Did Kano Jigoro Ask to Be Buried in a White Belt?


Did Kano Jigoro ask to be buried in a white belt?


Today I encountered the following excerpt from a book published in 1992 by an Aikido practitioner named George Leonard, titled Mastery: The Keys to Success and Long-Term Fulfilment:

“When Jigoro Kano, the founder of judo, was quite old and close to death, the story goes, he called his students around him and told them he wanted to be buried in his white belt.

What a touching story; how humble of the world's highest-ranking judoist in his last days to ask for the emblem of the beginner!

But Kano's request, I eventually realized, was less humility than realism. At the moment of death, the ultimate transformation, we are all white belts.

And if death makes beginners of us, so does life—again and again.

In the master's secret mirror, even at the moment of highest renown and accomplishment, there is an image of the newest student in class, eager for knowledge, willing to play the fool.

And for all who walk the path of mastery, however far that journey has progressed, Kano's request becomes a lingering question, an ever-new challenge:

Are you willing to wear your white belt?”

Is this possibly true?


A casket carrying the body of Kano Jigoro carried off Hikawa Maru in Yokohama, https://judoinfo.com/kano3/

I sensed this was false as soon as I read it. I've read all the English language Kano biographies I could get my hands on (and even one in French), and this story does not appear in any of them. 

First, although Kano was not highly religious, I knew from reading various biographies and articles that he experienced a Shinto burial. The vast majority (approaching 99% apparently) of Japanese are cremated. It would not make sense for Kano to request to be "buried" in a white belt.

Second, the story of Kano's death does not match what actually happened. The image is of a dying master in his dojo speaking wisdom to his students in his last moments, as happened with some of the founders and practitioners of other arts. 

In reality, Kano passed away at sea on May 5, 1938, returning to Japan after a meeting of the International Olympic Committee. He was 77 years old and in fairly good health, but he succumbed to pneumonia during the passage. He was robust enough to have traveled around the world many times in his 70's, and does not fit the image portrayed in this story. 

Third, Kano there is no evidence that Kano was traveling with students to whom he could "call" and make this request. He was traveling with government officials associated with Japan's bid to host the 1940 Olympics.

What We Do Know

Kano's last day, as depicted in the 2020 NHK docudrama Idaten

Reddit judo historian fleischlaberl posted the following when this topic appeared about a year ago:

"On April 22, Kano went to Vancouver, British Columbia. After meeting with the Japanese consul, local dignitaries, and judoka, Kano boarded the NYK motorship Hikawa Maru, bound for Yokohama. On the morning of May 1, 1938, passengers aboard the ship remarked the absence of Kano from the captain's table. When they asked where he was, the captain replied that despite the clear weather, Kano was unable to keep food down. That night, to the captain's clear discomfiture, Kano attended dinner. Passengers noticed that Kano was pale and his stomach remained queasy. Moreover, despite a fever, he complained that he was cold. The following morning, Kano stayed in bed, where the ship's doctor treated him with poultices. Starting May 3, the ship's steward spent his time sitting in front of Kano's cabin. Nonetheless, Kano died. Time of death was given as 5:33 a.m., May 5, 1938 (Tokyo time). 

Hikawa Maru's captain radioed the sad news ahead, and when the ship docked at Yokohama, 3,000 mourners were waiting. They found the coffin draped in white, and placed prominently in Hikawa Maru's main lounge. Above it stood a large oil painting of Kano that had been done in Paris by D. Kondo. "Only Mrs. Sumako Kano, the widow, Fumimasa Kano, his son and heir, relatives, and a small group of friends were permitted to board the ship," said the Japan Times on May 8, 1938. Then, following a brief shipboard ceremony, the body was taken by automobile to the Kano residence in Koishikawa, where it remained in state in state awaiting a Shinto funeral held at the Kodokan at 10:00 a.m. on May, 9, 1938."

The source for this information is a 2004 article by historian Joseph R. Svinth titled Fulfilling His Duty as a Member: Jigoro Kano and the Japanese Bid for the 1940 Olympics.

If you'd like to read the full account from an eye witness, Mr. K. Hirasawa, Minister of Foreign Affairs, I have reproduced it below.

The Death of Professor Jigoro Kano, Shi-Han

By Mr. K. Hirasawa (Minister of Foreign Affairs)

Reprinted from Judo International, ed. Henri Plée, Paris, 1950, pages 3-4. Copyright © 2000. All rights reserved.

It was the first of May [1938]. The weather was fine, although the wind was a little strong for the time of day. For the first time 'he' was absent from the dining room, and worried, I asked the Captain [of the Hikawa Maru] why he [Kano] was not there. He replied, 'His temperature is 39 degrees [Celsius; 102 F.] and he is in bed.'

We were worried because he was very old.

I was in the corridor when I heard Mr. Kano saying, 'No, I am not old.' He has been in the dining-room since 10.30 a.m. and was trying unsuccessfully to eat his breakfast. [The Japanese navy and merchant marine used Tokyo time rather than Greenwich Mean Time until after World War II, so the local time would have been around 7:30 a.m.]

When I came down into the dining-room, there were only four places there, and I asked, 'Is Mr. Kano coming down this evening?' because I didn't see his place laid. The Captain replied, 'He is very obstinate. He's absolutely determined to come.'

The four of us had begun our meal when Mr. Kano came in, supported by a steward. He was much more feeble than at the beginning of the evening. His face was pale, and he said, 'It is cold.' His legs were weak, and he sat himself down on his cushion. He shook with cold. He ate a piece of sukiyaki, another of meat, and drank a cup of sake. Immediately he was sick, and told the steward to bring him a bowl. He showed great patience, and I could scarcely bring myself to look at him so moving was courage.

When the Captain and the Chief Engineer we discussed the air battle over Hankow in China, and Mr. Nakai surveyed the Cairo conference. I asked if Mr. Kano could hear us, because he appeared extremely ill.

He ate some watered rice, and painfully drank a little sake, for his hands were trembling. The steward advised him many times to return to his cabin, but he invariably replied, 'No. Not yet.' He remained almost to the end of the meal and left accompanied by the steward.

We were very distressed, because he had really taxed his strength too much to be present at our reunion.

On the next day, his table was not laid. We were a little happier to see that he had changed his plans and was having his meals in his cabin, but we soon learnt that it had been the steward who prevailed upon him not to go out.

On the second of May, his temperature had risen to 40 degrees [Celsius; 104 F.]. The doctor placed poultices on his chest to prevent pneumonia, and made him as comfortable as possible.

We sent a telegram to Tokyo saying that he was extremely ill.

Thanks to the care that had been given him, his temperature had fallen to 38 degrees [Celsius; 100.4 F.] on the next day, and we hoped that it would not change before we reached Yokohama.

On the evening of the third of May, we had a party for the passengers at which the Doctor remained only for a moment. I did not think that it meant anything very important. No one enjoyed himself very much, the Captain went to bed early, and we broke up around midnight to return to our cabins. I saw a steward sitting in front of the door of Mr. Kano's cabin, so perhaps the Doctor was there. Without thinking that this was anything serious, I went to sleep in the adjoining cabin, at the time when he was beginning to die.

In the morning, as usual, I went down about 8.30 a.m. [Tokyo time] for my breakfast, when I met the Purser who told me, 'Mr. Kano is dead.' You cannot imagine how dumbfounded I was. I didn't know what to do. The Captain's eyes were red, he hadn't shaved, and everyone was silent.

I heard them say that Mr. Kano had died as if he were falling asleep, very peacefully, of pneumonia, at 6.33 in the morning.

In the meanwhile, his body lay in the next-door cabin. I knew nothing of the Olympic Games that were to have taken place in Tokyo, for he was travelling alone. I don't know why, but he seemed to have too much work for a single delegate.

He died only two days before we arrived in Yokohama.

I had the rare good fortune to pass the last eleven days with Mr. Kano, and I hope that the immense services that he rendered to Japan and to the world in general with such an unremitting devotion will always be remembered."

For those who would like to see a visual recreation of the events, please see the 2020 NHK Japanese docudrama titled Idaten: The Epic Marathon to Tokyo. It depicted Kano's death at sea, and it appears to match the details fairly well.


Kano grave in Yahashira Cemetery, on the East end of Matsudo, Chiba Prefecture, https://www.budocool.com/blog/2019/4/8/ig3lzuzemuykkf1po1bmbkzjb2bw8l

There is no evidence to support the story told in Mr. Leonard's book. People like to repeat it, because as we have seen with numerous quotes in the Sourcing Bruce Lee series, it matches the sentiments that some people want to believe. As a historian and someone who believes in facts, I prefer either straight fiction, or stories based on reality.

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  1. Thanks for this detailed piece of information! I like this post.

  2. Thank you for this detailed report. It is always refreshing to hear the story as it happened as opposed to how others wish it were.


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