With its fascinating combination of strength and educational content, the martial art of judo has become a global sport. Yasuhiro Yamashita, a leading figure in both in the Japanese and international judo arenas, gives his views on how judo will meet the challenges of the 21st century.
How far has the globalization of judo progressed?
At present, 195 countries have joined the International Judo Federation, and the numbers of competitors that compete in judo in the Olympics are only exceeded by those in athletics and football. The Olympic Games features five martial arts events: fencing, boxing, taekwondo, wrestling and judo. Of these, by far the most popular in terms of active participants is judo. Olympic medalists in judo represent a wide range of nations, and I think that judo is the most global of all the martial arts.
At the moment there are official investigations looking at the possibility of removing baseball and softball from the list of Olympic events from the London games in 2012, but certainly judo has no such problem. When I met the President of the International Olympic Committee, Jacques Rogge, he said that he felt that even when the judges had made a mistake in judo, the competitors do not forget their sense of respect toward their opponents. Mr. Rogge went on to say that this kind of sporting attitude is very rare in Olympic events, and that he would like people to continue to value these qualities. In addition, those who compete in judo are rarely found guilty of doping offences, and the sport of judo, which originated in Japan, is building a reputation as a modern, popular and global sport.
And yet, I understand that judo is not so popular in the United States, which is the most powerful nation in the world of sport. Is this really so?
In the United States, karate and taekwondo are more popular than judo. It seems that there has not been any live television coverage of judo from the Olympic Games since the Los Angeles games of 1984, which was when I won a gold medal. This means that judo is considered a minor sport in the United States.
How can this situation be changed, and what is required to make the sport of judo more popular in the US? I once put these questions to a vice-president of the giant media corporation, NBC. The answers that I got at that time included the need for the terminology of judo to be changed to English, that the competitors should show their emotions more, and that the nagewaza throwing techniques should have a points system.
In recent years, judo has been taking steps to make itself more easily understood by a global audience. These steps include the introduction of colored judo suits and the extension of matches. However, there is no need to suggest that English is better than Japanese in order for Americans to understand the sport more easily, although it I think it may be better to use a mat rather than tatami.
I believe that the essence of judo should be protected at all costs. This essence is composed of, “Japanese language,” “courtesy and respect toward one’s opponent” and an “attitude that sets great value on the Ippon technique.” If these vital aspects of judo are lost, then the sport loses all the values that it has come to represent. In particular, I believe that the values of courtesy and respect are a most important foundation of the sport. In judo, even if you are victorious, you should avoid all temptation to show off, or to celebrate, and should maintain self-restraint and composure.
Why is that?
In judo, compassion and sympathy are regarded as important. This way of thinking comes from bushido, the moral code of the samurai, which states that one should warmly offer one’s hand in sympathy toward the weak and those in despair. Also, in judo, the opponent is never to be thought of as the enemy. If you have an opponent, then you have the opportunity to improve and to grow as a competitor. This means that we are always taught to hold on to the notion of respect toward our opponents.
“Courtesy” is the form that this notion takes in our way of behaving. It is not enough simply to attach importance to the defeat of the opponent. In addition, it is vital to show respect toward one’s opponent through courtesy, and this is the true essence of judo. A judo match begins and ends with a rei (the bow). I think it likely this structure is unique amongst Olympic sports.
How did judo achieve its current status?
Jigoro Kano (1860-1938) was the original founder of judo, and was the first member of the IOC to be elected from Asia in 1909. His aim was to improve the body and the mind through judo, and in so doing to help people be of service to their society. He envisaged judo as having a high educational value, and brought together many jujitsu schools. He added the suffix “do,” meaning “way of,” according to the principles of the laws of nature, and so judo was born.
Until that time, jujitsu concentrated on the techniques of self-defense, with no consideration for educational value. However, Jigoro Kano, introduced elements taken from a number of philosophers, including the English philosopher Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) and his 1861 work Education, to create a sense of how to live in a spirit that was truly Japanese.
At that time, kendo (Japanese fencing), karate, aikido, sado (tea ceremony), kado (flower arrangement) and kyudo (archery) were already in existence in Japan but none of them had the suffix “do,” as part of their names. This changed after the creation of judo. It can be said that Kano’s original purpose for judo was as a method of learning techniques as well as a guiding philosophy for leading one’s life. And this also influenced other aspects of culture.
Is the spirit of Jigoro Kano still with us today?
I would like to answer, “Of course!” However, I don’t think that this is the case. Judo became an official Olympic sport in 1964. The victor in the open weight division was Anton Geesink from the Netherlands. Since that time, the target of the Japanese judo world has been to win at these world events, and in more recent times this has become an obsession. However, in reality it has become extremely difficult to win. At the Seoul Olympics of 1988, Japan won only one gold medal, and the judo world in Japan became very concerned that the day was approaching when Japan would not win any gold medals at all. As this situation developed, the important spiritual base of judo was neglected, and the trend toward thinking only about victory or defeat moved the sport away from the position that its founder had originally intended.
If you aim to win while challenging your own limits, then that is wonderful. If this also improves the person as a human being then that is ideal. However, this was gradually replaced by the view that a person who cannot win at judo should not express his views on how judo should be, and that it is meaningless if you do not achieve successful results.
That was a time of crisis for judo, wasn’t it?
Yes, indeed. However, it was also true that before this there was anxiety in the world of judo as to whether the sport had aimed at something false despite its form. Jigoro Kano used to say that, “Tradition does not mean inheriting only form, but inheriting the spirit that underpinned that tradition.”
I checked these words in order to try and answer my own questions about the state of judo. Are the proponents of modern judo the true inheritors of the sport? Do we pursue only victory or defeat? Or do we pursue only the form of the sport as we perceive it? Isn’t there a need for us to think again in depth about the ideology and purpose of judo? I have been making my views on these issues clear to the judo authorities for 10 years now.
As we entered the 21st century, in 2001 a “Judo Renaissance” occurred in which the Japanese judo world united. This is a movement for returning to the origins of the founding ideas, and once more setting great value on the educational aspects of the sport. This movement is in line with what I had been advocating over the previous 10 years, and I have been deeply involved in this present renaissance.
You are a prominent figure in the world of Japanese judo, and currently serve as the Director of Education at the International Judo Federation. Is the judo renaissance that you have described spreading across the globe?
When I was elected as Director of Education, I made three pledges. The first was to make judo more dynamic and attractive as an Olympic sport. The second was to do my best to spread and develop judo worldwide. This means supporting less wealthy nations by dispatching coaches overseas and sending judo clothing for practice. Thirdly, I pledged to respect and promote the educational value of judo. In other words, I would like the world to recognize the spirit of judo that Jigoro Kano originally intended.
With regard to the third pledge, there was an incident that gave me considerable pause for thought. This was a meeting with the President of Russia, Vladimir Putin. I met Mr. Putin with Japanese Prime Minister Koizumi at the 300th anniversary of the establishment of St. Petersburg in 2003. Our meeting took place at the dojo (judo hall) where President Putin used to practice in his younger days. The day after our meeting, Japan’s national broadcast service, NHK, interviewed President Putin. After having returned to Japan, I saw the interview and I was genuinely surprised. President Putin clearly stated, “Judo is not simply a sport, it is also my political philosophy. It is the basis of how to envisage the world, and of how to build relations with the opposition in politics”.
The President also stated, “Judo changed my life. I trained physically in order to be a tough kid. I had tried boxing and wrestling, but finally I discovered judo. This was a turning point. Judo changed my way of thinking, my view of life, and my interactions with other people. I have a rather short temper, and was the type of person to react angrily. However, I learned that this does not bring desirable results in judo. It is important to control your mind because when you are calm and mentally balanced you can deal more effectively with any situation. These were the valuable lessons that I learned from judo.”
I watched this video many times with a feeling of warmth. When I compared myself with President Putin, I thought that as I had reached the top of the competitive world of judo I was far stronger than President Putin who had only achieved the black-belt, sixth grade. However, I realized that when it came to the essence of judo, President Putin had learned far more than I had. What was important was not only to master the techniques of judo, but to translate the lessons of judo into one’s own life and put that philosophy to practical use. This is in line with the ideas of Jigoro Kano.
Meeting President Putin confirmed my belief that it is important to promote the renaissance of judo around the world, but that it is also necessary to learn from overseas judo experts who have fully understood the philosophy of the sport.
There has been a certain amount of arrogance in Japan in thinking that because judo was invented there, then everyone else should follow Japan’s example. That kind of thinking needs changing if we are to develop judo in the future.
What then is the essence of judo?
Jigoro Kano expressed it by saying “make good use of your strength” and “look to the mutual benefit of yourself and of others.” This means that we should make the best use of our own energy to do the right thing, to respect others, and to build a better society for oneself and for others. The essence of the spirit of judo is contained here.
At the Genova Summit in 2001, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi of Italy gave each leader a present of a book entitled Judo: History, Theory, Practice. One of the three contributing writers of this original Russian work was President Putin. The message accompanying the book from the Prime Minister read, “The spirit advocated by Master Jigoro Kano, that recommends making good use of energy and looking to the mutual prosperity of oneself and others, is the spirit that is expected of the leaders that are gathered at the summit.”
I wonder if we can go so far as to say that this spirit that originated in Japan has already crossed over from the judo world to influence other countries, and has achieved a common position for mankind?
If the progress of globalization produces a considerable gap between winners and losers, then the importance of this spirit that comes from judo will increase, won’t it?
Yes, I think so. The logic of the strong is increasing in the world of the 21st century. The importance of the spirit of judo, which holds a sense of value that rises above the idea of winners and losers, could be huge.
Judo is one of the martial arts that inherits the ideas of bushido. I would like the people of the world to recognize what is of value from bushido. For example, teachings that recommend against bullying the weak, and against pride in being strong, as well as having sympathy toward the less fortunate, are ones that represent the bushido spirit.
After the war, the Japanese were denied the bushido spirit and lost the samurai spirit. However, there are many positive and valuable points in the bushido philosophy. It is a fact that the bushido spirit was misused during the war, but it is a pity that this misuse meant that the good elements of the philosophy were also neglected.
I felt this strongly when I saw the film The Last Samurai. Many overseas people I know who are involved with judo wept when watching this film. They said that the film was wonderful, and that it will help the people of the world to understand Japan. I wept because of the spirit that Japan had lost and the way that the bushido spirit was depicted.
This spirit remains in judo, despite having been lost in modern Japanese society. But it is possible to regain it. Japanese people are the descendants of the samurai, and I would like to introduce the beauty of the Japanese mind to the rest of the world through judo.
Interview by Hisashi Kondo
Yasuhiro Yamashita holds a black belt, eighth grade, in the sport of judo. He won three successive victories in the over 95kg division in the World Championships in 1979, 1981 and 1983. His victory in the open weight division in the 1981 World Championships was followed by a gold medal in the open weight division in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. He retired in 1985 after 203 successive victories.
At present, he is a professor in the Department of Physical Education at Tokai University, and the Director of Education at the International Judo Federation. He was the head coach of the Japanese judo teams at the Atlanta and Sydney Olympics.