The Gentle Way: Nude Samurai & Reinforced Pyjamas

How Japan's greatest PE coach invented the Judogi.

Before we get into this week’s piece, I want to say: If sweaty people rolling around on mats isn’t your thing, I promise that this story is about more than combat. That said, I started training Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, or BJJ, a few months ago. Sometimes I forget how strange the concept is—what of Argentinian Karate, or Swedish Tai Chi? (How Brazilian surfers adopted the ancient samurai art of jūjutsu is an awesome story, but also one for another time.) BJJ also strikes me as one of few contexts in which it is considered normal for large groups of white people to walk around in full kimonos. This week, I am writing about one of the greatest PE coaches in history.

This story is not about combat, but it does begin in chaos. The Upheaval of Ōnin in 1467 signified the collapse of feudal Japan and the dawn of 戦国時代, or Sengoku Jidai—Japan’s Warring States period. This was a time marked by Samurai, warrior elites dedicated to service of their associated lords. Samurai were trained to fight with swords, bows, spears, guns, in armour, on horses, and even in water (google ‘Suijutsu’, it’s awesome). Samurai were the whole package. One of the skills in their arsenal of martial arts was Jūjutsu, a form of weaponless combat, although it was considered more of a backup plan for unlikely situations.

Samurai and their conflicts were a fixture of Japanese society for more than a century. In the 17th century. Tokugawa leyasu, formerly the head of the Council of Five Elders, began to seize control of Japan for his own clan. By the siege of Osaka in 1615, the Toyotomi were the only rival clan remaining in Japan. As their fortress burned around them, the leaders of the Toyotomi commited ritual suicide. Toyotomi Kunimatsu, the clan’s eight-year-old heir survivor, was beheaded in Kyoto shortly after. Thus ended Sengoku Jidai, and so began the Edo period.

While this time of relative peace saw Japanese society turning it’s back to samurai and their martial arts, Jūjutsu persisted as a form of self-defence and, being weaponless, a way for trained fighters to challenge each other without running afoul of the shogunate’s strict anti-war laws. Rather than practice in full combat armour as would have been typical during Sengoku Jidai, Edo-era practitioners practiced Jūjutsu in street clothes, or in the nude (public nudity was very common in Japan before Western cultural influence led to its ban in the late 19th century).

Jigoro Kano was sixteen years old in 1876, when samurai became extinct. The bookish little kid stood barely over five feet tall, and weighed roughly ninety pounds. Growing up, Kano attended private schools in Tokyo where he received schooling in English and German, as well as beatings from other students. This bullying may have led to his interest in learning Jūjutsu, at the recommendation of a family friend in the shogun’s guard.

Kano studied Jūjutsu for years under various teachers before creating his own style—Judo, literally meaning ‘the gentle way’. Here, Kano sought to distinguish his creation as a do (way), rather than jutsu (skill), as a reflection of his mentality on the purpose and function of martial art. Kano saw judo not only as a means of self-defence but also physical, mental, and spiritual self-development. Another departure of judo from traditional Jūjutsu was the emphasis on randori, or live sparring—a taste he acquired from some of his more recent Jūjutsu masters. With the most dangerous elements (eye gouging, weapons) removed from practice, Kano’s students were able to train freely, developing skills faster and more intuitively than ever before. (The ban on moves such as groin striking had the additional benefit of making Jūjutsu far more appealing to potential students.) And yet, while the chaos of randori was great for learning, it was also tough on threads. So began Kano’s search for a garment that could withstand the stress of live combat.

Now, a philosophy break. You may already be familiar with the mythos of judo and jūjutsu as a way to defeat bigger, stronger opponents. At its core, this image comes from the principle of Seiryoku Zen’yô, or total efficiency. The idea is simple: the most efficient application of force will result in the most effective results. The relation to combat is clear—working with an opponent’s force is far more effective than pushing directly against them—but Kano believed that Seiryoku Zen’yô also applied to every other part of life. Inner peace is a kind of emotional efficiency, just as clear communication is a type of cognitive efficiency. On the scale of a society, the path to total efficiency is cooperation and selflessness. Seiryoku Zenyo also lives in the use of one action to achieve multiple goals. Just as one well-applied Judo movement will both dodge a partner's attack and set up your own, Kano intended that the practice of Judo would improve the physical, mental, and spiritual strength of its practitioners. This led to Seiryoku Zen’yô’s natural conclusion of Jita Kyoei: health and benefit to all. And so, Seiryoku Zen’yô Jita Kyôei became the mantra of the gentle way.

I introduce the concept of Seriyoku Zen’yo because I think it is a good lens through which to view the judogi—literally, the garment of the gentle way. In the spirit of total efficiency, this plain modified kimono addressed each of Kano’s aims in his mission of developing judo.

One of the most significant features of the judogi actually has less to do with the garment itself, and more to do with its context. Before the uniform was created, students at Kano’s school wore what would have been standard for a jūjutsu academy—that is, essentially, whatever they wore outside. Kano’s students ranged from aristocrats to street urchins that he housed himself, and even though nudity was far more prominent at the time than you might expect, the clothing remained a dimension in which class distinction was present in his dojo. The adoption of a standardised uniform meant that every student, no matter their background, presented the same basic outfit. The belt system Kano established ranked students according to their dedication and experience, not their social status.

In terms of construction, Kano’s judogi were made from sashiko. This traditional hand-stitched fabric can be found today on designer labels in Japan and abroad, but make no mistake—in Kano’s time, sashiko was a purely practical fabric, used to sew together old material into bed mats and blankets, and increase durability in clothes. This worker’s textile became the material from which the original judogi were woven, and from which they continue to be to this day.

Finally, in the face of public perception of martial arts as brutish and violent, the judogi’s clean, crisp white cotton served as a new face of combat sports. Dignified and official-looking, the uniform not only revived public favour for martial arts within Japanese society, but also presented a clean face for an international audience. Judo was introduced to the Olympic games in 1964.

Today, adaptations of Kano’s original judogi are worn around the world by practitioners of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, Karate, and Taekwondo.

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