Yamashita was born in Kanazawa, Ishikawa, Japan. His father was of the samurai class. As a boy, Yamashita trained in the traditional (koryū) Japanese martial arts schools of Yōshin-ryū and Tenjin Shin'yō-ryū jujutsu. In August 1884, he joined the Kodokan judo dojo of Kano Jigoro (嘉納 治五郎 Kanō Jigorō, 1860–1938), as its nineteenth member. He advanced to first degree black belt (shodan) rank in three months, fourth degree (yondan) ranking in two years, and sixth degree (rokudan) in fourteen years. He was a member of the Kodokan team that competed with Tokyo Metropolitan Police jujutsu teams during the mid-1880s, and during the 1890s, his jobs included teaching judo at the Imperial Japanese Naval Academy and Tokyo Imperial University (modern University of Tokyo).
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