Judo: martial arts neologism or ancient philosophical term?

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The term "judo", which sport / martial art ("as a physical, mental, and moral pedagogy" [source]) was only created in 1882 by Jigoro Kano 嘉納治五郎 (1860-1938).  What I find amazing is that jūdō / MSM róudào 柔道 ("soft / flexible / gentle / supple / mild / yielding way") comes right out of the Yìjīng 易經 (Book / Classic of Change[s]).  Of course, traditional Japanese scholars have always been learned in the Chinese classics, so it shouldn't be too surprising that they would draw on the classics for terminology and ideas that had great meaning for them.  But I'm curious whether Jigoro Kano explicitly referred to the Yìjīng in any of his writings about jūdō 柔道.

Linda Chance:

I looked into Denis Gainty, Martial Arts and the Body Politic in Meiji Japan (Routledge, 2013), a couple of other similar items, and the brief set of translations of Kano Jigoro's writings that we have in Van Pelt Library. No Yìjīng 易経 anywhere. The last volume has a brief piece in which Kano says that jūjutsu 柔術 ("soft / flexible / gentle / supple / mild / yielding art") was supposed to have come from China, but he doubts even that. Since he thought of judo as his neologism and his main brief was to emphasize the scientific nature of judo, it would be curious to find him writing about the ancient "roots" of the term. If Cappy [VHM:  G. Cameron Hurst, III, an expert on the history of Japanese martial arts] were still with us we could ask someone who had actually read Kano, but as it is there is not much I can say.

Zihan Guo:

I first came upon judo and jujitsu 柔道・柔術 in an anime a very long time ago. The word róu 柔("soft / flexible / gentle / supple / mild / yielding") immediately attracted me for its Laozian aura, as in "ruò zhī shèng qiáng, róu zhī shèng gāng 弱之勝強, 柔之勝剛", and all those water metaphors, and even for the change of its name into a more philosophical dào 道 ("way"). But I did not know about its Yijing ancestry, which is absolutely fascinating.

Denis Mair:

I like the words róu dào 柔道 in the "Image Treatise" (Line 1 of hexagram 43). This nice phrase is an elegant way of saying the "fair sex" or the "the female persuasion."

Xiàng yuē xì yú jīn nǐ, róudào qiān yě

象曰繫於金柅, 柔道牽也

Image: "Tie (this one) to a distaff*, the fair persuasion tugs at you."

*As to how Denis arrived at "distaff" from "jīn nǐ 金柅" ("[chariot] block [for braking against] metal [lining of a wheel]", that involved consulting esoteric commentaries over a period of more than a millennium, the technical details of which we will spell out in the three volumes on the Yìjīng 易経 that we've been working on for more than two decades, and hope to complete within two or three years.


My impression is that, although Jigoro Kano thought he was inventing a new word for his new sport, whether through study or through immersion in Sino-Japanese culture, róudào 柔道 ("soft / flexible / gentle / supple / mild / yielding way") of the Yìjīng 易経, and all that it implies, influenced him conceptually and linguistically when he was casting about for a name for his newly invented praxis.


Selected readings


  1. Tore said,

    October 19, 2021 @ 7:46 am

    As my books still are in boxes since moving I'm unable to check this, but if I recollect correctly the word Kendo was used in some traditional sword-fighting (ken-jutsu/剣術) school and Kano Jigoro probably minted the name Judo by combing the 柔 in ju-jutsu with 道 in a similar manner. I find it highly unlikely that he would have picked the word from the 易経, even though he was extremely well-read.

  2. Alexander Browne said,

    October 20, 2021 @ 9:21 am

    @Victor Mair

    OT: Do you have any insight/explanation of the Sinopharm COVID-19 vaccine's trade name, according to Wikipedia "众爱可维" / "Zhong'aikewei"? With the English/global trade names ranging from "Spikevax" and "Covidshield" to "Comirnaty" and "Vaxzevria" to "Covid-19 Vaccine Janssen", I'm curious what kind name Sinopharm chose.

  3. Cervantes said,

    October 20, 2021 @ 10:29 am

    Didn't take a lot of research. From Wikipedia:

    Kano believed that "jūjutsu" was insufficient to describe his art: although jutsu (術) means "art" or "means", it implies a method consisting of a collection of physical techniques. Accordingly, he changed the second character to dō (道), meaning "way", "road" or "path", which implies a more philosophical context than jutsu and has a common origin with the Chinese concept of tao. Thus Kano renamed it Jūdō (柔道, judo).[20]

  4. Andy Stow said,

    October 20, 2021 @ 10:37 am

    I'm a judoka, and agree with Tore. Dr. Kano was also head of two jujitsu styles at the time he created judo.

    In Japanese sword, there are four broad categories created by all possible combinations of two terms:

    Then there is jojutsu/jodo (short staff) and many more instances of where jutsu/jitsu is changed to do, usually signifying that the latter is more a way/philosophy than mere functional art.

    Unrelated, could someone fluent in Japanese help me out with this? I've been practicing a jujitsu style of ground fighting (wrestling/choking/joint locking on the mat, no standing) that my instructor (who also knows no Japanese) has called 地上戦闘 / Chijō sentō for "ground combat." Is that a reasonable translation that a native speaker would understand? When I start plugging it into Google Translate or Googling the component words, I think he may have inadvertantly named the style "land warfare."

  5. cameron said,

    October 20, 2021 @ 10:51 am

    There are also the pairs kyūjutsu/kyūdō and bujutsu/budō, the latter pair are the very general terms that encompass the others.

  6. Victor Mair said,

    October 20, 2021 @ 2:37 pm

    This discussion has become very enlightening to me.

    Growing up, I always thought that, though similar, judo and jujitsu were two separate forms of martial arts. My question, for those in the know, is whether teachers and practitioners of judo and jujitsu present them as quite distinct. Do they emphasize the difference between them? Or just not talk about it?

  7. Andy Stow said,

    October 20, 2021 @ 3:21 pm


    Judo is related, but distinct from jujitsu. There is only one style called judo / Kodokan Judo, and it's controlled by the Kodokan in Tokyo and various national organizations. It's in the Olympics, and most practitioners do it as a sport more than a style of self-defense. That doesn't mean it's not good as self defense, though. Although technically in Dr. Kano's book it has elements like punches, kicks, knife defenses, etc., what is primarily taught is what is legal in competition: throws, followed by pins, chokes, and arm locks. Plus the falling skills needed to receive the throws.

    All techniques in judo are designed to be able to be used in practice and competition with full power, without hurting your partner/opponent. Of course that partner must be trained in falling. The organizations have in the past removed techniques when a pattern of injuries has occurred.

    One nice thing about judo is that I, and American, was able to visit the Kodokan in Tokyo and work out with them without knowing any Japanese other than what we learn in judo. We pronounce it atrociously, but they understood me, and I them.

    Hajime, matei, osoto-gari, rei…

    There are many jujitsu styles, and they may contain everything in judo plus striking, also locking wrists/neck/knees/ankles etc. which judo considers too dangerous. They are generally not so rigidly controlled. Some techniques should only really be practiced with a partner who knows which way to move to co-operate with it and not get injured.

    As a student and instructor of both, I do let my students know the differences between judo and jujitsu, and the history that judo came from basically two styles of jujitsu, with techniques then removed or modified to make them safe for (fully committed) use in practice. I don't compete, but some of my students do, and they need to know which techniques they can and can't use in judo competition.

  8. Victor Mair said,

    October 20, 2021 @ 3:41 pm


    Thank you for your very valuable, informative response.

    Judo truly is more of a philosophical "way" and jujitsu more of a martial "art".

  9. Philip Taylor said,

    October 21, 2021 @ 5:43 am

    Speaking as someone who has, to his enormous regret, caused a permanently detached retina in a fellow judoka with tomoe nage, I can only repeat and emphasise Andy's wise words : "what is primarily taught is what is legal in competition: throws, followed by pins, chokes, and arm locks. Plus the falling skills needed to receive the throws".

  10. Andy Stow said,

    October 21, 2021 @ 10:35 am

    Wow, Philip, sorry to hear that. I'd never considered that a possible injury.

    I regretfully broke a female friend's foot a couple of decades ago. Nothing looked to anyone watching wrong with the throw, but we think maybe one of her feet landed on top of the other. It was a sweep, but I don't think I'm strong enough to break a foot with a deashi-harai.

    It healed up, and we're still friends. We work at the same (large) company though, and occasionally someone will meet me and say, "wait, are you the guy who broke Chrissy's foot?"

  11. Chris Button said,

    October 21, 2021 @ 11:26 am

    Interesting how the Japanese “u” in “jutsu” is rendered as “i” or “u” in English based on its position in the syllable as “jitsu”.

  12. Terpomo said,

    October 21, 2021 @ 12:05 pm

    In English, the words "judo" and "jujitsu" have been imported in the context of martial arts but if anything I've heard them used more often metaphorically, in the sense of convincing, tricking, or forcing your opponent into using their own strength to defeat themselves; for instance I've just recently been reading Saul Alinsky's 'Rules for Radicals' and he compares the techniques he teaches to jujitsu a couple times, and TV Tropes has several 'X Judo' tropes.

  13. chh said,

    October 21, 2021 @ 4:15 pm

    There's some conceptual overlap here with elements of taijiquan, probably because of shared influence of taoist traditions and really old Chinese qin na and shuai jiao techniques.

    The term for yielding in taijiquan is 'lu', which is written either with the character 捋 or an uncommon character that I can't get to appear. It shows up as number 5 in the list here: https://ymaa.com/sites/default/files/YangTaiChiFormList.pdf

    I know next to nothing about the sound changes that would have applied when Chinese words were being adopted into Judo- is there a relationship between 捋 and the words in question?

  14. Josh R. said,

    October 21, 2021 @ 7:15 pm

    Andy Stow said,
    October 20, 2021 @ 10:37 am
    "When I start plugging it into Google Translate or Googling the component words, I think he may have inadvertantly named the style "land warfare.""

    He did.

  15. Andy Stow said,

    October 22, 2021 @ 10:09 am

    @Josh R,


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