When I was about 14 years old I had already been practicing Judo for a couple of years, and I was already incredibly in love with it, so much so that I was fantasizing about writing my “University thesis” (that was my vague name for it back then) precisely about Judo. In particular there was an aspect of it that gripped me: the coexistence in Judo of 2 different nomenclature for throws, some that sounded like Tane-Otoshi, which means “Valley drop” or Yama-Arashi, “Mountain storm”, and others like O-Soto-Gari or Ko-Ouchi-Gari, respectively “Large outer reap” and “Small inner reap”. This contrast seemed to me very fascinating. I found out that that was the work of Jigoro Kano, the founder of Judo as we know it, who preserved some of the ancient Japanese Jiu-Jitsu names in his modern and rational nomenclature. I was fascinated by how the mystical and evocative names of ancient Jiu-Jitsu became all of a sudden very prosaic and technical: as a matter of fact, just a few ancient names survived, and this was according to Kano’s desire to pay his respects to the past and to tradition.
But ancient or not, storms and valleys had to go, because the 20th century called for a practical and rational system of talking about the practice, especially considering that Judo was to become institutionalized and become part of the modern Japanese educational system. One of the guiding principles, according to Kano, was to be found in the so-called “Seiryoku Zen’yo Kokumin Taiiku no Kata”, which translates into something like the exercise of Maximum-Efficiency National Physical Education. Of course, to a modern ear, after the catastrophe of the 20th century, this idea of a nationalized physical education evokes the dark days of fascist and indeed nazi national programs for the shaping of the national body, an armed body that could carry the spirit of the elected race. The same guiding principle and terminology could be found in the propaganda for the Berlin Olympics in 1936. As a matter of fact, this association is not at all out of place once we think about Japan’s own political choices during WWII. But the fact remains that, back in the very beginning of the century, this jargon was synonymous with modernization and rationalization, especially when compared to the “Drop in the valley”.
This radical shift, teenager Martino thought, was to become the topic of my “University thesis”. Things didn’t go according to plan. Or did they? With little agency on my part, as is often the case with (at least my) career choices, I ended up not only studying Philosophy, but specifically the so-called “secularization debate” that, from a theological-political standpoint, became eventually the subject of my Ph.D. dissertation. Now funnily enough, one of the milestones of this debate is an idea set forth by a German intellectual called Max Weber, who, more or less around the time in which Kano was substituting the old evoking names of Jiu Jitsu techniques with very dry ones, wrote an era-defining essay called Wissenschaft als Beruf. There Weber talks about the “Entzauberung der Welt”, the disenchantment of the world as a process of rationalization that the Modern Era would bring about. In the Modern Age, that’s Weber big idea, the world becomes disenchanted, more mundane, more prosaic and rational. No more storms on the mountains, now it’s the time for small inside reaps and sweeping hip throws.
Clearly 14 year old baby Martino didn’t have it all figured out, and it’s just with hindsight that my thoughts on Kano’s shift make sense. But now I’m better equipped to understand the value of the transition.
Now, the whole “Mountain storm”-type of names served another purpose as well, namely to hide the content of the teaching and protect it from rival schools. And this is where we approach my opening question: Should you be allowed to visit other schools?
If you had lived in 19th century Japan, the answer would probably have been a resounding No. There are many social and practical reasons behind this negative, but here I want to focus specifically on one. In those coordinates, the state of knowledge was the same as it had been for centuries, if not millennia, from the invention of the written word. I am talking about a world in which the circulation of knowledge was virtually insignificant when compared with ours today. That world allowed for secret doctrines, a practice that has been around virtually forever, and secret doctrines required secret and indecipherable names. In that world the epistemic regime (that’s the nerd term for it) was such that knowledge could be kept secret or semi-secret by encoding the message in non-descriptive terms whose meaning was known only to the initiates.
What Kano did by disenchanting and rationalizing the ancient terminology and translating it into an immediately understandable one, was to allow Judo to become accessible to everyone: national, which ultimately means public. What’s that throw that you guys do? It’s a small inside reap. Easy, accessible, teachable, infinitely transferrable. It’s the symptom of a shift in the epistemic regime that comes with a disenchanted new world.
Now, it doesn’t take ten dollar words to understand that if that was true 100 years ago in Japan, it’s even more so the case today. The days are long gone in which you had to buy a VHS via post from the US only to discover that it was in Portuguese and recorded with what you’d use at your cousin’s first birthday in the ’80. Just as gone as the days in which if you wanted to learn some obscure mystery, word that comes straight from μῠστήρῐον, the Koine Greek (New Testament Greek) word for “matter of science that requires teaching”, like a secret revealed only to some, you had to go and join the corresponding sect.
When I first started it was very frowned upon or even forbidden to visit other gyms, but now the roles are reversed. I would be very wary of a coach that forbids students to do so, and if you have been reproached in the past that visiting some “rival gym” (whatever that means) would give away the specific details “of what we do” (based on a true story…), that reproach comes from a different time, from a different epistemic paradigm. In a world in which the best of the best of the sport is at the tip of your finger, in which the best people post their everyday training online often for free, that scolding is very out of place. The ultimate irony is that we ourselves are eager to show “what we do”, either for self-promotion and marketing reasons, or even out of a simple desire to share on social media our training and daily life. In this paradigm the point isn’t keeping a secret anymore, but rather maximum diffusion! Imagine a gym whose existence was kept secret. They would probably struggle to pay the bills.
In conclusion, if you want to visit other gyms, go, be respectful and show everyone what we do, there’s no better way to grow than just to be good at it.