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My plan to get a Black Belt in Judo in <12 months

By April 28, 2024May 2nd, 2024No Comments

Oh no! I forgot to share some big personal news with my total online following of 5-10 great people.

In December 2023, I set myself a goal to achieve a shodan (1st degree black belt) in Judo — in 11 months (November of next year). I’m writing this blog post on April 28, so I’ve been on this journey for about 5 months.

I first learned Judo for 1.5 years in the USA (first at Cornell University’s Judo club, and then at the San Francisco Judo Institute). I was dedicated, but I never felt like I had actually *learned* any Judo. In short, I felt like I sucked as much as any other beginner. My technique was terrible, and I had no idea why.

Here’s how:

The dojo

I’m training at the Kodokan, which is both the birthplace of Judo and the center of the global Judo universe.

Here’s what it’s like, based on a Reddit thread I shared earlier:

The course is 12 months long, and divided into 2 parts. First part is 3 months long, and the second is 9 months (when the “kyu” ranks begin). The idea is that you get your shodan at the end, but it seems most people get injured etc somewhere in between and get their shodan delayed by a few months. I’m yet to meet or hear about anyone who got their shodan in 12 months as per the plan.

When you first show up to the Kodokan, they ask you to first watch a class in full (it’s almost mandatory) and then do an “interview” with the head coach about your prior Judo experience. You can skip the Judo school altogether and only sign up for the “randori class” that happens at the same time, but is almost exclusively full of black belts.

Class is at 6pm, 90 minutes, 6 days a week. Sundays off. Being late to class is acceptable, but the sensei might ask you to explain yourself if you’re late every single day. You usually have to make 13-14 classes for the month, or you have to repeat that month. To advance ranks, you have to have a certain number of attendances.

Instruction is 100% in Japanese, but a few Senseis speak a little English, and your classmates can usually help translate/correct you if you don’t understand. I speak okay Japanese so I don’t face too many problems, but there are a few people in class who don’t, and they’re faring okay too.

Class starts with a warm-up + ukemi for the first 20-30 minutes or so, but once in a while you have a sensei who stretches it to even 45 minutes, doing different drills and playing “games” to train your agility or balance or reaction speed etc.

First few classes focuse on learning etiquette and how to bow the right way (yes, you read that right), and then learning proper ukemi. The bowing instruction can feel a little bit of a waste of time in the beginning, but I’ve found an appreciation for these little things as time goes by. After a few classes, you start with the basic throws (o-goshi, de ashi barai, seoi nage, ippon seoi nage, and hiza guruma), and basic ne-waza pins (mostly kesa-gatame).

In the second month, you start learning new throws (tai-otoshi, harai-goshi, osoto, ouchi, kosoto, sasae, etc). Usually the class is divided into 3 groups: first month students, then second + third month students, and then all the kyu grades. The 2nd and 3rd month curriculum is the same, and we always train together. You basically spend 2 months practicing the same throws.

The quality of instruction varies because each day there’s a different sensei, and even though most of the sensei’s are 6th degree red-white belt and above, once in a while you do get a sensei who’s barely interested in teaching at all. In fact, there are also a couple 5th degree black belt sensei whom I actually like the most, because they put more effort into teaching. The technique also varies from sensei to sensei, because everyone has their own way of teaching the same throw — but I think that’s also okay, because you have to adjust the throw anyway over time and find YOUR way of doing it. It also varies with the body type of your opponent (i.e. the way you do a seoi nage on a person of similar build is very different from an uke who’s heavier and shorter). In the beginning, it can be a little confusing as to “which way are you supposed to learn.”

But overall, the system of instruction is very good. It’s not perfect (I’d still change a few things, from a beginner’s standpoint), but it’s still very good. There’s no randori for the first 3 months, and I love that. I first learned Judo in the USA for 1.5 years, where beginners are thrown into randori (pun unintended) too early in my opinion. Once I got here, I also realized that I had never really learned to do ukemi properly — they tend to fix most of these little mistakes.

I also want to mention something in general — I’ve found the Kodokan to be a very fun, warm, and “easy going” environment to learn Judo. It’s not overly strict or military-like, and everyone is more on the jolly side. They’re very inflexible with administrative stuff (i.e you can’t do things out of the “process” in terms of enrolment etc, which is typical Japan), but in terms of the class itself, they let you go at your own pace and focus on your own judo journey.


I started out going 3-4 days a week, because my body simply couldn’t take the beating (after over 3 years of being out of it).

Soon, I heard that the only way to get a shodan in 12 months is this: 1) come everyday, and 2) don’t get injured.

I took this to heart, and since then, I’ve been showing up 6 days a week, every week. The only exceptions are when I’m really sick, or have a non-negotiable professional commitment.

The senseis have also taken notice, and my Judo has improved drastically. In the first 2.5 months of randori in Japan, and in the first 1.5 YEARS of Judo in the USA, I rarely ever threw anyone — but recently, I’ve been consistently getting more throws. The ratio is slowly getting better.

But as with everything, unlike learning Japanese, learning Judo is not a linear curve — there are good days and bad days, good weeks and bad weeks, and even good months and bad months. I’ve sprained/practically broken my big toe on both feet more times than I remember, and my right shoulder has become like a grumpy old man who wails and complains about a new problem every 2 weeks.

But the key is to keep showing up, and ride the plateaus. The worst thing to do is to quit when things have just started getting better!

Even if I’m injured, I still show up to just watch and do whatever technique work I can. It’s better than nothing, and in fact, it’s an opportunity to work on the weak parts of your Judo — footwork drills, gripping, posture and balance, and what not. Showing up everyday to improve something, yields drastic results over a long period of time. That’s what MY Judo journey is all about.

It’s highly possible that I may fail to achieve my goal of shodan due to an unexpected circumstance. But I believe that as long as you’re obsessed with a goal, it will happen — human obsession is a force that can bend the universe itself.

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