The 2012 All Japan Judo Championship and weight categories


Just a couple of months before the London Olympic Games, the 2012 All Japan Judo Championship was held on April 29 in a more passionate atmosphere than usual years.
The tournament, always fought in one open-weight category, ended in an unexpected but quite interesting result. The winner of the final match was Hirotaka Kato, 93kg, who earned Ippon by Sumiotoshi against Ryuta Ishii, 135kg. The few players considered to be possible candidates for heavyweight categories in the Olympics suffered severe defeats in the quarterfinals or semifinals. This will make the selection of our representative for the Olympics in the 100kg + category very difficult. Nevertheless I saw some positive elements in this year’s tournament.
On the whole, the posture of the players was good: we saw very few overly defensive positions with hips drawn backward. With the kumite fairly solidly made, twenty out of the thirty-six matches were decided by Ippon. Since assuming the top position in Japanese judo three years ago, Haruki Uemura, president of the Kodokan and of All Japan Judo Federation, has repeatedly sent a clear message to all judokas in Japan: “Respect courtesy, make appropriate kumite, work to obtain Ippon through efficient techniques.”
His message seems to be respected.
One point of regret for me was that there was only a small amount of ground work. I wonder if the Japanese men are trained well enough in newaza (ground work) and are ready to combat strong foreign competitors. At any rate, the champion Kato is a specialist in ground work. He often applies very innovative immobilization techniques. This time, out of the five matches he won, he twice beat his opponents by Tomoenage which lead to newaza. He made good use of his unique ground techniques, which led almost to pinning his opponents.
Another point I would like to mention is that the difference of weight does not seem to mean very much in the Japan Championship tournaments. In fact, there were 37 participants altogether. The lightest were two 75kg players while the heaviest was Daiki Kamikawa who weighed 140kg. Of the total of 36 matches, 28 were fought between two athletes with a weight difference exceeding 10kg, the largest differences being 55kg and 42kg. Of these 28 matches, there were nine in which the lighter defeated the heavier. In the championships of the last three years, the situation was not much different.
 I am one of those in Japan who contend that the number of weight categories in judo matches should be reduced. This is because the reduction would bring judo closer to its fundamentals and make it more interesting. In my view, the present system of seven weight categories has made judo lose some of its dynamism, in the sense that the absence of matches between two opponents of large weight difference has deprived judo competitors of opportunities to develop techniques efficient enough to conquer heavier opponents. In fact, there exists a kind of philosophical difference between Japan and the West. For Westerners, matches should be fought on an equal or fair basis that includes weight, while Japanese consider judo as a martial art and therefore judo matches to be like duels: one is not allowed to choose one’s opponent for whatever reason. That is why the All Japan Judo Championship has always been conducted in the open-weight category.
On several occasions over the past few months I raised the issue of weight categories with my judo friends. Most of the Japanese were in favor of reducing categories but there were also different opinions. Realists say that the current system has been so solidly established in international tournaments that it would be impossible to reduce the number of categories. Moreover, they argue, the IOC wants to give a large number of medals to promote sports. One national coach remarked that open categories may be ideal in judo but in reality those weighing 70 or 80kg can hardly ever beat those of 100kg, and added that the quality of judo did not deteriorate because of weight categories. A former women’s Olympic medalist stated, “ If the number of categories had been smaller, Ryoko Tani and Tadahiro Nomura would not have been able to earn medals.” On the other hand, another former medalist in the 73kg category stressed, “ When I was young, I always did judo without weight categories. I think that this helped me broaden the range of my techniques.” I put the same question to my French judo friends who were visiting Japan. The leader and some of his colleagues were totally in agreement with my theory.
With regard to the realists’ arguments, I think this way. I am not advocating a total abolition of weight categories. I only suggest reducing them, for instance, to three or four categories. Judo and other sports change according to the rules of the game. If each of the weight categories were expanded to 20 or 25kg, participating players would certainly work hard to cope with the new situation, developing their techniques to face heavier opponents. The number of medals would be reduced. It may be unfortunate.
But it is a choice between the search for the essence of judo and Olympian populism. Look at Japan’s sumo. A “light weight” wrestler under 130kg sometimes throws an opponent of about 190kg in the air with a spectacular technique! In this April’s All Japan Judo Championship, the winner Kato weighed 93kg but successively defeated Muneta(120kg) in the quarterfinal, Momose(120kg) in the semifinal and Ishii(135kg) in the final match. Kamikawa, who was a heavyweight candidate for the Olympic Games, lost to Momose who is 20kg lighter. Isao Okano, gold medalist in the middleweight category in the Tokyo Olympics of 1964, is a prominent protagonist for reducing the number of categories.
 With these elements in mind, reducing the number of weight categories should be worth our consideration, in order that judo becomes more dynamic and its techniques more varied. In Japan we always believe that in judo a small player can definitely win against a bigger player. And that is a wonderful characteristic inherent to judo. I hope the IJF will give serious thought to it after the London Olympics. (Gotaro Ogawa May, 2012)