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Judo’s Tani juggles election, Olympic gold

by Junko Horiuchi

Kyodo News

HAMAMATSU, Shizuoka Pref. — When two-time Olympic judo gold medalist Ryoko Tani said in May she would run in the upcoming Upper House election — without giving up her goal of winning gold at the 2012 London Olympics — many wondered: Can she pull it off?

“She shouldn’t have run in the election,” said 64-year-old housewife Yukiko Atsumi, after hearing Tani’s stump speech in early June in front of JR Hamamatsu Station in Shizuoka Prefecture.

“If she gets elected, she’ll just be another politician. Moreover, it’s not easy to do both the Olympics and politics. You can’t underestimate (the job), you can’t do it just because you’re rich and famous.”

Similar criticisms have been prevalent among people and in the media since Tani’s announcement May 10 to run for the July 11 House of Councilors election on the ruling Democratic Party of Japan’s proportional representation ticket.

Sitting beside Ichiro Ozawa, then the DPJ’s powerful secretary general, at a news conference at party headquarters in Tokyo, Tani said: “I was asked by Mr. Ozawa if I would run in the election in March. In late April I thought I was capable of doing it.

“I will of course stay active in judo and aim for the gold medal in the London Olympics. I’d like to give it all my best in the political arena, with enough love to envelop the Earth,” she added.

Tani, more popularly known as “Yawara-chan” because of her resemblance to a character in a popular judo comic book, has led an illustrious career since her silver medal debut at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992 at age 16.

In 2000 and 2004, she won Olympic gold medals. After giving birth to her first boy, Yoshiaki, in December 2005, she competed at the Beijing Olympics in 2008 but had to settle for bronze.

Last October, Tani gave birth to her second boy, Komei, and has not returned to competition since.

Being a mother of two, Tani, 34, said she wants to work on improving the system of child care leave in the workplace and other policies concerning child raising.

“I believe a woman who fights hard and works hard is a necessary role model to achieve a society where people can live safely,” Tani said during her three-minute speech in Hamamatsu.

“For a woman to work hard, I want to help build a society where we as a whole support child care leave in the workplace and improve child care services.”

Fielding professional athletes or celebrities with no political experience in elections is nothing new, more so when the system of Upper House voting is taken into account.

In Upper House contests, voters can cast their ballot for either a specific candidate or a party. The votes for a specific candidate are added to the party the candidate represents, so the more popular the candidate is, the more votes the respective party garners.

“If celebrities and sports athletes with no political training join the Upper House just because they are famous, its name as a chamber of wisdom will be damaged. If we continue to allow such a thing, the House of Councilors will lose its significance,” said Tatsuru Uchida, a professor at Kobe College.

Takuro Morinaga, a prominent economic analyst and television commentator, said, “I don’t think celebrities-turned-politicians are necessarily bad but if you were put in Ms. Tani’s shoes, I doubt her running for office will bring about anything positive to her.”

Morinaga also noted the change in the DPJ leadership since she announced her election bid. Ozawa stepped down along with then DPJ leader and Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama over money scandals and Naoto Kan formed a new Cabinet and party leadership largely free of the influence of Ozawa.

“She has been asked by Mr. Ozawa to run in the election. But now with the Kan government, it is highly unlikely that there is a role she can play in politics, especially given her connection to Ozawa,” he said.

Ozawa said at the news conference in May that with Tani running in the coming race, he felt like he had gained a million allies.

“Tani probably did not anticipate such a drastic change in the government. If she is to be elected, which I think she will because of her popularity, it will be a difficult six-year term for her,” Morinaga added.

And not only does the political situation appear to be working to Tani’s disadvantage — the judo world also has undergone considerable changes.

Unlike previously, when Tani was No. 1, a rankings system was introduced by the International Judo Federation in 2009 that requires judo wrestlers to collect winning points in international tournaments between May 2010 and April 2012 to qualify for the London Olympics.

If Tani were to aim for London, she must make a competitive comeback by the end of this year at the latest. She cannot expect to be chosen for the Olympics just because of her past achievements, as she was for the Beijing Olympics.

“Tani must compete in the Kodokan Cup national weight-class championships this November if she is thinking about the Olympics,” All Japan Judo Federation official Kazuo Yoshimura said a day after Tani voiced her intention to run in the election.

“Unlike before, there is the ranking system and if she drops her rank, she will not be able to compete at a meet in Europe or the world championships next year,” he added.

Japan women’s team coach Ryuji Sonoda also said during a training camp earlier this month for the national team: “Right at the moment, Tani is not in a condition to start training. It was already difficult for her to compete as a mother in Beijing.”

Sonoda added, however: “She has always accomplished what everyone said was difficult. She may be able to do it.”