Can Japanese Judo Recover Gold?

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Following the announcement that the Olympics will be coming to Tokyo in 2020, Japan began its preparations with typical enthusiasm. Photos of the new, expensive stadium were released and athletes made a big deal of the 50-year anniversary of the last time the games were held in the capital.

However, after all the staged smiles and platitudes disappear, the public will be expecting results and nowhere is this truer than with the national judo team. After all, this is a martial art synonymous with Japan and which accounts for the majority of the country’s medals at a typical Olympics.

Despite the nation’s eyes looking expectantly in their direction, the Japanese team may be awkwardly shuffling their feet and avoiding eye contact. In short, all is not well in the world of Japanese judo. Although its defenders will point to 2008 being a solid performance (7 medals to the runner-up China’s 4), few would say that the following Olympics went as planned.

At the 2012 Olympics a promising Japanese team plummeted to 4th in the medals table behind Russia, France and South Korea. For the first time, the Japanese men didn’t get a single gold medal and it was left to the ever-reliable Kaori Matsumoto to save the Japanese team’s blushes with a lonely gold medal.

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As the national team endured the negative headlines and soul-searching, many commentators began to wonder if Japan had become a victim of the success of its previous generations. While in countries like Russia, the small number of judoka has meant that each one gets a lot of individual attention and even personal support from the martial-arts loving Putin; Japanese professionals are simply too numerous to be given this type of individual treatment. Even coaches as good as Hikari Sasaki have been lured to Plomelin (France), tempted by the status and payment of coaches internationally compared to her home country. Japan simply seems to have too many talented prospects to lavish attention on the elite few.

“Their training is very old school as they don’t look to try new and innovative methods and to be honest a lot of what they do can sometimes be counterproductive,” Sam Haugh, a veteran of the Japanese judo scene explains. Over his years training in Japan, he has been surprised at the unwillingness of Japanese competitions to adopt the International Judo Federation rules that are used in the Olympic competitions, “A lot of it comes from their reluctance to accept international rule changes. Japanese judo still uses (the more traditional) Kodokan rules.”

Pete Ross from Love Judo magazine agrees. “The IJF has been on the nose for many over the last few years. Seemingly constant rule changes in competition,” He explains, “If you’re a serious competition player, it’s enough to make you pull your hair out. The traditionalist guys seem to get even more upset, because every change seems to take judo further and further away from its roots.”

Japan can often seem like a country out of step with the rest of the world

As judo continues to modernize, Japan can often seem like a country out of step with the rest of the world. In 2012 the lackluster Olympic results weren’t the only things making headlines in Japan as they were coupled with revelations of widespread abuse of players, notably the allegations of a female player being beaten with a wooden sword.

Predictably this caused a reduction in funding for judo as the government tried to distance itself from the scandal. For many this was a sign that Japan was still having trouble adapting to the modern version of judo. Sam Haugh is hoping to see the end of this kind of discipline with the appointment of a new coach, “Inoue Kosei is the coach these days. I think he is a nice coach and avoids taibatsu (Corporal punishment).”

While Japanese judo tries to balance its rich history with the modern world, the team will be looking to make amends at the 2016 games where Japan will be faced with the novel situation of having no male competitors who are ranked number one in the world according to the International Judo Federation.

With many people viewing the next Olympics as a chance for Japan to prove that they have what it takes win big when the Games come to Tokyo, the judoka will be faced with going to Rio knowing that gold medals will be the only acceptable result.

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Grooving to Japan's rhythm.
  • Bud Roth says:

    I don’t think sticking to the older Kodokan rules is that big a deal. Actually having looser rules at lower levels of competition (like high school) allows wider participation and less rule-specific Judo. If the rules change, having a broader base won’t be a bad thing. International rules change so much that training against them is like shooting a moving target. Besides, in similar fashion, US wrestlers wrestle folkstyle rules thru college and pick up freestyle (Olympic) rules along the way. The USA manages to remain a wrestling superpower.

    I think the real problem with Judo in Japan is that the training techniques are outdated. There is an unwillingness to incorporate advanced training techniques invented elsewhere because there is a belief that Judo is quintessentially Japanese (a Budo, not a sport, etc.) and cannot be tainted by outside techniques. Inoue is changing things. He understands that the Judo technique of Russian, French, Mongolian, and many other countries’ elite athletes are on a par with Japanese athletes.
    The power deficit that is a result of not incorporating power training is giving overseas athletes an edge and he understands that gap needs to be eliminated.

    The success of overseas Judo athletes in the Olympics means that the Kodokan’s spread of Judo as a world sport has succeeded. Competing with foreign athletes will force Japanese Judo to change and ultimately, this is a good thing for Judo and Japan. Internationalization is a two-way street and some changes happen because they need to happen, not because you want them to happen. I expect you will see that under Inoue’s leadership, a few Japanese will take the 2016 Olympic podium to receive gold medals, both men and women.

  • Zao Zhu says:

    Interesting article.

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