Buddhism and also Sensei Ueshiba’s Aikido, especially in his third principle which emphasize perfect accord and harmony. For Kenshiro the universe revolves and therefore always keeps in perfect balance. All motion in the universe may be resolved, basically in a series of circular movements. It is only by applying this fundamental principle of motion and avoiding stiff angular stances that we can achieve the best in Judo. Kyu-Shin-Do starts from a relaxed posture, namely perfect relaxation of mind and body. Its actions are gentle,soft, quick and safe because they spring from a relaxed mind and body.

Why is it important to understand the origins of the Kyu-Shin-Do? Because it was at a Kyu-Shin-Do dojo that Shihan (founder) Dominick Mac McCarthy, the founder of Zen Judo, took his first Judo lessons. It was at a Kyu-Shin-Do dojo that he was awarded his Shodan rank. Some of his family still maintains those connections – Mac’s oldest son, Rick McCarthy, still holds a high rank with the Kyu-Shin-Do organization. Furthermore, it is through the Kyu-Shin-Do that Zen Judo is connected to the Japanese origins of our art. Which makes the Zen Judo family highly indebted to Shihan Kenshiro Abbe for bringing Butokukai Judo to the West.

As far as I can tell the Kyu-Shin-Do and the Zen Judo family are the only two groups in the West that practice Judo in the Butokukai style. The rest of the world has adopted Kodokan Judo. So we are the keepers of that system in the West. We are responsible for its preservation and perpetuation. We inherited Abbe’s system in Zen Judo when Mac chose to continue to use the Kyu-Shin-Do syllabus. And all Zen Judo Sensei contribute to its preservation when we commit ourselves to perpetuating the syllabus by promising to uphold its integrity and to pass it on to our students as it was taught to us. We all make such a promise when we awarded our black belts.


The above history was posted on the Red River Judo website and I received two letters from one of Kenshiro Abbe’s students in England, Frank Skingsley.

Dear Sirs:

I read your article regarding Kenshiro Abbe. I should like to make a correction.

Kenshiro Abbe was invited to England, not by the International Budo Council, it did not exist then. He was invited by Masutaro Otani 8th Dan, who had come to England and taught at the Budokwai with Yukio Tani.

Otani then started the MOJS society (Masutaro Otani Judo Society) and followed with the London Judo Society. That is when he invited Kenshiro Abbe. Abbe lived in the same house as Otani for many years.

It was Otani and Abbe who formed the British Judo Council. Not Bill Woods.

Bill Woods had a clerical position at the BJC as secretary.

Bill Woods then had a dispute with the BJC and mutually left the organization. He then proceeded to set up his own organization and called it BJC (MAC)


Frank Skingsley

I read with interest your article regarding the history of Judo and in particular Kyu Shin Do.

The British Judo Association was not formed by Kenshiro Abbe, but by G. Kyzumi 8th Dan. Abbe teamed up with Masutari Otani and they together formed the British Judo Council.

They shared a house in Acton, London and from where they organized the BJC.

He was a very eccentric man, he liked small birds and allowed them to fly around the house and at the Dojo, He was also very strict with his students, he would sometimes invite them to his house and make them sit in the garden and contemplate the earth.

He once rode around London on horseback. His skills were once challenged by another Dojo, who said that his method of Judo was no good and soft.

He went to the club, stepped onto the Tatami, drew a square approximately 3 feet square, put on a large straw hat and invited each of the Judoka in attendance to attempt to knock his hat off. Not one of them succeeded, he threw everyone onto the floor and promptly walk out.

On another occasion, three men approached him in a dark alley way in the back streets of London with the aim of mugging him. He threw his wallet on the floor and said to them “I willing to die for that, are you?” They ran away.

There are many stories about this interesting man.

Judo, Rank and Titles

Education. There is nothing greater in the world. The moral education of one person extends to 10,000 people.  The education of one generation spans one hundred generations.”

…… Jigoro Kano


By Vern Borgen
I taught a college level judo class at North Dakota State University. Often I would be asked to explain the Judo rank system.

I was new to teaching back in the early 1980s, I had a black belt around my waist, but I didn’t then understand what the rank system was all about. So whenever I had an opportunity I asked older Judo Sensei about it and I got a lot of different answers.

There remains a lot of confusion about the ranking system as evidenced by a recent essay by Hayward Nishioka, “What the Hell is a Black Belt Rank?” There is a link at the end of this essay for his essay.

At the time (early 1980s) as I was a veteran of the Army and was quite familiar with rank and the chain of command in the military so I used a military model of rank to explain how Judo rank operated.

But after a few years I began to use an educational model, to my mind anyway, better suited to describing the Judo rank system and suggested by the documentation. And I think closer to the idea of what Jigoro Kano intended the rank system to be.

Professor Jigoro Kano’s day time job was as an educator. It appears that he was a very good one for he is often referred to as the father of modern education in Japan. As a young man he rose in the education system from teacher to administrator quite quickly and at one point helped to adapt in Japan the European system of education, what we know as K-12, undergraduate and graduate college education. It would seem odd to me that he would develop a ranking system for Judo that didn’t parallel his work as the father of modern education in Japan.

Kano’s judo students worked from early morning until late at night, Steven Cunningham stated that in addition to physical training they studied Japanese and Chinese Classics, martial arts history, strategy employed in battles, tactics, etc. (Cunningham). Kano translated Japanese into English and vice versa to help cover the school’s expenses. There are references in older literature that the Kodokan was often called the Judo College by old jujutsu masters. Here is a quote from E.J. Harrison’s Fighting Spirit of Japan. Nango Jiro, a nephew of Master Kano, who had also been one of the first students of Judo, responding on the subject of hara (to be covered in another essay).

He said it was no part of the regular Judo College teaching but that he would give me a demonstration of its effectiveness. (Harrison, 127-28)

So it just seems appropriate, to me anyway, to describe the rank system of judo by comparing it to the European education system with which we are all familiar.

Judo rank based on the European education system

The kyu ranks (colored belts) make up the grade school part of the rank system.

The training more or less follows the normal progression of learning Judo as demonstrated every day in dojos all over the world. Students learn how to fall, how to throw, hold down, choke and arm bar, they learn randori and for those so inclined shiai. In some clubs, such as mine, they also learn self-defense in the form of the goshin jutsu from yellow belt. This is in line with the syllabus of the Kodokan Institute during the time when Jigoro Kano was alive.

1st degree black belt, shodan, is roughly equal to a high school diploma. By graduation the student has a fair grasp of the nature of judo, his/her knowledge and understanding is pretty broad at this point, their work ethic has been examined (persistence to complete the program). In educational terms the high school diploma is pretty broad and fairly easy to get, some say that all you have to do is show up. I have been told that a first degree black belt in Japan is fairly easy to earn. In my judo club it takes 4 to 6 years to earn a shodan rank.

The major part of the training is technique based: nage waza, katame waza and randori and shiai, again for those so inclined. Dr. Kano required his students to study kata; if Kano thought that the proper way to learn judo was to include the study of kata, then that is good enough for me. Students should have to study the Nage no Kata and understand it well enough to carry on a conversation about its merits.

2nd degree black belt, nidan, is equivalent to an associate’s degree in college. Following my analogy, after shodan, the student has jumped to a college level curriculum, the classes are more rigorous, a deeper knowledge and understanding of the subject matter is required. Some specialization occurs at this level much as it does in college, but the core curriculum is continued to be studied. Generally it takes another 2 to 3 years to earn nidan, much as it does in college to earn an associate’s degree.

Following most promotion systems (USJA, USJF and USA Judo, et al) both the nage no kata and katame no kata would be studied. Non competitors would be required to study the ju no kata also.

3rd degree black belt, sandan, is equivalent to a bachelor’s degree in college. This is a fairly rigorous course of study and the judo applicant would have to have time in grade and equivalent course work (knowledge) and be able to demonstrate a high level of understanding of judo. The student would be expected to study instruction/coaching of beginning and intermediate students, sports psychology, bio-mechanics, exercise physiology, nutrition, dojo management, judo games, judo drills, judo kata, how to set up a tournament, refereeing, and perhaps public relations, sports information, writing about judo, grant writing, judo storytelling, judo and the media, how to set up and conduct judo clinics.

At this point the judoka would have a good understanding of the entire gokyo no waza and the shimesho no waza. They would be proficient in randori and several kata.

4th degree black belt, yodan, is equivalent to a master’s degree in college. The course work would continue and perhaps specialize in a particular area of interest, perhaps refereeing or teaching college students. In addition the student would be required to do some original research, perhaps it is in line with his major adviser’s research or something that he/she chose for themselves, with approval from his major adviser and the promotion committee. For example, the student could be doing research on a competitive aspect of chokes, their success rate in tournament and their medical results (injuries, etc.) or developing one of the more esoteric kata of judo, or perhaps a lost kata of the Kodokan. Students would be encouraged to study other aspects of samurai culture such as jujutsu, aiki jujutsu, kenjutsu, iaido, jodo, other weapons systems and their effect on the development of judo or for the expansion of knowledge of the student. Kano encouraged his students to study the sword for a better understanding of the principles of judo, Kano himself was a master of the sword.

5th degree black belt, godan, is equivalent to a PhD degree in college. The PhD candidates would continue the course work, would develop a deeper knowledge of a specific area of judo. This would be the realm of the higher National and lower International referees. More research.

6th degree black belt, rokkudan, is equivalent to assistant professor in the judo college. This is a very knowledgeable person capable of guiding students up to 4th degree black belt. With time this person will become a full professor. Like in a college setting this person has teaching and research responsibilities. He/she should be seeking out new methods to doing things, new ways of looking at things.

Hayward Nishioka, in an essay, What the Hell is a Black Belt, describes the French rank test for rokkudan.

For the French, Rokudan is gateway rank leading to higher rank. To attain this rank a very large hall where 4 to 6 mat areas may be installed is rented. The candidates vying for rokudan must now perform before a panel of higher ranking individuals. First they select a technique such as ouchigari, seoinage, etc. and demonstrate at least 25 different ways to execute that one technique. Next they select a kata and demonstrate it. There is also a presentation of one’s theory of judo, a written examination, and a demonstration of how one would conduct a judo lesson. The examination is an all-day affair that many say the fifth dan must prepare for at least one year in advance. The result being that each person promoted to rokudan is assuredly a proficient judoka capable of meeting high standards. It is little wonder that France has a 500,000+ membership. It has an army of really capable judoka. Additionally if one wants to teach judo in France an additional certification is required. The certification is sponsored through the ministry of education and is a physical education degree.

(Note: I would challenge all 6th dan to elevate their knowledge of judo to meet the requirements of the French test.)

Carl DeCree and Llyr C. Jones in their research investigation of the go-no-kata (Kodokan Judo’s Elusive Tenth Kata: The Go-no-kata – “Forms of Proper Use of Force” part 1 describe the examination of the Judo Bond Nederland (=Dutch Judo Federation) for 6th degree black belt as requiring the candidates for such promotion “shall produce a piece of original work”. Much like a graduate student would prepare a thesis of original material.

7th degree black belt, shichidan, is equivalent to a full professor in our judo college. The work of the professor is very important to the proper guidance of the graduate student. In addition, typically the graduate student works for the professor and contributes to the professor’s favorite research topic.

8th degree black belt, hachidan, is equivalent to a department chairman, high level administrator, remarkable teacher, remarkable coach, remarkable researcher.

9th degree black belt, kudan, is equivalent to a distinguished fellow of the college (remembering our Judo College is made up of all the judoka in the world)

10th degree black belt, judan, is the equivalent of the Nobel prize “for judo”

As I said earlier this is all a matter of conjecture on my part. I learned and taught Judo in a University atmosphere. My black belts had to do research, prepare and present the research in front of fellow black belts.

So begging the question, how does my interpretation of Kano’s education system compare with the other Japanese martial arts systems, more historical rank systems, examples found in the literature?

Menkyo system

In old Japan the country was divided into many districts, at one time as many as 300, called han, each with its own governor, called a daimyo, who were roughly like kings. Each daimyo had an army with all the attendant personal, equipment and a training center. The training that each army received was unique to the individuals in authority and tested on the battle field. Those methods that succeeded consumed those that did not, and sometimes incorporated the loser’s techniques into their own. These battlefield methods became known as a style unique to that han: some would be named for the han, others would receive a person’s name, perhaps a famous warrior, or the main developer of the fighting method, sometimes the developer of the method would go on a quest, sit in the mountains for 90 days in meditation, and come up with an idea based on nature, such as the bending of the willow in a strong wind, yanagi ryu. Ryu being translated as style or school.

The rank system that developed during that time was known as the menkyo system. It is thought that it may have started in the 8th century, there is no exact date. There were many variations of this system, each school of martial arts had their own version of promotion and rank but generally they followed a progression from okuiri, “entrance to secrets”, to mokuroku, “catalog” which meant your name is added to the schools catalog of notable practitioners, to menkyo kaiden, ‘license of total transmission’.

Generally it took 10 years to get to the first level, 10 years to the second level and an additional 10 years to reach the top level. Keep in mind that the Samurai that earned these certificates were professional soldiers and there would be a huge commitment in time dedicated to training – in the range of 40 to 60 hours of training per week.

The DAN system (in Japan known as idan) developed by Kano dovetails nicely with the older rank recognition system called Menkyo. In the Menkyo system the Menkyo Kaiden is the highest rank and means “license of total transmission”, it takes about 30 years to get to this point, and most likely the holder of this license is the inheritor of the ryu (school of martial art). This would be 7th, 8th, 9th or 10th dan in Kano’s rank system. Menkyo means license and is the license to teach. At this point the student can begin to teach on his own and establish his or her own dojo.

The first ranking in this system is okuiri, which means “entrance into secrets” is roughly equivalent to a sandan in Kano’s rank system. At this point the student has a basic knowledgeable of the art’s techniques. At the beginning of his or her training the student takes a blood oath to not disclose the secret teachings of the school. While Kano didn’t like the idea of secrets he was obligated to take blood oaths (keppan) when he invited jujutsu masters to the Kodokan to share their knowledgeable. Consequently you see fewer requirements for upper ranks because they were supposed to be secretive.

There can be several steps between okuiri and menkyo kaiden – systems with one or two steps are most common. Mokuroku means ‘catalog’, is a middle learning step and takes another 8 to 10 years to achieve. Mokuroku is when the student’s name is added to the school’s scroll (catalog) and is roughly equivalent to 5th or 6th dan in Kano’s dan system.


Occasionally, in Japanese texts, you may run into a concept called Shu-ha-ri, it can be roughly translated as: obey, digress, separate. It is a description of the goals required of students studying martial arts, tea ceremony, flower arrangement, etc. and has been borrowed by the International Business community to help employees better understand how one masters business skills.

SHU refers to ‘copying’ faithfully the material presented by the sensei and is directed to students with the rank up to sandan, 3rd degree black belt.

HA is the second goal of martial arts study and requires the student to ‘digress’, to start exploring technique and is directed to students with the rank of yodan and godan, 4th and 5th degree black belt.

RI is the final stage, where the student is set on his own to create his own dojo, this is 6th or 7th dan.

This reflects the education system based on the judo college model.
Renshi, Kyoshi and Hanshi

Renshi, Kyoshi and Hanshi are bestowed titles. The history of these titles go back to the establishment of the Dai Nippon Butokukai in Kyoto, Japan. The Butokukai was a martial arts teachers college that offered instruction in kendo primarily but also karate and judo. Kenshiro Abe, the founder of the Kyu Shin Do society in England, the precursor of Zen Judo, was one of the leading exponents of the Butokukai kendo and judo programs.

The titles were generally bestowed on the professors at the school.

Hanshi (範士): teacher, 9th and 10th dan, 8th dan for more than 2 years, older than 60
Kyoshi (教士): instructor, 7th and 8th dan, 6th dan for minimum 2 years, older than 50
Renshi (錬士): assistant instructor, 5th and 6th dan, 4th dan for minimum 1 year, older than 40

rank – the military model

Here is a model of Judo as a military organization:

1st degree black belt second lieutenant
2nd degree black belt first lieutenant
3rd degree black belt captain
4th degree black belt major
5th degree black belt lieutenant colonel
6th degree black belt colonel
7th degree black belt brigadier general
8th degree black belt major general
9th degree black belt lieutenant general
10th degree black belt general of the Army

I have seen this model in slightly different formats, and while I think of Judo as a martial art as opposed to Judo as a sport, I think military models are better applied to older styles of Jujutsu, koryu, martial arts that prepared warriors for the battlefield.

What does Shihan mean? How about Honcho and Soke?

Shihan is not exactly a title, Shihan (師範) literally means “to be a model” and is a more formal word for instructor, teacher or sensei. So if you are teaching Judo you could be addressed as Shihan. However shihan is typically reserved for senior instructors, generally over godan and above. It is not considered impolite to address 8th or 9th dans as sensei, as is the tradition in Judo in the United States.

Honcho (班長) means “head” of something. So it could mean the head of a company, it could be the head of a division, it could mean the head of a dojo. This is not something that you see frequently in Judo but may see it in other martial arts.

Dojocho (道場長)means the head of the dojo. Again not used often in Judo but may be seen in other martial arts or literature.

Soke (宗家) is used to refer to the central family that carries on the family tradition of an art, be it martial arts or an art like tea ceremony or flower arrangement. It tends to be over used and often illegitimately so, especially in the United States.

What the hell is a black belt rank? By Hayward Nishioka https://www.facebook.com/JudoTrainingDevelopment/posts/584632911547264

What is classical Judo? An interview with Steven Cunningham by Linda Yianakkis http://www.gentleways.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/judo-forum-Feb-98-GW-page.pdf

What the hell is a black belt rank?

This article was originally posted to JUDO Training Development www.facebook.com/JudoTrainingDevelopment/posts/584632911547264 on 25 March 2015.



By Hayward Nishioka

I once asked a high ranking friend of mine, “What is a Shodan?” How does one know if one is a first degree black belt, or a second, or a third for that matter? Is it that a person can beat a certain number of other practitioners? If so, how many, and of what quality? He couldn’t answer the question with any degree of conviction. He just said, “I know he doesn’t look like a white belt or even a sankyu. (third degree brown belt) I asked this question because I was at one time a member of four American promotion committees on or about the same time, and each one of them had different criteria’s for shodan. Even within the same organization’s criteria, weird differences arose. I also noticed that internationally many of our U.S. brown belts would easily beat Japanese shodans. But, that’s where it usually stopped. Once they got to nidan and sandan it was a different story. There seemed to be more Picasso art than Newtonian science to how judoka got promoted, and I was somewhat confused, as I am sadly even to this day. 

The following are a few thoughts on this most perplexing but soul searching subject, rank promotions. Everyone who sits on a rank promotion committee or is to be elevated to a high rank in judo should be required to write a paper on the subject in order to comprehend the complexities involved in this process we take for granted as a natural progression of our sport and way of life, judo. Well, what are you waiting for? Try starting with the sentence, “ I should be a ____dan because – – – – – –

Who decides who is to be promoted? Is being tough the only qualification? Can a higher rank always beat a lower rank? What about a red and white belt? Can they beat all lower ranks? What about red belts? Why don’t we see these higher ranks compete? If they’re so good why don’t we see them winning at the World Championship tournaments? Obviously it’s not just about winning but what causes our minds to equate higher rank to higher physical ability? What causes this obsession for higher rank when we don’t even know what it represents or whether we are truly eligible for the thing we know nothing about? Why is everyone trying so hard to get the next higher rank? What is the value of a belt ranking system? What does it all mean?

Before Kano and the Meiji restoration there was jiujitsu. People then just practiced in ordinary kimono; usually a hakama (pant/skirt looking thing) and uwagi (thick jacket type material). Because of the social agenda of the times when Japan was throwing out old ideas of feudalism and bringing new ideas from the West, activities aligned to the old samurai ways such as kenjitsu, karate, jiujitsu were thought anachronistic and slated to be eliminated. It was the time of the “Last Samurai.” It was Jigoro Kano who stepped in to save the day. Dr. Kano’s interest in education, physical culture, and English, and of course his love of his own activity of judo, plus his political connections that helped to save the martial arts in Japan. His English language skills allowed him access to Western ideas that were so favorable to the Meiji government of the time. Among these Western ideas was the burgeoning importance of sports as a means of developing the vitality of a Nation’s citizens both physically as well as culturally. From about the mid 1850’s to the 1880’s came an on-slot of then new sporting events such as ice hockey, baseball, basketball, and football encompassing the values of planning, skill development, team work, courage, quick thinking, discipline, and much more. Kano felt that Judo (then thought of as a feudal martial art) could also be transformed into a sport but it had to be packaged differently. Essentially this is how many of the Japanese martial arts of the time, considered as part of the old feudal system, came to be preserved.

Philosophically, Dr. Kano was quick to note that rather than judo being a means of offense and defense that it was used as a means of elevating ones life. To drive this point home he promulgated his maxims of “self perfection, mutual welfare and benefit and maximum efficiency with minimum effort.” He said that there were three levels at which an individual could train in judo: One, as a means of self defense, two, to cultivate the body and ones mind, and three, to do this for the betterment of society. 

Additionally he changed the look of judo by developing a specialized work out uniform called a judogi. In line with the idea of Western sports clothing it utilized pants rather than the traditional hakama. The upper garment was made of a stronger weaved material resembling the type of coats then worn by Japanese firemen. The color of the uniform was an off color white, and was shorter in the pants and sleeve than found today. The most dramatic difference however was the belt that was worn. By 1884 there were two colors; white to denote a beginner or mudansha and black belt by advanced or yudansha. The belt was an outward manifestation of the station or level one had attained in judo through hard practice. Other martial arts such as karate, aikido, jiujitsu, kyudo, bojitsu, iaido,’ and kendo, followed suite and utilized the belt ranking system as well.

In Tokugawa Japan jiujitsu students were awarded certificates with the titles of shoden, chuden, okuden, menkyo, or kaiden according to “Jigoro Kano and the Kodokan.” With a certificate however there was no way to display it. It sat at home on the shelf. With Kano there was now an immediate visual incentive to work toward– the black belt. The very first black belts were given to Tomita Tsuneyoshi and Saigo Shiro in August of 1883. To this day it has represented excellence in performance and is coveted by millions. 

As judo membership grew over time, higher ranks were given out. The first fifth dan was awarded to Tomita in 1888 but it wasn’t till some 10 years latter that the first sixth dan was awarded to Yamashita, Yoshitsugu and Yokoyama, Sakujiro in 1898. The very first 10th dan was awarded to Yamashita, Yoshitsugu in 1935, some 53 years after many hard practices and monumental achievements in the development of judo, and this only posthumously by the founder. Many of the early belt ranks were given directly by Dr. Kano but as membership increased a Council was established, overseen by the founder.

Under the Kodokan Council criteria were established and read as follows under:
Article 10 Consideration for promotion is based on the candidate’s character, technical proficiency in kata and randori, knowledge of judo, application of judo training, achievements in judo and so forth. Candidacy will be judged in accordance with the following:
a) If the candidate is lacking in character, he/she will not be promoted even they meet other requirements.
b) Those deemed to be of good character and who train diligently, applying their judo skills and knowledge to daily life, and those who have made achievements through judo maybe compensated for technical inadequacies to a certain degree.
c) The assessment of judo techniques will emphasize posture, balance and poise in execution.
d) In regards to knowledge of judo, candidates to promotion to shodan or above must show how they place importance on their judo experience
(Kodokan Council Regulations printed in Judo Nenkan, 1925)

After the death of Dr. Kano the council continued on, however due to WW II, promotional activity, at least at the higher levels, slowed down and didn’t resume to it’s full potential until after the Mac Arthur restrictions on the practice of martial arts in Japan was lifted. Not withstanding the war judo still flourished in other parts of the world. Europe, the America’s, Asia, Oceania, went on to develop their own promotional system’s catering to local needs but still mimicking the precepts first promulgated by Jigoro Kano; that of technical proficiency, knowledge of judo theory, continuing education, the use of judo in one’s daily life, and character. 

In the United States judo was heavily practiced in areas with a high concentration of first and second generation Japanese, and didn’t become popular with the Americans until after WWII as returning service men from Japan searched out places to continue their practice. Much of judo was under the control of first generation Japanese who felt that judo was a cultural right rather than an athletic activity. Much of the rank promotion system back before and even after the War was linked to the Kodokan. It wasn’t until the mid to late 60’s when a more objective system was implemented by Phil Porter, making it easier for non-Japanese to be promoted in judo through the USJA. 

While the system worked well for the promotion of lower ranks, sandan and below. Ranks of fourth and higher in America were, and still are, a puzzle with missing pieces. Ranks up to sandan can easily be compared with other organizations through competition. If your sandan’s are losing to the other organizations shodan’s something is wrong but adjustments can easily be made.

Ah but what of promotions given to older judoka who started later in life, and did not have the opportunity to compete at a high level and build a history? Were they not helping in the development of judo?” Even if one were to receive up to a sandan through time in grade and through his efforts as a part of the leadership staff as an assistant instructor, instructor, coach, organizer, clinician, representative, committee member/chair, or officer, would this not seem acceptable? For any rank higher than sandan the individual has to be of exceptional quality and dedication to be equated to a competitor of fourth and fifth dan. After all, this is about judo and judo deals with proficiency, or does it? 

Here is where things begin to get a little muddled. For all the champions that we have produced over the years we have not produced champions who would remain to become good leaders during or after their competitive years. Our judo organizations have done little to provide opportunities or incentives to encourage growth beyond championships. It is only haphazardly that those who compete and stay on in various capacities are somehow elevated for this thing we call “time in grade”. What is perplexing is that this same “time in grade” standard is often times applied to those who have not had a serious competitive record but have stayed on, and have contributed to the running of the organizations. So now what does it mean to be a higher rank? It doesn’t seem to mean that the higher the dan, the more one is proficient in judo. Rank now when issued seems to become a tacit, collateral or payment for organizational skills and services rendered. That now, the person who has volunteered his services stands equal to the “man in the arena.” 

To the common public, and to even more structured organizations like Six Sigma, the perception is that the higher the belt rank the more stellar the participant. Again the perception of proficiency is predicated on the best of the competitor side of the equation and not on who has been around a long time or has friends in high places that have been given a possibly inflated rank to them. The inflated rank, also as with money matters, lessons the quality with quantity. 

The International Judo Federation, in its attempt to belatedly control rank, has issued a proclamation that they will be the only body to confer ninth and tenth dans. Furthermore that they will only recognize ranks issued by National Governing Bodies; in the United States that would be USA Judo. Not withstanding USA Judo has an agreement with the other two larger U.S. Judo organizations that all three would reciprocally honor each others ranks. Things would not be so bad except for the fact that the United States has more high ranking black belts with less skill level and knowledge than most European countries. It may be that the United States has more ninth dan’s than France. France has a judo population of well over 500,000 registered members while the US has about 25,000 registered members. 

For the French, Rokudan is gateway rank leading to higher rank. To attain this rank a very large hall where 4 to 6 mat areas may be installed is rented. The candidates vying for rokudan must now perform before a panel of higher ranking individuals. First they select a technique such as ouchigari, seoinage, etc. and demonstrate at least 25 different ways to execute that one technique. Next they select a kata and demonstrate it. There is also a presentation of ones theory of judo, a written examination, and a demonstration of how one would conduct a judo lesson. The examination is an all day affair that many say the fifth dan must prepare for at least one year in advance. The result being that each person promoted to rokudan is assuredly a proficient judoka capable of meeting high standards. It is little wonder that France has a 500,000+ membership. It has an army of really capable judoka. Additionally if one wants to teach judo in France an additional certification is required. The certification is sponsored through the ministry of education and is a physical education degree.

Now for tough love to begin. This article would become meaningless without really looking honestly at our promotion system. The truth may hurt many of the ones that I have come to respect and honor and serve with, but unless these issues are brought to the foreground they will not be addressed for the betterment of judo in the United States.

1. Integrity – Mel Applebaum once wrote to his friend the following:
“The topic of promotion is not a simple matter. High dan grades reflect significant expertise and contribution to the sport and must be administered by High dans with integrity. On the lower dan levels, competition is the main path to promotion. Promotion procedures must be fair and consistent and not influenced by the payment of money, as in the way some in the past have literally sold rank and disgraced our sport. It is similar to those claiming doctorates and using the title doctor from degree mills and on line degree factories. It diminishes the value of all degrees.”

In the past, as it is today, ranks can be bought. It could be an outright bargained for exchange or it could be more sophisticated in nature as with donations, dinners, junkets, favors, services, etc. in exchange for rank. A question was once asked if it may be justified in that the monies exchanged for rank is truly in the service of judo or may be at a crucial juncture where the life or death of the organization is at the heart of the matter, what then? After all rank promotions can be a viable source of income for an organization.
In recent years there has been a rise in the cost of rank promotions world wide. This most likely started by the Kodokan whose promotion costs are very high (in the thousands of dollars). Taking a cue from this action the IJF has also raised its promotional fees as a means of raising monies to fund its programs as well. 

These increases raise another question for the Japanese as well as others, “Do I spend my money on this promotion I am qualified to receive or spend it on the family or other needs?” More importantly, am I really worth the rank for which I am putting out the money to receive this rank or is the organization using me as a source of income? For those with expendable income it is not a problem to shell out the big bucks for the privilege of being named amongst the esoterically honored few.

2. Equality – When thinking of this word one thinks of two words, equal and quality. Is the quality of one side of an equal sign the same as the other side? When looking at seventh, eighth, ninth and tenth degree black belts from Japan, Korea, France, Germany, Holland, and England to name a few powerhouses can we say that our recipients are equal to theirs? Have our candidates competed and practice at a high level? Are they held to high standards? Have they done as much as say a Neil Adams, or Nobuyuki Sato to promote judo. Adams is a eighth and Sato a ninth dan. Have they contributed to the betterment of judo?
Granted these two men are of exceptional quality and are at the top of the rating scale and perhaps America due to its situations should be given some slack. Still, in spite of the need for incentives to encourage judoka to stay on, rank as a currency has to be personally deliberated and weighed against our social needs. 

3. Role Model Consistency – “What’s good for the goose, (should be) is good for the gander.” While exceptions to the rule do exist, some rules are blatantly disregarded and run contrary the ideals of judo. At a fairly recent promotion meeting a high ranking member of a promotion committee suddenly proposed to elevate another member to a rank equal to his own rank. This would not have been out of the ordinary but for the fact that there was no prior submittal of promotional forms of any kind to deliberate upon. This is highly unusual since there was no written record of past performance, kata, character reference, nothing. Not even his name and address. Other candidates because they lacked the listing of one kata or even one line not filled in were not passed for promotion yet those within the committee were given a pass. Furthermore the following year the person who was promoted proposed that the person who nominated him the year before should now be raised to the next level higher. This also may have well have been a deserved promotion but for the fact that it also came with no paperwork and possibly no payment.
Should not those who lead, lead by example? Or is it that the strong do what they will and the weak suffer what they must? What was exceedingly bad was that the rest of the board of examiners voted to pass these two very high promotions while flunking others who merely forgot to fill in a line or two. Fortunately or unfortunately this author was not privy to a vote or party to this organizational decision. 

4. Rank Inflation – In the 1950’s a sixth degree black belt was a rarity. Today it is fairly common place. At the current rate of escalation of promotions to high dan America could see its ranks swell with high dans and maybe even a tenth dan or two. Imagine that! 

Two of the three U.S. organizations have already had tenth dan promotions. There are quite a few who are young enough to make tenth dan through the criteria of “time in grade.” Some may not have even competed at a high level or even contributed greatly to the development of judo, but they will have “time in grade.” 

5. In the end the rank promotion certificate is only a piece of paper. It allows no increase in income. No added fame. No added power. Those who flaunt rank are thought of inversely proportionately. Those who have high rank undeservedly are smiled at outwardly and laughed at inwardly by those in the know. 

High rank is just a confirmation that a group of high ranks have confirmed that you have met their organizational criteria to be promoted. Usually if the group and/or its criteria is of low quality the rank may not mean as much. For example if your promotion committee consists of sixth degrees who have never been in high level competition or been in a leadership role and they are voting to raise you to seventh, eighth or ninth it would not mean as much as a group of seventh, eighth, or ninth degree black belts who have been in high level competition or leadership roles voting to promote you. Even then should a seventh or eighth be voting on elevating someone to become a ninth or tenth dan?

In conclusion I am reminded of a U.S. Navy Admiral whose shame was so great upon being discovered wearing a campaign ribbon on his chest for which he did not participate in nor deserve to wear that he committed suicide rather than face his peers disdain. I am in no way advocating this type of behavior for judo, I am merely pointing out that some representations of honor are life and death meaningful to some but not to other. While judo is not the military, nonetheless it raises the question of what motivates people to want to claim credit for going down a pathway they have not traveled. 

Sooo, back to the question; what the hell is a black belt rank?

For an answer let’s look outside the box. Let’s not look at who wears the belt but who devised the system. What might his motivations be for wanting a rank grading system. While the following is but conjecture, this author thinks the founder understood the need for order, hierarchy, self esteem, and the human need to fulfill goals. The black belt ranking system does all of these things and more. It perpetuates the sport by meeting the needs of its participants. However, maintaining excellence in the system and under changing social conditions requires training, knowledge, judgment, integrity, and, dedication Dr. Kano understood change. That is how he changed the idea of martial arts from activities of destruction to one of sports and character building. That is how he changed the use of Japanese street clothes to uniforms and the more visible belt ranking system. Even within the belt rank system as his students increased in numbers and in age he later added five more rank levels with concomitant requirements in order to keep interest levels constant over a lifetime of participation. For Dr. Kano judo was a work in progress and had he lived on to this present day he would surely have devised a better measure of competency than time in grade.

If he were alive today he would most likely look at elements or judo that would increase membership, increase performance levels, increase an understanding and acceptance of judo. As per increasing membership, attention should be given to those who run judo dojos and those who could be trained to do so. Performance wise clinics and certifications are important. Certifications are more important than clinics since certifications usually require course work and testing. Amongst the more successful of the certification programs are those of kata and refereeing, both having very stringent examinations, but their success records speak for them self. Refereeing has several levels that are tested for: local, regional, national, continental, and international “B,” “A,” and now rostered “A;” those qualified to do the World Championships and Olympic Games. The National level referees are further divided into “N”(National) 3,2, and 1. “N 1” being the highest. Any referee not meeting the higher “N 1” standard can be dropped to “N 2” or even “N3” by the examiners, who are usually “A” referees. 

Along with these certifications other areas that currently do not exist but that could aid in the development of judo might be as follows:
Instructor, Coach, Assistant coach, Assistant instructor, Tournament Director, Public Relations, Sport Information Director, Writing judo, Grant writing, Dojo Management, Match Making – Scoring – and Timing, Judo Games and Drills, Judo Story Telling, Judo and the Media, Sports Psychology, Biomechanics, Exercise Physiology, Running a Meeting, Running a Judo Camp, Judo Clinics, Master Instructor.

While there are an array of other certifications that could aid in the development of judo the important part is that there is standardization and acceptance. That means there has to be written documentation and materials with tests that have been agreed upon as to what is necessary for that particular certification. As with refereeing there also has to be follow up and maintenance of a level of performance or the individual is dropped lower on a hierarchy scale. To run these types of certification programs requires persons of integrity, energy, insight, and a feel for doing the right thing. 

It would make more sense to elevate individuals possessing a number of these certifications to a higher rank than an accumulation of a lot of time in grade were the individual did nothing but wait for the years to pass. Just think, wouldn’t an individual who had certifications as an instructor, judo drills, biomechanics, exercise physiology, kata, refereeing, tournament directing, etc., be more valuable and worthy of higher rank than having time in grade and simple points. Wouldn’t such a certification system increase the knowledge base and performance for U. S. Judo and at the same time professionalize judo, where Qualified Presenters of Judo Certifications could receive remunerations for services rendered. 

As Porky Pig so often say at the end of a Looney Tunes Cartoon, “badabadat That’s all folks”, I’ve presented a few of the problems of our ranking system but I’ve also offered a solution. If we are not careful and change we may well become the laughing stock of the world of judo.

This of course is only one avenue of deciding the rank of an individual rather than leave the reader with only the problem to think of a solution was also offered.



Judo Forum Magazine no. 3

Originally published December 1998

Included in this issue is an instructional article by Master Coach Gerald Lafon on non-traditional ukemi. Even if you are not a competitor the skills involved in these drills would be an excellent addition to your movement base.

Linda Yiannakis submitted her second interview with Steve Cunningham, a fascinating article on kata; its history and its relevance.

Jim Haynes sent in a fond remembrance of his first sensei.

Judo Forum Magazine no. 3

Judo Forum Magazine no. 2

The second issue of the Judo Forum Magazine was published in July 1998.

It featured an article about your liability in a self defense situation? Alan Duppler, a practicing attorney and a former States Attorney in North Dakota explains the “use of force and the law.” The first in a series of articles on the Martial artist and the Law.  (I should note that Alan Duppler was a local judoka, died 2013.  He is missed.)

Jeff Ficek contributes an article about how they built a low cost mat for the Bismarck Judo Club.

Mark Gorsuch reviews a biography on Mitsuyo Maeda, better known as Conde Koma. The book is entitled “A Lion’s Dream, the Story of Mitsuyo Maeda”. The author is Norio Kohyama. This book won an award as the 21st century International Best Work of Non-fiction, from a Japanese weekly publication called SAPIO.

I have always been fascinated by Geof Gleeson and my judo has been strongly influenced by him (a man that I have never met.) About 10 years ago I followed the advice in one of his books and developed a kata that I used for many years in my club. The story of its development is inside.

Mike Penny contributes our first Dojo Spotlight.

Judo Forum Magazine no. 2

Judo Forum Magazine no. 1

Judo Forum Magazine no. 1

Referencing the previous post, The 1996 Essay, after a stirring conversation on Steve Cunningham’s Judo List and years of complaining about the lack of a judo magazine I decided to start one.  The first issue was dated February 1998.

The Judo Forum Magazine was published for free.  Readers were encouraged to make copies of the magazine “as-a-whole” for free distribution and for the purpose expressed, i.e. to educate about judo.

The first issue included an interview with Steve Cunningham by Linda Yiannakis. Steve shares with us his tremendous knowledge of the history of the Kodokan prior to 1938. A must read piece about Classical Judo.

Judo Forum Magazine No. 1


The 1996 Essay

In 1996 Gail Stolzenburg, President of USA Judo asked the membership to help craft a vision statement.  USA Judo represents Judo to the Olympic committee and their goal is mostly high level national and international competition, including the Olympics.

As luck would have it I was angry about the direction of Judo in the United States and was immediately fired up to give him a piece of my mind.  On 19 February 1997 I shared the letter with Steven Cunningham’s Judo-L and got a terrific reaction, there were a lot of people who shared the same opinion.  Here is the letter:


Is Judo Dying?
By Vern Borgen

In 1981 John Holm (of Minneapolis) told me that judo was dead. I had been in judo for only a few years at that time and was really excited about it and I choose not to believe him.
A few years ago while visiting with one of the major martial arts equipment vendors I was told that the judo market had fallen off sharply during the 80s and hadn’t recovered, while most of the other martial arts had continued to grow.

I wear a jacket with our club emblem and name emblazoned on the back and people stop and ask me what Judo is – some entertain me with a weird movie-do rendition kung-fu stance accompanied with a screaming “whaaaaaaaa.” Maybe Judo is dying.
But I don’t like to think that way, and when recently asked my opinion about how to improve and strengthen Judo I wrote this essay to one of our national leaders.
The United States became a great technological power and remains there not because we established an elite group of scientists and engineers but because we valued education above all else. Each community established a local school system and taught the basics to everyone, not just those most able. These young people graduated and went on to the colleges and university and specialized in a subject of most interest to themselves. Each university had something just a bit different to offer but all were useful in one way or another. The students, their professors and their counterparts in industry went to seminars and meetings and shared the knowledge they had learned and discovered in their studies and in their research. The students graduated and some became professors and others became captains of industry and a select few went on the win Nobel prize and do other great things. We did this not by placing the greatest value on the Nobel prize but by getting everyone involved in the *means*, by making education for every person the most valued thing, so all would have the benefits, then and only then did we achieve the highest pinnacle. (By the way our education system is attributed, in large part, to the work of Mr. Horace Mann, a contemporary of Dr. Jigoro Kano. )( See note 1)

One of my concerns is that the big three Judo organizations (USJA, USJF and USJI ) (see note 2) alienate a lot of people by being elitist, by creating programs where the athletes are regarded the most and the means is denigrated. I would guess that better than half the people doing Judo in the USA could be classified as “Classical or Traditional Judoka”, and further stick out my neck and say that most of them are not registered with the USJA, USJF or the USJI. (I know many ‘Traditional’ sensei who only register those people in their clubs who compete.) These traditional schools of Judo teach a style of Judo that was practiced at the Kodokan while Dr. Kano was alive. In addition to tachi and katame waza, Traditional Schools of Judo also practice wrist locks, atemi and weapons. The philosophical teachings of Dr. Kano are held in the highest regard and so these programs are truly for the young and old, men and women, the healthy and the sick. Each individual is nurtured, as a gardener would care for a treasured tree. By denying these folks we have alienated them and their support. We sometimes forget that people don’t have time to be competitors because of other obligations; they are at practice because it is FUN. We also forget that ‘real’ money comes from people with jobs – competitive athletes for the most part are young, are in school and have little money – it doesn’t make sense to support an organization on their backs.

1. I personally feel that these Traditional Judo Schools are the future of Judo in this country. My argument starts with the simple assertion that non-athletes outnumber athletes. These non-athletes represent all walks of life: doctors, lawyers, engineers, teachers, police, businessmen and women, waitresses, clergy, mechanics, et cetera…. If we could recruit them into non-sport Judo programs we accomplish a number of things. (A lot of these people already exist – we have close to 80 people on the mat every week and only 20 or so are registered with the USJA.)

A. These people for the most part are stable members of the community, are employed and as a group would provide a firm basis to build a dojo (in physical, mental and spiritual sense.)

B. These people become Judo instructors, referees and tournament officials, administrators – essentially the movers and the shakers of Judo.

C. These people become mentors and role models for the youth and the young adults in our programs and in our community. We must remember that the ultimate goal of judo is not the *gold medal* but to *make good people*.

D. We will have a larger base of informed consumers of Judo goods and entertainment (shia).
E. Since they are employed they also contribute to the financial security of the group both local and national. Judo as a non-sport is still a good exercise; physically, mentally and spiritually. Learning to fall safely and defend yourself are admirable skills and easily learned by ALL. I have a friend who has taught Judo to people confined to wheelchairs. There is a tremendous market for judo based self-defense – just look at the market share that Gracie Jujitsu is picking up.

Additionally, these schools act as repositories of information. Judo is just too large for anyone person to know it all. There is just too much to learn even for a life time. Each of these schools is into a different thing. Even in sport Judo schools there are differences, some specialize in mat work and others in arm locks. If there are more schools, doing more things, there is going to a more information generated and stored – this then becomes the body of knowledge of Judo.

[As an example, our school is using a syllabus that was developed by Kenshiro Abe, one of Sensei Kyuzo Mifune’s uchideshi.  (see note 3) This syllabus emphasizes simple techniques and broad movement in the beginning – it flows like Aikido. We have found this syllabus to be an interesting and enlightening method for studying Judo movement. As students become brown and black belts their knowledge of technique is on par with students doing Judo at a USJA Club (we actually require a LOT more out of our students than the USJA does.) We do all of the formal kata of the Kodokan, Mifune’s kata of counters, and two katas by Geoff Gleeson. We are trying to recreate the style of Kyuzo Mifune. I should also say that a dozen or so of our group compete in shiai in Canada (our closest competitors, Winnipeg is 220 miles away) and do quite well in both the novice and advanced divisions. We also practice Judo with weapons – for the most part our weapons system uses the Philippine Arnis sticks (see note 5) and the jo. We have found that our gripping skills have become much more effective since we started doing Arnis.]

To build a strong Judo organization we must include “All the people.” We must modify our Judo programs for “all the people, young and old, male and female, the healthy and the sick.” Once we do this we will have a large base of Judoka upon whose backs we can build “an awesome Judo organization”, BUT WE HAVE TO RECOGNIZE THESE PEOPLE AND THEIR DIVERSITY AND THE VALUABLE ROLE THAT THEY WILL PLAY!

2. We need to become more professional. I am an engineer by profession. The engineering society of which I am a member has two meetings a year. At the meetings we participate in seminars and committee meetings. There are formal dinners and professional speakers.

This is a good place to share our understanding of the body of knowledge of Judo. As a Judo community we have a lot of diverse ideas; some of us practice Judo as a sport and others as a martial art and some both, some of our styles are very linear and other more circular, some of us emphasize kata over randori and others the reverse. At an annual meeting we could share some of this stuff. Mini seminars would be a good format to demonstrate a new throw or to discuss a kata – to present information about liability insurance, legal aspects of self-defense, massage therapy, how to tape an ankle, Dr. Kano’s cosmology…. We should get together for formal dinners to acknowledge the success of our fellows.
3. We need much better communication, not just to let people know what is going on, but to educate… Kano would roll over in his grave if he knew just how little communication there was. Kano’s idea of Judo was to teach social education, it is precisely here where we are lacking the most.

I personally feel that we lose a lot of students because the Judo community has no magazine that extols the benefits of Judo. I have been a member of the USJA for close to 20 years – it is difficult for me to sell “my” organization when it has very little to offer, especially to beginners. I think that having a good magazine that educated would be a great seller. I was at a book store in Fargo a few days ago and noticed that there were several Aikido Today Magazines on the rack. Odd, I thought, as there is no Aikido club within 250 miles of Fargo – when asked, the proprietor told me that they sell out every month! Why isn’t there a good Judo magazine on the rack? Also I might add that the Aikido Today Magazine is non-partisan and demonstrations of technique are not included – essentially an Aikido magazine for “everyone”.

If we want to attract the kind of athletes that are going to win gold medals for the United States in the Olympics and train them, we are going to have to build up a tremendous Judo base and the only way I can see to do that is to make Judo an activity for everyone, not just elite athletes. Right now the best athletes are attracted to sports that make it to TV and newspapers, there is no glory in Judo. BECAUSE NO ONE KNOWS WHAT IT IS! We need to develop local Judo as an activity for the athlete and non-athlete as well. We need to respect and reward the good work of the athletes and the non-athletes as well. We need a forum at which we can share information and we need a good magazine that shares the stories of Judo, the history, the personalities (we need to interview our sensei(s), especially the older ones – so we can all share in their wisdom), we need to share the lives of people who are doing Judo… if we can’t Judo IS DEAD.

Yours in service to Judo.
Vernon A. Borgen Sensei


1. Horace Mann is called the “Father of American public education.”

2. Now USA Judo

3. This is not correct. Kenshiro Abe was the leading graduate of the Dai Nippon Butoku Kai (Martial Arts Teachers College in Kyoto, Japan. He was sent to England to teach Judo, Kendo, Karate and Aikido. While in England he established the Kyushindo Society, a school of martial arts with a syllabus similar to the one he learned at the Dai Nippon Butoku Kai. Later the Kyushido Society was resurrected as Zen Judo by Dominic McCarthy.

4.  Learned from Grand Master Jose Bueno.


I got a response from Gail Stolzenburg, you can read it here:  gail stolzenburg letter