SEIRYOKU ZENYO

Sanjay Kabir Bavikatte

Photo credit: Airbear Photography

Photo credit: Airbear Photography

Jigoro Kano, the founder of Judo at sixteen was a sickly boy who stood five feet two inches and weighed only 90 pounds. Tired of being bullied, he resolved to become stronger. This in itself isn’t noteworthy as yet another story of a 90-pound weakling’s road to strength. What makes one sit up and take notice is the way young Kano went about getting strong and the trail he blazed for others like himself along the way.

A reader of the various biographies of Kano is struck by the amount he accomplished in his 77 years. He was an innovative educator occupying several high positions in the Japanese government and serving as the principal and dean of schools and universities. He travelled the world, fathered nine children, served as a member of the International Olympic Committee and spearheaded Japan’s bid to host the 1940 Tokyo Olympics. Amidst all this, he developed judo as a martial art, established training centres, taught hundreds of judoka and ensured Judo’s international reputation. There is a parallel here between a fundamental principle of Judo and how Kano managed to achieve so much in his life. This principle is seiryoku zenyo, translated as ‘the use of energy in the most efficient way possible for the greater good.’

The development of this principle as a cornerstone of Judo and in Kano’s life itself may have something to do with Kano’s size. As a teenager, Kano realized that he wasn’t going to get much bigger. To hold his own against bullies bigger than him, he had to develop an art where it wasn’t strength or size that mattered but the ability to achieve maximum leverage with limited strength. His quest to develop such an art mirrored how he lived his life. Resources and strength, he understood were finite and most people weren’t fortunate enough to have them in abundance. Wisdom, according to Kano, lay in developing ways to achieve great things with the efficient use of what one had at one’s disposal.

True to the spirit of Kano, even to this day, in the traditional judo dojos in Japan, the inefficient use of strength to perform techniques is frowned upon. The judoka who executes a successful throw but does it as a result of strength is given a backhanded compliment that he has ‘sugoi chikara’ which means ‘amazing strength.’ But Judo insiders know that this is poor form since it isn’t efficient. If the opponent was more skilled or bigger or if the match went on for longer, the one who used excessive strength would have soon tired and lost. Also it is understood that strength diminishes with age, and the strapping youth of today will be older and weaker twenty years from now and unable to execute techniques that rely only on power.

It is also common knowledge among the senior Judo teachers several of whom are also practitioners of Judo-Seifuku (traditional bone-setting) that improper use of strength leads to injuries that are debilitative in the long run. A bulk of their patients constitute sports-people who have trained with the credo of harder is better and pain is just a sensation. While Kano being the disciplinarian that he was, certainly wouldn’t recommend a life of ease and comfort, he definitely wasn’t of the school that more is better. In one of his writings he speaks of the notion of dedication, where he argues that people tend to think that working hard is an unqualified good. What they fail to see is that misplaced efforts not wisely directed towards the greater good, brings more harm than benefit.

There is a lesson here for us who live in a culture that valorises excess- whether it be strength, material success, achievements or consumption. The adverse effects of this on the environment, quality of life and health can be seen all around us. Many of us are constantly exhausted and stressed from overwork. At times like this, we would do well to pay heed to Kano’s exhortations of seiryoku zenyo. When we sense a potential burn out or are frequently tired, it is a sure sign that we are living inefficiently. The solution then isn’t more energy, a holiday or a new diet but to ask ourselves whether we are using our limited energy in the most efficient way possible for the greater good. If the answer is negative, then its time to make some changes.