JUDO/ Japanese master who popularized judo in France still revered

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JUDO/ Japanese master who popularized judo in France still revered By KOGO SHIOYA/ Staff

JUDO/ Japanese master who popularized judo in France still revered

By KOGO SHIOYA/ Staff Writer

June 15, 2024 at 07:00 JST

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Photo/IllutrationMikinosuke Kawaishi, middle, with his students in 1942 (Provided by Ikuko Yoshida)

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Heading into the Paris Olympics this summer, the French are holding their own with Japan as the top judo powerhouse in the world and even hold bragging rights in the number of participants nationwide. 

Ironically, it was a Japanese man who introduced the sport to the Summer Games’ host country almost 90 years ago. 

Today, that seed that Mikinosuke Kawaishi planted has grown to 530,000 registered judoka in France, more than four times that of Japan.

Among Olympic events, judo is the fourth most popular sport in France in the number of registered participants, and the second most popular sport among children under 12.

Tickets for the judo competition at the 2024 Paris Olympics are already sold out. The venue—the Arena Champs-de-Mars will be turned into a massive dojo—is expected to be packed with exuberant fans. 

Fans anticipate multiple medals by French judoka, including a back-to-back win in the mixed team event, following the triumph over the Japanese team at the Tokyo Olympics in 2021.


On Jan. 14 this year, Mohammed Zouarh, vice president of the French Judo Federation (FFJDA), addressed the dozens of judoka gathered at a cemetery on the outskirts of Paris.

“Master Kawaishi’s visit to France marked a decisive turning point in the development of judo,” Zouarh said. “He is the greatest judo ambassador in Europe and the world.”

Kawaishi's gravestone is inscribed in French, “Founder of French judo.” Judoka in France also call him the “Father of French judo.”

Mikinosuke Kawaishi, middle, with his students in 1942 (Provided by Ikuko Yoshida)

Kawaishi was born into a family of sake brewers in Himeji, Hyogo Prefecture, in 1899. He devoted himself to judo from an early age.

After graduating from Waseda University in Tokyo, he went to the United States to study politics. He later opened a judo school in America and began his career as a judo instructor.

Kawaishi also taught judo in South America and England, and he arrived in France in October 1935. He began working at a judo club as a technical adviser and embarked on managing one as well. 

Judo became popular as a self-defense martial art in Paris, attracting upper-class citizens including scientists and doctors.

Among the members of the club with which Kawaishi was associated were Jean Frederic Joliot-Curie and his wife, Irene Joliot-Curie, who won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

Kawaishi had his own philosophy: “Judo is like wheat or rice. You have to adapt it to the locality.”

While focusing on judo’s original educational values such as politeness and modesty, he established a teaching method tailored to France, rather than imposing the traditional Japanese mode.

It is difficult for foreigners to memorize the names of techniques in Japanese, such as “osoto-gari” (large outer reap) and “ippon-zeoi” (one-armed shoulder throw). So Kawaishi replaced the foreign terms with numbers, such as “foot technique No. 1” and “hip technique No. 1.”

He also devised judo’s “obi” belt-ranking system. In Japan at the time, there were only two colors, black and white, used for practitioners.

But Kawaishi introduced seven belt colors, including yellow and green, according to the belt holder's skill level.

Norikazu, the eldest son of Kawaishi who teaches judo in France, said, “It was to raise their motivation to wear the color of a higher level.”

A photo of Mikinosuke Kawaishi is featured on the French Judo Federation’s registration card for judoka who hold a “dan” black belt ranking. (Kogo Shioya)

Michel Brousse, a former professor at the University of Bordeaux who studies the history of judo around the world, said Kawaishi accomplished a great deal by not only establishing a new method of teaching judo but also by “creating the new profession of ‘judo instructor.’”

Kawaishi succeeded in operating a stable judo club business by setting relatively high monthly fees.

He also encouraged his students who had earned black belts to open judo dojos of their own.

As the result, an increasing number of enthusiasts began to devote themselves to the martial art, believing that if they could earn a black belt, they could become a judo teacher as well.

After the World War II, thanks to the efforts of Kawaishi’s disciples, judo instructing became a national qualification and a stable profession in France.

As of 1949, there were about 180 judo clubs throughout France. Today, the number is about 5,200.

“Kawaishi method” instructional manuals were translated into several languages such as English and Spanish, and were practiced in more than 30 countries around the world, including Africa and Asia.


Hiroshi Magara, a judoka who taught the martial art in Laos in the 1960s, recalled that he saw a photo of a Japanese man he did not recognize hanging in a dojo there.

A local official was apparently shocked and asked him, “You are Japanese, but you don’t know Kawaishi?”

Vlad Marinescu, director-general of the International Judo Federation, praised Kawaishi, saying, “Words cannot describe his achievements. They were phenomenal.”

But his accomplishments have rarely been talked about in Japanese judo circles until now.

Ikuko Yoshida, who published a biography of Kawaishi in 2004, recalled, “I had a hard time finding materials on him in Japan.”

One of the reasons that he remained relatively unknown in his home country was friction with the Kodokan Judo Institute, the headquarters of judo. 

In 1951, Kodokan sent instructors to France.

Kodokan judo emphasized preparatory movements for techniques such as footwork and “kuzushi” (unbalancing).

On the other hand, Kawaishi’s style of judo omitted many of these basic movements in order to emphasize ease of understanding.

A painting featuring Mikinosuke Kawaishi, upper left, is displayed at the national training center in France. (Kogo Shioya)

The Kodokan side called Kawaishi’s judo a “simplified style.”

However, one after another, judoka in France moved toward the teachings of the prestigious Kodokan, which is considered the “original home” of the sport.

Eventually, it led to a split among the FFJDA members, the Kodokan faction and the Kawaishi faction.

In 1956, the two factions merged. But by that time, Kawaishi’s influence had waned significantly.

A few years later, Kawaishi retired from the center stage.

Norikazu recalled that Kawaishi “was very disappointed because he thought of French judo as his own child.”

Kawaishi died on Jan. 30, 1969. He was 69.

Since his death, it has become a tradition for judoka in France to gather at the cemetery every January for a memorial service.


One notable Japanese figure attended the 2019 memorial service. It was Haruki Uemura, the fifth president of Kodokan.

“Many things have happened in the past,” Uemura said. “But Kawanishi is the one who spread judo to the world. I have nothing but gratitude.”

It was the moment when the home of judo recognized the pioneer’s accomplishments.

In addition, many Japanese judoka have begun looking up to French judo as a “role model” to emulate. 

In recent years, reports of abusive coaches and fatal training accidents have shaken the Japanese judo world. But French judo has not been overtaken by the “winning over everything else” mantra and has retained the sport’s educational values.

Amandine Buchard, a silver medalist in the women’s 52-kilogram category at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and a member of the French team that will compete in the Paris Olympics, said, “In France, we say judo is a school of life. There is more to it than just winning and losing.”

She added, “Thanks to Sensei Kawaishi, judo is very popular in France. I am forever grateful to him.”

At the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, the first time judo was included in the competition, Japan won four medals, including three golds, while France won none.

France won its first medals in judo—three bronze—at the 1972 Munich Olympics.

Since then, French judoka have become a regular on the Olympic podium. However, in terms of the total number of medals won, Japan had always been ahead of France.

Norikazu Kawaishi, the eldest son of Mikinosuke Kawaishi, back, teaches judo to children in France. (Kogo Shioya)

At the 2012 London Olympics, for the first time, the two countries were tied in the medals count with seven.

At the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, Japan won 11 medals and France won eight, but the two nations clashed in the mixed team finals, a newly added event.

In the finals, Japan was completely defeated by France, which was led by two dominant judoka, Teddy Riner and Clarisse Agbegnenou.

The French judoka will face their Japanese counterparts at the Paris Games in the individual events and the two countries are evenly matched, expected to clash in the mixed team event’s finals once again.

Eighty-nine years have passed since Kawaishi landed in France. Now, the top judoka of the two nations are locked in a fierce rivalry. 

Kawaishi's teachings continue to have an impact.


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