Was Professor Kano Sickly, Small, and Bullied?

Jigoro Kano, right, at age 11, courtesy of the Kodokan and International Judo Federation


We've all heard the story -- a sickly, small child is bullied, and turns to martial arts for salvation. Versions of this archetype have in some cases become invented myths in order to attract students to a particular style. After all, if your founder was a robust, athletic child, and a Greek god to his or her peers, why would they possibly need martial arts?

Jigoro Kano

Jigoro Kano (1860-1938) was the founder of judo. I noticed this text in an article about Professor Kano by Mat Ball on a prominent judo site:

"Dr. Kano’s own sport has its roots in his childhood, during which Dr. Kano was a small and sickly child. All through out his schooling he received much harassment and bullying. This was also precipitated by the fact that he was often in classes with boys much older than he was. This brought about Dr. Kano’s fascination with Jujitsu." (emphasis added)

"The origins of modern MMA began in late nineteenth-century Japan with Jigoro Kano, the founder of judo. He was a small, frail boy who was often picked on by bullies -- a common archetype in martial arts history." (emphasis added)

Right away I sensed that Polly might be closer to the truth than Ball. Small and frail doesn't automatically mean "sickly," but it makes for a better story. 

Thus began my investigation. Was Professor Kano sickly, small, and bullied?

Was Kano Sickly?

To answer the question on Kano's health, I started with the best source I had: the Judo Memoirs of Jigoro Kano. In it he writes:

"However, in those days, although not sickly, I was, nevertheless, quite feeble." (emphasis added)

There are no other reliable source I could find that say Kano was sickly. There are many references to his "frail" state, which could be another way to say "feeble."

The official Kodokan website includes this line in the start of their history of judo:

"Kodokan Judo was founded by Kano Jigoro Shihan, who as a youth began practicing Jujutsu* as a way to strengthen his frail body."  (emphasis added)

For example, a 1978 article by Mineo Maekawa, with references to Japanese texts, says the following:

"Kano was physically frail, and consequently had no weight among the boys, and could not make his influence felt. He was always 'placed in a subordinate position,' and 'was slighted by others'...

In spite of young Kano’s academic superiority he was relegated to a subordinate position, because of his physical inferiority...

In order to extricate himself from this sad plight, Kano instead of going to his parents for help, decided on his own accord to practice jujutsu...

Kano sought jujutsu in order to sweep aside his feeling of physical powerlessness and the inferiority complex caused by it.

In his autobiography he writes... 'since I was a small child I had heard that a military art called jujutsu existed in Japan … and that even a physically inferior person could, if he were proficient in jujutsu, overcome a physically superior opponent. Thus I decided to learn jujutsu at all costs.' (Kodokan, Jigoro Kano, p. 32)."  (emphasis added)

Interestingly, the International Judo Federation had a slightly different take on Kano's physical status:

"As a boy, Kano was small but being extremely physically gifted, he studied with boys who were older and bigger than him. That's one of the reasons why very early on, he learned how to defend himself, as he was repeatedly bullied and laughed at.

When turning 14, he entered the Foreign Languages School, where he was one of the first Japanese to play baseball. The sport was introduced a year before by two American teachers. He loved the spirit of it and got inspired on how sports can have a positive impact on the society." (emphasis added)

This is fascinating because Kano playing baseball at age 14 means he was physically strong enough and capable enough to do so, three years prior to beginning jujutsu training at age 17.

Conclusion: Was Kano sickly? No, Kano was not sickly. 

He described himself as "feeble," which could mean "weak" or "frail," as has appeared in several descriptions. However, it's fair to consider the IJF's idea that was also physically gifted, as he was able to play baseball and begin training jujutsu at age 17, and eventually create his own style. 

Was Kano Small?

We've already seen several descriptions that call Kano "small." So just how small was he? His Wikipedia entry states:

"At the time of his adolescence, Kanō stood 1.57 m (5 ft 2 in) but weighed only 41 kg (90 lb)."

There is no citation for this claim. The next citation points to a description of Kano being bullied. 

Where does this height and weight originate?

It may originate from a February 1970 Black Belt Magazine article, with a second part in the March 1970 issue, by Andy Adams. Both parts appear as a single whole in text form here, containing the following:

"One wonders what would have happened had Jigoro Kano been a big brute of a man instead of the 5-foot, 2-inch, 90-pound weakling he was in his teens...

"Jigoro Kano only stood five feet, two inches but he weighed over 165 pounds. He had broad shoulders and chest and big calves. [Kazuzo Kudo, kudan director of the Kodokan and author of Dynamic Judo] says 'Shihan was so proud of his calves he was always pulling up his hakama to show them off.'"  (emphasis added)

165 pounds seems excessive for someone who is 5'2" tall! Although body mass index (BMI) tends to break down for bodybuilders and other heavily muscled individuals, at 5'2" and 165 lbs, Kano's BMI would have been 30.2 -- in the "obese" category.

Consider him in this famous picture from the National Diet Library:

Jigoro Kano, National Diet Library, Japan

That does not look like a person who weighs "over 165 pounds" at 5'2". Could Kano have been taller, and/or weighed less?

In his book Father of Judo, John Stevens writes on page 6 that:

"Kano was small in stature, around 5 feet 4 inches tall and 60 kg in weight."  (emphasis added)

60 kg is 132 pounds. That sounds more reasonable. 

However, in this later book The Way of Judo, Stevens reports a new height and weight for Kano:

"Kano was not much over five feet tall -- but he was stocky, weighing about 160 pounds in his prime, with thick salves and forearms."  (emphasis added)

Above this text, Stevens provides more information on the NDL photo featured above:

"Kano in 1932, at age seventy-two, demonstrating shizen-tai (natural stance)"

I don't think it's reasonable to believe Kano weighed "over 165 pounds," but it seems more believable, even in his prime, that he was somewhere between 132 and 165 pounds -- maybe in the middle, around 148 pounds.

Let's turn to Kano's height.

Determining Height via Comparisons to Others

I decided to see if I could determine Kano's height by looking at photos of him with other people, and then seeing if there were records of their heights.

He looks "small" in this group photo from the Kodokan Judo book:

Kodokan Judo, p 19

Here's a 1933 photo with Takasaki Masami and Kotani Sumiyuki taken in Vienna in 1933. Thanks to Yannick Schultze from the British Judo History group on Facebook for the attribution!

Takasaki Masami, Kanō Jigorō, Kotani Sumiyuki, Vienna, 1933, Getty Images

Unfortunately I could not find heights for either of these gentlemen.

You have probably seen this famous picture of Kano and Kyuzo Mifune:

Kyuozo Mifune and Jigoro Kano, Kodokan Institute

Kano looks to be an inch or two shorter than Mifune, even accepting that Kano might be lowering his posture down a bit more than Mifune.

In the book Reflections of Keiko Fukuda, Fukuda talks about training with Mifune:

"I trained under Kyuzo Mifune, tenth-dan master, for three years, after which I achieved fourth dan in Show 21st (1946). Mr. Mifune was smaller sized than average, shorter than 160 cm (about 5.2 feet)."  (emphasis added)

160 cm is a bit less than 5' 3", so comparing his height to Kano and assuming Fukuda is accurate, that means Kano is likely the same height, or shorter, in his photo with Mifune.

There's a grainy photo of Kano with Moshe Feldenkrais, but I couldn't find a height for Feldenkrais.

Kano and Yoshitsugu performing Koshiki-no-Kata, YouTube
There's captures from this video also in the Kodokan Judo book:

Kodokan Judo, p 224

You may remember Yamashita as the second judo instructor to President Theodore Roosevelt. A story by the Consulate General of Japan in Seattle noted the following:

"In 1903, when Yamashita was 6th dan, Kanou [note the literal translated spelling of "Kano"] sent him to America... With Roosevelt in the audience, Yamashita sparred with an enormous wrestler. Yamashita was about 5 ft. 4 in. (162 cm) tall and 150 lbs. (68 kg), while his opponent was 6 ft. 7 in. (200 cm) tall and 352 lbs. (160 kg).

Yamashita was able to pin his opponent to the ground and win the match. Greatly impressed, President Roosevelt asked Yamashita to teach him judo."  (emphasis added)

That appears to be similar to my hypothesis for Kano's size as well, at least in his prime.  

Another article by Jim Chen and Theodore Chen titled The World’s Greatest Judo Competitors cites similar sizes for Yamashita:

"Yamashita (163cm, 5’4′; 68 kg, 150lbs) was born in 1865 in Japan."

Conclusion: Was Kano small? Yes, compared to Westerners at least, I conclude that Kano, at least in his prime, was likely similar in size to Yamashita and Mifune, probably between 5'2" and 5'4" -- call it 5'3" -- and about 148 lbs.

Was Kano Bullied?

For the last question, we've already seen several citations regarding Kano being bullied. 

John Stevens' book Father of Judo provides the most detail, describing incidents where an older boy demanded Kano join him for "sumo practice" resulting in the older boy grabbing Kano, carrying him outside, and hurling him to the ground.

At another time, "a bigger boy purposely bumped into Jigoro and provoked a quarrel. The boy grabbed Jigoro's sleeve and threw him down using a jujutsu technique, then made fun of him while he lay helpless on the ground."

In his book Judo Memoirs of Jigoro Kano, Stevens does not include stories by Kano himself describing bullying, but I've underlined a few mentions of his size, health, and bullying:

Judo Memoirs of Jigoro Kano, John Stevens, excerpts

Observe that Kano says "I was made to run errands at the behest of the strong." Kano also said he "continued to suffer at the hands of bullies."  (emphasis added)

It's fair to assess that Kano was indeed bullied, but it appears significant that Kano also looked for a way to assert himself in an environment, essentially high school, where physical prowess was valued over intellectually ability, to wit:

"Although scholastic ability was esteemed among the boy at Kaisei [school], I soon came to realize that physical prowess was in fact respected there even more than at Ikuei Gijuku [school]."  (emphasis added)

Was Kano bullied? Yes, Kano was bullied. Although I am not a fan of Steven's narrative style in Father of Judo, he includes a bibliography with Japanese sources, and I am reluctant to believe he would have invented detailed stories about bullying. 

Kano himself also mentioned suffering at the hands of bullies, much stronger than simply "running errands" for older boys. 


Kano fits two of the three stereotypes found in some martial arts founder stories. He was not sickly, but he was indeed small and bullied. This makes me sad, but I imagine that experience resulted in the world being able to enjoy the power and beauty of judo.

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  1. According to https://feldenkraisperth.com/wp-content/uploads/Moshe-Feldenkrais-Physicist-Black-Belt-and-Healer.pdf Feldenkrais was about 5'4" and he looks quite a bit taller than Kano in the photo I've seen of them, the one linked in the article seems to no longer be there.


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