Judo should naturally lead to meditation

Trevor Leggett, 8th Dan Judo, scholar and author of several fine books on judo and Buddhism, head of the B.B.C. Japanese service until his retirement, has had an enormous influence on Western judo. He is regarded by many as the greatest non-Japanese judoka.

The 17-year-old Leggett started judo seriously at the Budokwai about 1931 because of bad health.

“The doctor said I must do some physical exercise. I tried several things but found them boring. My parents forbade me to do judo, so I practised secretly for about a year. Tani and Koizumi were the two instructors, then, at the little club near Victoria Station, and they had very different styles,” explained Leggett. “I trained every day and did a lot of running at weekends, realising for the first time how bad my health was. I soon became fascinated by the variety of technique in judo. If you do tennis for six months you’ve seen all the shots even if you can’t do them all. In judo you will always see something different.”

Leggett first went to Japan in 1938 as a 4th Dan, and after six months was confirmed as Kodokan 4th Dan. The Japanese Ambassador, Mamoru Shigemitsu, and a number of prominent Japanese businessmen in London arranged for his trip and for him to have instruction at the Kodokan.

“I suppose I was the first foreign pupil to be accepted there as a special student for advanced tuition. So I had an hour every day privately with some teacher. After the first year the President of the Kodokan allowed me to go to the High Grade Class three times a week, and Mifune (10th Dan) and others taught. Frequently, they contradicted one another, but I was impressed by some of the classes.

The great thing in those days was to be tough. The martial virtues were always being extolled, and the average contest was very, very rough by today’s standards. The people who did it were much closer to self-defence. It’s certainly an advantage that we have made it less rough.”

After Pearl Harbour Leggett was interned for nine months before there was a diplomatic exchange. (He recalls:)

“The judo spirit impressed me just before the war. I recall that there was a massive wave of indignation in Japan when, just before war was declared, the British Navy stopped a Japanese ship.

I didn’t want to go to the Kodokan that day because I thought no-one would practice with me, and some who didn’t like me would try to do some damage as one or two extremists had tried in the past—fortunately they had not been good enough. In fact, a number of people who had never practised with me before came up and asked for a practice. They wanted to show there was no personal animosity. Later, I did judo with some of the guards in the internee camp.”

After being in India in 1948 Leggett had a serious illness that left him blind for two months. One consultant told him he probably wouldn’t recover. He was not allowed to study for many years—a bitter blow to a man who wanted to be an oriental scholar. He was also told that if he took another hard judo contest he was a dead man.

“But I taught and practised lightly. Judo training was a great help to me after this tremendous shock. My own ambition was lost, but I could contribute something to life by teaching judo. My role was to spread fundamental judo knowledge fairly widely. I had Black Belt classes for ten years in London, and for them I translated large sections of standard Japanese judo books. And the 40 or 50 Dan grades who used to come regularly all possessed a set of the translations from the Kodokan handbook, from Mifune’s book, and from a little known book that I thought very good by Ishiguro, 7th Dan artist. The aim was to give them the standard stuff for when they went back to teach at their own clubs. The main thing was to spread background knowledge of classical judo. My hope was that later British judo would develop—but there had to be knowledge of what had already been developed in Japan.”

Mr. Leggett says the standard of judo in Britain is definitely improving, but he thinks there is a long way to go yet in a creative direction. (He comments:)

“The build of Westerners—the proportions—has been different from the traditional Japanese. A tall Westerner isn’t simply a larger Mifune, the proportions of the body are different. I think that waza will be modified much more for Westerners than they are now. Throws like Sumigaeshi, perhaps, have got a future. I received instruction in it from the famous Toku and eighth Dan, 6 ft. tall—still big for a Japanese. He taught me Uchimata, and I think that has materialised, and (with) Sumigaeshi (may) be the great future for Westerners.

I didn’t like Sumigaeshi very much because you keep going down, and if you miss you look rather foolish. But again we have to develop our own styles. Something creative will come.”

Mr. Leggett is himself 6 ft. 3 ins. tall and feels, in retrospect, that the judo he did was never really right for his build. “It was a mixture of what I learned from short teachers and what I had to develop. I had some good results with an orthodox style. Against a small man I sometimes use the sort of O soto-guruma, wrapping the leg right round his hips. I prepared it by a Harai-goshi to make him brace back. It succeeded more by surprise than anything else, but I imagine it could be developed by a tall man”.

He would like to see judo developed as a spectator sport for judoka and thinks the two three-point contest worth experimenting with.

He is strongly favour of the belt being threaded through the jacket to help keep it in place, and possibly tapes to hold the end of the jacket down to the trousers to stop it continually riding up.

(Leggett observes:) “In judo I think we are still too restricted in contest results. The big blind spot is the absence of anything for the middle aged or older judoka, or for those who, for various reasons, are never going to be very good in contest. I should have thought that we would be able to develop a kind of judo practice that can be done fairly rigorously without shattering break-falls. Judo should be of some value for life, and unless we develop the cultural side it will give us less than it should.”

Mr. Leggett would like to see the old kata modernised: “The principles of kata could be embodied and practiced in a modern form of the throw. Now, it’s as though you were learning French grammar by studying medieval French. You should be learning modern French which is what you are going to speak. I’d like to see some katas devised to be done at speed, for those who don’t want to take the heavy falls. Ju-no-kata is never done fast and it’s much too much like a kind of dance now. ”

He sees no objection to professional judo teachers: “I don’t see how the sport is to progress without them. There have been professionals in Japan for years. It is only avoided in Japan now by the fiction that makes them teachers of physical education. But I think Dr. Kano was right to ban absolutely ‘Display professionals’ who went (to) contests in public (for) fall-money prizes’”.

Judo Spirit
 (Leggett quoted Dr. Kano as saying:) “I am very delighted you do (have) leaders in Britain, writing books, taking degrees in Japanese – a difficult language that many failed to master – and being prepared to undertake administrative duties. This is all part of judo”.

“Judo must be effective”, (Dr Kano added.) Trevor Leggett endorses this:” It’s no good having athletic ideals that don’t work. This is important. One mustn’t sacrifice fighting ability to style. You’ve got to have the faith (that) good style will produce fighting ability – but you have to win. At every grade a man’s technique can get set so that he is very formidable at that level. The judo man has to think, however, of not only winning the particular context, but how it is judo is going to develop for the future. There are many techniques that basically don’t have a big thing in future for you, but which worked very well at a certain grade. I expect future British judo men to have a much wider range of technique.

Dr. Kano insisted that judo produce coordination, balance, speed, not just muscles – as are produced by what he called dud exercises. A man can be very heavily muscled but he may (be) all out of balance. If you watch him you might see he is holding his pen in the wrong way, he is clumsy, drops things, and bangs doors. If you look at a good professional in any sphere (you) will see something about the ease of position. With most sports it only gives that ease within the circle of movement peculiar to that sport. Judo is supposed to give you this – the contribution for life. In the West we’ve hardly got onto this at all yet”.

Mr. Leggett feels that one of the most (important) aspects of judo is the emphasis placed on the tradition that the better players always help the lower grades by teaching them. “In tennis and golf the good players don’t want to play with rabbits. This must never happen in judo. We have to find how to teach judo in schools for one thing. There are too many sports these days that we do at school and then cannot do in later life. There isn’t the room for them or they require enormous grounds. More and more, this is going to be a real problem in our crowded world. Judo is perhaps the sport where you can get the most people into the smallest space . . . it’s worth thinking about.

And judo books are rather like books on music. They can’t actually teach you to play, but they can make you much more alert and aware of your judo. A good judo book can get you out of just mechanically hacking away and can encourage your enterprise and give you tips of how to go about things. But in the end, if you want to do O-uchi-gari you have to have O-uchi- gari lessons from someone competent to teach it.”

Mr. Leggett says the finest judo man he ever came across was Kazumi Shimaya. “He was a lightweight, and in the Japanese Championships in 1940 his knee was badly smashed as he and his opponent went off the platform. His judo did not look brilliant. It always looked as though the other man was slightly off that day. He had an enormous variety of techniques, all quite natural looking. He would come in and you would think he had only just managed to throw the man, never with a makikomi. In the same way, when you practised with him you only just missed. It took me a long time to realise what was happening. It was the ‘art that conceals art’. The really skilful man doesn’t have to make you miss by a mile. He doesn’t have to produce a tremendous throw, he just throws you.

He entered the championships the following year with his leg bandaged up like a pole—in effect with only one mobile leg—and he still got through two rounds. I thought that was a tremendous demonstration of real judo.

Watanabe was a real judo genius, with original techniques. Two of his pupils Okano and now Sekine, have won championships.

I thought Geesink had real skill, but the test of whether the West can produce first rate judo men will be whether we can produce a small man to beat bigger Japanese.”

The recent win by Sekine in the All Japan championships, which Mr. Leggett watched in Tokyo in May, is regarded by him as a most encouraging sign for the future of judo. He feels that training in Japan has been very regimented since the war. “That a 12 stone 10 lbs man can beat the big men means, perhaps, rather more than the fact that Japan lacks a world-beating heavyweight at the moment.

The Japanese stake a great deal emotionally on a win. Maybe they can learn something from us about sportsmanship, and maybe we can learn from them about the will to win,” he (Leggett) says.

“Judo should naturally lead to meditation,” says Trevor Leggett. “ If a man wants that his Judo should develop his full potential, mental as well as physical, he should combine it with meditation.

Even in Japan there are few who understand this. But there is the tradition, and one day when the Japanese texts that are not available in Britain are published, they will, I hope, act as a stimulus. But you have to get a basic standard in Judo before you can do these things. It’s a step beyond technique. Most of us have, at some time, done a throw that happens before you know it is happening. But unless there is a minimum of technique that won’t come about. In the same way a painter or musician talks about inspiration, but he has to have a certain technique for the thing to express itself.

You’ve got to practice no matter whether it’s flower arrangement, fencing or judo. And then sometimes it can happen quite early in training that we get an experience. For instance, when the Zen monks (and Zen means meditation) are sweeping the moss clear of leaves that have fallen, it is quite tricky. If they sweep too hard, the moss is torn up. But if they don’t sweep hard enough, the leaves are not removed. When they sweep they are supposed to meditate in a special way on the central line of the body.

In the early morning in spring it is very quiet and the mind will be quiet, then suddenly the broom will come alive. It’s almost as though the broom and the leaves all moving of themselves. And the moss isn’t damaged and all the leaves are removed. Then perhaps the monks think -what’s happening? – And it all goes. Everyone has experiences when the mind becomes momentarily calm. If a man or a woman pays attention in these experiences he can make progress psychologically, and perhaps spiritually.

I once saw two very good judo men practice together, and suddenly it was almost as though a film was being run through fast. Attack and counter-attack at very high speed. Shimaya who was also watching, asked me if I’d noticed. As I had, I mentioned to one of them whom I knew, afterwards, that he had been in good form. ‘Yes’, he said, ‘I felt good today’. I like practising with him but he hadn’t really noticed it himself.

I think judo can alert us to this, and then we start noticing it not only in judo. The special glory of Zen was that it brought these things into everyday life. This never existed in the West. In India it is understood if a man retires from the world and gives his life to meditation and study. In Japan Zen came into everyday life in things like pouring tea, arranging a few flowers, making a little garden or playing the flute in a country lane. They succeeded in creating beauty with very few things needed.

I can remember how irritating I used to find it when people talked about cultivating the ‘spirit’ of judo and left it vague. So let me give a few simple illustrations of what I would regard as expressions of judo ‘spirit’. Physically, one of the important parts of the training is to be able to go in while tired or even injured, without being demoralized. A judo man knows that if he is tired, his judo will be only 70 per cent efficient; he can show his 70 per cent effectiveness. Whereas most people when they are very tired simply collapse and say, ‘Oh I’m too tired to do anything.’

Physically, I should expect a judo man to tackle a physical task or activity with the whole body used as a unit; this ability to use the whole body is generally one of the last things that comes in any particular physical training, but a judo man ought to be able to demonstrate it quite early.

Mentally, I should expect a judo man to understand how to tackle anything he sets his mind to with strong application and a sort of cheerful lighting spirit, without ever taking refuge in imagined excuses. For instance, if he needs to learn rapid mental calculations (these are all examples from life), or sketching or working as a steeplejack, or administration, or how to conduct a meeting, or accounts, he would set about studying as he practised judo, at least an hour every single day, if it is part-time and without saying, or even thinking, ‘Oh, I was never good at figures’ or ‘I have no artistic talent’ and so on”.

Morally, a judo man must find it in him to do some unselfish service, without hanging around for praise or appreciation when successful, and without getting depressed if he fails, or if his efforts are completely misunderstood.

Spiritually, a sort of creative zest in life, and the ability to discover what are the contributions, inner and outer, which he can make to life. With most people, it is easier to discover these and to release the energy for them, by practising meditation; but it is not essential in every case”.

The Future
Leggett feels that the next “wave” will probably be Chinese sports and arts. He studied a number of the Chinese self-defence forms, and few of them are known yet in the West.

“They are largely based on kata”, he says. “The best thing to do, if you are interested, is to first do judo for four or five years. I did several of the styles and found that, after a few months, I was better than those who had been doing them for four or five years. They often had poor balance and not much anticipation. Those who had been practising them for ten years were a different matter.”

Looking to the future Mr. Leggett is very keen that research should be done into providing something for the older judo man. “The Japanese don’t really seem to have thought about this. Perhaps we can give them the lead in this. Even the Nage-no-kata is too strenuous for those over fifty. It is also too strenuous for women. In golf, an older man can play with a younger and still have a good match. I believe a modified judo could be properly competitive for older people. It will have to be devised sooner or later.”

In Conclusion
Trevor Leggett feels that: “British people are a bit like the Japanese. They like a concrete illustration. They’re not so keen on a big, general, principle. Germans and Indians are more taken with big, comprehensive, philosophical systems. But the British and Japanese want to know how it is going to actually work in practice. Not a bad way to look at judo.”

Interview by David White in 1972