“Grasp players’ minds; Strengthen younger players”
Interview with Mr. Kazuo Yoshimura


In late February, I went to the All Japan Judo Federation to meet Mr. Kazuo Yoshimura, the top trainer of Japan’s national team. We discussed methods for strengthening the Japanese team and problems and challenges facing today’s judo.
Yoshimura, 59 years old, was a top judo player in the 71kg category in the 1970’s (3rd place in the 1973 World Championships and gold medalist in the 1979 Paris International Tournament). But since then he has devoted himself to training Japan’s national team with many noteworthy results. He has trained such eminent judoka as Toshihiko Koga and Hidehiko Yoshida and has earned a reputation as an excellent teacher of judo.
Though sometimes rough of speech, he always maintains a warm consideration for his students and enjoys their trust and confidence. (Interview conducted on February 25, 2011 by Gotaro Ogawa)

Q: Mr. Yoshimura, you are very popular among your students. They trust you. Though you look a little fearsome, girls also trust you. What is the secret of your teaching?

Is that true…. I served as a principal coach for the men’s team for twelve years. After the Atlanta Olympic Games I was asked to become head coach of the women’s team. I always make it a point to think about how to get a grasp of each player’s personality. Every athlete has problems and often faces impasses in matches and training. It is important to get information about their problems. I try to find out their concerns by talking with them when they get injured or while giving them a massage. But sometimes they don’t tell me everything. In such cases I try to get information by approaching their colleagues or friends in my private conversations or friendly gatherings with them. If I get some useful information about their problems, I keep it in mind when I face them in training sessions. Then, they feel that I really understand and care for them and this can lead to trusting personal relationships on both sides.
Of course every human being is different. There are those who get better after I scold them. Others get better when they are flattered. The men are different from the women.
Generally speaking, more of the men are apt to get motivated after you bawl them out. With the women, though, it sometimes takes almost nothing for them to break down crying, and there are times when you can make misjudgments at the sight of their tears. The men often get together in groups while the women tend to gather with just a couple of their friends. With the women, showing special favor to any single individual is taboo. You have to treat them equally. You have to talk to them all, if anything, giving priority to those in less fortunate positions.

Q: You have worked a long time as Chairman of the National Team Committee. What are the major achievements you have obtained? Tell me also about challenges and prospects for the London Olympics.

Until recently, young players had a hard time replacing veterans. We felt this was one of the important factors behind the men’s miserable defeat in the 2009 World Championships in Rotterdam. Since then we have switched course to select more young athletes, with a view to training them and inspiring them with a new spirit. After the Beijing Olympics, we rejuvenated coaches from the standpoint of developing good competitors. Thinking a younger generation of coaches might be better able to catch how the players feel, we passed over the person who’d generally been expected to receive the job and named the younger Shinohara as coach of the men’s team. Shinohara is rather severe in training but he is good at giving young players follow-up care. We picked Sonoda for the women’s national team. He is also younger than his predecessors. Shinohara couldn’t obtain good results in Rotterdam and the media severely criticized him as incompetent. But I feel there is always good luck and bad in sports. So I kept him and encouraged him to work harder. As a result, we had a very good outcome in last year’s World Championships in Tokyo.
As I said, we are now in the process of rejuvenating both athletes and coaches, and we intend to strengthen this policy for London.
Japanese women have shown excellent performances in recent years. But, as you have seen, foreign rivals have carefully studied the techniques and movements of some of the leading players, like Matsumoto in the 57kg category and Ueno at 63kg, and their performances have been showing signs of stagnating in the last couple of months. I am concerned about it. The situation is also very difficult in the 70kg and 78kg categories.

Q: How do you intend to overcome this?

We need to teach them new techniques and raise them one level higher to outdo what their rivals have studied. For example, we want to have Misato Nakamura learn techniques proceeding from her already excellent leg techniques. Kaori Matsumoto has often turned her opponents over in Newaza by getting under their bodies to go for immobilization. But there too, her rivals are studying her movements. We must teach her new techniques on a level one step up.
Another consideration is to have our young judokas take part in more international competitions. Under the current ranking system, we need to send those with insufficient points to as many international competitions as possible. We want them to practice applying their special fortes without thinking too much about results. They should take them as “test matches”. We want them to learn big judo techniques instead of just small details. For those with sufficient points, we should have them concentrate more on intensive training in Japan. Our target is World Championships and the Olympics.

Q: Let me turn to issues related to the management of international competitions and rules. How do you look at them from your standpoint as director of the national team?

First I would like to tell the International Federation (IJF) that there are problems with the referees. I would specifically refer to the problem of people like the head of the referees commission giving a rather excessive degree of instructions to the referees on the mat. Referees seem to hesitate to give their own judgments out of consideration to instructions from their boss. Actually, this comes from the fact that there are quite a few international referees who lack the necessary capabilities. Their quality is not uniform because they come from each of the five continental federations. For instance, some referees call “jogai”, but others don’t, though the situation on the mat is the same. They should have uniform knowledge and judgment.
Since the adoption of new rules prohibiting direct attacks by hand below the opponent’s belt, the posture of combat( kumite ) has improved. But, for instance, if referees don’t have detailed knowledge on kumite, they may overlook wakigatame thus resulting in injury to the opponent’s arms. I think intensive training for referees is indispensable.
Frequent change in the rules is also a problem. With rules changing so much, it makes it impossible for competitors and referees to master them. Changes, if necessary, should be made only about once every four years.
Another problem I want to mention is that there are too many international competitions. Under the ranking system, competitors are forced to participate in competitions to accumulate points. The World Championships are now held every year. Personally I feel once every two years should be enough.
Japanese representatives point out these problems at the IJF Executive Committee meetings or Athletes Commission meetings, but it is not easy to have them heard.

Q: Recently in Japan, Federation President Uemura often mentions the need for return to the “original point” of judo and the practice of “authentic” judo. What do you think Japan’s judo circles should do to contribute to the sound development of judo?

When I went to Germany some time ago, I discussed the need for exchanges of junior and cadet players. We already have exchanges with Korea. One of the most important things in the future is international exchanges of youth in judo. Judo practitioners could thus learn judo in intercultural contexts.
In judo, things like respecting others and having mutual appreciation for each other are important. Through efforts to learn these things, students from middle schools and above would be able to learn authentic judo, and it would lead to increasing the judo population in each country.
In intensive training, I always teach courtesy, but it doesn’t sink in well. Even so, unless Japan takes the initiative, we won’t be able to create a current for authentic judo.

Q: Isn’t it necessary to form international solidarity on the matter?

Yes, that is important. President Uemura talks about it with presidents of other national federations, but so far there haven’t been many results. But if we continue to keep a clear concept in mind and keep holding international discussions, we will be able to contribute to a sound development of judo.