“I Lead a Judo Renaissance Movement” Yamashita Talks about Today’s Judo at Home and Abroad

Mr. Yasuhiro Yamashita, an unbeaten Judo champion with a long and distinguished international career, has been somewhat quiet on the world Judo scene since he completed his term as a director of the International Judo Federation (IJF) in 2007. Gotaro Ogawa, Editor-in-Chief of this website, interviewed Mr. Yamashita regarding his recent activities and views on current trends in international Judo. From Mr. Yamashita’s comments, it quickly became apparent that his passion for Judo is as strong as ever.

In the interview, Mr. Yamashita talks about his current leadership of “Judo Renaissance,” a movement in Japan to relearn the teaching of Grand Master Jigoro Kano. Behind the renaissance movement, one may discern some challenges currently faced by Judo in Japan. Mr. Yamashita also expresses concern regarding certain aspects of recent trends in international Judo.

A Profile of Mr. Yasuhiro Yamashita
Born in 1957. The youngest winner in Japanese history of the All Japan Judo Championship in 1977 (at the age of 19 years and 11months). Japan’s Champion for nine consecutive years since then. Winner of three World Judo Championships in 1979, 1981 and 1983 (open weight category ). Gold Medalist in the Los Angels Olympics in 1984 (open weight category ). Until retirement from active competition after the victory in the 1985 Japan Championship, he won 203 matches unbeaten at home and abroad with only seven draws. Served as Director of IJF in charge of education and coaching (2003-2007). Major current jobs include head of the Faculty of Physical Education at Tokai University, President and founder of the Non Profit Organization “The Solidarity of International Judo Education”, and Member of the Board of the All Japan Judo Federation.

Promoting a Judo Renaissance Movement in Japan

Ogawa: Mr. Yamashita, I believe that many Judo players around the world would be interested in knowing what you have been doing recently.
Yamashita: Since the Sydney Olympic Games of 2000, I have been working hard to promote a “Judo Renaissance” movement which aims at realizing the ideals of Mr. Jigoro Kano, founder and Grand Master of Judo. As you know, Grand Master Kano founded Judo by integrating various forms of martial arts - that aimed to capture or vanquish the opponent - into a new discipline. The purpose of the new discipline was to develop human education consisting of physical exercise and the formation of a sound balance between the body and the soul. However, we see a lot of problems in the recent situation of Japanese Judo. For instance, it appears that the main objective of Judo players is just to win a match, or to win by all means. This has resulted in an attitude which places primary importance on the outcome of matches. As a result, the manners and morals of Judo have been neglected. Grand Master Kano taught that in Judo, the opponent is not an enemy: the opponent is someone to be respected. However, looking at today’s Jd. In addition, the manners of both participants and spectators have worsened. At that time, I strongly warned Judo authorities about the situation.
At the turn of the new century, in 2001, the Kodokan and the All Japan Judo Federation jointly launched a Judo Renaissance Movement comprising four committees. I was nominated, and accepted, the chair of one of the committees. Later the four committees were amalgamated into one, which I lead today.
I consider that the practice of Judo is solely for the education of a human being. Judo literally means the “way(dô)” of flexibility(ju) because the effect of exercise can be quite useful in one’s daily life and meaningful in one’s life as a whole. In Judo education, to have consideration for other people is an important qualification to acquire. By pursuing Judo practice, one is supposed to learn such courtesies as offering a seat to others in trains, or to assist someone carrying a heavy bag - or to stop someone bullying others. If you see someone who has lost a match or who failed to be selected for competitions, you should feel compassion for him or her. On the other hand, it is important for Judo practitioners to exert efforts in order to be able to set up an objective and act accordingly, to have the will to become strong and work hard through well-considered methodologies, and make efforts to cooperate with others in order to achieve better conditions in society. These are the lessons taught by Founder Kano under the principles of 「Seiryoku Zenyo(the best use of energy)」 and 「Jita Kyoei(co-prosperity)」.
We have obtained some positive results in the renaissance movement. For instance, we see much cleaner sports halls after matches. However, we have only come halfway, and we must continue our efforts.

Busy with Youth Education, International Exchanges, Obligations as Faculty Head at Tokai University

Yamashita: Currently, I am engaged in a number of projects, but not only in Judo. I am involved in youth education in sports in general. I am president of the Athletic Association of Kanagawa Prefecture and my main task in this regard is to spread the spirit of fair play in daily life. The Olympic Games is the supreme athletic event. Baron de Coubertin’s objective was to develop a sound body and sound spirit - the same ideal as that promoted by Grand Master Kano - and I understand that Baron de Coubertin and Grand Master Kano enjoyed good personal relations.
From 2003, I served on the IJF Board as education and coaching director. In 2007, however, I was soundly defeated in the IJF Board reelection process - after never having been defeated in Judo matches. Many people thought I must have been very disappointed, or kindly expressed regret about me no longer playing an active international role. However, from my perspective, I feel content. With the experience I gained as an IJF board member, I established a non-profit organization, “The Solidarity of International Judo Education”, and continue to work actively in international exchanges through Judo. This is not a large organization, but I am engaged in Judo exchanges with Russia - through my very close personal relations with Russian Prime Minister Putin - and with China. Through this organization, I also extend cooperation and assistance in Judo to other countries. For me, this is very worthwhile work.
Another important job for me now is my mission as a professor at the University of Tokai. Recently, I was appointed as head of the Faculty of Physical Education which comprises about 60 teaching staff, 15 clerical staff and 2,000 students. This is my major professional job now and it keeps me quite busy.

Concerned about Commercialization of International Judo

Ogawa: In international Judo, new policies such as “Grand Slam” tournaments have been introduced. What do you think about this?
Yamashita: In 2004 when I was an IJF board member, a junior competitor who won 3rd place in the Paris International Tournament took off his Judo top and, half naked, waved it around in the air out of exaltation. His action resulted in his disqualification. There were a lot of arguments about this in the meeting I convened afterwards. Some argued as follows: “For Judo players, to win is their life objective. If such action is tolerated in soccer games, why can’t it be allowed in Judo?” “Such performances attract public and media attention, which is not a bad thing for promoting Judo.”
Others argued: “Many children and young athletes come to watch sports events. Those youngsters imitate the behavior of the champions they admire.” “Media and the public tend to look to eye-catching performances rather than focusing on correct behavior.” “Soccer is soccer. Judo is Judo.” “Judo is a way of education.” The latter arguments won the day, and I was happy with this.
Judo is very popular around the world. However, there are a number of poor countries or countries where the Judo environment is not well established. While the Grand Slam system has a certain merit in providing prize money, it tends towards commercialization. Top athletes enjoy the spotlight, but necessary attention is not paid to those in poor developing countries. For the sound development of world Judo, it is important that care and attention should be paid to both the upper and lower spectrums. It is necessary, therefore, to also pay heed to those learning judo in needy countries.
It is also of concern that, for some players, winning the prize (money) becomes an objective which may change the attitude of players or the people around them. In commercialized competitions, participants often tend to engage without controlling their emotions.
In conducting competitions, organizers should consider the participants. IOC President Rogge rightly referred to the importance of this point. As I myself used to be a competitor, I can well understand this: the IJF must always think of the circumstances under which players are placed when deciding how to manage competitions.

Change of Rules Must be Implemented with Sufficient Leeway of Time

Ogawa: How do you see the current rules of international competitions and quality of referees?
Yamashita: As a matter of fact, I have been concerned about this very issue - whether or not the current competition rules are sufficient. Actually, there has been criticism along the following lines: “Today’s Judo resembles a wrestling fight between players wearing jackets” or “The posture of players is bad” or “Judo competitions have become much more boring”. Since the Beijing Olympics, however, there has been some improvement in the rules. It is now prohibited to grab the pants of the opponent. The low posture, the head down without trying to grip the opponent is now discouraged or rectified. In Judo, players should keep a natural posture which enables them to react to any offensive act of the opponent. To take the leg of the opponent is not good, either.
Another problem is that due to the recent change of rules allowing a more liberal judgment of “Jogai”, there are fewer bouts which are carried out in the center of arena. It is not easy at all for participants in the competition to adjust themselves to changes of rules in a short period of time. It takes substantial time for new rules to penetrate all corners of the world. A change of rules may be permissible once in four years or so. I am skeptical about frequent changes of rules. It is also important to allow six months or so to diffuse new rules before implementing them.
As for the quality of referees, I see an improvement thanks to a series of training programs. Recent world championships and Olympic Games testify to this. This tendency should be further promoted.

The Role of Japan is to Practice a “ Beautiful Judo ”

Ogawa: Mr. Yamashita, in your view, what are major challenges facing Japanese Judo today?
Yamashita: There are many people abroad who started Judo after having seen and been enchanted by superb and even artistic Judo techniques performed by Japanese Judo players. Today, however, we see few Judo players in Japan possessing techniques which can move the heart of spectators. Japan should take the lead in producing Judoka who are capable of demonstrating the inherent beauty of Judo. In order to attain that goal, it is critical to nurture such Judo players in Japan. And for that, it is necessary to broaden the base of future training in human resources.
A Judo match is combat fought between two contestants who grip each other. But it is also a discipline in which the two players are supposed to respect each other. It is, therefore, very important for Judo practitioners to put into practice in their life the strength and ability acquired through training, as well as to contribute to world peace based on the friendship acquired through international competitions and exchanges in Judo.