Ippon 一本 • Total Excellence

In the the sportive or contest application of Japanese martial arts (especially Judo) there is a standard of excellence that exceeds all others. This standard is the fullest, most complete, and highest form of victory there is within shiai (contest). It both stands head and shoulders above all other potential forms of winning and it is the form that the martial artist most endeavors to achieve. This highest, most complete, and most thorough form of victory is called “IPPON!” It is my contention that we can extend this concept beyond sportive martial arts duels and into our broader lives. Ippon!

In these contests of martial arts technique, Ippon is a single point. This single point wins the entire match. There are other minor scores that can accumulated throughout the contest…but if an “IPPON” is scored, all of the other scores are rendered irrelevant and the match ends immediately. So ippon isn’t just “a point’ but it is “the point.” You can win by minor score or by judges decision but that is never the goal…winning by Ippon is always the goal!

In judo (or jujutsu) this would mean one massive high amplitude throw with skill, power, speed, technique, and control. Also possible by having the opponent surrender and concede defeat by way of joint lock or strangulation technique.

A western example would be something like a Knockout (KO) in boxing. One boxer could be ahead 11 rounds to zero…but if that 12th and final round the “losing” fighter scores a decisive blow and KO’s his opponent the match ends immediately and without question. He scored an IPPON level technique. A complete and total victory. To the fighter the goal isn’t to “win on points” but to end the fight by an execution of a sublime technique that demonstrates beyond question that his or her victory is complete and total. This symbolizes a death blow in the spirit of old-school battlefield martial arts.

My sensei always talked about “always doing one’s very best.” He was encouraging us to a certain standard of excellence in how we conducted ourselves both on and off the tatami. Like famous quote that is often attributed to Aristotle:

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”

He was encouraging us to do our best…to strive for excellence! If there is a task to be done, don’t approach the task in such a way that you “win on a judge’s decision” or by eking out only enough to kind of, sort of, get the job done. No, he would admonish us to complete the task with you absolute best effort. Look to score an “Ippon!” Whether you do or do not score an “Ippon” is different question…but your goal is approach tasks with the spirit of your best, most excellent effort. Whether it is a technique on the mats, cleaning your room, or a tackling a school project or exam – go for Ippon!

Some of the Japanese judo champions have had a unique form of criticism in the past. They are often up on minor points in a judo match but they seem to continuously attack with unyielding vigor. As if they were losing. On occasion they get countered and lose the contest. In post match interviews they’ve been asked, “Why didn’t you just stale for time and lay low?You were winning the match.” The standard Japanese answer is something in the ballpark of… “I know but I didn’t score Ippon.” The Japanese judoka in these cases weren’t in it to win on minor points. The goal was to look for victory by an absolute best effort of will and technique. This effort toward total excellence was more important than just “getting the job done.” It isn’t just about doing the work…it is about doing the work with excellence. Getting the job done with complete and total excellence was the goal. For many Japanese champions it is a habit. The habit of excellence. The habit of not being satisfied with anything but the highest form of personal effort. The habit of Ippon!

The older I get the more I’ve thought that summarizing this entire attitude of “doing one’s best” or striving for excellence as a default setting can be summarized by this spirit of Ippon. Ippon isn’t always possible… but the effort to strive for Ippon is. Our best effort, fulfilling our greatest potential, taking pride in both our work & character, striving personal excellence…this the spirit of Ippon!