"Mixed Martial Arts" on the High Seas

The dapper young man with a fashionable moustache and full head of hair was taking the air as the steamer slowly made its way from Shanghai through the Indian Ocean to Europe. Despite the heat, he was dressed as a proper European gentleman, although in fact he was a rising star in Japan's educational bureaucracy on his way to investigate educational systems and philosophies in Paris, London, Stockholm, and Amsterdam on behalf of Japan's Ministry of Education. Only 29, he had graduated from Japan's only university-the Tokyo Imperial University-at 21. Despite not being from an especially high-ranking family, at the youthful age of 25 he had already been appointed as headmaster of the Gakushuin, the "Peer's School," which catered to the children of the very highest elite families. The energetic and modern-minded young man had also opened his own Kobun Gakuen, a school organized to teach the large number of Chinese intellectuals who were traveling to Japan to escape the decay of the Qing Imperial dynasty and learn from the example of Japan's rapid modernization. Even Sun Yat-sen, the founder of the modern Chinese Republic, was said to have been one of his students.

At only five feet-two inches and 165 pounds, he looked like a bit of a fop, definitely an intellectual, but there was something about his physique and the way he carried himself that suggested he was a man of considerable self-confidence, a young man on the rise.

As he strolled the deck, he heard the sounds of a small crowd. Rounding the corner, he saw an imposing Russian sailor holding an iron bar. Two other passengers-a Swiss and a Dutchman-were straining to move the Russian, pushing, pulling, and twisting on the bar with all their might. The young man paused to watch, by happenstance winding up standing next to a Russian merchant who was also bound from the Orient to Europe. "Your countryman is quite strong," he said to his neighbor, "but I could pin him down and he'd never be able to get free." The merchant, looking at the difference in size between the two, laughed, then walked over to the sailor and translated the challenge. The big sailor roared with scornful mirth, then beckoned the little man to come forward.

To the amazement of the crowd, the little Japanese doffed his hat and jacket and stepped forward to challenge the Russian. The passengers began to cheer and shout, some for the little Japanese, others for the big Russian. "Lie down on the deck," the little Japanese told the Russian sailor. "I'll hold you there until you decide to give up." With a hearty laugh, the Russian did as asked and the Japanese took his position. "OK," he said, "Now, you get out!" The Russian struggled, pushed and pulled, turning red in the face and sweating in the humid Indian Ocean air, but no matter how he wriggled or writhed, he couldn't escape the grip of the tenacious little Japanese "intellectual." Finally the Japanese, seeing his opponent's futile struggling was tiring him out, said, "OK, that's enough. Now you can get up."

Flustered and embarrassed, the Russian told the merchant to tell the little fellow, "Alright, you had your turn. Now let me pin you to the ground and see whether you can get up!" The crowd gasped. What chance did this little fellow, outweighed by perhaps 100 pounds, have of ever getting out from under this big, strong Russian sailor? "Don't do it," some cried. "He'll crush you!" But in no way deterred, the Japanese lay on his back on the deck with his feet shoulder-width apart and signaled the Russian to go ahead. The Russian had barely settled down on top of the little guy, all but hiding him from the view of the crowd, when the plucky Japanese popped out from under the sailor and hopped to his feet.

"You cheated!," yelled the angry Russian. "I never had a chance to get a good grip!" "My good man," said the Japanese, "when an opponent is about to get you, do you wait until he closes up on you before you try to escape? You have to act at just the right time, which is what I did. It's just a basic principle of good fighting!"

"Alright," snarled the Russian. "You tricked me that time, but how about we have a third try-this time standing?" Once again, the crowd gasped. On their feet, the size difference of the opponents was even more obvious and onlookers were concerned that the small, mild-mannered teacher might get seriously hurt. Nonetheless, the Japanese cheerfully obliged. "Whenever you're ready," he said. The seaman tried several times to get his hands on the quick little diplomat, but the Japanese was so evasive, he could neither grab nor strike him. Suddenly, he felt himself rising high in the air-and equally suddenly, he saw the deck coming "up" at him at high speed. But the Japanese cushioned his fall by placing his arm behind the Russian's neck so as to avoid having his head crash down to the hard deck.

After a few minutes of anger and frustration, the Russian hugged the little Japanese and the two became fast friends for the rest of the voyage. The Russian spent the rest of the cruise studying the techniques of the little Japanese, Kano Jigoro, who had founded the Art of Judo only a few years earlier.

(The much-decorated Kano Jigoro in his later years, left, and Kano demonstrating his favorite ukigoshi throw, right)

(Note: This story has been widely circulated, but remains less than fully documented and different accounts contain conflicting details. Although all the basic facts in this rendition accord with tradition, I have added narrative detail to flesh out the story and create the proper atmosphere. For additional information see
http://brunocarmenisjudoblog.wordpress.com/page/2/; "Jigoro Kano and Kyuzo Mifune - judo in person," at
http://mitesco.nl/mitesco-en/kano.htm. For an excellent biography of Kano, with details on his career as a highly influential educator and educational administrator, see Andy Adams, "Jigoro Kano: Judo," 1970, reprinted at