Judo Blog: Thoughts About High Rank Promotions

Judo Master Belt

David Matsumoto, Ph.D., 8th Degree Black Belt recently wrote this article which I think is profound. I asked him if it was ok if I use verbatim in one of my Blogs. which he graciously agreed to. Thank you David for allowing me to share you wisdom. David is a Director at Humintell which is a cutting-edge research and training company that specializes in leveraging the science of reading people, body language, and nonverbal behavior to facilitate interviewing, deception detection, negotiation, threat assessment, social influence, and cross-cultural competence.

David Matsumoto


In 2020, I inherited the position of Chairman of the Board of Examiners for the Daiheigen Yudanshakai (Black Belt Association) after the death of my mentor and friend, Haruo Makimoto sensei. It is the passing of a mantle I do not take lightly, as I learned so much from Makimoto sensei over the almost 40 year period that I had the privilege of knowing and learning from him. He taught me so much – humility, grace, harmony, friendship – essentially about the meaning of how to live as a judoka. I continue to struggle in my humble ways every day to embody the meaning of judoka in his way.

In the new role I have been fulfilling, I have been contemplating the meaning of judo promotions in general, and of higher rank promotions in particular. Judo has changed and evolved since its inception in 1882, and certainly since I began in 1967. There are new practitioners, new goals, new motives, and most importantly new and different societies and cultures (1).

Despite, or because of, the many changes in our world and in judo over the past 140 years, considerations of judo promotions ultimately led me back to thinking about the purpose of judo originally, and more importantly how it may be applied in the 21st century. While judo undoubtedly can and should have many purposes and be many different things to many different people, the ultimate purpose of judo, in my belief and in much of Kano Jigoro's writings (2), is the betterment of the individual for the purpose of the betterment of society (the latter is italicized because I think this is a forgotten aspect of judo and one that I would like to focus on).

Judo Throw

Judo was developed during a time of turmoil and change in Japanese society, and one major reason why it flourished then and throughout the 20th century was because it aided in the development of individuals, who then contributed to and helped improve society. Judo grew because it addressed something in people and society that both needed. Judo was a solution to a problem, not only in Japan but throughout the world, which led to its global spread (3). Just as that was true then, it can and should be true now.

This thought has permeated how I have understood judo techniques – Osoto Garí, Uchimata, Tomoe Nage, etc. Techniques are also solutions to problems, a philosophy that can be used as a basis for teaching techniques. (Parenthetically, I think most judo teaching consists of teaching techniques without teaching about the problems those techniques solve, which may be putting the cart before the proverbial horse.)

Likewise, judo was and is a solution to a problem – problems and issues in society. Just as techniques evolve and are adapted to changing situations and problems, judo has and should continue to evolve and adapt to changing situations in order to meet its goal of the betterment of individuals and society.

Some judo "purists," of whom I would count myself, may suggest that changes to judo are blasphemy. Over the five-plus decades of my personal history with judo, I have seen many purists react negatively to change, including changes in judogi color, rules, the sportification and monetization of judo, the angle of the bow, the number of steps in a throw in Nage no Kata, etc.

As many people know, I am a stickler for tradition, history, heritage, rituals, customs, and culture, no question. So any changes must be met with a healthy dab of skepticism. Changes, however, adaptations if you will, are necessary aspects of any successful endeavor, whether it be in individuals applying judo techniques in randori or in judo organizations adapting to survive and flourish in society. Even Kano stated that what was important about the transmission of tradition is not the form but the spirit underlying the tradition (伝統とはその形を継承することを伝統と言わず、その魂、その精神を継承することを伝統という). But we often get bogged down in form. (i.e. Form vs. Substance)

How can a view of the purpose of judo as a solution to societal problems translate to an evolution in thinking about high rank promotions? Can we use a high dan promotion system for the development of U.S. judo and for the betterment of society? Can we ask high dan rank holders to promote Kano's ideals in the 21st century? This notion may be linked to the idea of shin-gi-tai (心技体), the thought that development in judo may proceed through stages involving body mastery, skill mastery, and then spirit elevation. Thus, a question may be how a high dan promotion system can be a tool that can be adapted in order to facilitate U.S. judo development by respecting Kano's philosophy. Can we consider an evolution of high dan promotion criteria that can achieve this?

Let's first take a look at the USJF promotion guidelines. Those guidelines have allowed for specification and quantification of all kinds of service to judo, and more specifically to judo organizations. The USJF Form 20, for instance, is multiple pages documenting one's service to judo and the organization in painstaking detail. There is nothing wrong with service to an organization; the organization should incentivize its members to give back and support the organization. But have we lost a bigger meaning to higher rank promotions in these minutiae? Is something lost not seeing the forest from the trees?

Holding many positions in the USJF in the 1990s and 2000s, I remember the times when the necessity for those forms were debated and then added in order to capture, quantify, and recognize the large variety and quality of ways in which individuals contributed to judo and their achievements.

When one thinks about it, the addition of those very detailed specifications parallel to some degree the specification of the effects of throws in competition years ago, when almost wazaris became yukos, and almost yukos became kokas, and almost kokas became kinsas (well, kinsas were around a long time in the ambiguous, subjective world of the referee). And of course, one of the most important factors in high dan promotion is time in grade (TIG).

If the purpose of judo is to help build people's characters in order not only to help them in their lives but also to solve societal problems, and high ranks in judo are supposed to signify something special and unique about the contributions and accomplishments of the individuals to those problems, should consideration be given to how candidates have evolved as individuals and/or served society and not only judo organizations? After all, high rank individuals have a unique role to play in transmitting judo values. Here are some kinds of service to society that could be considered:

Evolution as a person: As people evolve, mature, and grow as individuals with wisdom, should that be considered? When judo originated, judo development was associated with development of what may loosely be called gentle personship and chivalry. Such concepts, however, are not found in today's judo.
  • Service to others: Raising children? Volunteering for the needy? Perhaps one of the most important contributions anyone could make to society is to raise children and help the needy. Should there be consideration of that?
  • Service to non-judo organizations: Should service to non-judo organizations be considered if those organizations serve positive societal functions?
  • Service to society at large: Should gainful and meaningful employment, supposedly that serves a societal purpose, serve as a basis for promotion? Should a person's educational background be counted? And what about educators themselves?

The list goes on and I think readers can get what my point. I believe TIG was used in the past as a proxy for all these wonderful evolutions and contributions to have occurred. But today it's not that; it's just passing the time.

Should there be a place for all these in considerations of higher ranks for judo? If the purpose of big Judo with a capital J (Jodan 上段 judo – judo in a wide sense) is to solve societal problems, while the purpose of little judo with lowercase j (gedan 下段 judo – judo in a narrow sense) is to develop people so that they can contribute meaningfully to society, perhaps the Judo world may be missing an important component of gauging promotability by only quantifying service to judo organizations and TIG and ignoring a person's contributions to society.

David Matsumoto Judo

This missing component and almost exclusively inward-looking focus may also contribute to difficulties judo organizations have in continually attracting new talent over the decades, and to growing in strength and numbers. And regardless of the mechanisms by which individuals evolve as persons and contribute to society, a common link must be a continuous and regular participation in judo activities.

Practicing judo. Being at the dojo. Putting on a judogi. Stepping on the mat. Being at and serving tournaments and other functions. The judo contributor to society will advertise their participation in judo while serving in many social roles.

In closing, allow me a word about what I believe is the misuse of the word judoka, a word I used at the beginning of this essay. The addition of ka (家) at the end of a word, as it is in judoka (柔道家) in the Japanese language does not merely signify a person who does judo, at least in the original meaning of the word. Rather, it signifies a person who lives with a deeper philosophy, with an underlying spirit and intent, a person who embodies the heart and soul of the values of judo and all the good associated.

Perhaps a lack of awareness of this nuance of the word is related to the non-consideration of those aspects of a person in high rank promotions mentioned above. I don't believe all practitioners of judo are necessarily judoka in the traditional sense of the word. Makimoto sensei was a judoka in the full spirit and meaning of the word.

A similarly misused phrase is seiryoku zenyo (精力善用). Originally, this phrase was shortened from 精神の力を善のために用いる, which can be loosely translated as "to use all of one's spiritual energies in service of goodness." The emphasis in the phrase to me is on the word zen ( 善 ). Loosely translated, it refers to goodness, virtue, or moral sense. Clearly, "maximum efficiency, minimum effort" is very different. Like "judoka," its early English translation as "maximum efficiency, minimum effort" has done a disservice to the phrase, and like the discussion above, perhaps judo leaders can reconsider their use of this central motto of judo.

Relatedly, Kano did use the phrase "maximum efficiency" in a speech in English in 1932; but there was no mention of "minimum effort" and the context of his speech was clearly concerning the betterment of the individual and society (4).

In proffering these thoughts, there is no judgment of all who have received high ranks in judo. My hats off to them for having been recognized for their contributions. But perhaps this is a time to consider an evolution of the meaning, and criteria, for high dan rank promotions to a powerful and efficient system and tool not only to recognize individuals for their accomplishments but also to disseminate Kano's educational and intellectual values in the 21st century.

Ben Campbell Judo

Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell, of CO (retired) - 7th Degree Black Belt, 64 US Olympic Judo Team

I offer these thoughts as a start of a discussion, not an end, not only for organizational development but also personal growth and evolution.


1. Michel Brousse, personal communication, 13 April 2021.

2. At least in terms of those authorized by the Kodokan. See - for a chronicle of articles that suggest alternative perspectives.

3. Brousse, M., & Matsumoto, D. (1999). Judo: A sport and a way of life. Seoul, Korea: International Judo Federation.

4. See - for an extended discussion of Seiryoku Zenyo Jita Kyoei and its possible origins.

Conclusion by Gary Goltz

I particularly like what David wrote about considerations of higher ranks being based on jordan big judo in terms of a person's broader contributions with the aim of solving societal problems. This gestalt focus is clearly the higher purpose of judo according to the founder Jigoro Kano. I have written several blogs on this subject as it has been an obsession of mine since my early days of training back in the late 60's.

Coming out of the past year with the Covid-19 Pandemic hopefully behind us, I intend to refocus the tone of my dojo more on this aspect of judo. I encourage others to do the same, thanks!


Fall down seven times get up eight. -Zen Proverb

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