Japan is the home of judo, but a brutal win-at-all-costs mentality, physical punishment and the pressure to lose weight are driving large numbers of children to quit, stoking fears for the future of the sport in its traditional powerhouse .
To underscore the scale of the problem, the All Japan Judo Federation canceled a prestigious nationwide tournament for children aged 10 and over, warning they would be put under too much pressure.
An advocacy group dedicated to those who have been injured or killed practicing the martial arts says that between 1983 and 2016, 121 judo-related deaths were reported in Japanese schools.
Japan regularly dominates the Olympics medal tally in judo, but federation president Yasuhiro Yamashita told AFP that the values of the sport are eroding as parents and coaches seek short-term glory.
“Judo is a sport that emphasizes humanity,” said Yamashita, who is also president of the Japan Olympic Committee and a gold medalist at the 1984 Los Angeles Games.
“If you don’t see value in anything other than winning and only the result matters, that becomes distorted.”
According to the association, the number of judo participants in Japan has fallen by almost half since 2004 to around 120,000.
Children are declining the most in numbers.
Reports have surfaced that elementary school children are being forced to lose weight – sometimes as much as six kilograms (13 pounds) – so they can compete in an easier class.
Young children are taught the same dangerous moves as Olympic athletes, and intense training can injure them or burn them out.
Parents and coaches have been known to berate referees during matches and, despite reforms in a sport that has been plagued by abuse and bullying scandals over the years, corporal punishment still exists.
The All Japan Judo Federation decided in March to take action by canceling a national tournament for elite children between the ages of 10 and 12 and planning to replace it with events such as lectures and practice sessions.
The backlash was fierce as angry parents and coaches accused the federation of shattering children’s dreams and jeopardizing Japan’s status as a bastion of judo.
– violence instead of words –
13-year-old junior high school student Rion Fukuo, a regional champion last year, told AFP at her judo club in the central Shizuoka region that she “feels sorry” for this year’s elementary school kids who may not be able to aspire to a tournament.
Kosuke Moroi, whose 12-year-old daughter attends the same club, said he was “disappointed” when he first heard the news but concluded it was “a good decision” after learning more about the reasons had experienced.
Yamashita said the cancellation of the competition has put “an issue affecting Japanese society” in the spotlight.
“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 newspapers,” he said, adding that most opinions are “in favor”.
Judo and other martial arts were used for military training in Japan before World War II, and soldiers visited schools to give lessons.
Martial arts were banned during post-war US occupation but later recognized as a sport, with judo making its Olympic debut at the 1964 Tokyo Games.
Noriko Mizoguchi, a Japanese judoka who won silver at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, said the belief that corporal punishment makes children stronger is still widespread in Japan.
“One thing that has stayed with coaching in Japanese sports is that it doesn’t use words, it uses violence,” she said.
“There’s a codependency, like domestic violence, like being hit, like showing affection.”
– problem parents –
Trainers who use corporal punishment can be dislicensed, but parents are harder 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 kid to win.”
“Parents think if their kid wins a title, they’ll be happy, they think they’re doing it for their kid,” said Kurata, whose 15-year-old son died in 2011 from complications from a head injury sustained in his high school -Judo club.
“The parents end up having the same win-at-any-cost mentality as the judo club and they contribute to that.”
Mizoguchi, who has trained in France, said that judo is “not fun” for Japanese children and that the “macho culture” surrounding the sport has had its day.
“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 fear that if we abolish children’s competitions, Japanese judo will lose its strength.
“I think it’s actually going to get stronger.”
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