Is There Hope for Japanese Jūdō?

Society Culture

Revelations of physical and verbal abuse by a Japanese jūdō coach have damaged the reputation of an athletic community already smarting from a string of disappointing international showings. Social economist Matsubara Ryūichirō, himself a third-degree black belt, explores the roots of the crisis and prospects for the sport’s rehabilitation.

Japanese jūdō is in the midst of a fourfold crisis as it faces criticism over flagging performance in international competition, abusive coaching practices in women’s championship jūdō, the use of physical and verbal violence by coaches, and injuries to schoolchildren.

The performance issue centers on the fact that Japan has slipped from its traditional position of dominance in international jūdō competition. The situation is somewhat different in women’s jūdō, where Europe started out with a natural advantage, having led the way in the development of women’s jūdō as a competitive sport. After women’s jūdō debuted as an Olympic sport (Barcelona, 1992), it was some time before the Japanese began winning medals, but at recent Olympic games and World Jūdō Championships, Japanese women have taken the gold in several classes. In men’s jūdō, however, it is hard to avoid feeling an impression of decline. Starting in 1964, when this quintessentially Japanese martial art became an official Olympic sport, the Japanese team prevailed in international competition almost as a matter of course. Even in bad years, it was assumed that anyone selected for the Japanese team was capable of bringing home the gold. But in recent years Japan has slipped from its position of unchallenged preeminence. At the 2009 World Jūdō Championships in Rotterdam, the men’s team, led by Head Coach Shinohara Shin’ichi, made history by failing to secure a single gold medal. It failed again (under the same coach) at the 2012 London Olympics.

Women’s jūdō, meanwhile, is grappling with problems of its own. Last December, 15 top all-Japan women jūdōka, including members of the London Olympic team, filed a written complaint with the Japanese Olympic Committee accusing Head Coach Sonoda Ryūji of physical violence and harassment. Early this year Sonoda resigned, and in March, following an investigation by an independent committee, the JOC issued 13 reform directives to the All Japan Judo Federation.

A Culture of Abuse

The controversy over coaching methods has focused primarily on the use of physical discipline, a fairly common practice in the teams that dominate competitive jūdō from middle school to university level. In Japan, school teams are virtually the only path to championship jūdō, and at the schools with a reputation for producing top-ranking jūdōka, physical discipline and harsh language are considered standard coaching tools. Coaches routinely punish poor performance by slapping wrestlers across the face or telling them they are hopeless failures and should give up jūdō altogether. In some cases they have been known to order team members to neglect their studies and devote all their efforts to training.

Unfortunately, many jūdō instructors and coaches genuinely believe that discipline of this sort makes a team strong. The majority of coaches are retired competitors who went through an abusive system themselves and end up subjecting their students to the same kind of punishment, perhaps out of a desire to validate their own experience. Head Coach Sonoda Ryūji went so far as to apply it to the all-Japan women’s jūdō team.

But reports of Sonoda’s methods came as a shock even to those who take physical discipline for granted. The women jūdōka who signed the letter of complaint were all either members of, or candidates for, the Japanese Olympic team—elite athletes with the potential to equal or surpass their coach’s own record of achievement over the coming years. At this level‚ Japanese coaches are expected to treat their team members as equals, regardless of gender. For many, Sonoda’s use of expletives like “idiot” and “pig” was as shocking as his recourse to physical punishment. Such treatment clearly violates the tenets of the Olympic spirit, whose goal is “promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity” (Olympic Charter).

Organizational Inertia

Few in Japan were aware of the widespread safety issues surrounding jūdō until fairly recently, when the Japan Judo Accident Victims Association brought the problem to the media’s attention. According to the association, 114 secondary school students have died from jūdō injuries in the past 28 years. Others have suffered severe brain damage, in some cases falling into a persistent vegetative state. Some time ago, the AJJF established a charitable fund for such victims, demonstrating that it was well aware of the issue. Yet it took no concrete steps to correct the problem until the JJAVA brought it to the media’s attention.

This belated and inadequate organizational response to mounting problems is a common thread running through all four crises. In each case the AJJF either ignored criticism entirely or papered over problems, until the situation had spun out of control. Even now the federation’s only official response to the dismal performance of the men’s team in the 2012 London Olympics has been some unhelpful remarks from then Head Trainer Yoshimura Kazuo (who has since resigned) blaming the athletes for their lack of “mental fortitude.”

With regard to the women’s team, the AJJF received and verified complaints from one of the all-Japan team members back in September 2012, shortly after the Olympics. Yet until the issue became public, the federation made no move to discipline Sonoda; to the contrary, it announced shortly thereafter that he would continue as the head coach for the women’s team. Sonoda was later told to apologize to the woman, and the federation believed the matter settled. But when the coach boldly told his accuser, following a successful outing, that she owed her victory to his tough methods, she realized that he was totally unrepentant. That was when she and 14 other women jūdōka submitted a formal letter of complaint to the Japanese Olympic Committee. It was only in January 2013, after the complaint was made public, that Sonoda was forced to resign.

Even today the top brass in the AJJF are inclined to regard the crisis facing Japanese jūdō as little more than a public relations fiasco stirred up by sensationalist media coverage. Had it not been for the publicity generated by the women’s team and the JJAVA, the federation would never have acknowledged the existence of fundamental problems apart from the obvious one of declining performance in international competition.

All About Winning

Until now, the AJJF’s standard prescription for jūdō’s ills has been to “disseminate jūdō in its correct form.” Basically, this means promoting the “authentic” fighting stance (“classical jūdō,” as the French call it), in which the wrestlers grasp one another by the collar and the sleeve, while discouraging the unorthodox techniques by which non-Japanese jūdōka have attempted to gain a competitive advantage over their Japanese counterparts, such as tackling and grasping the opponent by the cuffs of the sleeves or the back of the jūdōgi (the jacket used in jūdō). Another aspect that the federation sometimes stresses is adherence to traditional etiquette (bowing to one’s opponent and so forth). In short, the only real crisis facing jūdō from the federation’s viewpoint is the breakdown in traditional technique and decorum. And this has no direct bearing on the risk of injury or the use of physical discipline on trainees, evils that have been tolerated on the grounds that they are a matter of course in the martial arts.

This brings us to another deep-seated problem, namely, the organizational emphasis on winning at all costs. Prior to joining a middle-school jūdō team, Japanese children are typically initiated into the sport at a local privately run jūdō club (many of which are operated by the Kōdōkan Jūdō Institute, the AJJF’s parent organization). As private organizations, these clubs collect monthly fees from parents, but they customarily keep those fees low. In this situation, the clubs and their instructors are under considerable pressure to rack up tournament wins in order to build their prestige and attract pupils. This is one reason they are apt to resort to physical punishment and neglect the welfare and safety of the less promising children.

As for the AJJF, its basic function is identifying and grooming talented athletes for world competition. It does this by sending representatives to national tournaments to scout out promising young jūdōka at all levels, from elementary school through college. The best of these are sent off to represent Japan at international tournaments. As an organization, the AJJF is totally focused on winning.

In the 1980s, Japanese jūdō was on the verge of a schism as the All Japan Student Jūdō Federation threatened to break away from the AJJF. The dispute went on for four years until the two sides reached an agreement whose key condition was the organizational separation of the Kōdōkan—Japan’s traditional jūdō headquarters—from the AJJF, established as the Kōdōkan’s competitive arm. Unfortunately, this division of power became a dead letter in 2009, when Uemura Haruki assumed leadership of both organizations. This is the biggest reason the AJJF has developed into a complacent, inflexible monolith intolerant of dissenting opinion and slow to respond to problems, whether in the competitive or the educational sphere. Not surprisingly, internal corruption is emerging as an issue as well, as indicated by media reports of slush funds and other improprieties. There is wide agreement among those on the outside that this power monopoly must be broken if Japanese jūdō is to overcome the crisis facing it today.

Despite the troubles in which the AJJF is currently mired, jūdō meets are still being held around Japan on an almost daily basis, and athletes young and old continue to train enthusiastically. There is also no shortage of qualified instructors and coaches. Given the sport’s enduring popularity, I have no doubt Japanese jūdō can overcome this crisis and emerge all the stronger, provided it has the resolve to carry out a thoroughgoing reorganization and attack the problem at its root.

(Originally written in Japanese on March 13, 2013)

London Olympics Judo All Japan Judo Federation Ryuichiro Matsubara physical violence World Judo Championships Japanese Olympic Committee JOC Ryuji Sonoda Japan Judo Accident Victims Association Kazuo Yoshimura Kodokan Judo Institute Haruki Uemura