Judo Blog: The Importance of Kuzushi

Black Belt Magazine

The Chinese words yin or negative energy & yang or positive energy.

The Kodokan Lessons Blog from a few weeks ago featured my friend Richard Riehle. It evoked a lively discussion on the importance of refocusing on the tenets of 'Big Judo.' A while back Richard sent me this essay he wrote regarding the importance of kuzushi from both a technical and spiritual perspective which I wanted to also share.


You may recall that the most important thing Jigoro Kano did when he designed judo was introduce a set of principles. This is what made judo different from its predecessors, the various forms of Ju-jitsu. Before Kano's focus on principles, each school taught its collection of "tricks", some of which worked consistently, others of which worked sometimes, and some of which hardly ever worked except under a unique set of circumstances.

Kano studied the ways of Ju-jitsu at several schools and thought about why some things worked and why. He discovered the principle of kuzushi. Then, he went further to break down the elements of each technique into kuzushi, tsukuri, and kake. After Kano, more principles were discovered, most importantly, debana (moment of opportunity), and the concept of continuous control. Additionally, there is the notion of Sen No Sen.

Many modern judo instructors have lost sight of the principles, or only pay lip-service to them. Others understand the happo-kuzushi like Mifune one sees in books, but not much beyond that. Some instructors know little tricks for setting up a technique (often a favorite technique), but have not thought deeply about the range of possibilities in kuzushi.

In the competition world or rough and tumble judo, especially at the elite level, judo is about mastering a set of techniques through repetition, learning how to do execute them faster than one's opponent, and scoring a point. Often, the champions, once they cannot compete anymore using their strength and agility, retire entirely from judo. They have been successful in competition, but not in judo.

As you know, I am in my eighth decade of life and I am still learning judo after 60+ years of study and practice. Most important, since I can no longer rely on strength and agility, I must revisit principles. kuzushi, in its many forms, has become one of the most important of those principles. And, as I study this principle, I also discover that there are many subtle ways to affect kuzushi in practice. I am also more and more aware of the importance of sen, debana, and the concept of continuous control.


Gary Goltz

Richard Riehle doing O-Goshi.

One of the more important ideas in kuzushi is intelligent use of the hands. Kano introduced the idea of sei-ryoku-zenyo, best use of physical power sometimes translated as maximum efficiency with minimum effort. That is the real essence of judo, not simply learning to execute the waza. I would rather you know a dozen waza well using the principles than all forty of the gokyu as techniques but with limited understanding of when (moment of opportunity) to prepare a technique and force your way into it.

This is why I put so much emphasis on small movements with the wrist in breaking balance. It is why I stress bringing your opponent to you instead of leaping in to lift him when doing seoi-nage or other such techniques. Anyone, in their youth, can learn power-judo; anyone can learn to do O-Goshi by bending their knees and lifting someone onto their hip. As we get older, we discover that lifting is not the right approach.

Rather, we draw our partner over his own center-of-gravity, position our body beneath that center, and continue to draw him forward, lifting, the lighter part of his body, the part below his hips.
Therefore, as you practice your techniques, I want you to concentrate on sei-ryoku-zenyo. When a technique seems to require a lot of strength, you know you are doing something wrong. When it takes too much effort to break someone's balance during practice, stop and think about where you are exerting that strength and ask yourself how you can improve on it.

You can learn a lot of good judo by starting to study the nage-no-kata (NNK). Competitors tend to deprecate NNK because the benefits do not seem obvious to them. However, every move in the NNK, when done properly, illustrates the five principles I mentioned: debana, kuzushi, tsukuri, kake, and continuous control. As you learn NNK, watch for how these principles gradually manifest themselves through regular practice. Ju-no-kata is another important demonstration of these principals.

Deep-down, though, you need to be focused on the principles that can be learned from these kata, not on the utility of them in combat or contest. Judo is a way of learning about how to deal with the larger contest of life that we confront each day, not a way of dealing with and defeating our enemies, not a path to medals and trophies, and certainly not simply a path to earning the next level of rank.

Keiko Fukada

Gary Goltz

The late Keiko Fukuda, 10th dan.

Another important principle in judo, from Jigoro Kano, is jita kyoei, "mutual benefit in our relationship with other humans". It is, in a deeper sense, a notion of "service". It is also a notion of generosity, kindness, and good fellowship. It is this principle that we gather to our own heart as we become more skilled in technique and the application of technique.

It is not a principle we can simply grab and adopt the way we can grab a brass-ring on a merry-go-round. It is a principle that we grow into as we mature in our judo understanding, our judo skill, and our interaction with those who are entering, for the first time in their lives, the practice of judo.

Judo is often translated as "the gentle way." The character used for judo are ju (which can also be pronounce yawara, and do, which is also the word for path, pronounced, michi. One can also think of it as the path (michi) of flexibility (mental and physical) that helps one become stronger through softness (yawara). Below are some of my further thoughts.


Judo is, in its deeper sense, a discipline intended to prepare one for the unexpected events of daily life. It is a lifelong self-assessment and retraining habit in which the judo practitioner is able to determine his/her mental and physical abilities and adjust to those abilities as part of that preparation.

None of the principles of judo can be effective without that on-going preparation. By preparation we include the need for regular training. However, we also mean, continually being prepared so as to never be caught by surprise. To be prepared suggests that the judoka is never at a loss when something untoward occurs.

If the railing on which you are leaning suddenly gives way, you do not fall down. Instead, your body automatically and rapidly adjusts to the change. If you do trip over something, you do not injure yourself in the fall. Rather, you relax your body and roll out of danger. This kind of preparation is not only for the young. As we become older, it is even more important.

Preparation means training to be continuously alert to every event and being able to respond to that event with the appropriate set of actions. While this can be assumed to be the correct mode of behavior in a contest, for the judoka – or for any martial arts devotee – it goes beyond the contest area.

The practice of judo, aikido, or ju-jitsu is not simply to train for defending against a possible attack. Such attacks, in daily life, are rare unless one is in a law enforcement or military occupation. In martial arts, especially in judo, we train our minds and bodies – prepare ourselves -- so we can react to many kinds of danger, not simply with our martial arts technique, but with swift reflexes and control.

In this regard, our martial arts training, including randori, helps us prepare for the unexpected. We learn to move our bodies away from danger, parry a threatening situation, and keep our physical and mental balance regardless of the events that confront us. It is not sufficient to rely only on one's athleticism. As we get older, that capability will diminish. Therefore, we continually prepare ourselves, at every stage of life, with on-going reassessment of our abilities, and we adjust our preparedness with constant training.

Judo is not simply about success in tournament, it is a regimen for life and preparing for the surprises of life at every stage of life.

Preparation, therefore, never ceases. The older a judoka becomes, the more s/he must adjust the training methods to compensate for the changes that occur in our physical abilities so we can be always prepared for whatever challenges daily life may present.

Judo, then, is not simply about attack and defense. It is a way for the practitioner to remain continually prepared for exigencies of daily life, the surprises that will not surprise, the unexpected events that we can handle calmly and with dignity, and the little inconveniences that we learn to take in stride so we are not actually inconvenienced.

As Jigoro Kano matured, and long after discovering the principles that led to the development of judo, he realized that he wanted to seek even higher goals for judo than victory in contest. Reaching back once again into the lessons of the samurai way, he began to see that, in spite of the ferocity and sometimes, cruelty, which characterized many warriors, there were some who, having achieved the highest level of skill in their art, eventually became more gentle, even more generous, more forgiving, and even more loving.

A case of this is Musashi Miyamoto who, after defeating everyone, retreated to reclusiveness and become a philosopher. Kano learned that, once one has achieved a high level of skill, one can afford to adopt a generosity toward those of equal or lessor skill; one can afford to demonstrate patience with those less skillful. We know that the best teachers learn this, but even when we are not designated as teachers, we strive for that kind of patience and generosity.

As a consequence of his meditation on these ideas, he introduced an additional key two principles:

  • Sei ryoku zenyo
  • Jita Kyoei

The first principle is an obvious concept in how he refined his concepts of judo techniques. It translates roughly to, maximum efficiency with minimum effort. The second principle is a bit more subtle. It translates, again roughly, to mutual benefit or win/win.As we practice judo, those of us charged with teaching the techniques have a responsibility for helping students learn the fine-points such as optimal foot placement, how to use the hands to best effect, good ways to break someone's balance, and so forth. In every case, we are trying to help our students understand the sei ryoku zenyo of a technique. Our teachers did the same for us. If we learned our lessons well, we will do what we are supposed to do.One reason I visit Japan every year, for many years now, is to spend time with some of those great teachers at the Kodokan, and also at some of the community dojos to refresh myself with regard to those lessons. I take this lifelong learning as one of my responsibilities to be a good teacher, a responsibility to my own students.

Jita Kyoei, as noted above, is a bit more subtle. However, it is demonstrated, in part, in my effort to be a better teacher, a better prepared teacher, and maybe, someone who can model what is expected of the person who hopes to achieve the higher ideals of judo. I strive to achieve this, even though I know I fall short of it.

When we think of Jita Kyoei we are reaching beyond simple mutual benefit. Included in this principle are behaviors such as generosity, patience, humility, and trustworthiness. In short, it is a pursuit of wisdom, not simply ability.

When we decide to promote someone through the Dan level ranks in judo, we are looking for more than the ability to throw everyone in the dojo, the ability to win every contest, or a comprehensive knowledge of every waza. All that is important. However, many great fighters never even think to step on the path of Jita Kyoei. Sadly, many instructors fail to ever bring it to the student's attention.

As instructors, we admire the student who is able to be victorious in contest. However, it saddens us when we see that same student being cruel or insensitive toward his judo colleagues, and that includes colleagues from other dojos as well as from their own.

We are a community of judoka, all striving for something more than winning medals and trophies. Shiai, the contest, is actually a venue for self-assessment, not an arena for self-boasting. Many who are constantly victorious in tournament do not discover this until long after their own competition days are behind them.

I hope that, in our dojo, we will be able to strive for a commitment to those two great principles of Seiryoku Zenyo and Jita Kyoei, even as we continue to work toward improving our judo skills in randori, shiai, and kata. Let's dedicate ourselves to be trusted partners, generous toward those with less skill and knowledge, respectful of each other even when we are feeling frustrated, and striving to model the highest ideals of judo as we advance from one rank to another.

A wise old judo master once said, "Rank is less about authority than it is about responsibility". The same can be said even when there is no ranking system, as Musashi learned after defeating all his challengers.

Gary Goltz Judo

Gary Goltz

Concluding Thought:

My dad the late Julius Jules Goltz taught me the #1 rule in business was - always make the calls or as Cal Ripkin Jr. puts it - just show up. Mushin focusing on the present being in the here and now means taking the initiative. Kuzushi is the first step in throwing according to its founder, Jigoro Kano.

Jules Rules

Gary Goltz

Teddy Roosevelt wrote about the Man in the Arena (in photo below) referring to taking an action is the key to life. The kuzushi metaphor is analogous with this. Read more about Roosevelt's connection to judo.

Goltz and Roosevelt

Gary Goltz

Richard and I are working on a book entitled Judo in Daily Life we hope to release next year.

I'm always looking for new subjects to write about regarding judo as well as contributions from my readers. Please send them to gary@garygoltz.com, thanks.


Gary Goltz seminar

Gary Goltz

Here's a Judo for BJJ Video shot by my student Josh Khoury at last Friday night's seminar - (to schedule a seminar, please contact me directly)

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