A young French Judoka talks about his experience in Japan

A young French judoka who recently spent a year in Japan and practiced judo very hard talks about experience and thoughts. His name is Mr. Eric Hubert, 25 years old, graduate of one of France's "grandes ecoles" Ecole Polytechnique. He started judo at the age of 7 and an enthusiastic practitioner.
While in Japan he practiced judo in several different dojos. I have develoed a good personal relationship with him here in Tokyo both at dojo and drinking places. His sincere and ardent attitude to learn the Japanese language and to absorb knowledge about Japan reminded me of my days of some 40 years ago when I was a young trainee of Japanese Foreign Ministry studying in Bordeaux, France. Like him I also practiced judo in France. Gotaro Ogawa (Editor)


Judo in Japan: Training and Practice which Maintains the Interest of Adults

I took advantage of a wonderful opportunity to live in Japan for one year to practice judo in its original context. I discovered that, while the symbols of judo (for example, judo uniform, bowing, etc) have been incorporated by Europe, the way of actually executing judo has not.

In France, I am aware of only two categories of training.
The first type is high-level training for competition which, by definition, concerns only a restricted group of people. In this type of practice, players concentrate on physical preparation, measure precisely training and rest times, kumikata (gripping), and major randori exercises with maximum intensity.
The second type is standard training for the general public, the structure of which has not changed since I started judo at the age of seven, almost twenty years ago. In this type of training, players start with lengthy preparatory exercises, usually for a full thirty minutes. The exercises incorporate five to ten minutes of running, followed by many basic movements (for example, shrimp, crawling, balancing, etc) and often light muscle exercises (for example, abdomen, push-ups, etc). Then, for the next half an hour, they often study a particular technical point presented by the professor, alternating between the professor’s demonstration and the student’s reproduction. The last half an hour is utilized for judo itself: composed of warming-up exercises for a certain period of time and several randoris (often one or two times of groundwork and three or four times of standing exercise. This type of training by the professor is carried out almost everywhere in France and taught to young professors when they attempt to take the State’s teaching license.

Of course, this type of training exists in Japan. But I was surprised to learn that in Japan, this method is the structure of lessons for children. The organization of the French way of practice is an exact reproduction of judo lessons practiced at the Kodokan for elementary school children of 6 to 12 years of age.

The French Judo Federation, which boasts around 600,000 members, has the largest membership in the world and triple the number of members in Japan. However, more than half of newly accredited black belt holders quit judo every year. There must be a lesson to learn from this phenomenon. Why, in France, are there very few high level judo practitioners over 25 years of age who are not competition players? My conclusion, after one year of living in Japan is rather simple: in France, they practice high level judo and judo for children, but they have never thought of judo for adults.

In Tokyo, I practiced judo in a dozen different clubs: the Kodokan, universities, private clubs and company clubs. These clubs gather people of heterogeneous groups, almost exclusively men and mostly black belt holders, of between 20 and 80 years old. It is not rare to encounter several seventh dan judokas of the age of 70, who attend the entire training and participate in randori – and their fitness, as well as their technical precision, are very impressive.

Why do people of this age group continue judo? Of course, Japanese culture is different, effort is more highly valued, and the life of groups and the life of couples don’t have the same rules. However, the essential reason lies elsewhere.

What makes the difference lies in the way they train. In these dozen of dojos, the structure of training is always identical. The duration of training is usually two hours. In the first hour, the players arrive at dojo discreetly at the earliest time they can taking into account work and other commitments. The first part of training is much less formal than in France. It cannot be done otherwise for adults because of the irregularity of professional life and other commitments.
Each person commences the first hour (or 30 minutes, or 15, according to the time of arrival) with individual warming up exercises, according to his age and will. The younger players usually spend around 10 minutes, but those over 65 years of age often spend 30 minutes in order to take sufficient time to extend muscles.

Then, they begin randori on the ground (Newaza), the standard duration being 10 rounds of three minutes’ work without pause. Of course, they may skip a round in order to catch their breath, as some of them often arrive late. But for those who strive to make progress, they have the possibility of doing the full ten rounds.
The last quarter of the first hour is utilized for uchikomi, which is taken very seriously and carried out with great attention and application. Almost always executed in a fairly static manner, each person practices 20 movements of 5 to 8 series of techniques in order to make them automatic before the standing randori (Tachiwaza ). Those who arrive late or those who wish to work on a specific movement spend about ten extra minutes. It is rather rare that they don’t do so.

Then comes the principal part of the practice: the time for standing randori (Tachiwaza ) without pause; 12 times of 5 minutes’ randori or 15 times of 4 minutes, each duration being announced by the sound of a bell. The standard method is to distribute red sashes to those who want to do combat, and who can then hand the red sash over to other partners when they are exhausted. Others invite those wearing a red sash to a new randori exercise. Each adapts his exercise to his age, physical conditions, or state of injury: the youngest or the most vigorous stay on the mat, older people choose their partners and take a pause every two combats or so.

Finally, the last 5 minutes is always reserved for a return to calmness or muscle relaxation exercise prior to the final salute.

The results of the training are impressive: a player can, without difficulty, execute 12 randoris, or even 20 including Newaza, while reviewing the essential part of his technique. Progress is therefore spectacular. And there is also an element of fun in the training. The multiplicity of randori and of partners strengthens the ties of friendship in the club.

The difference from the training for children is huge: trainers do not impose their lessons. They watch and they make themselves available and always ready to help, rectify or advise those who ask for it, during the time of uchikomi and randori. I learned much more in these conditions, and in a more personalized manner, than in the typical French way of training which aims at meeting the needs of 13-year old green belt holders and 25-year old 2nd Dan players at the same time. The Japanese method of teaching allows each practitioner to find the best way to achieve his or her purpose: stress dissipates quickly, students are happy and attentive and the teachers are respected.

Another major difference is the complete utilization of randori practice which is the basic exercise of training for adults in Japan. This is the best and most realistic exercise, and at the same time the major educational innovation of Jigoro Kano. According to Professor Kano, it was randori practice which rendered his disciples efficient and allowed them to vanquish other ju-jutsu school fighters. These ju-jutsu schools conducted only kata and full competition. The victories of Kano’s disciples have made judo famous.

In Japan, randori is not conceived as combat to the death. It is considered as free but complete practice which must necessarily be adapted to the wishes and the needs of the two players. The first randori of the day is usually flexible. Players change partners willingly: with strong opponents, they can utilize physical force and with light weight partners, they may try to develop agility. They can work with a 60 kg partner and then change to another weighing 140 kg. They may practice with a young player of 20 years, and then with a 70-year old sensei after that. This diversity of partners in each training enables each practitioner to learn a variety of techniques adapted to different types of competitions. For instance, one applies osotogari against a small opponent, seoi-nage against a big one, Ko-uchigari against a heavy opponent, harai-goshi against a light adversary. This diversity of technique enhances the interest in practice and maintains the motivation of adults. This also explains the high level of judo in Japan.

Instructors always explain about the concept of randori, the difference from competition, reminding their students of the necessity to do ukemi correctly even when they are tired, insisting that they should practice ‘quality judo’, applying beautiful technique, and experimenting without fear of being thrown, if they want to make progress. Too much of kumikata (grappling) with a lighter opponent is not considered good.

In summary, this free and non-constrained way of practice for adults is highly efficient. The volume (1,000 randoris in one year with two training periods per week) enables players of all ages to make progress. It is a method particularly suited for the experienced adult population who wish to harmonize their professional life with the pleasure of doing judo.

Contrary to the general perception, adult beginners are not victims of this method: it seems that they make faster progress than in France, thanks to the special attention given by one or several senior practitioners and to the frequent opportunities to test their new movements in numerous randoris.

Unfortunately, this type of practice has not reached France. I regret it very much, as it has resulted in France in the departure from judo of many registered adults, as well as an increase in the success other forms of martial arts which have been able to present a suitable alternative to the adult population.

I sincerely hope that I can successfully introduce the ideas and concepts from Japan to France so that the largest possible number of people can continue to find pleasure in the practice of judo.

Newaza (Ground Work) Could it be a solution to the problems of contemporary judo?

Affirmation 1: The end of Newaza would cause the disappearance of ippon.

Returning from one year’s stay in Japan, I have indulged myself in reading old books provided by my friends. One of those books, written by Mr. Isao Okano in 1976, focuses on the link between tachiwaza (Standing Techniques) and newaza (Ground Work), and on newaza competition. The book profoundly impressed me. Mr Okano, a champion of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, and the lightest winner - two times - in the history of the All Japan Judo Championship (conducted without weight categories), is probably today’s best judo technician. The depth of his judo knowledge is enormous, but he always kindly makes himself available in order to support judo.

Mr Okano explains in his book that the best form of counter-attack against an adversary in an overly defensive position, as was traditionally taught in the middle of the 20th century, is a well coordinated chain movement leading to newaza. Thirty years ago, he was already deploring some referees trainers for neglecting this half of judo, without which the throwing from the natural position (shizentai ) would not make any sense.

As a matter of fact, in randori, what can one do against an opponent who repeatedly applies a poorly executed seoi-nage on his knees or continually attempts leg-grabbing? Is it possible to effectively engage that sort of opponent by simple force before utilizing an ordinary technique? Of course not. One can only take advantage of an opponent’s bad position by placing himself into it in order to engage the opponent in ground work. Evidently it takes some time, a few dozens of seconds, to obtain necessary controls to execute these techniques and defeat the opponent in an assured manner. But randori would make it possible.

The risk of being forced into a disadvantageous position on the ground is just the opposite side of a precipitate offensive. What do we now see in competitions in France as well as in Japan? In a few seconds, referees stop the competition, thus preventing a natural sanction against the failed offensive. The strategic balance is perturbed. The competitors have the objective to win and try to adapt themselves to it: in order not to be thrown, the surest way is never to grip the opponent, and to continually attack with one arm from a distance, or engage in leg-taking or seoi-nage with knees on the mat.

Under the current rules, it is the opponent who would like to grip the attacker but very often finds himself penalized for lack of combative spirit. Let us look at the evidence: the suppression of newaza has produced “judo on four legs”. We had hoped to see spectacular throwing, but we see the disappearance of ippon matches from competition. By reducing newaza, we obtained matches which are minced into pieces and prolonged fanatical fights to grab the opponent’s sleeve tip, to the great disappointment of spectators. Of course, they try to react to such tendency, but they treat symptoms rather than the cause of the problem: each year, they create new instructions for refereeing, they invent a competition between three people, instead of two, with the central referee deciding on issues related to combat as much as the two actual combatants. So far, they have not introduced satisfactory rules.

However, the solution is simple: they tried to modify rules but failed. Let us recognize this and ensure that newaza recovers its own role - before everyone forgets newaza techniques. Let us ask referees not to cut newaza any more: in two or three years competition judo will be profoundly changed and the ippon will reappear.

Affirmation 2: Newaza is the entry gate for adult beginners

In September every year, I feel saddened by the declining number of adult judo players. But on this issue, too, we should refer ourselves to the evidence: it is difficult to start our sport at the age of 20. It will take several months to acquire basic techniques, which are easily countered by black belt holders. For some years now, new sports such the Brazilian ju-jutsu and free fighting have succeeded in attracting more and more young adults, and their numbers will soon (or perhaps already are) comparable to the population of adult judo practitioners in France. Is judo condemned to disappear, or become only a sport for children? I don’t see any fatality there. I would like to talk about a couple of supportive experiences of my own.

The first one is in France. When I was a student at the Ecole Polytechnique, I practiced judo there with great pleasure for several years. The judo club at my school is quite unusual: it has about 60 to 80 members, all between the ages of 20 to 22, of which normally about ten students are black belts, and some 40 beginners. How would it be possible to teach intelligently these beginners who are young, athletic and motivated but are not quite trained in how to fall? By trial and error, teachers of the Ecole Polytechnique developed, over some years, a progressive education method based on newaza. This method enables young adult beginners to learn randori very fast, to avoid injuries and attain maximum motivation and pleasure, while taming the body for judo. This methodology is, therefore, possible.

The second is my experience in Japan. Every year, Japan’s seven oldest universities, formerly called imperial universities, which are also the most prestigious ones (the entrance exams are the most difficult because they are public and their tuition is not expensive) meet in a tournament in Kosen (Special High School) judo style; that is, a tournament by team and under special competition rules. Newaza is never cut or stopped. There is no judgment of Koka or Yuko. Most of matches go quickly into newaza after trying a sutemi technique. The technical level of the combatants is impressive.

However, the historical reason of this competition is particularly interesting. After some research, I discovered that the universities had agreed to adopt rules favoring the utilization of newaza because it was sometimes difficult for these schools to recruit a sufficient number of experienced judoka to form a full team and as the time necessary for the training of tachiwaza (standing techniques ) is long. In contrast, we could form a solid combatant in two or three years (university duration is 4 years) with a good defensive aptitude in standing techniques and some efficient and varied techniques in newaza (sankaku-jime is particularly appreciated) who is capable of defeating less strong opponent and of not losing against stronger adversary. This approach, therefore, made it possible for beginner students to accede to competition within a reasonable time and rendered the result of competition less dependent on the level of judo techniques acquired at high school or college.

These two examples show the path to follow. It seems to me there is an urgent need to focus on the formula of a progressive education for young adult beginners based on the early training of newaza before progressively deepening tachiwaza techniques. It is not only possible, because the Japanese (and even some French ) have been doing it since a century ago, but also desirable, if we want to avoid the marginalization of judo by free combat matches in the years to come. The opportunity exists, so let us take it!