Japan is home to judo, but the brutal win-win mentality, corporal punishment and weight-loss pressures drive a large number of children to leave, threatening the future of the sport in its traditional powerhouse.
Underlining the scale of the problem, the All Japan Judo Federation canceled a prestigious nationwide tournament for 10-year-olds, warning that they were being pushed too hard.
Between 1983 and 2016, 121 judo-related deaths were reported in Japanese schools, according to a pressure group dedicated to those who were injured or killed while practicing martial arts.
Japan regularly dominates the Olympics judo medal table, but federation president Yasuhiro Yamashita told AFP that the sport’s values are being lost as parents and coaches pursue short-term pride.
“Judo is a sport that emphasizes humanity,” said Yamashita, who is also president of the Japanese Olympic Committee and won gold at the 1984 Los Angeles Games.
“If you see no value in anything but winning, and the result is just as important, it will be distorted.”
According to the federation, the number of people participating in judo in Japan has dropped by almost half since 2004 to about 120,000.
The biggest decline is in children.
There have been reports of elementary school children being forced to lose weight, sometimes up to six kilograms (13 pounds), so that they can compete in the lightweight division.
Young children are taught the same dangerous moves as Olympic athletes, and an intensive training regime can injure or burn them.
Despite improvements in the game surrounded by abuse and bullying scandals over the years, parents and coaches are known to hit referees during matches and corporal punishment still exists.
The All Japan Judo Federation decided to take action by canceling the national tournament for select children between the ages of 10 and 12 in March, replacing it with events such as lectures and practice sessions.
The reaction was furious, with angry parents and coaches accusing the federation of ruining children’s dreams and jeopardizing Japan’s position as a judo stronghold.
Violence, not words
Junior high school student Ryon Fukuo, 13, who was last year’s regional champion, told AFP at her judo club in the central Shizuoka region that she was “sorry” for this year’s elementary school children who have no tournament to aim for.
Kosuk Moroi, whose 12-year-old daughter attends the same club, said he was “disappointed” when he first heard the news but after learning more about the reasons he concluded it was a “good decision”.
Yamashita said the cancellation of the competition highlighted a “problem involving Japanese society”.
“It’s been two and a half months since we decided to cancel the competition and people are still discussing it on TV and in the newspapers,” he said, adding that most opinions were “in favor”.
Judo and other martial arts were first used in Japan for military training The world War II and soldiers will visit schools to give lessons.
Martial arts were banned during the post-war U.S. occupation but was later renamed the sport, with judo entering the Olympics at the 1964 Tokyo Games.
Judoka Noriko Mizoguchi, a Japanese who won silver at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, said the belief that corporal punishment strengthens children was still common in Japan.
“One thing that stands out for coaching in Japanese sports is that it doesn’t use words, it uses violence,” she said.
“There’s a co-dependence, like with domestic violence, like hitting is like showing affection.”
Coaches who use corporal punishment can have their licenses revoked, but parents can be difficult to control.
Hisako Kurata, a representative of the Japan Judo Accident Victims Association, said most parents “don’t think about the danger and just want their child to win”.
“Parents think if their child wins the title, they will be happy. They think they are doing it for their child,” said Kurata, whose 15-year-old son died in 2011 of a head injury. At his high-school judo club.
“Parents have the same winning mentality as Judo Club and they contribute to it.”
Mizoguchi, who has coached in France, said judo was “not fun” for Japanese children and that the day had come for “macho culture” around the sport.
“You have to treat every child with care and have a long-term vision for the future, otherwise Japanese judo has reached its limits,” she said.
“Old school coaches are afraid that Japanese judo will lose its strength if we eliminate children’s competition.
“I think it’s going to be really strong.”