Different Ways of Conducting Judo Competitions: Japan Goes Its Own Way

Gotaro Ogawa( July 15, 2009 )


During the process of Judo’s becoming a widespread international sport, the original way of conducting competitions has undergone considerable change. Although Japan has adapted to internationalized game rules, there always exists a sentiment of unhappiness in the mind of our Judo practitioners. This leads to maintaining some of the important traditional rules in our national competitions.
For us the Japanese, Judo is a martial art and thus, without exception, requires a duel. More concretely, we consider that Judo matches should be fought with no regard to weight difference. With this concept, we are able to see cases where a small player throws a larger opponent. This is one of Judo’s main characteristics, and the Japanese generally consider that the current system of dividing into several weight categories has killed it. This is why we continue to hold the All Japan Judo Championship in the form of “open weight.”
I watched this year’s Championship in April and would like to make a brief analysis in terms of the weight of its contenders to see to what extent weight difference affected or did not affect the competition results. Another reaction we hear in Japan about today’s internationalized judo rules is that the importance of Newaza( groundwork ) is being somewhat overlooked. In this respect I would like to introduce one annual tournament in which Newaza constitutes the main feature. This will be treated in the second part.

Other than the element of weight, I am also left with the impression that the Japanese Judo tournament differs from most international tournaments in the following aspects:
1. There are perhaps more Ippon matches.
2. The interval before referees call Mate is longer and the call used less frequently. This is particularly true in Newaza ( groundwork ). Premature Mate calls during Newaza block the process of entering into Osaekomi ( immobilization ) .
3. There is a greater tendency for the two opponents to get a firm grip on each other, rather than for fighting to grab part of the opponent’s Judo wear.
4. Referees allow longer time for the players to return their disarranged wear to its correct form, something which, I believe, contributes to creating an atmosphere for more courteous conduct between competitors.
I believe that looking at different ways of managing Judo competitions in Japan provides overseas Judokas with an opportunity for reflection on how to improve international competition rules.

Live up to the Principle of “Open Weight” Formula: A brief Analysis of the All Japan Judo Championship 2009

All Japan Judo Championships are held every year on April 29. They have been contested in the form of “open weight”, that is, without weight classes, ever since their founding in 1948. In traditional Japanese thinking, difference in weight should not be taken into consideration in martial arts. In fact, the weight of this year’s 38 participants varied widely: the lightest ( Mr. Uchishiba, Gold Medalist in the 66 kg category in both the Athens and Beijing Olympics ) weighed 69 kg while the heaviest (Mr. Kato) 155 kg. The winner of the tournament was Mr. Takamasa Anai, winner also of the International Championship in Germany in February this year. He weighed 100 kg.
Let me give some figures which may be of interest. Of this tournament’s total 37 matches, 27 were held between contenders whose weight difference was over 10 kilograms. Of these 27 matches the lighter player beat the heavier in 13, that is, in about half of the matches. Below is a list of some major cases among these 13 competitions (Winners are underlined. Figures in the parentheses represent weight in kilograms. Figures on the right show weight difference in kilograms between the two players. )


Kato ( 155 ) vs. Saito ( 92 ) 63
Nishiyama ( 90 ) vs. Wanifuchi ( 135 ) 45
Iwata ( 93 ) vs. Konno ( 135 ) 42
Hongo ( 100 ) vs. Kanzawa (130 ) 30
Tsujita ( 130 ) vs. Inomata ( 100 ) 30
Matsumoto ( 80 ) vs. Toyoshima ( 105 ) 25
Katabuchi ( 125 ) vs. Anai ( 100 ) 25
Anai ( 100 ) vs. Muneta( 125 ) ( Final ) 25
Shoda ( 120 ) vs. Anai(100 ) ( Semi-Final ) 20

If nothing else, one may draw from this table that the weight difference did not seriously count as far as this year’s Japan Championship is concerned. And there is no reason to think that this year was exceptional. As a matter of fact, the annual All Japan University Judo Championships are held in the form of team play of 7 players in “open weight.” Its 58th Championship held on June 27 and 28 this year, with participants’ weight varying between 60 kg and 185 kg, saw a similar result, namely, in nearly 50% of matches the lighter contender won against the heavier.
In Sumo tournament, we often enjoy matches between two wrestlers with considerable difference of weight in which the lighter or smaller wrestler throws or beats the heavier one. I am of the opinion that in international Judo competitions we should reduce, if not abolish completely, the number of weight divisions. It would help Judo come a bit closer to its original character, often described by the Japanese as “ Juu yoku go wo seisu ( 柔よく剛を制す),“ meaning “ Flexibility can overcome force.” Reducing the number of weight categories would motivate players to learn more “flexible” techniques to overcome heavier opponents, and thus contribute to technical development. It could subsequently render Judo more interesting and exciting.
Mr. Isao Okano, Gold Medalist in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics’ Judo middle weight ( -80 kg) category and two-time Japan Championship winner in 1967 and 1969, recently spoke of there being ways to explore possibilities for attaining a sounder form of Judo, for instance, through reducing the number of weight categories, or through allowing players to compete in higher weight categories( e.g., a 66 kg player competing at the 73 kg or higher level ).

Sticking to Newaza( Groundwork )

Although certainly not a major event of Judo in Japan, one of the inter-university Judo tournaments draws the interest of certain Judo amateurs because of its major focus on Newaza ( groundwork ).
On June 13 and 14, the 58th Seven University Judo Championship was held at the Kodokan. This annual championship is held among the Judo Clubs of seven major national universities formerly known as imperial universities. I watched some of this year’s matches as I am an alumnus of the Tokyo University Judo Club, part of the seven-university league. I can well remember the time over 40 years ago when we devoted considerable time and energy to Newaza practice. Ever since the founding of Judo, Newaza has always been a very important part. There is a criticism in Japan, particularly among the older generation of Judo practitioners, over the recent tendency to neglect the importance of Newaza. To my knowledge, the Seven University Championship is probably the only tournament in which Newaza constitutes the major element of competition.
To understand it better, I would try to recapitulate below those rules which are quite different from more ordinary ones.
1. Competition is by team, with 15 players on one team.
2. Winning players advance to the next match, while the losers or those who draw retire.
3. Matches are decided only by Ippon or by two Waza-aris. Only a single Waza-ari constitutes a draw. There is no Yuko: only Wazaari and Ippon are counted.
4. Hikikomi( drawing the opponent into groundwork without applying throwing techniques ) is allowed.
5. When two contenders grappling on the ground go beyond the borders of the playing area ( Jogai ), they are taken back into the center in the same relative position ( Sonomama ) by the referees and told to continue the groundwork with “Yoshi” call.

One can see from these rules that Newaza plays a decisive role in the competition. In fact, while a number of matches are decided by Ippon through throwing techniques, the majority are decided by Ippon through Newaza or by two Waza-aris. Under the rules, it often happens that as soon as the Hajime ( start ) has been called, one of the players immediately grasps the collar of his opponent and in the same instant drops down on his back and tries to draw the opponent into the groundwork. Grappling on the ground sometimes continues for minutes. Duration of the match is normally six minutes. Referees usually do not call Mate and order the players to stand up. When the two contenders, in the fierceness of their struggle, go beyond the borders of the rectangular arena, they are brought back into the middle in the same relative position and told to continue the Newaza. Continuing Newaza sometimes results in long stalemates, but it is also possible to enjoy eye-catching reversals from defensive to offensive position. Moreover, a Waza-ari in Newaza requires 25 seconds, yet a single Waza-ari is insufficient for a win. Matches can thus be tedious for those who expect Judo to be full of spectacular movements. On the other hand, those who truly appreciate Newaza can find excitement in seeing the contenders’ subtle exchange of offensive or defensive techniques.

In my humble opinion, current international competition rules and the performance of referees have much curtailed the development of Newaza techniques. I would say one of the gravest problems is that referees often call Mate too prematurely and too often when opponents are in the midst of fighting on the ground. Attaining Ippon through Newaza sometimes takes time in the sense that the contender on the offensive side must go through the preparatory process needed for a solid Osaekomi ( immobilization ) . This means, for instance, first trying to secure the holding of the opponent’s shoulder, and then working to extract his leg from between the legs of his opponent. Premature Mate calls kill this process and thereby hinder the sound development of Newaza. Many Judokas in Japan share this opinion. Therefore, there is a need for rules to be modified and referees trained so as to allow a longer time for the interactions of Newaza.
Newaza is as important and as much an integral part of Judo as Tachiwaza ( throwing techniques ). There are many exciting Newaza techniques, including a number of esoteric cases developed during the past century by both grand or unknown Judokas. The techniques of Newaza are indeed very deep. It is regrettable that the effort it takes to explore these deep techniques has been weakened because, perhaps, of a predilection for more eye-catching Judo based on commercialization.
It’s time for the IJF to consider ways to remedy the situation. Although there are pros and cons to the rules of Japan’s Seven University Judo Championship, its way of managing competition provides us with good material for reflection.