Kano was the son of a sake brewer. As a child, he had the name Shinnosuke. In his youth, he majored in philosophy and studied English and German with help from instructors from England and Germany. He also studied Tenjin Shinyo-ryu Jujutsu and Kito-ryu. The techniques he learned in those two schools would later be incorporated into judo.
Kano was a relatively short person, but he could take on those larger than him, usually with an uki-goshi (floating hip throw), which was an original technique he created when he founded judo. He also gave names to techniques other judoka created, e.g. tomoe-nage (circular throw). He was the first Japanese member of the International Olympic Committee.