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.
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.
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)
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.