Many times I have been asked about ki 気 (pre World War II old style character: 氣) in jūdō 柔道 and other Japanese martial arts. In no way am I an expert on the matter, having practiced aikidō 合気道 only intermittently for a few years. My quest to understand it seemed pretty much hopeless when I tried seriously to learn later in life, at least given the typically amused reaction of my last instructor, the marvelous Inoue Kyōichi (井上 強一, 1935-2017, 10th dan Aikido, retired chief of instruction at the Yoshinkan), who often laughed aloud and said “Use aiki!! aiki to defeat them, not jūjutsu!!! None of your jūdō here, please!!” in response to my frustrated attempts to micmic his magic on the mats with opponents. They usually ended up off-balanced and thrown one way or the other, aiki or not, but it wasn’t necessarily a decent replica of his superb technique.
My early attempts to read up on ki from typical English language aikidō aficionado sources were bewildering. They ranged from frankly disjointed, unintelligible esoterica to serious attempts to describe something that seemed seriously indescribable.
Years later I began to read Confucian and Dàoist texts, first in English, then increasingly in modern Japanese, then in classic Chinese (with the assistance of excellent English translations by scholars whose works will live forever; thank you, Mr. Legge!)
Eventually, ki began to make some sense once I had some context for it. I asked myself, was explaining ki without some background simply too foreign a concept for an Arkansas farm boy from the 1950s? My first brush with Eastern philosophy was an all-too brief introduction in West Point, then a more serious dive in an East Asia area studies master’s program. There I realized that the basic philosophic underpinnings of China, Korea and Japan were truly foreign, and if I wanted to understand them, I had to get serious about reading up on them. A lot.
But later, far later than I wished, I found a remarkable text that I recommend to anyone interested in Japanese culture.
Japanese economics professor Dr. Michio Morishima (1923-2004) lectured at the London School of Economics, including introductory courses on the Japanese economy. According to his book Why Has Japan ‘Succeeded’? Western Technology and the Japanese Ethos (Morishima M, Why Has Japan ‘Succeeded’?, Cambridge University Press, 1982), as his (presumably primarily non-Japanese, non-Asian) students could not understand his economic lessons because of their complete lack of background regarding Japan’s philosophical and cultural milieu. He began to give short cultural and philosophical introductory lectures, and finally combined them into this remarkable book. Its cultural / philosophical historical introduction of Japan is the best I’ve seen in decades of reading, and is well worth the price despite it being only a small portion of the book, which is primarily an economic history (in fact, I can’t recall ever reading the entire book). A copy of it is available on the internet.
The book became my Rosetta Stone for Japanese culture, deftly explaining its melange of ancient Confucianism 儒教, Dàoism 道教 and Buddhism 仏教 with a modern constitutional monarchy and a representative democracy. Many people have thanked me for introducing it. But it works because Professor Morishima was knowledgable in multiple disciplines and able to present them to his students in a coherent, intelligible text, a man who could carve out a cultural Rosetta Stone using elements from multiple diverse sources – history, understanding of the impacts of ancient Eastern philosophies and their collisions with Western culture, and modern Japan’s unique history.
Uchida Ryōhei was such a man for jūdō.
Uchida Ryōhei 内田良平 (1873-1937) was an ultranationalist political theorist, Pan-Asianist, and martial artist, active in the pre-war Empire of Japan. (Wiki)
He was also an accomplished jūdōka, a favorite of Kanō shihan 師範 (master), one of the three most senior 5th dan rank holders in Kodokan history, and a noted street brawler. At the time of his prime, the early 1900s, there was a saying in the Kodokan:
When it comes to real fighting,
no one stands to the right of Uchida Ryōhei!
(Meaning: there was no one superior to Uchida in real fighting because in jūdō courtesies, senior students stand to the right.)
Uchida was born in 1873, the 6th year of the new Meiji era in Fukuoka, son of former samurai Uchida Ryōgorō who was a noted martial artist (teaching Shintō Musō Ryū jōdō 神道夢想流杖道and the inventor of Uchida Ryū tanjōjutsu 内田流短杖術), political hardliner and brawler, and ultranationalist organization Genyōsha founding member. When he was merely a teen, Uchida likely met Kanō shihan in the middle of the biggest political riot in Japanese history (a tale told herein later).
Uchida begin his classic education from childhood, studying the Chinese classics, the Four Books and the Five Classics 四書五経 , the foundational texts of Confucianism 儒教, in their original classic Chinese over 2000 years old. He learned a number of martial arts, most notably Jigō Tenshin Ryū Jūjutsu in Fukuoka’s Meidokan dōjō, an art in which he was notably successful. In 1893 he moved to Tokyo to live with his wealthy coal mine owner uncle Hiraoka Kōtarō, a supporter of the Genyōsha, and began to study Russian at a Tokyo school and jūdō at Kanō Jigorō’s Kodokan.
Over the next 20 years Uchida, moving throughout East Asia from Singapore to Shanghai to Seoul to Vladivostok, acted as spy and spymaster, cartographer, correspondent with Kanō shihan, agent provocateur and supporter of Korea’s 1894 Donghak Rebellion and China’s 1911 Xinhai Revolution, and supporter of Japanese forces in the Russo-Japanese War. As an Imperial Army reservist, he was recalled to active duty in 1894 for the Sino-Japanese War but because he was already in Korea agitating and assisting Korean revolutionaries’ combat against the Korean regime and Chinese garrison, by the time he returned weeks later to his assembly point in Fukuoka in accordance with his orders, his infantry regiment had already deployed to Manchuria, so he after a couple of weeks of sitting around doing nothing (something soldiers everywhere know very well!) he was released from active duty. In 1901 he established the Kokuryūkai, literally, the Black Dragon Society, which became the bête noire of half-informed Western intelligence and lurid press accounts that assessed it as the most dangerous and influential ultranationalist organization in the Imperial Empire, even exceeding his father’s Genyōsha.
Over four decades Uchida became one of the most influential voices on Japan’s far right, a key leader of one of the ultranationalist, expansionist, Imperialist political pressure groups that propelled Japan on its ultimately doomed mission to control East Asia and suicidally confront the most powerful national forces around the planet. Well before his death in 1937, few men on the ultra-right were held in higher regarding, notably including his mentor and senior Genyōsha member and close friend of his father, Tōyama Mitsuru, the ultranationalist éminence grise, ultimate behind-the-scenes fixer and assassin – and Kanō patron (another tale to be told later).
But Uchida was also a very dedicated martial artist. Because of his prowess as a young man, he was quickly promoted, becoming the third most senior 5th dan in Kodokan history. He wrote one of the two earliest jūdō books, in which Kanō provided a foreword praising Uchida’s fighting prowess and understanding of jūdō and its history. Later he wrote other books on other Japanese budō.
In 1925 he published his magnum opus on the martial arts, Budō Gokui, 武道極意 The Secrets of Martial Arts. (Uchida R, Budo Gokui, Tokyo: Kokuryukai Shuppanbu, 1925.) In Chapter 24, entitled 柔能く剛を制す Jū yoku wo Gō Seisu, The Flexible Controls the Rigid, Uchida launched his discussion of ki from the heart of the very definition of jūjutsu.
To understand the background, the legend taught for hundreds of years in Japan even until today is that the term jū 柔 in jūjutsu 柔術 comes from an ancient Chinese military strategy text, The Three Strategies of Huang Shigong, 黄石公三略 (Chinese Pinyin: Huáng Shígōng Sānlüè – “The Three Strategies of Duke Yellowstone”) one of China’s Seven Military Classics, thought to date from around 200 BC to 0 CE.
The primary saying that is used to describe the core philosophy of jūjutsu is the four-character idiomatic phrase that is the first line of the Upper Strategy 上略 of the Three Strategies.
Jū nō sei gō 柔能制剛
The flexible controls the rigid.
(More often seen today in English is the term “Softness overcomes strength”, but the author prefers flexibility – see Endnotes).
The original classic Chinese complete text of the Upper Strategy reads:
The Three Strategies text is a masterpiece of early Dàoist thought. This section provides a list of dualities, Yin Yang 陰陽 (JA: In’yō) binaries that compromise its “strategy”; flexible / rigid, weak / strong, assistance / opposition, virtues / faults, and the admonition to use each in the appropriate measure and time. It quotes an apocryphal, even more ancient text is calls the 軍讖曰 The Military Wisdom.
Divided into phrases and translated into English, it reads:
軍讖曰 The Military Wisdom cites:
柔能制剛 Flexibility controls hardness,
弱能制強 weakness controls strength.
柔者徳也 The gentle have virtues also,
剛者賊也 the unyielding also have faults.
弱者人之所助 The weak attract assistance,
強者怨之所攻 the strong attract opposition.
柔有所設 At times be flexible,
剛有所施 at times have hardness,
弱有所用 at times use weakness,
強有所加 at times add strength.
兼此四者 One using all four
而制其冝 will then prevail.
To understand Uchida’s text and the it may help to ponder the nature of the Dàoist binaries that describe the duality of nature. In essence, this primary Dàoist concept is that a thing, or the nature or characteristics of a physical thing or phenomena, cannot exist alone; there must be and always is a paired, opposite nature. Some examples? Darkness has no existence, no way to be compared without light. Summer has no meaning without winter. Heat must acknowledge and be affected by cold. The dualities of phenomena are endless: elder / younger, male / female, Heaven / Earth, parent / child, weakness / strength, movable / immovable, static / moving, on and on, finite / infinite.
The famous Taijtu (Ja: Taikyokuzu) is a symbolic representation of the duality of nature.
To give a notion of how important these concepts are in East Asian cultures, take a look at the Republic of Korea (South Korea) flag:
Uchida mentions the seasons often. Even in the deepest part of winter, the most Yin time of the year, the Yang of summer must inevitably come, blending Yin Yang in the spring. He urges the cultivation of the body to true flexibility to be able to move best when the time is right, and the cultivation of the mind to maintain vigilance and the knowledge that such a time must come. In this manner, he says, the weaker can overcome the stronger, using the “power of the heavens”, not in somehow collecting and directing those powers but rather in adding all too frail human power in the right direction at the right time to take advantage of the natural transitions.
From the chapter title itself, Uchida proceeds to describe how ki 気 fits into the practice of martial arts, using Dàoist and Confucian concepts up to 2500 years old.
Note: This translation of Uchida’s text is provisional, as I am not satisfied with certain sections. Portions of the original text are very complex and draw on obscure, perhaps even otherwise completely lost texts, so I expect I’ll make changes as I puzzle through those sections a bit more.
******Uchida Ryōhei’s Budō Gokui, Chapter 24: Jū Yoku Gō wo Sei Su *******
Ki 気 (EN 1) is the reason how flexibility 柔 (EN 2) can control hardness 剛 (EN 3).
This is the spirit that Mencius (孟子 372-289 BCE)(EN 4) said to foster in self-reliance and open-mindedness.
The kanji character for ki is synonymous with seasons and occasions,
and has important significance in mastering the secrets of martial arts.
Ki is the ki of heaven –
there are people born with that ki.
It is breath.
It is will.
Therefore, it should be said that
people must live by ki
and move by ki.
A season is the time of the four seasons when ki appears,
and it is said that the character for season means the end.
The end is a shifting thing.
The periods of such as the seasons are fixed.
But even things that are fixed are bound to change when the time is right.
Change is the law of nature, and opportunity arises here.
Opportunity is always in ceaseless motion according to ki,
as there are shades in the sky, the wind and rain.
Following the movement of opportunity is in order,
going against it is the opposite.
If things are in order, you will win,
but if things are in not in order,
you will lose.
In short, it is through the sublime use of heavenly principles that the flexible conquers the hard.(But) flexibility is not always superior to hardness.
Hardness does not necessarily win over flexibility.
The common difference between either winning and losing is that which lies in the skill of one’s changing movement.
The ancients explained that
“The flexible is Yang, the hard, Yin“
because flexibility is the Yang of the Yin;
the utmost Yin
is the innermost Yang that becomes Yang.
The hard is the Yin inside Yang;
the utmost Yang
is the Yin that becomes Yin.
It was also said by the ancients:
“The utmost Yin becomes Yang,
the utmost Yang becomes Yin,
as we know the flow of the four seasons.”
spring is the time when winter’s utmost Yin turns to Yang;
then the growth force of new shoots of plants and trees seems superficially weak,
but it is impossible to suppress them.
In the summer, everything grows in the sun / Yang /
their shapes grow strong and hard;
be that as it may,
autumn falls / Yin /
the season about to change –
it cannot be stopped.
As you can certainly see, events always turn –
whenever there is a change of momentum,
whenever there is a change of direction;
if we apply our wills in accordance with the time and place of the change,
the weak will conquer the strong.
the Way 道 (EN 5) to ride energy / spirit / life is
to be firm in mind
and flexible in body.
In the Jigō Tenshin Ryū Jūjutsu (EN6) densho scroll of transmission (EN 7), it is written:
You must have a strong spirit
to perceive large and small matters
with keen insight.
If you attain a flexible body,
you can move quickly.
Therefore, it is said,
be not only flexible,
also be firm and true.
The Kenchō (“The Precise Sword”) (EN 8) explains it as follows:
Wei Liaozi – Wuyi Hen, Section 12 (EN 9)
Victory is like water –
water is the softest and weakest thing,
but at its touch,
the very hills must crumble;
there is no difference –
The heart of what is said
is that an army that overcomes an enemy is like water.
Everything it touches will crumble.
Those who follow such water,
even the weakest people,
the land it touches are the summits of hills,
and those tumble down;
the nature of water
is as a single-minded person –
touching becomes one.
You should be enlightened by the warriors. (EN 10)
Those who practice the arts today –
as soon as he meets the enemy –
shows his right and strikes left,
shows his lower hem and strikes the head.
depends on cunning and deception.
clearly, before penetrating the enemy’s gut,
the enemy is not thinking at all –
consequently – my murderous ki – I will do it at will.
Sad, so sad.
It is as if, suffering frost and snow all our lives,
as a matter of living to no purpose after all,
there is no chance of success.
Please sincerely touch the true nature of water;
by virtue of righteousness the hills crumble before it;
awaken (EN 11) with detachment,
when you reach the sublime state of independence,
light shoots from your eyes –
enemies cannot face it.
It’s almost like the dazzling morning sun.
******** END of Uchida’s Chapter 24********
So we have Uchida’s sense of the origins and importance of ki. He saw it in the changes, in the moments of movement and momentum. Not in some energy somehow cultivated from within a person, but in the inevitable, natural moments found in the fullness of things. The challenge to him was to achieve a flexible body able to move quickly and an attentive, focused, firm mind prepared for the inevitable change opportunities.
Uchida was not the first to note the importance of moving in accordance with the opportunity, in accordance with ki, to develop the best budō. Later we’ll examine the poem contributed by an Imperial Prince describing jūdō that used similar language; his poem still hangs in the Kodokan today.
Kanō shihan himself was certainly aware of traditional notions including ki but developed jūdō as a scientific martial art and means of physical and character education. He was more concerned with the developing field of early 20th century biomechanics rather than 2000 year old Confucian and Dàoist philosophies, even though his own social ideas were strongly affected by those same philosophies. He also provided several forewords to martial arts books that espoused theories of ki and seika tanden, writing of the importance of the maintenance of traditional budō martial arts without commenting on the details.
He did, however, publish articles on the importance of ki and how to develop the tanden in his Judo magazine in the early Taishō era, just before 1920. After he fully formed his own jūdō philosophies Seiryoku Zenyō Jita Kyōei around 1920, Kanō established the Kodokan Culture Club in 1922 and focused on proselytizing them to the world. ( See The Origins and Development of Kanō Jigorō’s Jūdō Philosophies 嘉納治五郎の柔道原理の原因と開発https://kanochronicles.com/2021/12/30/the-origins-and-development-of-kano-jigoros-judo-philosophies-%e5%98%89%e7%b4%8d%e6%b2%bb%e4%ba%94%e9%83%8e%e3%81%ae%e6%9f%94%e9%81%93%e5%8e%9f%e7%90%86%e3%81%ae%e5%8e%9f%e5%9b%a0%e3%81%a8/)
1 – 気 (JA: ki, CH: qì) Wiki:
“In traditional Chinese culture, qì (also chi or ch’i) is an active principle forming part of any living thing. Qi is frequently translated as life energy, lifeforce, or energy flow. Qi is the central underlying principle in traditional Chinese medicine and martial arts. The literal translation of “qi” is breath, air, or gas.”
Ki is the middle character in aikidō 合気道 and while greatly stressed and studied in that art, is not commonly thought to be a factor in modern jūdō.
Pre World War II there was more interest in the study and use of ki in traditional jūdō, particularly among classically educated jūdōka such as Uchida who studied multiple budō martial arts and the Chinese classic texts.
2 – Flexibility 柔 (JA: jū in compounds, yawara in a single word) is often translated as softness, gentleness, or weakness.It is the initial kanji in the word 柔道 jūdō, “Flexible Way”.
Kanō shihan,who spoke and read English well, cited both gentleness and flexibility on different occasions over decades to translate the jū in jūdō into English.
The author prefers flexibility to capture the totality of the term, as jūdōka should respond to force by giving way flexibly yet with control and appropriate tension, not with softness or weakness.
3 – hardness 剛 (JA: gō) Hardness, or stiffness, is the opposite of 柔 jū flexibility, as evident in the binary jūgō 柔剛 flexible/hard, flexibility/hardness.
4 – Mencius (孟子, JA: Mōshi, 372-289 BCE) Wiki: Mencius was a Chinese philosopher who was arguably the most famous Confucian after Confucius himself.
5 – Way 道 (JA: dō in compounds, michi as a single character word)
Wiki: Dō is the go-on vocalization of the Japanese kanji 道, corresponding to Mandarin Chinese (pinyin) dào, meaning “way”, with connotations of “philosophy, doctrine” (see Tao).
6 – Jigō Tenshin ryū Jūjutsu 自剛天真流柔術. A Japanese jūjutsu school prominent in the Fukuoka area and the Meidōkan dōjō associated with the Genyōsha 玄洋社 “Dark Ocean Society” ultranationalist organization. Uchida himself, son of a founding member of the Genyōsha, practiced the art as a young man and later at the Tenshinkan dōjō he founded in Fukuoka.
7 – “Scroll of transmission” is an English translation of 伝書 densho, which are traditional scrolls used to record budō techniques, traditions, and lineage, given to senior practitioners upon their promotion to various senior positions including full license to teach independently.
8 – Kenchō
Hirayama Heigen and Takai Kunimoto, Kenchō, unpublished manuscript, 1870.
9 – Wei Liaozi – 尉繚子 This text is known as one of China’s Seven Military Classics. Master Wei Liao is thought to have written the Wei Liaozi during the Warring States period (475 – 221 BC).
The Uchida citation is a portion of the Wuyi Hen 武議篇 – Military Commentaries Chapter, Section 12, which in its entirety reads:
* Uchida stops here….
10 – Warriors 武人 (JA: bujin) Although Uchida was born the son of a samurai, the traditional, hereditary warrior caste was abolished around his birth. (His father Ryōgorō, a political activist / former samurai, stopped carrying the traditional dual sword set of the samurai when it was outlawed in 1870, and almost paid for it with his life; he was attacked one day by political enemies, two men wielding highly illegal swords. He barely escaped with his life, and was inspired to develop Uchida Ryū tanjōjutsu 内田流短杖術, a series of cane or short staff drills used against an attacker armed with a sword. Today it is taught as a part of today’s Shintō Musō Ryū jōdō 神道夢想流杖道 curriculum).
Most of the men that followed Uchida were not former samurai, but many practiced martial arts, at least in their youth, and urged its practice upon young Japanese to forge their minds and bodies to be effective ‘warriors’ for the Emperor.
The ‘arts’ mentioned in the next line are the warrior arts.
11 – Awaken. The term Uchida uses is the Chinese word 醒悟 xǐngwù, meaning realization, awakening, awakening from hesitation (to action).
It could be understood as a form of “reaching enlightenment”.
Thank you for reading this far – it’s a bit long. I should probably reduce the introduction.
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