Children forced to lose weight, pushed to their limits in training or subjected to corporal punishment: repeated scandals of violence against young practitioners splatter judo in Japan, causing a crisis of vocations in its country of origin.
The situation has become so worrying that the Japan Judo Federation canceled its prestigious national tournament for 10-12 year olds this year, saying that the “minds and bodies of children still in development” were being overstretched. The problem is not new since there is a Japanese association of victims of judo which lists 121 deaths attributable to the practice of this sport in schools between 1983 and 2016, but its magnitude raises questions.
If Japan regularly dominates the table of Olympic medals in the discipline, the values of judo are on the way to disappearance, worries Yasushiro Yamashita, the president of the Japan Judo Federation. “Judo is a sport that emphasizes humanity,” recalls Mr. Yamashita, also president of the Japanese Olympic Committee, crowned Olympic champion in all categories in 1984 in Los Angeles.
“If only victory is of value to you, if only the result counts”, then the philosophy of judo is “distorted”, he adds. The cancellation of the national competition for 10-12 year olds has brought to light “a problem concerning Japanese society” as a whole, according to him.
Violence to harden
The number of judo licensees in Japan has fallen by almost half since 2004, to around 120,000 people, according to the federation. And the most spectacular dive concerns precisely children. Primary school students were forced to lose weight, sometimes up to six kilograms, so they could compete in lower weight categories, local media reported.
Dangerous techniques for their age are also taught to them, and intense training increases their risk of injury or “burn-out”. Some parents and coaches also continue to use corporal punishment. The belief that corporal punishment makes children stronger is still very present in Japanese sport, says Noriko Mizoguchi, 50, a silver medalist at the 1992 Barcelona Games.
“There is a kind of reciprocal dependence, a bit like with domestic violence, as if being beaten was a proof of affection,” she says. Like other martial arts, judo was used in Japan for military training in the first half of the 20th century until the end of World War II.
Martial arts were banned during the American occupation (1945-1952) before resurfacing as a sport, and judo made its debut at the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo
If coaches can lose their license for acts of violence against their students, parents are harder to sanction. Hisako Kurata, a representative of the Japanese Judo Victims Association, is not sure that “most parents are aware of the dangers, they just want their children to win”.
They “think their kids will be happy if they win a title. They think they are doing all this for them,” adds Ms. Kurata. Her 15-year-old son died in 2011 from a head injury at his school’s judo club. Noriko Mizoguchi, who coached the French women’s team in the early 2000s, thinks judo “is not fun” for young Japanese people, and that we should end the “macho culture” permeating its teaching in the country.
“You have to treat each child with care and have a long-term view (…) Old-school coaches fear that if we stop competitions for children, Japanese judo will lose its vigor. I think that in reality it will become stronger”.