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Japanese judo in existential crisis, undermined by mistreatment of young people

Children forced to lose weight, pushed to their limits in training or suffering corporal punishment: successive scandals about violence against young athletes dot the image of Japanese judo, causing a crisis of vocations in the Asian country.

The situation has taken such a worrying turn that the Japan Judo Federation this year canceled its prestigious national tournament for 10-12 year olds, explaining that as “children’s minds and bodies are still developing” it meant putting them too far. testing.

The problem is not new since there is a Japanese association of victims of judo that records 121 deaths attributable to the practice of this sport in schools between 1983 and 2016, but its current extent has put it under the spotlight.

Japan often dominates the Olympic medal table in the discipline, but judo’s values ​​are on the verge of extinction, according to Yasuhiro Yamashita, president of the Japan Judo Federation.

Judo is a sport that emphasizes humanity,” Yamashita, who is also president of the Japanese Olympic Committee, told AFP.

“If only victory is of value to you, if only the result counts,” then judo’s philosophy is “warped,” he adds.

The cancellation of the national competition for boys between the ages of 10 and 12 has made it possible to focus on “a problem that affects Japanese society” as a whole, according to the sports leader.

– Violence to harden –

The number of judo licenses in Japan has nearly halved since 2004, to about 120,000 people, according to the federation. And the most spectacular drop affects precisely children.

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Primary school students were forced to lose weight, sometimes up to six kilos, so that they can participate in lower weight categories, according to local media reports.

Different techniques dangerous for their age are also taught, and intense training increases the risk of injury or burnout.

Some parents and coaches also continue to resort to corporal punishment.

The belief according to which corporal punishment would make children stronger is still very present in Japanese sport, denounces Noriko Mizoguchi, 50, silver medalist at the 1992 Barcelona Games.

“There is a kind of mutual dependency, a bit like with domestic violence, as if being beaten were a test of affection,” estimates the former athlete.

Like other martial arts, judo was used in Japan for military training in the first half of the 20th century, and until the end of World War II.

Martial arts were banned during the US occupation (1945-1952) before making a comeback as a sport, with judo making its Olympic debut in 1964 in Tokyo.

– ‘Macho culture’ –

Although coaches can lose their license for acts of violence against their students, punishing parents is much more complex.

Hisako Kurata, a representative of the Japan Judo Victims Association, is not sure that “most parents are aware of the dangers, they just want their children to win.”

They “think their children will be happy if they win a title,” adds Kurata. Her 15-year-old son passed away in 2011 after a head injury at his school’s judo club.

Noriko Mizoguchi, who coached France’s women’s team in the early 2000s, believes judo is “not fun” for Japanese youth, and that “the macho culture” that pervades its teaching in the country should be ended.

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“You have to treat each child with care and have a long-term vision… The city coaches fear that if competitions for children are stopped, Japanese judo will lose vigor. I think it will actually become stronger.” “.

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