I watched a promotional video produced by Welsh Rugby on Facebook that really captures what sport is all about. It featured lots of footage of grass roots Rugby. Kids, parents, coaches standing in the rain and it was great. It was Posted on British judo Facebook page and it was part of one of those threads asking why can’t British judo market itself more like this? It got me thinking about why judo is not as popular in Britain as in France or Other parts of Europe.
It is actually very complicated but at its heart seems to me to be the question of how to build a strong dojo culture that suits the British character.
Questions about British judo come on the back of a much more successful Olympics for other sports than for judo and the knowledge that judo will feature very prominently in the next Games in Tokyo.
I think that there is a lot of love for our sport but not enough acceptance in that love. Not enough acceptance of who we are, who the others in British judo are and not enough acceptance of ourselves as we really are. Self image is taken far more seriously than self awareness and this isn’t something new or simply the fault of the marketing mentality. I hear a lot of people harking back to the halcyon days of British judo and the Golden age of the Budokwai and Im not sure they are being honest with themselves.
I’ve always said that the people who try to change judo to make it more appealing to TV or a non-judo audience had the attitude of someone who would suggest that Guinness should taste more like Budweiser. They simply don’t appreciate Guinness.
I believe you don’t need to change judo to suit marketing men. If you believe in judo’s value and beauty; you invite them to take the time to know and fall I love with it.
The history of British judo is full of people who tried to pick and chose bits of judo and reshape it according to their own ideas. Leggett, Gleeson, etc… and their influence was both Positive in some respects and negative in others.
Leggett, who built a very strong dojo culture through his connection to Japan is viewed with mystical reverence by some in British judo and he did so much that was positive. However he also did some very negative things, which created a strong reaction from one of his star students; Geoff Glesson.
What was it about the dojo culture Leggett created that Gleeson reacted so strongly too? Leggett wanted a gnostic sect of Knights that reflected middle class values and conflated the idea of the English Gentleman with the Samurai Knight. His mission, ridiculous as it might sound today, was to Give strength and courage to middle class men with culture and civilize uncouth working class judoka and turn them into The Budokwai’s own Jedi Knights. He of course set himself up as the a kind of Yoda figure but there where certainly elements of the dark side in his attempts to control people’s lives and his unacknowledged, repressed homosexuality.
He was heavily into yoga and tried to sublimate his love of young men through Bramachariya or celibacy and a kind of chaste love of boys. Not quite as insane as it may appear today as he grew up in a world where homosexuality was illegal and still considered a mental health issue. Certainly, his choices were effected by the attitudes of the society of his day towards homosexuality but I can imagine the realization that his interest in you was a little too platonic, in so far as gay relationships between students and teachers were idealized in Ancient Greece , would have been unsettling.
My point is not to belittle a great man but to undo some of the damage done by forgetting that he was a flawed man and respect for self awareness over self image in our quest for a healthy judo culture requires us to ask questions about his faults as well as learn the good lessons he had to teach.
Glesson drank Leggett’s cool aid and it took him to high level judo, training in Japan and terrible knee injuries. He drank the cool aid until it made him feel sick.
Eventually he quite rightly reacted to Leggett trying control people’s lives through a fantasy idea of Japan and Bushido and threw the baby out with the bath water. Trying to strip it of cultural associations and move it into the sports hall. He helped free many from Legget’s Japanophile, claustrophobic, controlling definition of judo by redefining it as ‘just a sport’
Gleeson was a man of the 70’s and tried to be informal and egalitarian about judo. He wrote a lot about sport as a metaphor and the responsibility of teachers to respect the autonomy of the student. He was writing his reply to Leggett’s attempt to control his life.
Unfortunately, he took judo out of the dojo, because he wanted to reduce the power of the instructor to lay a whole ‘Zen master’ trip on the students and make it more flexible. He was into sport for all.
The problem was that in the long run judo was just another sport and its popular Friday night session could easily be replaced with table tennis. The dojo as a community hub was and still is the key to developing judo. Dojo culture is an essential part of judo and its growth and a protection against being kicked off the timetable in a sports hall in days of low turnout.
There was a lot of bitterness between the two men and it created a lot of conflict within the BJA that actually continues to this very day.
My point is to think about the past and how it effects our present and to start a journey forward from where we are. One step at a time. Most importantly to examine why we don’t have stronger grass roots dojo culture, considering we were pioneers in judo in Europe.
To understand dojo culture and undercut the objection about property prices and business models presented by some people involved in running judo it’s worth looking at BJJ.
BJJ has grown so rapidly on the back of ‘the jiu-jitsu lifestyle’ which really translates into building a community around a dojo and making training and the friendships you form at the dojo a central part of your life. It has its own problems and the cult aspects of dojo culture and teachers controlling people’s lives are evident there. Judo as the big brother of BJJ has been through this phase before and there is a lot that judo can learn about its past by contrasting the growth of BJJ in the UK with Dickie Bowen’s account of the early development of British judo. We can see the same struggles around defining the culture. Concerns about the effect of rules on technique, political power plays, old friends stabbing each other in the back. The whole drama is there in both sports and indeed all sports.
There are countless other splits like the one between the BJA and the BJC. The BJC wanted to keep things Japanese and traditional, where as the BJA was more concerned with contest judo, or at least that is the narrative everyone knows. The reality is far more complex and the real split was about who gets to control gradings and struggles between different factions for control of the sport.
Everyone buys the narrative of their little clique: Sport judo, Budo, just for fun judo, etc,etc…
Meanwhile, France built a dojo culture that retained the Japanese feel but respected democratic traditions of European culture. Kata and contest, hobby and serous training, study and judo didn’t end up in opposition to each other. Sure there was all the political power games but far less disagreement about what judo actually was or should be: most French clubs offer sport, martial art, kata, hobby, kids and adult judo. They have well trained coaches with a high level of technique and the federation supports the teaching of Kodokan judo, all be it with influence from the Kawashi method and Feldenkrais and many others. The lineage in France is strong because people pass down the basic package, break falls, newaza, tachiwaza, contest and Kata and then teach their own personal take on top of that, not instead of it.
In Britain there are very highly ranked people in judo who don’t value the people who make packed lunches, do the laundry and get up early to drive kids across the country to compete. They look down on it as ‘tin pot hunting’ and preach the dangers of a poor drop seoinage. There is class snobbery and a culture of pointing out people’s faults inherited from Leggett in this attitude.
There has been a spilt in judo, every bit as angry and oppositional as Britain over the Brexit or the Labour Party over Corbyn and if needs to be healed not through French style centralization but through strong autonomous dojos that build on our very British traditions of respect for different points of view balanced with sensible compromise.
There is both a lot of defensiveness and a lot of criticism. There are people who deal with all the kitchen sink stuff but have terrible technique but refuse to take an interest in developing better technique: winning medals with junior player puts them above criticism. This defensiveness is probably because the criticism, even if accurate, isn’t very constructive and is more about making sure people realize that aren’t as good as they think they are than actually acknowledging their achievements and helping them grow.
There are those who think Kata is a waste of time and those who think caring about winning is shallow and a sign of immaturity both sides of this debate don’t want to accept that both are part of the judo tradition and they don’t have the right to get rid of either on behalf of everyone else.
We need to love all of it the sandwiches, the mini busses, the judo mum’s screaming ‘come in son! kill him!’ The temper tantrums, the Zenned up ‘Sensei’ with a Mr. Miyagi fantasy.
Most importantly we need to pick up the tradition of dojo building and building of connections with Japan from Leggett and simultaneously tap into the need to allow people to be critical and respect their autonomy that Gleeson pointed to. We also need to build connections with France and Brazil and judo clubs all over the world.
Most importantly we need to build dojos with positive respectful cultures run by people who love judo and don’t want to lay heavy trips on people. We need to love judo and fellow judoka and that requires far more acceptance, honesty and self reflection than many of us are ready for.
In fact we already have people doing this and they are the guardians and torch bearers of British Judo. They are building great clubs everywhere that are full of great people and enriching people’s lives. People like Billy Cusack, Jo Crowley, Garry Edwards, Paul Ajala, Larry Stevenson, Joe Doherty, Bazil Dawkins,Eric Bonti, Mike Callan, Jo Crowley, Luke Preston, Chris Doherty, Elliot Stewart, Matt Divall, and many, many others.
British judo is fine, we just need to take our judo a little more seriously ourselves less seriously and worry less about self image and the internal PR man. Sure promote ourselves but we should be more confident and more open to looking at ourselves warts and all.
Koizumi once wrote a piece of calligraphy that said: “In skill opposed, in spirit United.” It would be nice to embody that idea going forwards to the next Olympics.
Maybe British judo can move towards Tokyo singing: One love, one heart, let’s get together and have a fight.