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Does It Matter if Judo is a Martial Art or a Sport?

January 19, 2000

By Scott Anderson

     Judo, the martial art invented by Jigaro Kano in the last years of the nineteenth century, enjoyed enough worldwide popularity to become an Olympic sport in 1964. This event was held in Tokyo, and to no one’s surprise, the Japanese dominated the tournament.

     European judoka were not surprised, but they were dismayed. First, judo had been practiced throughout Europe from the earliest days of the twentieth century. Second, Europeans had gone to great lengths to ensure that they were paralleling as closely as possible with the Japanese training methods. Nonetheless, the Japanese were taking home the gold medals while the rest of the world watched from the sidelines or suffered defeat on the mats.

     Theories abounded. Because the Japanese did not sit in chairs, constantly getting up and down from sitting on the ground must build the muscles that would give them superior strength and technique for seoinage and other koshinage type throws. Also, the springy tatami used for the playing surface in Japan was gentler on the uke while allowing tori to develop superior, quicker footwork.

     Life in Europe stressed and developed different muscles. The chair was a part of daily life-a benchmark of civilization. Many early judo salons used heavy carpeting for mats and almost never tatami. The result was slower footwork because the fighters sank into the softer surface. Ironically, the softer padding did not work as well as the tatami in dissipating the force of a throw, so the uke took more punishment. Indirectly, this encouraged ne waza (matwork) over high amplitude throws.

     When the Russian sombists stepped onto the judo mats for the Essen Pan European Championships in 1962, the rest of world glimpsed a clue on how to best the Japanese. V.S. Oshchepkov had discovered what it would take the rest of Europe more than thirty years to figure out: a way to defeat the Japanese at their own game.

&nbs; In their pre-World War II paranoia, Russians had shied away from anything not of Russian origin, and sombo became the Russian national wrestling style. Oshchepkov was one of Sombo’s founders, and he had earned his second degree black belt in judo at the Kodokan in Japan from Jigoro Kano himself.

     After ten years of judo practice, he returned to his homeland to work for the Russian military as a translator. At every post that he was assigned to, he immediately formed a wrestling club. He took the native Russian wrestling styles and combined them with techniques from judo to develop what he called “freestyle wrestling” which is not to be confused with the modern Olympic style.

     Oshchepkov was an expert in judo but by no means did he believe that Kano’s system had ended its own evolution. Many Soviet wrestling styles used jackets and/or belts to secure grips for throwing or pinning. He believed that judo techniques could augment the Russian styles to improve wrestling overall. As such, he modified the Japanese paradigm.

     The judogi was patterned after the kimono and obi commonly worn in Japan. Kano developed this uniform as part of his concept of a level playing field in practice and competition. Until that time, practitioners had practiced and fought in their street clothes, the older jujitsu jackets (with their shorter sleeves and tighter fits), and even wrestling tights were worn for pants in some instances. The standardized uniform also brought out new opportunities for chokes and more secure grips for throws. Thanks to the new looser lapels, techniques such as morote seoinage could come into their own.

     Oshchepkov developed the kurtka (sombo jacket) tailored after common western and military dress. Its fit was tighter with epaulets on the shoulders for throws and hold downs. In addition, the belt was routed through loops or slits for security. The belt was used to close the kurtka and not to indicate rank. In fact, many early kurtki (plural of kurtka) had the belt sewn on as an integral part of the kurtka. Oshchepkov completed the uniform with short pants and sombofki (boots).

     The sombo boots were important since westerners seldom were barefoot in their modern world. The boots did have soft, pliable leather soles and were not as stiff as modern wrestling shoes. Wrestling shoes are often used today in modern sombo tournaments due to the scarcity of sombofki worldwide. Wrestling shoes were popular in the West because the wrestling playing surfaces were either very thick carpets or mats with canvas covers that could be removed for cleaning. The wrestling shoes provided ankle support, but also protected feet from carpet/mat burns, or the toes from being snagged and broken in the folds of a loose mat cover. This was a common problem of the day.

     Oshchepkov was interested in an all around system of wrestling. In his part of the world, some styles still permitted strikes to set up throws and takedowns. Early judo was content to develop mostly the standing game. Oshchepkov realized the value of grappling and did not adopt the tatami as his training surface. He used thick carpets or wrestling mats. Many of the wrestling style attacks were more effective on these surfaces and the practicing of ground grappling much more comfortable.

     Oshchepkov was not enamored by all things Japanese. He saw no reason not to westernize or Russify the Japanese system. He was an orphan raised on Sakhalin Island that changed from Russian to Japanese hands after the Russo-Japanese War. He studied judo under the local master but was discovered by Jigaro Kano when the master visited Sakhalin. He accepted Kano’s offer to study at the Kodokan, but that did not mean that he was accepted by all of the other students.

     In fact, he paid for his nidan as much with his blood as with his sweat. He developed his own tactics for beating the Japanese students that he was pitted against.      He realized that if an older student was better than he was at a technique often it was because that student had executed the technique numerous more times than he had. If the older student had done two thousand more ippon hidari seoinages, then he had to compensate.

     Kano had developed judo as a martial art. The practice of judo led to personal development. Winning a bout was not as important as doing the work for the individual’s own good. To the typical judoka, this meant that the younger student needed to do two thousand repetitions to catch up with the older student.

     In Kano’s system, technique was precise and attuned to certain levels of experience and achievement. Standardization was key to quality was key to developing the student as a person and athlete. A green belt in Berlin should have the same skill and knowledge as a green belt in Los Angeles, London, Buenos Aires, or Tokyo.

     The western mindset saw judo as a sport or system. Westerners were result oriented. If both the students did the same number of repetitions each day in practice, the younger student would not gain on the older student. If the younger student did fifty additional repetitions each day, he would slowly gain on the older student. However, technique was not likely to be the only factor. For example, if the younger student increased his technique repetitions while also doing resistance training to increase his strength, he could reduce the number of repetitions needed to catch up with the senior student.

     Strength or even aggression might compensate for skillful technique. Again, the younger student’s tactics might be to constantly attack his older opponent and never allow him the opportunity to use his superior techniques from his comfortable, preferred kumikata (grips).

     To the western mindset, whether a green belt from London had the same skill and knowledge as a green belt from Tokyo was to be factored against whether or not a green belt from London could beat a green belt from Tokyo in randori. Winning competitions validated the western concept of judo.

     Kano had preached to the judoka as martial artists that the essence of judo was to get the maximum throw for the least effort applied. That was good judo, and technique was the way to achieve this goal. To the Westerner, the point of judo was the throw and not how the throw was done. If more power or energy could be applied, less technique would be needed. This dichotomy exists today: philosophy vs. pragmatism.

     The martial artists of Japan did not like to change a system that worked. Once judo was codified and standardized, it was not tailored as much to individual quirks and styles. Judo has evolved over the years by committee assent. Oshchepkov, on the other hand, constantly tinkered with his repertoire of techniques. If something was considered ne waza (a ground technique) did that exclude it as a throw or takedown from standing?      Sombo’s Russian Flying Arm Bars are an example. Flying juji gatame was known in judo, but no one in Japan believed that it could be a successful tournament technique. The well drilled Russians proved otherwise in Essen in 1962.

     The sport vs. martial art or coach vs. sensei dichotomy influences other aspects of training. In a martial art, the time proven and honored curriculum is instilled in the students in a prescribed way. The students advance over time indicating achievement by adopting colored belts to indicate their skill or administrative ranks. The major milestone of their martial art career may be when they earn the title of sensei and begin instructing students of their own.

     A coach has to train his team members to be as competitive as possible in the least amount of time. Instead of following a wide and well rounded curriculum, the coach must teach his charges to be able to execute and counter the most common and effective techniques currently be used in competitions. What holds for one year may vary in the next year when another team or fighter gains success with a “new” technique (which is quite often a variation on something that could be a couple of thousand years old already).      Using the sport concept, the fighter may attain eventually all of the skills that a “pure” martial artist would have attained, and the opposite is true as well. For example, the folkstyle of wrestling played in high schools and colleges in the United States is a variant of the old British Catch-as-catch-can. Other than making junior varsity or varsity, there really are no ranks. By the time the wrestler is graduated from college, his knowledge of the sport is fairly good and on par with other wrestlers with the same experience. That does not mean that he is unbeatable.

     That also does not stop the American wrestler from competing internationally in Olympic freestyle where learning curves for the new style do not really hurt successful competition. These same wrestlers have transferred their skills over to martial arts such as judo, jujitsu, and sombo and quickly become successful competitors-if not martial artists. In recent years, American wrestlers enjoyed great success at mixed martial arts events and no holds barred (NHB) fighting. This perspective should also consider that many wrestlers have entered these venues and been beaten soundly. There is no gentle way to phrase that.

     The development of sombo benefited from Russia being a gateway between the West and the East, wrestling and Eastern martial arts (with a heavy judo influence). This in turn, eventually benefited European judo.

     As World War II loomed, all things not Russian were considered dangerous foreign subversions. Oshchepkov may not have considered judo the ultimate martial art, but he did willingly acknowledge its influence on his freestyle wrestling. For his honesty, he was executed in 1937.

     His senior student, A. Kharlampiev was a quick study and immediately revised the system to reflect the native Russian and local wrestling styles that had also shaped the system. He also claimed that this system was developed as a sport version of the new Russian combat system called Sombo (an acronym for self-defense without weapons). So, freestyle wrestling became known as borba sombo or sombo wrestling. This alias allowed Oshshepkov’s system to live on.

     In the interval where sombo was masked behind the Iron Curtain, and when it showed itself in Essen, both judo and sombo evolved independently. Sombo retained the leg, knee, and ankle locks that judo banned in competition in the 1920s. These techniques were well known in jujitsu but retained only partially in judo’s atemi waza (self-defense system).

     Thanks to the concept of minimum force and the judogi with its wide, loose lapels, judo perfected shime waza (choking and strangling techniques). The now famous Sankaku Jime, or triangle choke came into its own. The technique has a Japanese name because it was well known long before Gracie Brazilian Jujitsu popularized it in the Ultimate Fighting Challenge (UFC). Sankaku Jime’s use of the legs to choke the opponent epitomizes the judo philosophy. Here the strongest muscles in the body, the legs, were used against the neck.

     The triangle choke precedes even judo and was known to the samurai and other jujitsuka. They did not see it as a practical technique because if it could not be applied properly in combat there was a great risk of being struck or bitten in a fight. Judo competitions do not permit striking or biting, so judoka were able to perfect the technique into the widely used manuever of today.

     The Russians developed sombo with an emphasis on what worked. Europeans practiced judo with an emphasis on what worked if work is defined as what will win a tournament match. For example, a very smooth technician maybe a better judoka, but if his opponent disrupts his rhythm by pushing him or stepping on his feet, he may be open for techniques performed with lesser skill by an opponent that he should have otherwise beaten. Strategy and tactics meet technique and skill.

     If power and aggression could be applied to pressure and upend an opponent, then so be it. Europeans would not sweat whether or not their rushed shoulder throw was a perfect ippon hidari seonage if it the technique scored the same ippon as ippon hidari seonage. If the technique did not score ippon, but still won the match, then the technique was deemed successful.

     That did not mean that the westerner is not concerned with improving his (or her) skills, but that the westerner is concerned about the value of his skills in practical application as opposed to academic applications. This assumes that a fighting system is validated by the outcome of a fight as opposed to the efficiency of its catalogued techniques. This the essence of a sport or combat system being contrasted with a martial art, or victory over self-improvement.

     Sombo has been a link in demonstrating that both the eastern and western training approaches are viable means to achieving judo skills and competition success. The differences are more apparent before one views the finished product, the expert practitioner instead of the student in training.

     Sadly, a martial art often is validated by how its practitioner fared in competition without considering how the two fighters stacked up physically or athletically. This may or may not be a side effect of reality based fighting events but combative sports often measure the fighters physically in addition to their skills and experience. This is useful for predicting the outcome of matches or for developing individual match plans to overcome each opponent faced. Unlike a martial art, where the practitioner is measured to see which areas of his art must be improved to round out his martial knowledge and lead to belt advancement. Both of these stances can develop well rounded practitioners.    Not all judo black belts can beat all judo brown belts. The brown belt may be a more fit, athletic fighter who is substantially larger than the black belt that he faces. The black belt may have better technique and years more experience that compensate for his opponent’s advantages, but that may not be enough.

     The black belt may demonstrate some admirable technique and tenacity, but he may also be worn down physically until the brown belt has the chance to catch him in a technique-sloppy or otherwise. His loss does not mean that the brown belt is a better judoka. It does mean that under the circumstances, the brown belt did what was needed to win the fight. Hence, the expression, “fight the man, not the belt.”

     The martial art approach and the sporting approach have produced both winners and outstanding technicians. If judo's competitive rules remain the same, both approaches will continue to produce both.

     Kano himself constantly tinkered with his judo's educational philosophy while striving to find the right mix of uchikomi (drilled techniques) and randori: the pure practice by rote vs. actual competition. If there is only pure drill in a prescribed, ritualized venue, what will the practitioner do when confronted by the perverse vagaries of actual combat? On the other hand, if the practitioner spends all of his or her time in competition, when will there be time to improve those areas of individual's repertoire that need refinement?

     There are the extremes of the various styles of traditional jujitsu and Brazilian jujitsu. Some styles of the former cannot have competitions because the techniques are deemed too serious and deadly for safe competitions. In fact, many of these practitioners would argue that judo is the sport form of jujitsu. In the case of Brazilian jujitsu, the competition side of the system has taken over the whole art and changed the expected reality of a fight to the death to match their sport minded perspective.

     Between the extremes are jujitsu systems that also strive for the right mix between drilling and competition to safely practice their art, so that the practitioners can learn self-defense in a more realistic arena that remains relatively safe.

     Kano’s judo was an innovation and evolutionary step over jujitsu, and Russian sombo has influenced both Western wrestling and judo with its own fresh viewpoints.

     Judoka worldwide have opinions of what is judo, and they have developed the organizations to define and enforce their definition(s). Regardless of the rules that they develop, judo will continue to evolve, and thus, keep room for both the martial artist and the sportsman.