Judo Blog: Kodokan Lessons with Richard Riehle

Kodokan Judo Lessons

From time to time I get feedback on my Black Belt Blogs like this email from my friend Richard Riehle.

Richard understands 'Big Judo' which after reading the tragic story of the little boy in Taiwan, we need a lot more of. It's time for those who look at judo like Pop Warner Football, to rethink their paradigm!

Richard Riehle

I discussed this with Richard and he stated, judo has always been different from traditional 'sports' where the ideal is 'win at any cost.' Jigoro Kano, no stranger to the Olympics, was always wary of judo becoming an Olympic sport — for good reason.

The whole notion of a judo 'champion' is contradictory to the deeper philosophical foundations of judo.

Shiai tournament is not about being victorious over another person. It is an up-tempo test of one's self in with another skilled person. I can recall early tournaments where a sloppy throw was not given an ippon. That eventually became unacceptable to parents and even to coaches.

There is, to repeat a well-known phrase, 'no way to put the genie back in the bottle.' Tournaments will forever be a part of judo with winners and losers. Ultimately, the winners from youthful competition will be actual winners when they are able to continue their personal progress when, after retiring from competition, they expand their training to a new level of practice.

Regarding your latest Black Belt Blog, rank is only an outward sign of involvement. Your recent blog on this is terrific. I'd like to do a blog in the future on your first hand experiences.

I knew Donn Draeger. I met him, probably 1953, at the Washington Judo Club at my first tournament, and in subsequent tournaments before entering the USAF.

Most of my early judo was unaffiliated. We had a small dojo at my duty station in Alaska, but never joined the Air Force Judo Association. I cannot remember the name of the guy from Hawaii with the only Black Belt in our tiny group of judo enthusiasts. There was a guy from NYC named Manny with a Puerto Rican family name. The Hawaii guy was pretty big.

After USAF, I took my undergraduate degree at BYU. There were some of us doing regular judo training in Wrestling Room, but no official Instructor. There was a Sandan from Japan who turned-up on occasion so we did learn a lot from him whenever he could be with us.

We did participate in tournaments in nearby Salt Lake City which required us to join the AAU. I earned some promotions there and finally got an Ikkyu certificate, written almost entirely in Japanese from the SLC Dojo.

I organized a large regional tournament at BYU, held in the Fieldhouse. That was an AAU event, and contestants came from many places. I was only an unknown kyu-level person at that time so all the Black Belt people took over. I never received any credit for organizing it.

During that era, there were a lot of informal dojos where we could train. Some of them even hosted small tournaments where we could participate.

I was issued a shodan rank in 1964 by Takahiko Ishikawa, but it was a 'dojo promotion', not recorded with any of the official judo organizations. A Sensei at the Kodokan accepted my Ishikawa certificate and arranged for the award of my Nidan certificate.

The point is that I have had much of my judo life out of the politics of judo, frequently training with others, included Japan-trained black belt holders living in the USA who wanted nothing to do with official judo in the USA.

That has limited my opportunities for promotion, but my life in judo has been uncorrupted by a pursuit of rank. For many years, training often at military installations, I was content with whatever rank I had. The focus was in improving my skill and knowledge along with sheer pleasure of doing judo with like-minded people.

In Hawaii, where I lived for sixteen years, we had a dojo at gym at the Naval Station where we just enjoyed training.

Your blog is interesting and I realize that, had I been willing to join one of those organizations when I was younger I might be further along now.

Thank you for sharing it with me.



So, I took Richard up on his offer to write a Blog for me and here it is…


Richard Riehle, 5th Dan

NPS Judo Club, Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, CA

Kodokan Judo

I have had the privilege of training at the Kodokan over many years. Some of my visits to Japan were for business with judo as a bonus. From around 2001, my annual visits were strictly for judo. Covid has curtailed those visits.

There are many life-long judoka in Japan who are content with improving their judo skills, engaging in randori, and just having fun with judo, never worrying about their next promotion. For them, judo is much like chess or volleyball. There is no pursuit of rank in chess or volleyball.

One day, I was in conversation with one of the high-dan teachers at the Kodokan. I said to him, I have never been a judo champion. He replied, I have never been a champion either. This was a man in his 50's whose judo skill was more refined than that of many high-dan holders I know in the USA. He never missed the opportunity to be on the tatami, engaging in randori with his friends, sometimes with judoka from overseas. I rarely saw him attempting exotic waza.

He preferred standard techniques such as seoi-nage, tai-otoshi, and ashi-waza. Judo was not a win at any cost effort for him. It was a simple pleasure of playing the game with as little extra effort as possible. There was no grip-fighting, no heroics, no desperate moves of last resort such as the maki-komi that foreigners tend to used when nothing else seems to work.

One of my favorite randori partners was a man named Ishii. He spoke little English, which forced me to use my minimal Japanese language skills. Ishii was a Shichidan one year older than me. He epitomized of the concept of Sen, as in Sen No Sen. I could never throw him. Whatever technique I tried, he simply shifted his body ever so slightly, not resisting my attack, but simply adjusting his body so my attack could not succeed. Ishii would somehow set me up and use his favorite harai-goshi at will. I knew he would use that waza, but his skill was such that, even as I knew what was coming, he was nearly always successful.

A year after my previous visit, I learned that Ishii died from pancreatic cancer. He may have been suffering from it even during our last randori, but it did not deter him from the pleasure of tossing me around.

I wish there had been a way for me to express gratitude to him more directly. Even so, I think he understood my gratitude in my willingness to be his randori partner even though we both knew that I would never be able to overcome his skill. There are many others from whom I learned the deeper values of judo through randori. I learned not to think of being thrown as being defeated. Instead, being thrown, to paraphrase Jigoro Kano, is a part of becoming better today than I was yesterday.

Here is a sonnet written by Richard…

Last Shiai

By Richard Riehle

Tatami firm

My feet are bare

Black obi tight

A knot that's square

Judogi White

Opponent's blue

And lose or win

My final fight

Then I am through.

We've fought before

Our friendship long

We'll fight no more,

Our bond still strong

Perhaps I'll win

That would be rare

A sweet surprise

For us to share.

For matches lost

The few I've won

When I was tossed

Or my Ippon

It's gratitude

For lessons learned

And gratitude

For what I've earned.

Service is my duty now

For Kano's legacy to me

Responsibility my vow

For future judoka to be.

Some photos of Richard receiving his last promotion:

Richard Riehle Promotion
Richard Riehle Judo

Please click on this Judo Experience Survey.pdf that is intended to develop information about how Judo practitioners experience Judo in their daily life. It will be used in a book that is currently in progress. Your responses will be anonymous.

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