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Updated on January 1, 2010

Judo is a sport that was derived from Asian combat skills. The name comes from the Japanese words ju (gentle, soft, or easy) and do (way). Today, judo is generally understood to designate a modern sport, in which throwing and grappling are the principal techniques. Men, women, and children practice judo for recreation, physical fitness, or competition. However, some judo clubs follow an older style of practice that may emphasize self-defense. Originally, throwing or grappling with an adversary was intended to injure or immobilize him. The modern rules of judo and the training methods are designed to prevent injuries.

In 1964 judo was included in the Olympic Games. It was omitted in 1968 and was restored to the program in 1972. The International Judo Federation, with headquarters in Lausanne, Switzerland, has affiliates in many countries.

Jigarno Kano, a Japanese educator, devised judo in the 1880's. From various ancient combat arts, he synthesized two new forms. For sport and physical education, he selected throws and grappling techniques. For self-defense, he selected hand and foot blows, holds, escapes, and trips. Beginners were taught only the sport; advanced students could learn self-defense. For many years, and continuing into the present to some degree, the word judo was used for both aspects of Kano's quite separate activities. Sometimes the terms jujitsu or atemi-waza were used to distinguish judo as self-defense from judo as a sport. More often, judo and jujitsu were used interchangeably.

Kano believed that if the student would obey his sensei, or teacher, observe the strict rules of etiquette, and train hard, he would learn self-control, be humble, and become resolute and judicious, and that these traits would give him advantages over other people.

Photo by Marta Judi
Photo by Marta Judi

Contest Judo

Judo is played on a mat 9 meters (about 30 feet) square. The contestant, wears a regulation uniform, or gi. It consists of a kimono-style jacket made of strong, double-weave, stitched cotton, heavily reinforced at the front opening; full-cut trousers of cotton, usually midcalf length, fastened at the waist by a drawstring; and a reinforced cotton belt that goes around the body twice and is tied in front with a square knot.

Matches are from 3 to 20 minutes, with extensions of two to seven minutes. Each match, or shiai, is won by the first contestant to win a full point, ippon, or by decision of the judges. A full point is given for a clean throw or for matwork. A point-winning throw must put the opponent on his back or on his side. The thrower must not lose his balance. Half points may be awarded for throws completed with less than perfect technique.

Blows struck with the hands or feet are not permitted. Matwork may be applied only after an opponent has been thrown, or if the opponent places himself on the mat accidentally, by falling or by attempting a sacrificing throw. An opponent may not be dragged or wrestled to the mat for the purpose or grappling. Grappling may be applied with the opponent standing, prone, or supine.   If the opponent cannot escape •om the hold, or if he submits within 30 seconds, a point may be given.


Judo was originally practiced with elaborate formality, reflecting Japanese etiquette of the 19th century- Students bowed on entering the dojo, or practice hall; they bowed to the mat, to the instructor; to the flag, to the Shinto or Buddhist shrine, and to each other at the start and end of the practice session. Before leaving the mat, they repeated the bowing procedure, in reverse order. For modern sport, the salutation has been simplified. Players walk onto the mat, face each other at a distance of about 4 meters (13 feet), and bow to each other before starting play. At the end of a match, they return to the starting position on the mat and bow to each other after the decision has been announced.

Starting Position

After the salutation, players grasp each other. The right hand grips the reinforced edge of the opponent's jacket, at chest height. The left hand grips cloth under opponent's right sleeve. Shifting the uniform is used in conjunction with other maneuvering tactics to position the opponent for a throw. Under limited conditions, players may grip the opponent's belt or trouser-leg cloth to assist a throwing action.


Tori is the player who throws, or wins. Uke is the player who is thrown. Coordinated movements of the entire body are required to effect any throw. Throws are categorized as arm throws when the critical action is arm movement, leg throws when leg action is critical, body throws when uke is carried over tori's body, and sacrificing throws when tori puts himself on the mat to effect the throw.

Judo throwing involves positioning, breaking balance, the throw itself, and the ending. Subtle, feinting hand and body movements and footwork position an opponent and then put him off balance. The throw is applied in the direction of uke's weak balance. Clean throws are executed with good technique, complete control, and a strong ending, with tori in firm balance. The going with principle is in contrast to the principle of using strength to oppose strength. Easy throws are executed with minimum force; tori maneuvers uke so that uke's body is moving in the direction of the intended throw. Or tori could take advantage of uke's movement to apply a throw by-chance in the direction of weakest balance.

A characteristic foot throw is de ashi harai. Tori first shifts uke's weight toward uke's left side. Using the bottom of his left foot, tori sweeps his opponent's right foot, putting opponent's weight entirely onto his left leg and without support on his right side. Tori sharply reverses direction of arm movement, wheeling opponent around and down in the direction of no support. Tori completes the throw by follow-through of arm and leg movements, pulling uke down as the swept foot is lifted, cross-body. A clean throw puts uke onto the mat on his back or side.

A characteristic body throw is seoi nage. Tori pivots into position, his back toward uke, locking his bent right elbow into uke's right armpit. Tori's knees are slightly bent, his upper body leans to his left. His right hip is against uke's right thigh. Tori lifts and wheels with his body as he pulls around and down with his arms to complete the throw.


Grappling techniques include standing work chokes and matwork holds, locks, and chokes.

Characteristic of judo matwork is the side shoulder hold, kesagatame. Tori indicates the person who applies the hold. Uke receives the action. Tori is seated, wedged close Into uke's
right side. Tori's right arm is around uke's neck, palm down on the mat. Tori's left hand grips cloth at uke's right upper arm, pulling and locking it under tori's arm. Tori's right knee is wedged against uke's right shoulder. Tori's left leg is extended and braced onto the mat. Tori secures the hold by bracing his head against uke's shoulder and head.


Judo students learn to fall without being hurt. The falls are commonly practiced as warm-up exercise. The receiver avoids hitting his head or a jarring impact against his wrist, elbow, and shoulder. He spreads the force of impact over a maximum body area. Slapping the mat with a fully extended arm and hand helps to absorb impact. Falls are taken with the head raised off the mat. Beginners learn simple falls, rolling from side to side and falling back from a seated position. Accomplished judo players can be thrown in a high arc, with speed, and can hit the mat with little danger of injury.

Formal Techniques

Naga-no-kata is a prearranged and rehearsed performance of judo throws. Uke does not attempt to block or evade the throw, and tori concentrates on perfection of technique. There is a prescribed manner of walking onto the mat, kneeling, bowing, rising, an*, taking steps to approach each other, grasping tl gi and moving into position to begin. In unisoi uke and tori take formal, gliding steps to establish rhythmical, coordinated movements. Some players consider naga-no-kata the "purest" form of judo, but its practice is diminishing a:, the modern sport of judo becomes more popular.

The demonstration forms of grappling are called katame-no-kata. They are performed in prearranged, rehearsed sequence.


Proficiency in judo is ranked by degrees, indicated by colored belts. The requirements and procedures for advancing from the white belt of the novice to the black belt of the skilled player vary greatly. In some schools, promotion depends on contest skill. In others, belts are awarded for naga-no-kata or for a combination of the two. Because no system acknowledges colored belts awarded in other systems, a belt rank has significance only within the system in which it is earned.

The belt ranks, or grades, are called kyu at the lower levels of proficiency and dan from the rank of first black belt and up. The lowest kyu rank is sixth, rokkyu, indicating novice. The highest kyu rank is first, ikkyu, a rank commonly graded as brown belt. The lowest dan grade is first degree black belt, shodan. It is uncommon to find belt degrees above fifth dan, or godan, in contest. Higher ranks, up to 12th black belt, are usually honorary.

In traditional judo, players are matched In contests solely by belt rank, with separate classes for juniors and women. In U. S. Amateur Athletic Union and in Olympic Games competition, players are not matched by belt degrees but through elimination and in weight classes.


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