Inter-national Jûdô: Raising Japan’s Voice OGAWA GÔTARÔ

(Published in the “Japan Echo”, Vol.36, No.1(February,2008)

Amid all the drama and controversy of last summer’s Beijing Olympics, no event captured the attention of Japanese viewing audiences the way jûdô did. I myself, a fairly casual practitioner of jûdô, was glued to the television. Even people who never watch jûdô under ordinary circumstances spoke of being overjoyed when Japan finally came away with the most medals in all categories. But what I found most interesting was the large number of jûdô novices who reacted with the comment, “Something’s wrong with jûdô today.” They were responding to a style of jûdô in which the opponents spar endlessly without either getting a grip on the other, competitors have increasing recourse to wrestling-style tackles that bear no resemblance to traditional throws, and decisions are passed down on matches in which there is no apparent winner. Another common complaint is that jûdô is no longer fun to watch.

That viewers with no experience in jûdô are voicing almost exactly the same complaints as aficionados is telling. It has become obvious to just about everybody that something is wrong with jûdô as it has evolved in the international arena.

The jûdô competition at the 2008 Beijing Olympics also gave evidence of the diminishing role of etiquette. I was disappointed by clear signs that even Japanese athletes are losing sight of the mental aspect of jûdô, as seen in its etiquette and the ideal of respecting one’s opponent, which plays such an important role in the martial art. At the same time, I was relieved and gratified to see that this spirit is alive and well in the demeanor of some of our women athletes.

These days one is no longer shocked to see match winners run triumphantly around the mat and rush over to hug their coach or pump their fist and let out a war cry without first bowing to their opponent, or for the losers to remain curled up and immobile on the mat instead of rising quickly to make the requisite bow. Yet amid this atmosphere, one was impressed by the handful of Japanese athletes, such as the female jûdôka Ueno Masae and Nakamura Misato, who kept their composure and maintained an attitude of respect for those around them throughout, regardless of whether they had won or lost. Their ranks are dwindling, but these are the jûdôka who have truly absorbed the spirit of jûdô and—regardless of gender— exude a dignity worthy of the samurai.

In real jûdô, competitors are expected to keep their emotions under control until the combat is over and they have made a full bow to one another and stepped off the mat. Jûdô demands mental fortitude as well as technical skill. In jûdô, the sole Olympic event that originated in Japan, the Japanese should be providing a model for the rest of the world to follow in adhering to such etiquette. Unfortunately, Japan itself is losing the spirit of jûdô.


Today jûdô is one of the most popular sports in the world. The International Jûdô Federation boasts a membership of 199 national and regional organizations around the world. In the Olympic games, jûdô is a focus of fierce international rivalry. From a Japanese perspective, the popularity of jûdô as an international sport is both a blessing and a curse. We are rightly gratified that people around the world have learned something about the merits of Japanese culture through the vehicle of this martial art. The problem is that jûdô has changed in fundamental ways as a result of its rising status as an international sport.

The Japanese can be proud of the fact that a martial art invented in Japan has spread to every corner of the earth, and in many cases, those who practice jûdô—children included—are learning and practicing its rules of etiquette and discipline. I myself practiced jûdô in college, and after entering the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, I was able to witness firsthand the depth of jûdô’s penetration through my own experience training and interacting with others in the seven countries where I was posted.

I was stationed in France for four years beginning in 1969, and even back then almost every French town had a dôjô where all kinds of people—men and women, young and old—came to practice jûdô. With more than 500,000 practitioners, France is truly a nation of jûdô enthusiasts, from the grass-roots level on up.

Much later I was stationed in Cambodia for about three years. When I arrived in 2000, Cambodia had finally entered an era of peace after close to 30 years of civil strife and subsequent chaos. The massacres perpetrated by the brutal Pol Pot regime had decimated the ranks of the country’s jûdôka, but members of the Japan Overseas Cooperation Volunteers were leading an effort, focused on younger Cambodians, to revive the martial art. I can still vividly recall how even the youngest trainees would walk over and thank their instructor before leaving after each practice.

My final diplomatic post was in Denmark, with a population of only 5.4 million. Wherever I went in this small nation, I met devotees of the Japanese martial arts—not just jûdô but also kendô, aikidô, karate, and even the likes of iaidô (sword combat) and jôdô (staff combat). I was deeply impressed to see how earnestly the students strove to acquire the spirit of jûdô, with even young children at clubs in outlying areas sitting in the formal seiza kneeling position and bowing at the beginning and end of each class.

Even though jûdô has become an international sport, one can still find many dôjô overseas where the walls are adorned with pictures of Grand Master Kanô Jigorô (1860– 1938), jûdô’s founder, and with plaques displaying such basic jûdô precepts as seiryoku zen’yô (making good use of one’s energy) and jita kyôei (mutual welfare and benefit). In France, with its large population of jûdô devotees, one still finds many people who care about the spirit of jûdô and of the martial arts in general, people who are trying to learn more about the ideals and behavior of the samurai and so enhance their knowledge of Japan. Millions of people around the world are drawn to the mental, spiritual training traditionally associated with jûdô. With this in mind, the Japanese jûdô establishment should treasure and preserve this side of jûdô. The spiritual precepts of jûdô that have spread around the world, penetrating even to the grass-roots level, are a precious part of Japan’s heritage.


To repeat, the Japanese people should be proud that not only jûdô techniques but also the very essence of this martial art has spread throughout the world. Yet in the course of jûdô’s transformation into a world sport characterized by frequent international tournaments, the rules and conduct of competition have been changed at the initiative of the European nations, with the result that jûdô has gradu¬ally evolved into something that differs essentially from the jûdô that we as Japanese have traditionally valued.

Among these changes are the institution of weight categories; the adoption of a scoring system that awards fractional points called kôka and yûkô, below even waza ari; and the rules by which referees can repeatedly interrupt a contest with a mate (stop) to apply a shidô (minor penalty).

One of the biggest problems concerns the last issue above: the penalty rules under which a referee can call mate in the midst of a match and penalize a jûdôka who maintains a defensive posture for too long without attempting an attack, resulting in points for the other competitor. While this rule may be effective in encouraging jûdôka to go on the offensive and speeding up slow or stalemated contests, it has created problems as well. In response to the frequent use of this mate, many jûdôka have taken to performing halfhearted feints and false attacks or, conversely, attacking immediately with a wrestling tackle before getting a grip on their opponent’s jûdôgi (uniform) as a means of avoiding such penalties.

Basic jûdô technique involves grabbing the opponent’s jûdôgi securely by the collar or sleeve in order to execute a single throw leading to a clean victory, referred to as an ippon. Since Japanese competitors tend to dominate as soon as they get a firm grip on their opponent’s jûdôgi, non-Japanese jûdôka increasingly fall back on wrestling tackles to avoid this. The aim of the current rules is to make competitors get a firm grip on their opponent’s jûdôgi, but the effect has been otherwise.

The frequent use of mate has also had a negative effect on ne-waza, techniques performed while down on the mat to pin an opponent. Although the situation has improved somewhat recently, there are still many cases in which the referee calls a mate too soon, while one of the competitors is in the midst of an active ne-waza. The ne-waza used to pin an opponent are by nature more time-consuming than tachi-waza (standing techniques) because they involve controlling various parts of the body in succession—for example, first the legs or arms, then the shoulders, then the neck. To have the competitors stand when the ne-waza is clearly going nowhere is fine, but these frequent and premature mate calls simply interrupt the ne-waza process and are impeding the further development of ne-waza techniques. For this reason referees need to be better trained in proper timing of mate calls.

The standards regarding jûdôgi measurements have also emerged as a major problem. Some non-Japanese jûdôka have taken to wearing tight-fitting uniforms with narrow sleeves or thick collars to make it harder for the Japanese competitors to get a grip. The issue of jûdôgi standards is a serious one with the potential to alter the very nature of jûdô. Awareness of this issue is spreading, and some efforts are being made to address it, but Japan needs to take more initiative on this front.

The system of weight categories has become so firmly entrenched in international jûdô that it would be difficult to overturn it. Still, there is no denying that the system has undermined the principle that “softness overcomes hardness,” and taken away the zest of a martial art in which the small have the ability to triumph over the large. Like jûdô, Japanese sumô has seen the influx of many non-Japanese wrestlers, but since the rules of sumô have remained unchanged, sumô remains a fascinating sport in which one can still savor the thrill of watching a smaller competitor overcome a larger one.


As the foregoing indicates, the spread of jûdô around the world has given us cause to rejoice, but it has also resulted in serious issues. The biggest problem is rule changes that are altering the very nature of the martial art and making it less interesting to practice and watch. Despite these problems Japan has continued to focus single-mindedly on winning the most possible medals under the current rules, and while people here may lament jûdô’s transformation from a martial art into an international athletic competition, the overwhelming tendency has been to acquiesce in that process.

The sense that Japan must at all costs dominate in world jûdô competition doubtless derives from the public’s high expectations of Japanese athletes in a sport that is historically our “specialty.” Since the basic thinking is that the most important thing in sports is to win—meaning to win medals—it stands to reason that all our resources should be focused on that goal, especially where jûdô is concerned.

It seems to me, first of all, that even if Japan loses at jûdô, this is no reason for the Japanese to wring their hands in despair. Jûdô may have originated in Japan, but it has been an international sport for many years now. I have trained in places like France and the former Soviet Union, and I have come away with the impression that the French and Russians are physically stronger than the Japanese on average. So it is hardly surprising that, given an equal amount of training under accomplished instructors, some European or American jûdôka can best their Japanese counterparts. One could cite any number of sports that are no longer dominated by the nations where they originated. We need to free ourselves from this obsession with winning jûdô medals.

p>More important, the excessive focus on medals distracts us from other important goals. Being actively involved in the governance of world jûdô with the aim of reviving its true spirit is at least as important as winning medals. We must overcome this medals-first mind-set and find a way to rise above it. It is critical that Japan take the initiative in reforming the rules that Europe and America have imposed on Japan’s own martial art instead of passively following them. Reforming the current rules to better reflect Japanese ideas of how jûdô should be approached will ultimately have the effect of increasing Japanese athletes’ chances of winning and increasing the number of medals they win.

Unfortunately, Japan is currently in a very bad position to lobby for such changes. For Japan to have an impact on the governance of world jûdô, it needs a strong voice in such organizations as the International Jûdô Federation. Our country has recently experienced two shocking setbacks in this respect. Last year Yamashita Yasuhiro, one of the most successful international jûdô competitors of all time, lost his seat on the IJF Executive Committee by a huge vote margin. And prior to that, Satô Nobuyuki, known for his sterling character as well as his vast knowledge, was decisively defeated by the Kuwaiti candidate for president of the Jûdô Union of Asia. This has made it difficult for Japan to take a leading role in jûdô governance at the world level.


Given the aforementioned merits and drawbacks of jûdô’s development into an international sport and Japan’s current position vis-à-vis that sport, it seems to me that the time has come, in the wake of the Beijing Olympics, to embrace a new viewpoint, adopt a long-term perspective, and consider our strategy for the period ahead. As I see it, that strategy should be focused on the goal of permitting Japan to seize the international initiative in restoring the traditional essence of jûdô.

To achieve this strategic goal, we must channel our efforts toward a pair of objectives. One is to nurture strong competitors who can win by practicing a more traditional jûdô. The other is to participate actively in the governance of world jûdô. Hitherto Japan’s jûdô establishment has directed its resources primarily toward the former objective. Henceforth it is critical that we dramatically boost our efforts toward the latter and pursue a two-pronged initiative oriented to achieving the strategic goal I have articulated above.

Showing that we can win with the Japanese ippon style of jûdô will help give us the leverage to move other countries in that direction as well. At the same time, if we can acquire a larger say in international governance by participating more actively, we can help change the rules and conduct of international refereeing in such a way as to restore jûdô to its traditional form—which in turn will improve Japanese competitors’ chances of winning. In this way, the two efforts can be expected to reinforce one another in a synergistic manner.

Of course, accomplishing this will be no easy matter. Defeating the world’s top competitors in one throw is extremely difficult, and influencing the international jûdô establishment will be equally tough now that Japan has lost its seat on the IJF Executive Committee and the vote that goes along with it. Still, no matter how difficult the task, I believe we must begin working toward that long-term goal now.

To do this we need a new mind-set. Until now the Japanese jûdô establishment has placed top priority on winning. Although Japan must continue to nurture strong athletes, it should place the highest priority henceforth on securing an active role in governance of world jûdô. Accordingly, it must channel its resources into building a stronger organization for that purpose. This is essential if we are to move as quickly as possible to reform the rules and judging practices that are robbing Japan’s own martial art of its essence.

It is true that the top officials and leaders of Japan’s jûdô establishment have been striving to correct the situation. It is also true that the IJF has gradually become aware of various problems and begun working to address some of them. Still, with countries around the world placing ever greater importance on Olympic jûdô and the World Jûdô Championships, the decision reached at the recent IJF Extraordinary Congress in Bangkok to institute a world ranking system suggests that the IJF under President Marius Vizer is determined to continue pursuing jûdô’s transformation into an athletic competition.

To strengthen Japan’s voice in world jûdô governance with a view to reversing this trend and reviving traditional jûdô, we should begin by pursuing the concrete objectives of securing representation on the governing bodies or chairmanship of the IJF and the AJF and amending the international refereeing rules.


It has been pointed out that although Japan has produced athletes of international stature in a variety of sports, its influence on the international governance of those sports is in most cases quite weak. Generally speaking Japan has failed to play an active role in the formulation of international rules of competition, and as a result our athletes are forced to accept rule changes passively and respond as best they can. Strengthening our voice in the rule-making process is an imperative for Japan’s involvement in all international sports, and we should approach it comprehensively as a national undertaking.

It goes without saying that an important prerequisite for strengthening our influence in international govern¬ance of sports is winning election to those sports’ governing bodies. In domestic politics, anyone hoping to be elected to the National Diet begins preparing years in advance. Since international elections take place in a much larger arena, they present even greater challenges, and it follows that massive preparations are required to win. Japan’s jûdô establishment should place high priority on these elections, investing as much as possible in terms of both human and financial resources.

With about 200 member countries, the IJF is a hotbed of political intrigue, especially when an election is in the offing. Although the latest election cycle ended just last year, Japan should begin preparing for the next election now and make sure that it is not the last out of the starting gate. Of course, this does not mean immediately launching an open election campaign. The immediate task is to begin raising Japan’s profile by clearly articulating our position on the rules and conduct of competition, stepping up consultations and forging alliances with the delegates of other countries that share our basic views, and boosting support and aid in various forms to the jûdô federations of developing countries.

Japan needs to place great emphasis on these elections, as other nations already do. The All Japan Jûdô Federation should marshal its forces now and begin planning and preparing to launch an all-out international campaign.


Changes in the international refereeing rules are essential if we are to bring back traditional jûdô. As I noted above, some leaders in the international jûdô establishment are already cognizant of problems in the current rules and the need to restore jûdô to its original form. The decision to abolish the use of fractional kôka points in the wake of the Beijing Olympics is a welcome step forward. But there remain a number of rules that have altered the fundamental nature of jûdô, and as the birarticulatingthplace of this martial art, Japan should take advantage of public forums to highlight problems in the current rules clearly and repeatedly. Because Japan speaks with unique authority on the true tradition of jûdô, the All Japan Jûdô Federation could have a real impact by consistently a clear position on the key points, repeatedly stressing the proper approach to jûdô at international forums and in sports magazines.

But there is only so much Japan can accomplish on its own; it is crucial that we gain the support of others. We must reach out to strengthen alliances with countries and individuals who view things as we do. We need to lobby to build a consensus on reforming the refereeing rules to revive traditional jûdô, and we should take advantage of each international competition to hold consultations and informal talks with jûdô officials from other participating countries. It should be possible to form alliances with countries like France, where jûdô has deep roots, as well as South Korea and Russia, where a relatively large number of practitioners aspire to master jûdô in its traditional form. There is already movement afoot in the IJF to restore jûdô to this form, but Japan must provide leadership for such efforts by exercising its authority as the country where jûdô originated.


In international forums the Japanese typically take a passive, unassuming posture consistent with our society’s emphasis on the virtues of modesty and humility. Unfortunately, in international society this tendency to defer is the exception; even in East Asia, Japan’s approach stands in sharp contrast to the assertiveness of the Chinese and the Koreans. International bodies often make decisions with which we disagree simply because other countries spoke up while we remained silent. It is sometimes said that “silence is golden,” but in these cases silence is defeat. If we need interpreters to convey our views, so be it. Surely jûdô is one area where Japan can make itself heard if it speaks up with confidence. At this very moment forces within the IJF are plowing ahead with a revision of the bylaws that would strengthen the powers of the president. Japan must not stand by quietly and allow this to happen.

In pursuing its new international strategy, Japan should focus above all on the following medium-term goals.

The first is to secure the necessary human resources, particularly in the AJJF’s international divisions and committees. Playing an effective role on the international stage requires negotiating skills grounded in international experience as well as foreign-language ability and knowledge of jûdô. Finding such “triple threat” talent may not be easy, but it should be possible if we explore all avenues. For example, quite a few Japan International Cooperation Agency volunteers have experience teaching jûdô in developing countries. Some jûdô practitioners have overseas experience as employees in private-sector firms. In addition, even those with relatively little prior experience in jûdô should be able to learn enough about it to participate in international jûdô governance as long as they have international experience, foreign-language skills, and an interest in jûdô. The organization should bring together capable people from all sectors—jûdô insiders and outsiders alike—to shoulder its international activities.

Such activities will require funding, of course. Rather than use the lack of funds as an excuse not to launch inter¬national initiatives, we must work on the premise that gearing up such activity is absolutely essential and ask ourselves how to find the funds we need. Of the many Japanese corporations that provide sponsorship for international jûdô competitions, surely some can be persuaded to cooperate in this effort to revive the traditional martial art and enhance the power and prestige of Japanese jûdô. Bringing together the know-how and talent of people inside and outside the jûdô establishment will also be helpful from the standpoint of finding the financial backing we need to develop and enhance our international jûdô programs.

Boosting Japanese participation in international jûdô governance with a view to reviving traditional jûdô should be a national undertaking. Not long ago the ruling Liberal Democratic Party launched its Research Commission for the Establishment of a Sports-Oriented Nation under the chairmanship of Asô Tarô (currently prime minister), with former Prime Minister Mori Yoshirô as top advisor. The jûdô establishment would do well to gain the support of this commission. In terms of developing human resources for international sports management and gathering information from overseas, it would also be helpful to persuade the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to cooperate with a view to the official goal of establishing a sports-oriented nation. Increasingly these days, other countries approach elections for the international bodies governing major sports as a national undertaking. Depending on the situation, it may be necessary to seek the help of Japan’s overseas diplomatic offices in gathering pertinent information, arranging meetings with key foreign figures, and so forth.

Although it will not be easy, it is of the utmost importance that Japan pursue an effective strategy for strengthening its influence in international jûdô governance. We must attract talent from inside and outside the jûdô establishment, secure the cooperation of the political, administrative, and business sectors, and move quickly to pursue this goal as a national undertaking.

Translated from “Nihon jûdô kai wa arata na kokusai senryaku o,” Chûô Kôron, December 2008, pp. 218–27; abridged by about one-fourth. (Courtesy of Chûô Kôron Shinsha)