Education and Budo

Education and Budo

            In 2006, under the current Prime Minister Abe Shinzō Japan embarked on the first major education reform of the Fundamental Law Education since 1947. The major changes included newly defined concepts such as “moral education,” “patriotism,” and “tradition,” terms not found in the postwar education act of 1947.[1] Among the goals in the reform’s language is to have students learn more about traditional culture in general, including adding class hours to the study of Japanese language.

            The reform also made budō, frequently translated as “martial arts,” compulsory for first and second year junior high school students (the equivalent of seventh and eighth grades in the United States).  Budō, a “culture unique to our country,” the reform claims, fosters “traditional thinking.”  Previously, budō had been an elective in physical education classes for boys.  But starting in 2012, both boys and girls will be required to study budō (either judo, kendō, or sumo) as determined by their school, to foster patriotism, tradition, and self-development.[2]  This ideological shift is captured by the change in terminology from “combat sports” (kakugi) to “martial arts” (budō). 

            Education reform in any country often becomes a tool for politicians to solve what they perceive to be social and ethical problems as youth are held up as the cause, and victims, of societal decay.  How is budō expected to make positive contributions to ethical and social issues in Japan?  And what have been the dangers in teaching budō in schools throughout the modern period?  What are some of the pitfalls of teaching budō to young students today?  

A History of Budō in Education

            Budō as a form of ethical and social development has a long history in the Japanese education system.  Beginning in the 1880s, shortly after the last premodern, samurai regime collapsed (1868), budō practitioners campaigned to introduce martial arts into the school system.  These efforts were initially unsuccessful.  Some politicians liked budō’s connection to the samurai legacy and thought it could foster a strong military spirit in students.  But budō was rejected for three reasons.  The first was practical, there were not enough qualified budō practitioners to teach classes, nor did schools have enough space to conduct practice.  Second, kendō (Japanese fencing) was deemed to be too rough, potentially damaging to young brains, and, more generally, could lead to uneven physical development.  Third, at the level of character development, critics believed that an emphasis on competition might lead to a violent attitude.  Western-style gymnastics remained central to physical education pedagogy well into the early twentieth century.

            Budō might have remained on the margins of Japanese education had it not been for the prominent educator and founder of judo, Jigorō Kanō.  Kanō transformed premodern unarmed combat called jūjutsu into relatively standardized system of self-defense, sport, and vehicle for character development.  His effort to modernize judo borrowed from western concepts of physical education, especially the idea that through physical education, strong bodies and ethical minds could contribute to society.  Kanō’s articulation about judo’s value in education became so influential that other budō, such as kendō, also followed his example.

            The two pillars of judo teaching, according to Kanō, were the concepts of “minimum effort with maximum efficiency” and “mutual welfare and benefit.”  The first maxim appears to be solely a physical ideal.  Judo practitioners believe that by using judo techniques, it is possible for a physically weaker or smaller person to defeat a larger opponent who relies on their muscular strength alone.  But for Kanō there was a deeper ethical meaning. Being angry, harboring ill will towards others, and having a bad attitude wasted energy and thus opposed the goal of using energy efficiently.  Only by working together, complimenting each other strengths and weaknesses, embodied in the concept of “mutual welfare and benefit,” could judo practitioners maximize their learning.  This lesson extended to how young people behaved in society more generally.

            Kanō believed that judo’s emphasis on intellectual development could help alleviate what he saw the moral decay of his day.  Memorizing judo techniques and discovering creative responses to an opponent’s actions were only part of judo’s mental benefits.  In Kanō’s writings, he discusses the relationship between intellectual training, knowledge, and good judgment.  Knowledge, he argued, forms the foundation of moral education, namely, to learn how to distinguish what is good and evil, and to be trained to like what is good and dislike what is evil.  Knowing and wanting to do good are not enough, young people must develop the habit of doing good.[3]

            Kanō envisioned physical education as a holistic development that contributed to society.  He discouraged doing judo only to excel at competitions and accrue personal fame.  Although a leader in Japan’s Olympic movement, he criticized judo’s over-sportification.  He believed judo should foster spiritual development and patriotism.

Given Kanō’s influence over the relationship between education and budō, did his emphasis on ethics help block Japan’s militarism or contribute to it?  In other words, in discussing ethical issues we must ask how budō was appropriated.         

            Japan’s modern wars with China (Sino-Japanese War 1894-1895) and Russia (Russo-Japanese War 1904-1905) convinced politicians of the practical benefits of including budō training the school system.  By developing strong bodies and martial spirit, young people could be molded to serve the nation.  By 1918, budō became a subject in middle schools and was approved as an elementary school elective.  During the 1930s, a high-time of militarism that accompanied Japan’s invasion of China, bushidō, the so-called “way of the samurai” ethics, was seen as an important reason to encourage budō training.  A strong sense of military spirit, discipline, and loyalty to the country formed the core beliefs that made budō compulsory for girls and boys from the fifth grade of elementary school throughout junior high school.  Not far from the politicians’ minds, however, were the physical benefits of budō training for young students who might need to protect the nation in warfare.

            Budō was banned from schools, especially kendō, during the U.S.-led occupation of Japan after the end of WWII in 1945.  Kyūdō (archery) and judo, a popular budō among non-Japanese, were the first budō to be approved among private citizens, but budō did not return to the school system until the 1950s, after the end of the occupation.  The wartime emphasis on collective martial spirit and ethics disappeared from school budō.  The educational reform of 1958 described judo, kendō, and sumo as “combat sports” (kakugi) that focused on an individual student’s physical and mental development, and enjoyment, no different from non-Japanese sports.


Compulsory Budō: Hopes and Ideal

            Not surprisingly, adding budō as a compulsory subject in physical education has led to new research about how to implement budō teaching, how to solve practical problems, and how to prevent injury.  Many have shared their own experiences teaching budō as an elective in elementary, junior high, and high schools.  Many anecdotal reports by those who have taught a budō in the school system note positive reception among students.  But how have the goals of those once, optional courses changed with the new education law? 

            While the postwar concept of “combat sports” sees judo, kendō, and sumo as having the same goals as any Western sport, budō is viewed differently. Kajita Eiichi, the vice president for the Central Council of Education argued, “Budō, as people have defined it, is used to experience Japan’s ancient traditional culture.  It is a big mistake to think of it as a sport. The word “way” (the “dō” in “budō”) emphasizes the development of one’s spirit...its purpose is absolutely not to become physically stronger, but to discipline the self.”[4]  Kajita’s comment accords with the following ethical claim in the reform--“Respect for one’s training partner and following traditional behavior” means controlling one’s own behavior during in budō training, an activity that involves direct, sometimes rough, contact between two people.  Following traditional etiquette (reigi) also shows that students can control themselves. 

            One context for education reform has been the perceived moral decay among Japanese youth since the 1990s.  This includes increasing truancy, disorder in schools, the rise in youth delinquency and violence, and a decrease in academic performance compared to other nations.  Proponents have argued that budō training can help solve these social problems.  According to the reform, students will learn responsibility by ensuring that the equipment and training space is properly cared for, and during class competitions, students will learn fulfill different roles as judges, referees, et cetera.  In so doing, students will “cultivate a sense of responsibility needed to live in society.” Students also develop a connectedness with others by offering advice and encouraging others during training.[5]  Judo may be particularly effective for this.  Students must touch each other to practice judo, pulling and pushing, and thus learn how to move in relation to one’s partner.  Thus, by embodying judo’s concept of “mutual welfare and benefit,” some educators argue, students will improve their communication skills.[6]    One judo exponent claims that learning to endure pain during training will teach students to empathize with others.

            Budō advocates also believe that rei, propriety and etiquette, contribute to ethical and social development.  “Budō begins and ends with rei” is a well-known motto among all budō practitioners.  In fact, “traditional thinking” is defined as “emphasizing desirable self-development as a human” by learning etiquette.[7] This is often demonstrated in the bow at the beginning and end of practice sessions and whenever working with a partner, and through the techniques of etiquette such as sitting in a formal seated posture (seiza).  Rei encourages respect for partners, teachers, and even the equipment and space used in budō training. 

            But does budō have any demonstrable effect on youth education?  And how do students perceive the goals of budō training?  There are no nation-wide studies of the effects of budō training on Japanese youth, but Japanese martial arts training among youth in the United States and western Europe, scholars have shown, have positive effects on personality, such as improved levels of hope (defined as “the motivation to accomplish a harsh task.”)[8] 


Ethical Problems with Budō in Education

            Despite the many possible benefits to be accrued from budō, several problems remained unsolved between the 2006 reform and its implementation in 2012.  Most critics fear an increase in injuries especially with judo training.  Judo has been the most popular budō of choice for middle schools due to the availably of space and teachers with judo experience, and its low start-up costs for schools and students.  

            A 2011 documentary titled “Warning from the Mat” detailed some of the permanent disabilities suffered by students who trained in junior high judo clubs.  Common problems included overzealous instructors, rough training between beginner and intermediate judo players, and problems with training areas.  According to a now famous study of judo accidents, between 1983 and 2010, 118 minors have died and 275 have become handicapped during training in junior high and high school judo clubs.[9]  In France, where the judo population is three times that of Japan, there have been no deaths among minors, and this has been attributed to the strict, government-level training and testing required of anyone teaching judo.  The novelist Akagawa Jirō has summarized the critique against the government on this point succinctly--“The Ministry of Education cares more about prestige than the lives of children.”[10] 

            Physical education teachers are also worried about injuries.  In Miyagi Prefecture, only 47% of the teachers taught judo throws, opting instead to focus upon etiquette, proper falling technique, posture, and basic mat pins.  Interestingly, 27% of Miyagi junior high schools cited etiquette as a way to ensure safety during training.  They believed that emphasizing etiquette, such as bowing to one’s partner, helped calm nervous training partners, and prepared them for the lesson ahead.[11]   But with over half of the schools choosing not to teach throws, the essential technique in judo, are budō necessary for teaching traditional culture and etiquette?  Why not choose tea ceremony or flower arranging?

            The new education law emphasizes safety.  For example, students are prohibited from using any forbidden techniques, such as leg takedowns in judo or throat strikes in kendō.  Teachers and students are advised to take care of any equipment issues that could cause injury, to stop training if anything odd occurs during class.  Students are encouraged to pay attention to their own level of strength and ability.[12]  These seem like laudable instructions, but as the above anecdotes from Miyagi prefecture demonstrate, many teachers remain fearful of teaching budō. 

            It might be too soon to measure the impact compulsory budō has had, but fears about increased injuries seem warranted.  Only one prefecture has responded to a 2012 survey about injuries, but in Hokkaido Prefecture alone, eight boys and four girls have been injured, mostly broken noses, collar bones, and toes (from getting caught during pins on the mat, which suggests that even eliminating throwing techniques will not prevent injuries.[13]  In 2013, a junior high school boy was thrown during judo class and suffered a brain injury that has caused headaches, nausea, and insomnia.  With two thirds of Japan’s public schools choosing to teach judo, more injuries are expected to occur.

            It remains to be seen whether these injuries will threaten to overwhelm the government’s effort to project so-called traditional values onto the bodies of young students.  Surprisingly, there have been no calls to eliminate compulsory budō for ideological reasons, although teachers’ groups have protested against the overall reform to the Fundamental Law of Education.  The law includes language about internationalization, just as Kano advocated peace and international cooperation during the first half of the twentieth century.   But could politicians once again use budō as a way to inspire aggressive nationalism, especially during the current historical moment, when many politicians seek a more active role in international security issues and military spending is at its highest since WWII?   Some have already resisted the perceived militarism in school-related budō.  In the early 1990s, a Japanese student who was a member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, sued and eventually won a lawsuit against his municipal technical college where kendō was a required subject.  He refused to participate in the course, stating that learning a combat sport was against his religious views, yet the school prevented him from advancing to the next grade and eventually expelled him.  A higher court ruled that this violated the student’s freedom of religion.[14] 

            Do the positive effects on ethical and social character development outweigh the practical and potential ideological problems of requiring students to learn budō?  Will students accept budō teaching?  Will resistance by parents, who are already concerned about injuries, push the government to change compulsory budō?  And will the government find itself in an ethical dilemma over compulsory budō?    


[1] For a comparison between the original 1947 education act and the 2006 reform, see

[2] Schools are allowed to choose other budō such as naginata, a kendō-like activity using a bamboo halberd that is practice mostly by women.  However, they have to adhere to the emphasis on basics, basic movement, etc.  Ministry of Education, Junior High School Teaching Guide for the Japanese Course of Study p. 115 (hereafter simplified to “MEXT”). 

[3] Kano, Mind over Muscle: Writings from the Founder of Judo (Tokyo: Kodansha International), pp 61-71.

[4] Cited in Lu Jian and Nagami Makoto, “A study about budo education in physical education in Japan,” Sendai daigaku daigakuin supootsu kagaku kenkdyūka shūshi ronbunshu v. 15 (2014), p. 89. 

[5] MEXT, p. 104.

[6] Namika Motoshima and Yosuke Sakairi, “Development on Life skills Scale of Budo and Physical Education Related and an Examination of Reliability and Validity,” Nagasaki kokusai daigaku ronsō, v. 14 (2010).

[7] MEXT, p. 105. 

[8] Jikkemien Vertonghen and Marc Theeboom, “The social-psychological outcomes of martial arts practise among youth: A review,” Journal of Sports Science and Medicine, no. 9 (2010).  Cultural differences, such as the exoticism associated with Asian martial arts in the West, limit the implications for budō training among Japanese youth.

[9] See Uchida Ryō, Jūdō jiko (Tokyo: Kawade shobō shinsha, 2013)

[10] Arakawa, Jirō, Asahi shinbun, 8/19/2011.

[11] Michiyasu Hakojima and Koji Saito, “The actual condition of Budo as the physical education at junior high school: The teaching method of judo in Miyagi Prefecture,” Sendai daigaku daigakuin supootsu kagaku kenkdyūka shūshi ronbunshu,v. 15 (2014).  Other interesting problems arose, such as not having enough uniforms, students not wanting to wear shared uniforms purchased by the school, and the inordinate amount of time used to set up mats.  In other words, similar to Meiji period critics, there were many practical obstacles to making budō a compulsory school subject. 

[12] MEXT, p. 104.

[13] Mainichi shinbun, 1/30/2013. 

[14] Although he was the lone plaintiff, several other Jehovah Witness students felt threatened by the required course.  Details of the court case can be found at
Topic,Art; Type,Article; Theme,Culture;
Budō, budo, education, school, clubs, activities, activity, martial arts, japan, japanese,education