Often in Aikikai, we hear that Morihei Ueshiba was against competition and was prepared to break ties with long time students over this practice. Competition was a divisive force that would break people apart, not bring them together. Jigoro Kano's vision of competition is actually the same regarding Judo, but he saw the Olympics as an avenue to peace and a way to avoid World War 2. Kano's stance against the war is more consistent than O Sensei's. There are those who say he was assassinated for his anti-imperialism, but this is not the official story.
The following is an exert from The Way Of Judo: A portrait of Jigoro Kano and his students. It is great reading - the story behind his bid for the 1940 Olympic Games is profound, and yet this is a small part of his remarkable life. Highly recommended reading, and thank you to Peter Boylan for recommending it to me.
Kano's Olympic Dream
In 1909, Japan was invited to the 1912 Olympics. At a loss for how to respond to the invitation, not surprisingly, the Japanese government turned to Kano, who was an expert in physical education and experienced in international affairs. After some study of the matter, Kano agreed to represent Japan.
The Japanese government submitted Kano’s name to the International Olympic Committee (IOC), and he was duly elected its first Asian member. He was the official representative of Japan in the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm. The Japanese contingent consisted of only two track-and-field runners, but at least the nation established a presence.
On his way back from the Stockholm Olympics, Kano visited the United States for the first time, stopping briefly in New York, where he delivered a lecture and demonstration. Kano also stopped in the Territory of Hawaii and visited the Honolulu dojo that had been opened in 1909. Kano was to visit the United States two more times, in 1920 and 1938. Each time he was there, Kano exhorted nikei-jin (those of Japanese ancestry) to become “patriotic American citizens.”
Kano led the Japanese delegation to the 1920 Antwerp Olympics. This time Japan was able to field a team of over a hundred, consisting of athletes, coaches, and officials. Japan had two bronze medal winners—in tennis, of all things. Kano skipped the 1924 Olympics in Paris and attended the 1928 Olympics in Amsterdam, but as a private citizen. During those years, there was a lot of political turmoil in Japan regarding how to participate in the games and at what cost; Kano was evidently on the outs with the various organizations involved.
However, in 1931, the Tokyo City Council decided to make a serious pitch for the 1940 Olympics. As is the case for every Olympics, there are questions of a sponsoring city having adequate athletic facilities, public transportation, sufficient lodging for visitors, and, most important, enough of a budget. Tokyo seemed to be seriously deficient in all these requirements, not to mention that it was located in the Far East, so its bid seemed like a long shot. Due to his international reputation and experience, Kano was really the only hope as Tokyo’s spokesman.
Fortunately, Kano relished the challenge of presenting Tokyo’s case, and he devoted himself wholeheartedly to the cause, especially since the odds were so much against him. Kano grew up in the Meiji period, during which the motto of the time was, “Unified in body and mind, there is nothing a human being cannot accomplish!”
After the new four-story Kodokan opened in Suidobashi in 1934, Kano spent nearly all his time, at home and abroad, promoting Tokyo’s bid for the 1940 Olympics. There were many obstacles: possible bids by other cities (Rome, Helsinki, and London); international politics; economic considerations resulting in commercialization of the games; backroom machinations by politicians, businessmen, and the military; Tokyo’s distant location; bribery of officials; racism; and, not least of all, opposition to the bid in Japan itself. (Of course, such shenanigans plague every Olympic bid, past, present, or future.)
The 1932 Olympics were held in Los Angeles. Kano spent the days before and after ceaselessly politicking for Tokyo’s bid all over the United States. He did the same in Europe later, between 1934 and the 1936 Berlin Olympics, meeting with top officials in nearly every European country.
The major stumbling block to a successful bid by Tokyo was the war Japan instigated in China in 1937. The issue was immediately raised: “How can a nation at war hold an Olympics, an event that is intended to promote peace?” Rather than risk losing everything, Kano lamely made excuses for his country: “War in China has nothing to do with sports.” “Japan’s real intentions in China are to make it a better country by ridding it of factionalism.” “As long as Chinese warplanes do not bomb Tokyo, there is nothing to worry about.”
Kano deftly addressed all the arguments—political, economic, and organizational—against Japan, and after much behind-thescenes drama and horse trading, Kano’s efforts were rewarded at the 1938 IOC meeting in Cairo. Kano said of the meeting, “My opponents attempted to swamp me and drown me out, but I would not be deterred.” The committee confirmed Tokyo as the site of the 1940 Olympics. Kano vowed that Japan would not turn the Olympics into a nationalist spectacle like the 1936 Berlin games. It would be a true Olympics, bringing nations together in a spirit of peace and friendship.
Interestingly, Kano did not lobby for judo to be included in the 1940 Tokyo games. On the contrary, he was reluctant to have judo put on the program because “judo is not a sport. It is an art. It is a science. It is a way of life.” Kano believed that inclusion of judo in the Olympics would alter its character as a vehicle to bring people together. National judo organizations would fiercely compete among themselves to win a medal “at any cost and by any means.” That is not the purpose of judo. Kano was open to the idea of judo’s inclusion in the games if other countries were in favor, but he did not push it.
For Kano, the Olympics were all about fair play. When European delegates proposed to hold the games in August, Kano suggested September instead: “The weather in Japan in August is very hot and humid. Japanese competitors, who are accustomed to such muggy conditions, would have a decided advantage over athletes from other countries.”
Even though Tokyo’s bid seemed secure, Kano sensed that Japan’s increasing militarization and warmongering would destroy all his efforts. On his trip back home from Cairo via Vancouver on the ship Hikawa-maru, it was clear that Kano was exhausted, physically and mentally. While he should have been elated by his success in Cairo, he looked disappointed, almost distraught. Kano was obsessed with getting the 1940 Olympics held in Tokyo—at any cost. Against his doctor’s orders, Kano insisted on making the arduous trip to Cairo in 1938. He refused to take anyone to accompany him; “they would just get in the way.”
The last thing Kano wrote before his departure was a farewell letter to wife. In my opinion, getting the Olympic Games for Tokyo was Kano’s way of waging peace. If the Olympics were to come to Tokyo, the Japanese military would have to behave itself. If other countries had to field an Olympic team, there would be less time and money to field an army. For the games to be held in 1940, there needed to be an informal truce among nations until then and with hope for its continuation thereafter.
The Hikawa-maru set sail for Japan on April 22, 1938. At the beginning of May, Kano become quite ill; I feel it was a case of “I am sick because the world is sick.” He continued to try to eat food and drink sake each day but gradually became weaker and weaker. Kano died early on the morning of May 4, 1938, at age seventy-seven. The cause of death is recorded as pneumonia. There was not a single Kodokan member on the ship.
Upon the Hikawa-maru’s return to Japan, Kano’s coffin was draped with the Olympic flag and lowered from the ship. On May 9, Kano was given a Shinto funeral at the Kodokan, with thousands of mourners in attendance. Sadly, within two months of Kano’s death, the 1940 Tokyo Olympics were canceled as “being a distraction to the national interests of Japan.” War had started in Asia and was about to break out in Europe and the Pacific. After Kano’s death, judo was presented at the Kodokan as a “manifestation of the unique Japanese spirit.” Judo became another weapon in the nation’s arsenal. A bronze image of Kano that had been erected in front of the Tokyo Teacher Training College was melted down in 1939 to help with the war effort.
Given his peripatetic lifestyle, it is not surprising that Kano died on a journey. He was always on the move, seeking better, more efficient, and beneficial means of presenting his message. And Kano’s life was not in vain. In 1958, the statue of Kano was recast. One image was replaced in front of the college (now the University of Tsukuba) and one was placed in the entrance of the Kodokan. His life and message continues to inspire people all over the world. As he believed, “The teaching of one virtuous person can influence many; that which has been learned well in one generation can be passed on to a hundred.”