A version of this article appears in
Material for Thought #15, November 2000, Far West Editions, San Francisco CA

From the Mat to the Street:
   Judo and Life
Copyright © 1999 Richard Hodges
All rights reserved

My Judo teacher was always yelling "Relax!" I could
not understand. Was I really so tense that he singled
me out for this admonishment? Didn't he realize that
yelling "Relax!" only made me more tense?

In competitive tournaments I often did not do well.
It was embarrassing to be thrown by men weaker than
I, and I often felt that I didn't understand, really,
anything about Judo. I remember one tournament
clearly. My opponent was a big brown belt. As he
attacked I was afraid he would throw me-and in the
same instant I heard my teacher's command "Relax!"
echoing like an electric current in my body. I
softened; and in slow-motion-time absorbed the
attack, then simply threw him to the mat. I ran to my
teacher and embraced him. This may have seemed
strange to others who knew us. I had won matches
before, but this was the very first time I had done
so from understanding. I think he knew.

Afterwards, I looked at him differently. Before, when
I practiced with him I had only felt his strength,
his hardness. Now I began to sense that underneath
this hardness was a deeply studied capacity for
relaxing at just the right moment. I made a personal
vow to study this myself.

The word "Judo" can be translated as "The Way of
Softness" or "the Way of Yielding." All the time I
have practiced Judo I have pondered the meaning of
this idea, puzzling given the strong force commonly
used in the art. I had been told a number of
different interpretations but none seemed convincing
to me. After this experience I had my own basis for
understanding the word I had just discovered one
meaning in the athletic principle that a certain
tempo of relaxing the whole body can absorb
harmlessly even a powerful attack. Later other
meanings opened up also. I came to understand a
deeper secret, one concerning awareness: with a
relaxed erect posture and a light grip on the
opponent, it is possible to sense his moves almost
sooner than he does them. To practice this
successfully took a great deal of work to break my
beginner's habit of stiff-arming my opponent away
from me, out of fear, which made it impossible to
feel him. Yet another practical meaning of "Ju" is
that by allowing the opponent to move in his own way,
yielding to his movements and following them with
one's own body, one receives direct impressions of
the essence of the other person. At times there is a
kind of non-verbal dialog that is very subtle.

I noticed that most people who were good at Judo had
only a partial understanding of "Ju": their Judo was
a mixture often containing more hardness than
softness. Two or three times I met people whose Judo
was almost completely softness, and they were not
only highly effective, it was a joy even to be thrown
by such a man. Though I am an advanced practitioner,
now holding a third degree black belt, I never quite
reached this level. But I often remembered to aim for

Judo is meant as a training for life. Historically,
it was defined as a formal body of practice during
the late nineteenth century, a period in Japan of
renewal of ancient spiritual and aesthetic ideals and
schools. The "Do" part of "Judo" means "Way," both in
the sense of the way things naturally are, and in the
sense of a path for people to follow to reach harmony
with this way. It is the same word as the Chinese
"Tao." Judo is part of the education of a schoolboy,
and is considered to provide a basic foundation in
Japanese cultural and spiritual values: discipline,
respect, mutual dependence, fortitude,
resourcefulness, craftsmanship, and so on, in
addition to the most mysterious value: softness, the
"Ju" of Judo.

After World War II Judo was adopted enthusiastically
in the United States and even more so in Europe and
Latin America. In the West it was pursued more as a
sport; but in my experience as a student it seemed to
me that many of the original values could still be
found in it. This was true even though these values
are rarely spoken about, unlike in other Oriental
martial arts in the West. Judo's teachings are
somehow implanted in the rituals and experiences of
actual practice, and are learned mainly through the
body rather than the intellect.

I have often asked myself how the things I learned in
Judo have become a part of how I am in life, and how
this is for others whose Judo I came to know.
Certainly it is not always true that the values of
Judo translate directly to life situations, or that
when they do the effect is always beneficial. A
process of conscious practice is necessary to
naturalize and embody any new value in a new context,
and it is a mistake to assume that the results of
practice in one arena can transfer unconsciously to

Of numerous cautionary examples one comes to mind. A
certain teacher whom I studied with for a while was
an extremely accomplished master. I never met anybody
his equal in skill. He had developed powers that were
almost supernatural-his body could take on a gravity
that made him immovable; and when he was seriously
fighting his eyes glowed with a disturbing fire. I
once asked him how he had become so good. He told me
this story: He had been an athletic prodigy in his
village, and when he went away to college in Tokyo
his reputation preceded him. But in the big city he
soon met Judo men with much more experience who
easily deflated his pretensions. His sense of shame
at losing was so great, to men he considered
inferior, that he would not be able to sleep. He
would lie awake all night going over and over in his
mind how he had been defeated, and analyzing what he
could do to prevent it, resolving never again to lose
in that way. After hundreds of such defeats, he had
lost in every way possible, and no way remained for
anyone to defeat him.

This story illustrates in a very concentrated form
several of the principles of Judo, especially the
principle called "mutual benefit": one fights
seriously in order to help the opponent practice; one
defeats him in order to help him learn something he
needs; and of course when one is defeated one allows
oneself to be helped by it, and tries hard to
understand the lesson. Through such practice this man
had indeed acquired bodily powers far out of the

But his Judo practice did not correct a certain
defect of character, which was that he had a cruel
streak. In fact, it made this defect worse, since he
had the means to indulge his weakness, and
opportunities to justify it to himself in the name of
teaching someone a lesson. With and without
justification, he hurt people, once or twice
seriously. In business he showed the same
combination: indomitability combined with a certain
cruelty. It did not work as well in business as it
did in Judo. At one point, according to stories I
heard, he and his partners were bankrupt and were
facing criminal charges for some kind of dubious

I do not know why he had left Japan; perhaps if he
had stayed the moral discipline of the teaching would
have eventually been able to help him. But as it was,
he lived a lonely and somewhat bitter life.

One must always be careful in applying the
experiences and methods of a path outside the path.
In its most basic form, this is taught to all
beginning students of martial arts in the commandment
not to seek opportunities to apply the art on the
street. It is not only that the techniques might be
dangerous to unprepared opponents-they also might
prove not equal to the situation. The Ju of Judo is
not necessarily what is required in a street fight,
at least not until it is thoroughly mastered. A
relish develops for the intensity and immediacy of
physical struggle-but it may be better to leave that
taste on the mat.

The question is broader than intentional application
of techniques. There are ways of moving, ways of
responding to challenge, ways of relating to people,
that the student of Judo discovers creeping into his
whole life. He is likely even to take pride in this.
A Judo student may often have the experience of being
flattered by others who notice the way he moves "from
his center." In relationships of emotion the problem
is more complex. It takes years of repeated practice
under a watchful teacher to learn how to bow to an
opponent in a way that expresses the right respect.
Toward a peer, this respect includes the willingness
to attack vigorously, acknowledging the opponent's
ability to profit from being attacked. But what
happens when one's business colleagues, or one's
domestic partner, experience the half-conscious
expression of this attitude toward themselves? What
kind of discipline, and how long, would it take to
refine this attitude until it could be felt by others
as an expression of love, in life as it is in Judo?

What then can be taken from the mat to the street? In
the traditional teaching of Judo, there are three
principles that are explained to students as a
foundation for the path. These are: non-harmfulness
(i.e., do not injure the opponent or oneself); mutual
benefit in study of the way; and work for
self-improvement. I think that the reason these are
selected for special emphasis is that they are what
Judo tries to teach for life.

There is a certain moral logic by which these
principles taken all together can support a
well-rounded approach to any situation. Each of the
legs of this inseparable tripod provides a correction
to the potential imbalance of the other two. A man
may help himself, and help others, but if like our
earlier example he does not master non-harmfulness,
all his powers will turn to poison. Or if someone
fails to work diligently on self-improvement, he will
never learn much, and even if he tries to help
others, his efforts will be useless and they may even
mislead and do harm. Or if a man works on himself,
and never does harm, but does not help others learn
what he has learned, he fails to repay his debt to
the teaching, and the arrearage will stop him at a
certain point.

A wise teacher once told me that what is of value is
never the habits and skills acquired from practice,
but the understanding that results from consciously
undertaken struggles. This is what many people do not
understand who naively look to martial arts, or other
practices, for a magic key to success. Repeated
practice always gives results, but these results, he
said, actually become an enemy because they tend to
become part of a person's unconscious nature.
Especially if these habits are effective, they tend
to reinforce the person's vanity and laziness.

Useful practice, according to this teacher, is
practice that is based on consciously accepted
principles, such as the three principles of Judo. It
values the struggle above results. The struggle is
ultimately always a struggle to be aware of one's
laziness, inattention, carelessness,
misunderstandings, one's tendency to rely on habit,
and other defects of character. This then is what may
be taken from the mat into life.