Japanese Judo: R.I.P.?

By Colby, Mark
This article first appeared in the "SMAA Journal" Volume 13, Issue 2

 Yasuhiro Yamashita Sensei has been bounced from the Board of Directors of the International Judo Federation (IJF), leaving Japan devoid of a voice on the world scene. Days after Yamashita Sensei’s ouster, Japan’s great hopes in the men’s heavyweight divisions were both eliminated from the World Championships on what many here in Japan believe to be questionable judging. While Nippon did retain a considerable cachet through the illustrious Mrs. Tani’s seventh world championship, the year 2007 seems to mark the final straw, breaking the country of origin’s last remnant of moral (or political) authority over judo’s future trajectory.

Although largely unnoticed by the rest of the world, Japan’s judo leaders and even the general public stand aghast at recent events. From boardrooms to bar rooms, the banter is the same; the fundamental tenets of judo have morphed so far from its origins, it no longer represents Japan or its culture.

A prominent Japanese attorney and judo godan is heart attack serious when he says the Kodokan should sue the IJF, forcing them to stop using the name “judo” to describe the current iteration of the sport. “The current world leaders are ignoring the foundation of what judo is, turning it into something it was never intended to be. It’s all about money grubbing and power politics,” he states with puckered lip and furrowed brow. The streets of Tokyo are humming with rumors that Japanese television will stop broadcasting IJF events, hitting them where it hurts: in the wallet.

Those in North America and Europe look at these kinds of confounding statements and wonder what all the fuss is about. Thanks to the globalization of judo, it is practiced in nearly 200 countries and by millions of people. The international leadership has succeeded in recasting judo, allowing it to resonate to nearly all cultures. It has also brought the business savvy necessary for ongoing financing and promotion. Some feel Japan should be overjoyed that its national sport has achieved such success and is not relegated to the fringes like certain martial arts.

While it is not this author’s place to pass judgment on such poignant matters, as someone who lives in Japan (with grounding in the West), allow me to attempt to shed some light on Japanese judoka’s thinking. I do this with the caveat that this line of reasoning is exceedingly difficult to articulate, even between die-hard Japanese budoka.

First and foremost, there is a profound sadness in Japan relating to what is seen as ignoring judo’s spiritual roots. The two Chinese characters “ju” and “do” have deep meaning resonating into how people should lead their lives and interact with society. (The word judo means the “gentle way” or the “way of pliability.”)

This is supported by thousands of years of Shinto philosophy based on simplicity, humility, and honor. Spiritually, the current manifestation of judo appears relegated to garden variety sportsmanship. “Ju-do” cannot be compared to “box-ing” or “base-ball.”

To Japanese sensibilities, this spiritual failure has morphed much of modern judo in ways that will ultimately damage the sport’s appeal. Defensive posturing may be an effective sports strategy, but it is cowardly. Traditional ideology would argue that it would be better to lose with honor. Grip fighting, now the hallmark of competitive judo, is seen as the sport’s bane, creating a jerky cat-fight out of what was designed to be a highly fluid test of wills. Playing out the clock and winning on points contradicts the very essence of judo, which in the beginning had only a single point in each bout for a reason: your opponent can only die once. Winning by a quarter point can’t count for anything but failure to have achieved victory. Ignoring these premises, the Japanese claim, has made judo less interesting to do and tedious to watch.

Given these issues, it is fair to ask what would happen if everyone magically started practicing the kind of judo Japan seems to be yearning for—where all out competition is modulated by what Westerners might call a kind of “chivalry.” The next question, which will no doubt cause considerable pause among traditionalists, could this still be called a sport?

If you haven’t hardwired your views on these lofty issues, it may be helpful to remember what attracted you to judo (or other budo) over other sporting pursuits. How much of your decision was based on an attempt to find what the Japanese feel they are now losing? Most importantly for the future of judo, if the IJF is successful at casting off what they see as unwanted cultural baggage, how will this affect the choices of coming generations?


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