&What is Kosen Judo?
Kosen Judo (高專柔道) is one of two main approaches to Judo training and competition (the other being Kodokan Judo) which are taught within Japan, the birthplace of that martial art and sport. Today, Kodokan Judo is by far the most dominant in terms of the number of clubs, instructors, students and competitions worldwide. While Kodokan Judo competition rules are recognized globally as the standard by the International Judo Federation (IJF) and are used for all Olympics and Worlds Judo competition, Kosen Judo is by contrast rarely heard of outside of Japan where it is still used during inter-University competitions (高專大会 kōsen taikai). Several organizations abroad such as the Freestyle Judo Alliance in North America, International Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Foundation (IBJJF) in South America and the European Sambo Federation, have adopted similar competition rules based on a combination of the more permissive ground fighting Kosen Judo rule set, blended to some degree with the stricter Olympic/Kodokan Judo rule set (some being even more permissive to allow striking, others adhering closer to Judo principles of using only throws and holds). Unlike Sambo or Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ) though, Kosen Judo is neither a different Martial Arts “style” nor is it simply a set of competition rules; rather, it is a spirit of preservation of Judo and Jiu-Jitsu traditions within the modernized sport-focused Judo community. Kosen Judo arose with this aim during the Meiji Era (1868–1914).
Development of Kosen and Kodokan Judo
Kodokan Judo was established primarily to turn dangerous yet effective techniques designed for the battlefield from traditional Jiu-Jitsu (which Samurai trained in for hand-to-hand fighting) and make them safer and more appealing to the general public (and thus, a broader array of potential students). Jiu-Jitsu was at the time, quite unfortunately, fading into obscurity as a relic of the old Samurai culture that was quickly being left behind by the Japanese public who seemed to be in favour of industrialization and modernization (not to mention the fact that it was being rendered much less important for the government due to ballistic advancements in military technology). Kodokan founder, the honorable Jigoro Kano, knew from his early studies in human anatomy, physiology/kinetics and anthropology that people are competitive by nature; yet he also observed when learning under Osteopath and Jiu-Jitsu master Hachinosuke Fukuda that people do not like to get hurt and injuries in a sport/activity often lead to abandonment of that sport/activity or outright inactivity. This lead him to develop a set of rules for safe competition, as well as a new school called the Kodokan Institute in 1882.
The departure from the traditional schools of thought on “fights to the death” and “survival (i.e. participation) of the fittest” which were so prevalent before the founding of the Kodokan, represents some key improvements Kano introduced. Like all new schools of thought though, there was initially stern condemnation of Kano’s approach and constant challenges from traditional Jiu-Jitsu masters within Japan. Despite this adversity, Kano’s own abilities, passion for teaching and unwavering dedication to his vision saw Judo rise in prominence across the country at the turn of the 20th century. It was becoming apparent that the only way many traditional Jiu-Jitsu techniques may survive would be to find a way to get included in the new “Kodokan curriculum” and “sport of Judo” being developed by Kano. As a result, followers of the old ways of Jiu-Jitsu had three choices: quit altogether, join him, or ignore him. A vast majority of those who chose to “ignore him” could at least agree that he had a brilliant idea to make Martial studies more appealing to the masses, and attempted to develop their own streams of sport Jiu-Jitsu (their own “Judo”, in essence).
Most who tried this approach failed to gain any significant following, save for the Fusen-Ryu Jiu-Jitsu school which succeeded by teaming up with several other faltering Jiu-Jitsu schools under the banner of “Kosen Judo”. Kosen Judo, which allowed for a greater focus on Ne Waza (ground grappling) quickly found favour with the Tokyo and Kyoto National Police Associations for its inclusion of a broader set of techniques for handling attackers or those resisting arrest in a wider variety of situations (ie. both standing and on the ground). It also found favour in elite technical High Schools and Universities, who were often run by conservatives and nationalists whom despite their political mandates towards advancement, were in fact acting to preserve as much of the old Japanese culture as possible.
One reason for the Kodokan’s own popularity was their success in competition and challenge matches, however Kano was surprised by the Fusen-ryu Jiu-Jitsu .vs. Kodokan Judo challenge matches where Fusen-Ryu either won or drew the majority of the matches by avoiding Tachi-Waza and applying Ne Waza holds, pins and submissions. Kano acknowledged the benefits of this Kosen approach to preserving more than just standing techniques from the old Jiu-Jitsu, and convinced Fusen-Ryu master Mataemon Tanabe to take a post as the Kodokan’s Ne Waza coach. Tanabe’s tenure at the Kodokan attracted some of the finest “old guard” Jiu-Jitsu ground specialists in Japan, including Hajime Isogai, Tsunetane Oda, Yataro Handa (who ran the famous Handa Dojo in Osaka that produced most of the original Jiu-Jitsuka who went abroad to challenge Wrestlers) and a young man from a lineage of Sumo wrestlers by the name of Mitsuyo Maeda (whom we’ll learn more about soon).
This embrace of the “Kosen Judo movement” if you can call it that, saw great developments in Tachi-Waza and Ne-Waza and drew increasingly large numbers of students to the Kodokan. As such, Kano was very careful not to obliterate Kosen Judo when he introduced the new Kodokan Judo rules to the rest of the world in 1925 and lobbied for Judo’s inclusion in the Olympics. He did this for several reasons:
- At the time of the rule change of 1925 Ne Waza was extremely popular and well-researched
- He wanted Ne Waza specialists to participate in his vision of the “perfect Judo”
- Kosen Judokas also studied Tachi-waza despite their emphasis on Ne Waza
- He reportedly liked that the Kosen contest rules stated a match was decided by Ippon only (win by pin, submission, or a perfect throw), or else it was considered a Draw (even though he stood firm on a points system for Kodokan Judo, to ensure a winner could be decided)
- He could not convince himself that doing mainly (or even exclusively) Ne Waza was in itself bad or counter-productive to Judo’s development
- There were relatively few doing Ne Waza exclusively, and those who did tended to still call their art Kosen Judo rather than Kosen Jiu-Jitsu or anything else (Jiu-Jitsu/Aikido schools differentiated themselves at the time by including weapons training, which the Kodokan ironically eventually added back to some of their Kata)
- He found that permitting straight armlocks and a limited set of chokes could serve Judoka practically in self-defense, without endangering the safety of his students
Before Judo was adopted as an Olympic sport though, it underwent a series of modifications which further distanced it from Kosen principles. The US additionally banned the practice of Budo after the second world war, so Kano distanced himself and the Kodokan from traditional Jiu-Jitsu which was outlawed. Judo however, continued to be taught in school gym classes as a national sport.
Differences between Kosen and Kodokan Judo
Simply put, the main differences between Kosen and Kodokan Judo are the time-limits when performing Ne Waza and by that same token, the list of permitted techniques. Kodokan Judo empowers referees to stand up the competitors from Ne Waza when they feel that neither party are progressing towards an Ippon (approximately 10-20 seconds for progress and 30 seconds for a hold-down to be considered a pin in the 2014-2016 rules). It also allows referees to hand out “Shido” (infractions/penalties) and assign “Waza-Ari” (half-points) or “Yuko” (non-point scores) which are used to tally up a winner in the event of a draw; and in Kodokan rules judges can overturn the decision of the referee and potentially influence the outcome of the match (though the aim is for impartiality like all judged sports). By contrast, Kosen Judo has no such Ne Waza time-limit and allows the competitors to dictate the flow of the match (i.e. whether it is taking place on the ground or standing), and while it has a referee their role is only to ensure the safety of the competitors and separate them when the match is over and/or call a stop to the match when an Ippon is scored; lastly, it has no judges or officials. Because of Kodokan Judo’s Ne Waza time-limits, certain techniques which work well in Kosen Judo become difficult or impossible to utilize in competitions, and certain others are banned outright.
Judo’s Influence on Brazilian Jiu Jitsu
Mitsuyo Maeda (referred to as “Count Koma” by his students) first came to Brazil on November 14, 1904 at the age of 36 and returned for good in August 26, 1915 in a town called Belém. He arrived along with thousands of other Japanese immigrants who either saw opportunity in the warm, beautiful, economically rising South American country and/or simply wanted to escape the hardships of wars against Russia, expansionary wars into Asia and eventually against the WWII allies, that loomed on the horizon of the then Empire of Japan (which lasted from 1868–1947).
Upon Maeda’s arrival, the wealthy and politically influential Gastão Gracie (original patriarch of the Gracie family) helped establish him in Brazil after witnessing his skill in carnival “no holds barred” bouts. In return, Maeda was to teach Gracie’s sons to defend themselves holding nothing back from his repertoire of knowledge. Maeda made good on his word as Gastão treated him like an esteemed dignitary and member of the family. Maeda would select the best, most effective techniques from Kodokan Judo, Kosen Judo, traditional Jiu-Jitsu, Aiki-jitsu (later became Aikido) and even Sumo wrestling among other styles; essentially blending the best of all the Japanese Martial Arts techniques which he picked up at various points in his career. Maeda was also exposed to a number of other Martial Arts (particularly grappling styles such as Catch and Folk styles of Wrestling) during prizefights in which he partook throughout the United States, Europe, Russia, Cuba, Mexico and finally Brazil. Maeda found himself in these matches shortly after he first left Japan in 1904 for the United States as part of a group of top Judoka under Tsunejirō Tomita (known as one of the “four pillars of the Kodokan” being Kano’s first and most loyal student). This was only a year after Kano had first sent Yoshiaki Yamashita to introduce Judo to the US in early 1903, where Yamashita and Tomita taught President Roosevelt. From the US, Tomita sent Maeda out to do demonstrations around the world representing Judo; however Maeda reportedly partook of local pleasures, enjoying the nightlife and traveling at every possible chance, so he quickly ran out of money. Maeda had no choice but to use his best skills – namely combat – to get by, taking challenge matches against local Wrestlers at carnivals and “tough man” shows which were popular entertainment at the time. He was not the only Judoka to follow this route. Itoh also did extremely well fighting in the United States. Yukio Tani (Fusen-Ryu / Kosen Judo under Tanabe) went to England and became extremely successful there. Soshihiro Satake (who trained under the famous Handa) and Geo Omori (who won the Kodokan school championships of 1911 & 1912) both went to Brazil and earned respect in their own rights, before working with Maeda to defeat all challengers and help establish Judo there.
Debate remains over Maeda’s loyalty to Jigoro Kano’s Kodokan style of Judo, particularly in light of evidence that he greatly preferred the Kosen rules and format but the fact is that Kano approved of Maeda opening a club in Brazil under the “Judo” banner. It is worth noting that he never referred to his art as Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, Gracie Jiu-Jitsu, or any term other than simply “Judo”.
Legacy of the Gracie family
As Maeda passed away, Carlos Gracie (Sr.) took over his Judo club and eventually began referring to it as “Gracie Jiu-Jitsu”, dropping the “Judo” name due to a desire Maeda reportedly expressed to him before passing away that he should go back to the traditions of Jiu-Jitsu and away from the increasingly “sportive” side of Judo. This was a common rift at dojo across the world, as Judo was poised to become an Olympic sport in 1964, with a stricter ruleset. Some senior students of Maeda – who either resented the direction Gracie was taking the school or desired some limelight of their own – formed their own clubs under either “Jiu-Jitsu” or “Judo” banners, depending on which side of tradition and sport they fell. This non-Gracie Brazilian group, lead by Maeda’s other standout Brazilian disciple named Luiz França Filho, is important to mention as they would eventually be an integral part of forming the IBJJF. Despite Carlos Gracie (Jr.) holding the presidency of that organization to this day, the Filho-affiliated factions have helped remind the world that Gracie Jiu-Jitsu should be more aptly called “Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu” as it does not belong exclusively to one family, rather to the nation of Brazil. So like Judo, BJJ itself has an entirely separate and diverse lineage that is lesser known to the general public. Today the separate lineage is probably best represented by Oswaldo Fadda (another close student of Maeda’s) who for the first time took BJJ to the favelas and outskirts of Rio de Janeiro to poorer areas which could not afford high Gracie Academy fees. Thanks to his efforts, today there are some prominent teams that are descendants from this lineage including Nova União which has many notable competitors such as 8-time Mundials Champion Robson Moura and the Grappling Fight Team (GFT) which produced 4-time World Champion Rodolfo Vieira among several other top competitors and prospects.
Meanwhile as Carlos Gracie (Sr.) started to age, his weakest son Hélio Gracie (who reportedly was asthmatic and sickly from an early age) could reportedly through training in his father’s Jiu-Jitsu gain the health to climb a set of stairs for the first time. From there, he dedicated his life to the study and improvement of these arts. Due to his weakness, Hélio Gracie would further refine the movements his father taught him and seek to find ways to win against larger or stronger opponents at the school (and challengers from other schools) such as applying principles of leverage to reduce the amount of force required for techniques to be effective and redirection to use an opponent’s force against them. The Gracie family considers this “search for the path of least resistance” the main aspect which differentiates “Gracie Jiu-Jitsu” from Japanese Jiu-Jitsu and other grappling arts which developed from it such as Judo and Sambo or even Wrestling which has its own distinct lineage and history. In their view these other grappling arts focus too much on the utilization of strength and too little on realistic self-defense practice scenarios.
After his father’s passing, Hélio Gracie was chosen to inherit the academy and soon became known as the first progenitor of “Gracie Jiu Jitsu”. He was also the first Gracie to gain international fame when he beat a world champion of Judo named Yukio Kato (known as Japan’s second best Judoka at the time). Kato, while formidable, had been a means to accessing the true master Masahiko Kimura (then #1-ranked Judoka worldwide). Hélio studied and trained hard every day, and eventually challenged Kimura who stated that if Gracie could even last a round with him then it should be considered a win. The match did go two rounds, but ultimately Gracie lost by Gyaku Ude Garami (henceforth dubbed in BJJ circles as the “Kimura”).
His incredibly competitive attitude and thirst to prove the superiority of his family’s style of Jiu-Jitsu didn’t stop there though, and he continued taking on many other Martial Arts stylists in both closed-door challenge matches (called “Gracie Challenges”) and ticketed superfight “Vale Tudo” events similar to modern-day MMA but with less rules, which drew large crowds. He proved the worth of his family Jiu-Jitsu against bigger, stronger opponents and impressed most who saw him or met him. What can certainly be said is that his efforts did result in a number of improvements and innovations on the traditional techniques.
Teaching his quickly growing family at a young age (Hélio would go on to have 10 children with 2 wives over two separate marriages), his sons followed close behind him. The infamous “Gracie Challenges” where members of the family took on practitioners of others styles were inspired by a fascination with Maeda’s own challenge matches. Rorion Gracie became famous by winning underground “Gracie in Action” challenge matches and by playing a key role in starting the UFC, with financing by Art Davies in 1993. Royce Gracie won notoriety by winning three of the first four UFC tournaments Rorion had started. Rickson Gracie won notoriety through his undefeated record, tournament wins, as well as establishing PRIDE FC with wins against wrestling superstars in Japan. Royler Gracie, the smallest of the brothers went on to become a 2-time Pan-Am Featherweight champ (1997 & 1999), 3-time ADCC 65kg champ (1999, 2000, 2001), and 4-time IBJJF Featherweight World champ (1996, 1997, 1998, 1999). Hélio’s nephew Renzo Gracie earned a reputation as one of the toughest for his willingness to take any bout, and for going on to train some of the best fighters in the world including long-reigning UFC welterweight champion Georges St. Pierre.
Useless arguments about “which style is best”
As a result of the family’s efforts to prove their capabilities and marketing expertise, for a time, the spread of BJJ was meteoric. It was proclaimed as the best thing to come to the Martial Arts since Bruce Lee put the striking arts on the map with Kung Fu flicks in the 1970s. Royce Gracie was heralded as a hero to the common man by defeating beasts and giants twice his size during those early UFCs – and the mainstream media along with general public – bought it, hook, line and sinker. In the onslaught of attention, the Gracies continued marketing not just their schools but the art itself as “Gracie Jiu Jitsu”. However, many Brazilians who were part of the early Maeda, Tanabe & Omori schools while not detracting from Gracie accomplishments and contributions, vehemently opposed their marketing and preferred either simply “Judo” or at least the more generic and nationalistic pride infused label of “Brazilian Jiu Jitsu” to describe their art, which is today the term most commonly used to describe the martial art. Even though he defeated Hélio Gracie, Kimura himself was trained primarily in the Kosen style of Judo under Jiu-Jitsu master Tatsukuma Ushijima before taking on the Kodokan banner.
So which style is best? Gracie Jiu-Jitsu, BJJ, Judo, Kosen Judo, or other styles? In the end it’s a pointless debate. The practitioner of a particular art or style is whom determines the outcome of a particular bout, and individual contest outcomes can never unilaterally denote any art or style’s quality. It always comes down to the common denominators of youth/age, skill/experience, and yes – despite BJJ’s best efforts to eliminate its advantages – strength/size.
Due to the history of Judo and its undeniable influence on BJJ, some Judoka expand the acronym BJJ to “Basically Just Judo“. The fact of the matter is that modern day BJJ does owe much to Judo & Kosen Judo (as well as a number of other Martial Arts). By the same token, the Judo of today can gain much from incorporating the modernizations and advancements in BJJ’s Ne Waza repertoire, particularly the guard, sweeps, and submissions. The way to do this is not to throw out the tradition and strict rules of Kodokan Judo, but rather to embrace the spirit of Kosen Judo during training, much in the same way that Kano embraced Kosen Judo to improve the Kodokan in the early 1900s. With a focus on learning and application of techniques within the context of excelling at Kodokan Judo rule set competitions and, of course, challenges or conflicts life throws one’s way in general, Kosen Judo & BJJ can certainly benefit any Judoka and vice versa.