The Budokwai is the oldest and most famous Japanese martial arts club in Europe. For nearly a century, the club has been both a beacon of excellence and a prime mover in their development. It played a leading role in the establishment of the European Judo Union (EJU) and the International Judo Federation (IJF).
Some of the most distinguished figures in the history of the Japanese martial arts have trained or taught at the Budokwai, including many Olympic medallists. Although primarily a judo club for much of in its early days, it now embraces Shotokan karate, aikido and Gracie jiu-jitsu.
The Budokwai was founded in 1918 in Lower Grosvenor Place, along the back wall of Buckingham Palace, by Gunji Koizumi, a Japanese immigrant, who thought the promotion of ju-jitsu and ken-jutsu (sword fighting) might help his adopted country, then immersed in the First World War. Koizumi subsequently wrote:” I hoped that rendering my service in promoting such training would be a means of pacifying my conscience, which was pricked by the fact that we Japanese, especially students, had been recipients of the kindness and hospitality generously bestowed by the people of this country, without making any tangible return.”
The Budokwai was founded on the ground floor and basement of what had been a German dressmaker. Work on redecorating the premises began in December 1917 and the club officially opened on Saturday, January 26, 1918, with improvised judogi (suits) and 12 members. Koizumi adopted the name of the club or, strictly speaking, society, in the following manner: bu meaning martial or military; do, way or code; kwai being society. He explained: “The society badge was designed, the character ‘bu’ on the background of a cherry blossom. Bu is composed of two characters, one meaning spear or fighting, the other meaning stop, indicating that the aim of martial training is to stop fighting.”
An early tradition was the club’s annual show, the first of which was held at the Budokwai on May 11, 1918 and attended by the Japanese Consul-General. By the end of the first year, the number of members had risen to 54 and the following June, there was the inaugural general meeting of the club. There were three main principles:
1920 proved a significant year because, to cope with the increasing demand for instruction, Yukio Tani was invited to be an instructor at the Budokwai. He joined by Hikoichi Aida, who had accompanied Jigoro Kano, the founder of judo, in a visit to Britain that year and stayed as an instructor until 1922. This began the link between the Kodokan, the headquarters of the sport in Tokyo, and the Budokwai. During the 1930s, there were even attempts to merge the Budokwai with the Kodokan, creating a London branch of the Kodokan but this was eventually abandoned.
By this time, judo was already becoming a wider activity than just a martial art confined to links with Japan. In 1926, the Budokwai had taken part in the first international match against Germany. The interest in the activity was growing with the Budokwai featuring on television in August 1937, less than a year after the BBC had started the first television service world.
One of the club’s leading figures of that and subsequent eras, Trevor Leggett, was invited to the Kodokan in 1939, where he was taken on by the British Embassy and along with the rest of the staff was interned when Japan entered the War, by which time he had been promoted to fifth, the highest non-Japanese grade in the world. However, when he was repatriated, his knowledge of the language and the country was invaluable, first when he was a major in the intelligence service of the Army and subsequently as head of the Japanese Service of the BBC. He taught generations of leading figures at the Budokwai, where he eventually became president. At his death in 2000, he had reached the grade of 9th dan.
Koizumi not only founded the Budokwai but he also kept it alive financially when it threatened to collapse. This was particularly acute during the Second World War when so many members were on active service. The return after the War brought renewed growth of interest in judo. Dozens of clubs began to be founded, many relying on the Budokwai for instruction. In 1948, Koizumi convened a meeting at the Imperial College Union in South Kensington of all the known clubs in the country and the British Judo Association was established; Koizumi even providing the money to start the Association. A few days later, the European Judo Union was set up with four voting countries present, Britain, Austria, Holland and Italy; France was an observer. The International Judo Federation was set up three years later also in London.
In 1951, the Budokwai transferred its annual display to the Royal Albert Hall to reflect the growing status of judo, which that year also saw the first European Championships being staged (the first world championships followed in 1956). The links between the Budokwai and the Kodokan were strengthened in 1953 when Teizo Kawamura, a 6th dan, arrived from Japan to be chief instructor at the club. The following year came the momentous move of the club from Lewer Grosvenor Place to its present site in Gilston road, South Kensington. The new premises were officially opened in September by the Japanese Ambassador, H.E.Masumoto throwing Kawamura.
The start of major international competitions transformed judo, particularly when it first became part of the Olympic programme in Tokyo in 1964, when three of the four members of the British team, Brian Jacks, Syd Hoare and Tony Sweeney, were from the Budokwai. The growing emphasis on competition gave a profile to judo that it had not previously enjoyed. People were drawn to the sport because of its status. In addition, the governments of many countries began to fund judo, so greatly aiding its development.
However, there is no doubt that there were drawbacks to the concentration on judo as a sport because, for many people, it is part of the attraction of the activity that it is more than simply a preparation for competition. The Japanese culture and language, for instance, have increasingly and inevitably been sidelined, as the Olympics have become so prominent.
The Budokwai Bulletin, a magazine, usually quarterly, was set up in 1945 and lasted until 1967, when what will hopefully be the last financial crisis at the club’s history caused it to cease publication.
The ending of the Budokwai Bulletin was another example of the changes in judo. These were ultimately caused by the admission of judo to the Olympic Games as well as the introduction of weight categories to national and international events, thus allowing more fighters, of any size, a chance to win medals. Activity at the Budokwai therefore concentrated on preparing for competitions, initially for men and then subsequently for women, whose status was advanced after the first women’s world championships in 1980 and their later admission as a medal sport to the Olympic programme in 1992.
As a result, there was less and less time at the Budokwai for such ancillary activities as practising kata, producing magazines, having lectures on the Japanese way of life and the history of the country, katsu classes and particularly the rehearsals for the annual show. The display was held regularly for the last time in 1968, when Anton Geesink, the Dutchman who won the first Olympic Open title in 1964, did the famous 10-against-one line-up. However, the show has been revived for special occasions, such in 1988, when the club celebrated its 70th anniversary.
Another change occurred in the mid-1960s when the Budokwai began its link with the Japan Karate Association (JKA), the predominant Shotokan organisation. First, with Charlie Mack and subsequently with a number of Japanese, notably Keinosuke Enoeda, the 1963 All-Japan champion, karate became increasingly an important feature of the club’s activities, with classes in the martial art eventually being staged on six days of the week. National shotokan karate championships began in 1967, two years after the JKA had sent over four missionary instructors, including Enoeda and also Hirokazu Kanazawa, the 1957 and 1958 All-Japan champion.
Aikido became another important feature of the club’s curriculum with the return of John Cornish from Japan in the same decade, while Gracie ju-jitsu has been introduced more recently.
The pressure on getting mat-space for the different activities as well as the varied level of ability in those activities grew steadily, particularly since there was the additional demand of martial arts for children. Week-ends began to be used even more extensively than previously. Judo gradings, which once used to stop most activity in the club for a week every three months, were eventually shifted to Sundays, so leaving week-days free for practice.
After being omitted from the Mexico City Games of 1968, men’s judo became a regular part of the Olympic programme in 1972, largely thanks to Charles Palmer, a member of the Budokwai, former national team captain and the first non-Japanese president of the International Judo Federation. He had campaigned assiduously for judo’s inclusion in the Games and his satisfaction at the success of his efforts further increased when Britons won three medals in Munich.
Two of the fighters were from the Budokwai: middleweight Brian Jacks, who had won Britain’s first medal at a world championships when he finished third in Salt Lake City in 1967, and the other by Angelo Parisi, who took a bronze medal in the Open Class at the age of only 19 years-old and, after changing his nationality to French, collected three further Olympic medals, including the heavyweight gold in Moscow in 1980.
Of even greater long-term benefit for the club during the 1970s was the buying of the freehold of the club’s premises, something that not only saved money in rent but also, because of the increase in London property prices, provided a financial buttress for the club’s future. As the monetary reserves steadily improved over the following 30 years, leading competitors also began to receive subsidies from the club to help them prepare for major events, something that had become a full-time occupation.
Competitors such as Neil Adams, who arrived at the club in the 1970s and, in 1981, became the first British male world champion, and Ray Stevens, who won a silver medal in the 1992 Olympics, were an example of this trend. Until the 1960s, it was difficult, although not impossible, to get into the British team unless a fighter had either lived in London and/or had spent time training in Japan. However, as the sport grew in popularity and clubs outside the capital became stronger; neither practice became essential for international success.
Although no longer dominating the sport as it had done, the Budokwai continued to play a significant role in British judo, supplying members to both the men’s and women’s national squads up to the present day. They were aided in this by a revival in the practice of inviting Japanese instructors to teach at the club. After Kisaburo Watanabe had left the club in 1966, there was a gap until Katsuhiko Kashiwazaki, the 1981 world featherweight champion, arrived in 1982 with his remarkable facility for newaza (groundwork) techniques. He was then followed by a series of celebrated instructors, none more so than Yasuhiro Yamashita, the 1984 Olympic heavyweight champion and the man who did so much to restore his country’s pre-eminence in the sport after it had suffered several maulings, especially in the heavier categories, during the 1970s.
In recent years, the club has continued to expand in numbers, particularly among juniors in judo, and also in karate, despite the death in 2003 of Keinosuke Enoeda, who had been the chief instructor. The links with the Japan Karate Association have remained strong. As a result, at the start of the 21st century, the Budokwai has maintained its position as the leading Japanese martial arts club in Britain. It is financially secure, enjoys a large membership, has recently renovated premises and, above all, possesses a status against which all other clubs in the United Kingdom are measured.