During the prewar and postwar period of Japan, Judo was considered to be the toughest discipline in martial arts. With techniques that functioned more as an actual martial arts, unlike today’s sport oriented approach, lethal enough to easily inflict an injury. Such techniques are long since banned in postwar judo competitions but somehow survived and passed on the art of Brazilian jiujitsu. Brazilian jiujitsu is now renown worldwide, but only few acknowledge that it took it roots from prewar judo and jujutsu.
And when we say “toughest”, there’s no better example than the man who is widely regarded as the greatest judoka of all time – Masahiko Kimura.
Although considered small by contemporary judoka standards, being a mere 5 feet 7 inches tall and weighed no more than 200 pounds, legendary tales about his training methods and physical prowess have always resounded in the world of judo.
Masahiko Kimura was born in Kyushu, Japan on September 10, 1917. Kimura first became interested in judo when he was 10 years old after he got scolded and humiliated by his elementary school teacher for ruining the teacher’s desk.
Kimura wanted to get even when he found out that his teacher was actually a first degree black belt in judo. Kimura, due to his childishness that time, reasoned that if he became a second degree in the same art, he could finally beat his teacher with skill equipped to throw him around, and it was for this reason that he first took up judo.
That same year, 1927, Kimura tried out judo at a dojo near his school. He already fell in love with judo the moment he stepped his foot onto the tatami mat. With his natural strength, hungry spirit, and big-framed body, Kimura progressed rapidly.
At a prefectural sumo tournament, Kimura took second place even when he was only a first kyu student. Gaining the crowd’s praise, Kimura got invited to enroll and join either the judo or sumo team of Chinsei Junior High School. Kimura accepted the offer and chose judo.
In April 1932, Kimura finally joined the judo team right after he got transferred to Chinsei. With five hours of practice and 300 pushups daily, Kimura began his swift path towards the black belt rankings.
At 14, Kimura already achieved his first degree after several months of joining the Chinsei team. After a year, he then became a second degree. May of that year, Kimura passed a written exam and skills test at the Headquarters of the Japanese Martial Arts Association, earning him his third.
Kimura just 15 that time, brought national attention and promoted to fourth degree when he won against several opponents who were all third and fourth degree competitors at a team tournament in Saga prefecture.
With his superior dedication to the art, Kimura was appointed as team captain of the Judo team. Kimura took his school to the national judo championship for the first time that same year.
A year later (1935), at age of 18, he became one of the two youngest fifth dan students after he consecutively defeated eight opponents at the Headquarters for the Main Governing Body of Judo.
With Kimura’s remarkable success, considered as one of the rising stars of judo that time, enrolled at Tokyo’s Takushoku University where he was trained and managed under Tatsukuma Ushijima. Ushijima, was renowned for his fanatical training regimen, also won the All-Japan Professional Division Champion in 1931 and 1933.
He then earned his fifth degree on one of the tournaments he attended. But Injury, fatigue, and lack of experience took the toll on Kimura as he suffered several defeats on his first year in the university.
Disappointed, Kimura contemplated to quit but dissuaded by his friend. His sensei told him that those losses will always give him the opportunity to rededicate himself to the art of judo. The encouraged Kimura began training again.
Kimura threw himself into practice like never before. That 300 to 500 pushups he’d done in his high school and university days have greatly increased to doing 1,000 a day, for each day of the week. He also began practicing throws against a large oak tree.
With this super training regimen and newfound dedication, Kimura’s throws became so powerful that his daily bouts often resulted to injuries for his opponents. Two years later, just before World War II, he became the first student ever invited to compete and won the All-Japan Professional Division Championship.
Kimura became the only person awarded with pennant for permanent possession by winning three All-Japan tournaments consecutively by 1939.
In 1940, Kimura who was 25 that time was acknowledged as Japan’s greatest judoka by winning the Ten Ran Shiai tournament with 80 competitors in the amateur and professional division. Emperor Hirohito, who was amazed to see how Kimura easily won against five opponents, awarded a ceremonial dagger to him.
The All-Japan Championship was cancelled when the World War II began. Kimura being at his peak was able to bench-press 185 pounds for 500 times, equivalent to his own body weight. He was also said to have hung himself to a tree to strengthen his neck. Kimura did something remarkable in 1936, he defeated 50 black belts in 50 five minute matches at Kodo-Shian University.
Kimura also entered Karate after witnessing a Karate-do demonstration at his university. Believing that karate would strengthen his hands, he started practicing 1,000 makiwara knifehand strikes as well as thrusting four fingers into a bowl of sand every morning. Kimura trained Shotokan and Goju-ryu Karate and became close friends with Mas Oyama.
World War II
In 1941, Kimura graduated from Takushoku University but remained as the assistant director of the martial arts department. However, Kimura was due to join the military because the Pacific war was well under way. Kimura volunteered for front-line duty to the Solomon Islands but his captain, who happens to be a judo fourth dan, forbade him saying that he was more valuable as a living example of the nation’s fighting spirit. It was indeed a very good decision, as the transport ship that he would’ve traveled on was sunk, with only one survivor out of five hundred men aboard.
In 1945, Japan surrendered the war after the atomic bombings. Judo as well as most Japanese martial arts was forbidden. Kimura couldn’t practice judo anymore; he worked as a coal sales broker and as a bodyguard just to support his severely poor family.
Fortunately, after the National tournaments were reinstated in 1947, Kimura defeated future All-Japan champs to win the Western Japan Championship with an prize money equivalent to $10,000. He was already a seventh dan by then.
In 1949, Kimura became the co-champion of the All-Japan Championship after a grueling battle that ended with a draw. At 32, it was to Kimura’s last tournament.
Post-World War II Japan, people suffered harsh existence as their victors threaten and maltreated the citizens with guns. Kimura run-in with four military personnel. One day, Kimura was waiting at the train station when the military personnel shouted “Jap! Jap!” They wanted them to bow and pay respect, the Japanese had no choice but to obey.
But Kimura refused. He was then taken to the nearby bridge for a private beating. People hurried to watch as they know who Kimura was. Any violence against occupying forces could result to imprisonment or the worse, execution. Kimura found himself in a difficult position.
The military personnel charged but Kimura deflected their blows with ease. They were struck by Kimura’s powerful blows and some of them were thrown in the river. The incident leaked out and within a week, Kimura was arrested and escorted to the local headquarters. But luckily, the officer in chard of the regional military personnel explained that the men Kimura had beaten had been a problem and was considered undesirables, forcing them to be sent home. Kimura was instead requested to teach judo for the officer in charge and other military personnel.
Kimura was invited to teach judo in Hawaii for three months and signed on for a pro-wrestling sting after it ended. The money Kimura earned was used to buy medicine for his wife, Tomiko, who was diagnosed with tuberculosis and needed adequate medical attention. Tomiko recovered after several months of medication.
Because of Kimura’s foreign activities on pro-wrestling and judo, the Japanese Judo Organization decided to freeze his rank. He had to remain as a seventh-degree for the rest of his life.
With the money he earned from teaching and touring on foreign countries, he started to invest on some profitable businesses and being able to support the needs of his family.
In 1949, after several tours in Europe, the judo team was challenged by Brazil’s Helio Grazie. Gracie faced Kato, a fifth dan, first. Although Kato was able to throw Gracie several times, the Brazilian still managed to win with a choke.
Kimura Vs. Gracie
Kimura then decided to step up and accept the Gracie’s challenge. The match took place on October 23, 1951 at the Rio de Janeiro’s Maracaña Stadium. Around 20,000 audiences attended including the president and vice president of Brazil. The Gracie’s supporters threw eggs at Kimura as he enter the stadium, and even place a mock coffin for him.
During the fight, Kimura threw Gracie with several variations of throws. Kimura really intended to injure Gracie but the mat was so soft the Gracie landed safe and undeterred. The fight progressed into groundwork as throwing alone couldn’t subdue Gracie who showed refusal to lose. Kimura then applied a strong headlock causing Gracie to bleed from his ears. Kimura showed respect by asking Gracie “Bon?”, meaning “Are you Okay?”, to which Gracie responded with “Bon.”
The fight went on and Kimura had his legs across Gracie giving him a hard time inhaling. When he was about to surrender, as promised to his brother to prevent injury, the light went dim as he passed out instead.
Kimura who got tired, released Gracie and mounted him instead. Gracie who passed out with his eyes open, regained consciousness. And finally, Kimura had Gracie’s arm twisted in an arm lock. It was so hard and over extended that he could already see his fingers. But the joints got already too sore and numb from too much grappling that he didn’t feel any pain. Gracie didn’t submit even after he broke his elbow and radius-ulna bones. The corner of Gracie then threw the towel to stop further damage. The infamous reverse arm lock, “Kimura”, was named after him after his victory. Kimura was on full praise and impressed with Gracie’s techniques that he invited him to teach in Japan.
Kimura vs Rikidozen
In the succeeding years, Kimura went back to Japan and established the Kokusai Pro Wrestling Association. He was then invited to compete with Rikidozen, who had just begun a rival organization called Japan Pro Wrestling Association. They performed as tag teams and opponents as well. The Kimura vs. Rikidozen match, held on the 25th of December 1954 at the Tokyo Sumo Hall, was supposed to go to a draw and set up a series of rematches. Kimura would allow the other man to throw karate chops to his chest and Rikidozen would allow the other man to throw him using judo.
But things didn’t proceed according to plan. Rikidozen became taken by fame and greed. Rikidozen, after receiving an accident groin kick, threw a series of punches, open hand strikes, and kicks that knocked out Kimura instantly to the mat. Several friends of Kimura, including Mas Oyama and some yakuzas, called that night to volunteer in killing Rikidozan.
However, Kimura declined but on December 8, 1963, Rikidozan was stabbed on a night club in Tokyo by a yakuza and died a week later because of peritonitis.
Kimura continued his tour throughout 1950s, performing wrestling exhibitions and teaching judo at the same time. He traveled in Mexico, Spain, London and France.
Kimura’s final tour was on Brazil in 1958 and 1959, where he defeated Valdemar Santana in a submission match. Santana was a jiujitsu and capoeira champion who beat Helio Gracie twice. Kimura and Santana had a rematch under Vale Tudo rules but the match ended in a draw after both competitors drew blood. Kimura was pressured by the promoter and police to fight despite having an injured leg.
Kimura returned to Japan and served as a chief judo trainer at Takoshoku University. Under his supervision, the judo team won the All-Japan Collegiate Championship in 1965.
Kimura seldom left Japan after his international activities in 1950s. One of those rare occasions was in Montreal, Canada. Being brought over by his former foreign student, Douglas Rogers, at the Takoshoku University.
Here’s a video documentary of Douglas Roger’s experience in training with Kimura:
Kimura, being a longtime smoker, began to lose weight and was diagnosed with cancer. In early 1993, he underwent surgery, but despite that the nurses seen him doing pushups on the floor shortly after.
Masahiko Kimura passed away at St. Mary Ann University hospital at the age of 75 on April 18, 1993.
People achieve greatness because they’re naturally talented, because they have perfect training environment, because they’re excellent instructors, or because they simple work hard. But in the case of Kimura, it was all of the above.
Here’s a video about Kimura and his techniques: