Kaori Yamaguchi: “I want to play a role in stopping and thinking about judo”


Japanese women’s judo today shows enough strength to draw international attention, and as one of the pioneers, Ms. Kaori Yamaguchi (associate professor at Tsukuba University, Gold Medalist (52kg) in the 1984 World Championships, Bronze Medalist in the 1988 Seoul Olympics) is currently active in judo instruction, including that for children, and with her concerns over the present situation in judo, takes a firm and multi-angled stand on its essence. She earns respect for the devotion she pours into working to make judo the best it can be.
Her blog, rightly considered a “Judo Forum,” has recently come to an end. While inquiring into the reasons, I also asked about her recent feelings on judo. From her thoughts based on this year’s Great East Japan Earthquake of March 11, she expressed the value she felt in the way training in judo nurtures a stance of being able to cope calmly in the face of crisis. I was impressed with the way she kept her view open to the world and spoke of wanting to “play a role in stopping and thinking about judo.”
Following is the full interview.
(April 2011, Gotaro Ogawa)


Q: Your blog “Thinking about Judo” has until now touched on a wide range of problems and the contents were often thought-provoking, and I have been reading it with deep interest. Many people read it, and I was disappointed when recently, and rather suddenly, you brought it to a close. What was behind your decision to stop?

A: Through this blog, I wanted to do what I could to think seriously about what judo is, and by sending out my thoughts, get others with an interest in judo to think more about it.
I touched on various recent-day problems in judo both at home and abroad, and from time to time dealt with things like the International Judo Federation’s (IJF) new management policies and criticisms on the relationship between the Kodokan and the All Japan Judo Federation. Many people read it, and among them were many who said they agreed. There were times when I specifically named the people I criticized. There was some degree of bad feeling on the part of the Kodokan and All Japan Federation, but not such as to put me in a difficult position. It is my hope that people could to even a small extent understand that I wrote with the feeling of wanting somehow to do something for the sake of judo.
By continuing the blog for something over two years, I feel I was by and large able to set things in motion and establish a current that let people know my thoughts. I well understand that even if you point out problems, it is unrealistic to expect any sudden improvements. Recently, people tell me my comments have gone a little soft, but there’s no way to predict things will change even if I fight and continue persistently criticizing, and there’s also the danger that the stability of judo itself could be hurt by a war of words on pros and cons.
There are people who said they were happy that various information on judo reached their areas at a distance from Tokyo. At this point where the current is to some degree in motion, I felt I’d like to close the blog down, and sometime in the future, if there’s a chance to comment on judo in some other form, take it up again then.

Q: I agree with many of the points you made, but even when proposals are made on the most essential aspects of judo, it certainly is very difficult to have them realized when the international level is included, isn’t it. What should we do about this?

A: There are various opinions on the individual problems related to judo, and there are not always going to be solutions. But on the important points in question, I think it is critical to speak out firmly and take follow-up actions.
I hope the time will come when those involved will think about the points I have taken up. The IJF’s President Viser seems to hold clear ideas of his own, so I don’t think there will be any short-term changes, but I believe it’s important for judo leaders and enthusiasts around the world to think among themselves about what to do for the best interests of judo and to speak out on their opinions and to take action. Recently, movements for political change have been taking place in Africa and the Middle East, and I think they have shown the world that when you take action, even though there is a period of disorder, you can lead to change.

Q: In recent judo, what points do you see as major problems?

A: First, there is need for a stance on whom judo is for. When the players are involved, you have to think from the players’ standpoint, and when the great number of judo enthusiasts other than the competing players themselves are involved, you have to think of them, too.
For example, on the players’ side, there are too many international tournaments under the ranking system, and it compels players to appear in frequent matches, leading to the problem of exhaustion. You can pour large sums into building the players up, but they don’t have enough time to recover from injuries and wind up wearing themselves out. Under the current system, it’s almost impossible for players to take part in top condition, and not being able to watch top performances is, in the long run, a minus for judo. It is necessary to devise a plan to improve this situation.
It’s questionable whether there’s a system in place to absorb players’ views on that point. The IJF includes an Athletes Committee, but we should know whether the committee members are doing enough to take in the players’ voices. With the members representing each region, it is wanted that rather than voicing their own opinions, they take in the voices of the players from their regions and continents and reflect them at committee meetings. It is also important to have a system under which each committee member gathers opinions.

Q: While many people recognize these problems, the fact is that progress is extremely slow. Isn’t there a better way?

A: I believe that in the world’s political and financial circles, there are a number of leading figures interested in judo, and maybe people like that could speak out on the problems, or maybe it would be possible to hold a symposium on judo’s various problems in correlation with one of the large tournaments. Here in Japan, it might be good to hold an international debate on the essence of judo. Of course, any of these would have to be in a form in which the IJF’s President Viser would be willing to lend his ear.
It helps when famous top athletes express their opinions, but they might try to avoid making critical comments and drawing disfavor. It’s important to gain the cooperation of a nation like France, where judo is popular, and have someone skillfully come up with a way to set up the approach for such a meeting.
I think it’s almost impossible to expect any major change before the London Olympics, but it is essential to think of post-London and get moving now.

Q: Just as you say, a great many people both in Japan and abroad share the sense of a problem in there being too many international tournaments and in the exhaustion felt by the players. As for matters other than those connected with players, do you feel any other important problems?

A: I can’t help but think there’s a problem in that not quite enough importance is given to the essence of judo. With the recent earthquake disaster in Japan being so horrible, it has made many people face the question of whether they were going to live or die. For me, too, the thought of how I should face death when the time came to confront it flashed across my mind.
After the earthquake, I thought about how to grasp the meaning of life and death in the context of judo, and about what people who practice judo could learn from it.
When you think about it, the core importance in the martial arts in olden times was the very concept of how to cope when confronted with death. When I think about whether I would be able to make calm and wise decisions if faced with a situation as serious as death, I feel judo can give some useful lessons. Children are not always with their parents when a big accident strikes. In case they have to face things on their own, I think training in judo might help put them in the right frame of mind. It’s natural for anyone to want to save himself in the face of crisis, but you shouldn’t forget to help others, too. It’s the spirit of “jita-kyoei (mutual well-being).”
But, there’s a need to reconsider whether judo is actually putting into everyday practice the training to be ready to cope calmly even in an emergency. Recently, the aspect of doing judo to win seems to have gotten stronger, but I think the earthquake disaster has given judo leaders a good chance to rethink why we practice judo, or maybe the value of its discipline.
This problem relates to the essence of judo. In open weight division matches, smaller players facing large opponents might lose heart or try to escape. But if you have the spirit to confront big things, it’s possible to be positive about getting on with the bout. Judo can make you learn to have that stance. I wish everybody around the world who practices judo would think once more about this value that judo discipline carries, and I feel even more than before that I myself want to keep working to make that value better known.
From now on, I want to put the thoughts I experienced from the earthquake to use in my judo instruction. I’d like to share them with judo teachers around the world.
In the open weight division finals at last year’s World Championships in Tokyo, France’s Teddy Riner lost by decision and left without bowing. Unfortunately, he didn’t give respect or courtesy to his opponent.
As champions, superior players like Riner must carry judo’s essential aspect of courtesy. It’s not enough in judo to think all you have to do is learn the techniques. If it were enough just to be strong, it would be the same as with animals. With judoka, as humans, there’s also a need to polish things on the side of character, like knowledge and culture and humanity. Just being a champion puts you in the position of sending out messages as a model to other people learning judo. So, maybe lessons for champions are needed so that players who win will be respected as true champions.
I believe that understanding the meaning and value of judo discipline and having people around the world share that understanding is what will lead to the further development of judo. What should the IJF do, and what should the All Japan Federation’s role be? It appears to me that judo has been racing headlong ever since President Viser took over. People who keep running are important, but I have a feeling that people who stop and look back are also important. If possible, I’d like to take on a part in that role.
(Translation: ES)