Defeated Japan : post-London challenges

Optimistic forecast and the reality
Bitterness, disappointment, criticism and even anger. These were the sentiments of many Japanese with an interest in judo over the results of London’s Olympic judo matches. The bald fact was that Japan’s men’s team failed to earn even a single gold medal. Media here set their articles in sensational “Zero gold” headlines, adding that it spelled the sunset of Japanese judo. All too obviously, it was the first time in the  history of their participation in the Olympics for the men’s team to suffer “zero gold.” As for the women, Kaori Matsumoto(-57kg) won a gold medal, as predicted. But Tomoko Fukumi(-48kg), Misato Nakamura(-52kg) and Yoshie Ueno(-63kg), all expected to take gold, failed to do so. In total, the Japanese judo team earned only one gold, three silver and three bronze medals. In the number of gold medals, Japan was behind Russia, France and the Republic of Korea.
Haruki Uemura, President of the All Japan Judo Federation and also chief of Japan’s entire Olympic Delegation, had shown confidence in earning several gold medals in judo. People here believed it. In London the Japanese delegation as a whole won the largest number of medals (gold, silver and bronze included) they had ever earned in a single Olympics. This made the aching defeat in judo all the more conspicuous.
If we look at things objectively, though, the result was not something unexpected. First of all, there is the clear reality that in judo, as in all other sports, there is very little difference in capability among the world’s best athletes. Prior to the Games, it was difficult to predict a sure winner in any weight category, with the exception, perhaps, of Teddy Riner( +100kg) of France. Besides, Japanese men had experienced a miserable “zero gold” in the 2009 World Judo Championships in Rotterdam. There was already talk of the decline of Japan’s judo at that time. If the current feeling of disappointment is great, it is rather because the AJJF spread an overly optimistic prediction and the public believed it without understanding the reality of today’s world.       

What were the problems?
 “The result reflects the current level of Japanese men’s judo,” stated Yasuhiro Yamashita to the Asahi Shinbun immediately after London’s judo competition had ended. “The possibility of ‘zero gold’ was never excluded. The Japanese men simply did not succeed in making progress against their foreign rivals. It also appears they weren’t in the best physical condition on competition days. Watching their performances, I felt they hadn’t studied their rivals enough…. Besides, they lacked a strong fighting spirit…. There’s a need to analyze seriously the causes of these problems.”
 In my opinion, I think there are two kinds of problems. First are those inherent to Japan. The others are of international character. Let me talk first about the former.
 Japan’s training system is built up around judo’s traditional spiritualism and the discipline of top down education. Above all are the exhortations for gold. To attain this, players must work constantly at maximum level with no time off. They must listen to their coaches and trainers in order to become stronger. This kind of education leads them to think that medals other than gold are of no substantial value. Japanese players unable to win gold are generally unhappy. As examples, this is how a couple of our players who failed to reach gold responded, faces and voices somber, to press interviews after their London matches:
Riki Nakaya(silver medalist, -73kg)  “I’m still weak, not at all well enough prepared.”
Masashi Nishiyama(bronze medalist, -90kg)  “I feel ashamed getting beaten. I’m full of regret, real regret.…”
The players are under strong pressure to get gold medals. Silver or bronze fails to please them. Some feel this spirit is like that of the samurai and appreciate it, while others think that considering medals other than gold not worth winning is a sign of too much pride and that players should be freed from the nightmare of gold.
 Japanese Olympic team members and other candidates undergo a series of intensive collective training sessions throughout the year. Balancing that with participation in frequent international tournaments seems to have left them somewhat exhausted. Some of them did not have time to recover from injuries. Some confided such problems to me. This is perhaps why Yasuhiro Yamashita spoke of their poor condition.
Certainly some study was made of foreign rivals, but it would appear insufficient, because I saw Japanese players adapting poorly to the way their rivals performed. We know that foreign rivals are generally superior to Japanese in speed and muscular strength. We are also aware that they are capable of applying techniques without solid kumite. But watching their London performances, it appeared that Japanese players were not well prepared for their rivals’ way of combat. Some foreign players were quite good at newaza but the Japanese, especially men, were ill prepared. Anai and Kamikawa, Japan’s main heavyweight players, were too easily immobilized. Scenes of their defeats were almost a disgrace to Japanese judo. While movements of each of the Japanese players had been scrupulously studied by foreign rivals, one wonders to what extent the Japanese had studied their rivals’ styles and methods.

“Judo is not so interesting”
 Let me now touch on some problems of international character.
 Since it was the Olympics and there were optimistic forecasts of how many gold medals our judo team could win, millions of Japanese were glued to their television sets. Apart from the natural feeling of disappointment over the successive defeats of their compatriots, a large number of viewers, including many amateurs, found judo matches not so interesting, because there were too many decisions by shido or by flags. On top of that, long drawn out skirmishes for kumite in the “cockfighting” style (as they call it in Japan) only bored them. “Ejudo”(, a Japanese language Internet site specializing in judo matters made the following comments, which I consider well founded:
“Has judo at last become more interesting? The International Judo Federation (IJF) under Viser’s leadership has made a series of rule changes in order to render judo more attractive in the eyes of spectators. In this process, they considered throwing to be judo’s core charm. In London they also reconsidered the definition of ippon. Up until the London Games, IJF efforts had been producing some positive effects and judo became more dynamic than before. In London, though, we witnessed a countercharge. Namely, we saw a tendency to use an ultra-tactic strategy consisting of preventing an opponent’s grasp while seizing him/her and also of applying techniques to impede his/her attack. These techniques were based on minute research into the rival’s movements. It is natural to use tactics to win, but what we saw in London may have spoiled a judo which is pleasing in spectators’ eyes. What is important here is to have two opponents grasp each other, mutually, trying for a clean and aesthetically-pleasing ippon by throwing. How can we reach this aim? It is time to propose new ideas.”
 Another important question is the problem of referees. From before London, intervention of the “jury” was often the object of criticism. This new mechanism was apparently set up to rectify inappropriate calls by referees on the mat and to ensure coherence of judgment. But in London intervention was clearly excessive. Overly frequent intervention by the jury resulted in harming confidence in the refereeing system. Judgments made by main referees were so often declared null or changed on instruction of the jury that it also had a negative psychological effect on the players and interfered with the stability of competitions. The worst example was the quarterfinal match in the men’s -66kg category between Ebinuma from Japan and Cho from South Korea. The yuko declared in favor of Ebinuma was nullified following jury intervention. When the extra time “golden score” ended inconclusively and the decision was left to flags, Cho was unanimously declared winner, to the great astonishment of spectators. The decision was immediately contested by the jury. The jury ordered reconsideration and the flags were raised again. And this time all three referees reversed their earlier judgment and made Ebinuma the winner. What confusion! Millions of Japanese viewers were watching the whole process. Their impression was that the referees were puppets of the jury. Confidence in the judging system was impaired. At the bottom of all this was the problem of the quality of referees. The solution must aim not at strengthening the power of the jury, which should rather be weakened, but on the contrary, at installing a system of intensive and constant training of referees to improve their quality. The IJF has made efforts in this direction and there has been a certain degree of improvement, but it is not yet enough. The IJF must increase the allotted budget and strengthen human resources to obtain a faster result.

What should Japan do?
 The Japanese Federation thus faces these internal and international problems. At the national level, some judo watchers express a wish to see a change of coaches and training methods to adopt a more rational approach. Can Japanese judo circles, known for their conservatism, change by themselves? When the London Olympics ended, Kazuo Yoshimura, General Director of Training, expressed his intention to resign, hoping that his two chief trainers (Shinohara for the men’s team and Okada for the women’s) would keep their positions. Most recently, however, the Federation appointed Kosei Inoue as head coach of the men’s team, replacing Shinohara. Inoue is young (34) but has an innovative spirit. He has developed an international perspective cultivated especially during his recent two-year stay in Great Britain. In personal conversations with him, I sensed he was considering changes in the way of training. It remains to be seen whether he can successfully carry them out in the traditionally conservative and hierarchical world of Japan’s judo.
On the international front, tasks are multiple. First, how can we realize a more attractive judo? This question concerns such issues as shido, kumite, ippon, and the refereeing system. The Japanese have philosophies and ideas about these issues but have been rather reticent when it comes to international debate. There are also other equally important issues related to the administration of international tournaments, including their system of weight categories, frequency of world championships, the ranking system, selection or qualification of national representatives for the Olympics, and organization and governance of the world federation. The IJF is of course the principal actor in the administration of international judo. But judokas around the world often share the same sentiments and face common problems. The world federation must take the opinions of the players into more serious consideration. One might imagine a little more democratization in the debates on various issues in order to contribute to better administration of aesthetically appealing or “beautiful” judo.
 Haruki Uemura, President of the Japanese Federation, has ceaselessly projected a strong message to Japanese judokas: “Respect courtesy, use proper kumite to engage with your opponent, and aim for ippon through use of rational techniques.” It is time for the Japanese to express their opinions at the international level and to take action in close cooperation with other national federations. The French, Russian and all other federations that seek to realize a “beautiful” judo can be good partners. To accomplish this, the Japanese Federation must strengthen its human and financial resources.
                                                         ( November, 2012 )