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Judo scandal casts doubt on Olympic bid

by Philip Brasor

News stories don’t exist in a vacuum. What often makes them “news” is a confluence of factors that provide a context of interest. Though the public thinks the current story about 15 female judo athletes (jūdōka) demanding fundamental changes to the way the national team is structured and run is a self-contained news item, it wouldn’t have been treated with the same seriousness had it not been bookended on the one side by a different scandal involving the high school basketball player in Osaka who committed suicide after being beaten by his coach, and on the other by the pending visit of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) regarding Tokyo’s bid for the 2020 summer games.

The weekly magazine Bunshun, fulfilling its self-appointed mission of baiting the mainstream press, recently ran an article that claimed the media knew about the problems of which the women were complaining but didn’t pay attention until the Osaka corporal-punishment case stimulated discussion of sports-related abuse. Asahi Shimbun, in a feature Bunshun might call too little too late, interviewed Kaori Yamaguchi, a judo bronze medalist at the Seoul Olympics who has been the media point person on the scandal. She told Asahi that last September, following the women’s judo team’s return from London, she heard that the team’s head coach, Ryuji Sonoda, had struck several members, and after talking to the team determined the reports were true. She related her concerns to the All Japan Judo Federation and asked it to investigate the matter. Apparently, all it did was give Sonoda a warning.

When the AJJF announced in November that it was retaining Sonoda as the head coach of the national women’s team, some members were outraged. Yamaguchi felt bad and apologized to them, saying she got the impression “the federation received my concern as if it were only my opinion.” She told the women they needed to take their case to the Japan Olympic Committee, so they wrote a letter outlining their grievances.

According to Bunshun, when the committee received the letter in December it passed the buck by telling the AJJF it was the federation’s problem and to fix it. When there was still no response, the judoka sent a letter to the women’s sports division of the JOC, which Yamaguchi happens to head. In essence, their complaints went around in a circle. It wasn’t until after the Osaka high school scandal peaked on Jan. 8 that the media mentioned the letter. When confronted with its neglect, the JOC said it was too busy preparing for the IOC visit in the spring.

Sonoda resigned in the face of the subsequent intense coverage, and there was a backlash from media quarters that were sympathetic to the former head coach. Weekly Playboy published an article saying that the “bashing” ignored reality. Maybe Sonoda slapped a few judoka, but what about his accomplishments? Whereas the men’s performance in London was “a debacle,” the women did better than expected. Besides, everyone knows “female athletes are difficult to work with.” Yamaguchi told the Asahi that some reporters thought the women were trying to make excuses for their poor showing in London and wanted Sonoda to take the blame.

But the women reacted to Sonoda’s resignation with more anger and greater determination. The media was obsessing over the wrong thing. Yes, the women wanted the slapping and the verbal abuse stopped, but those were just physical manifestations of the culture of “power harassment” that ruled organized judo in Japan. The whole structure had to be changed.

According to the weekly magazine Aera, both the AJJF and the Kodokan Institute are currently headed by the same man, Haruki Uemura. Kodokan is the worldwide judo community’s official headquarters, established by Jigoro Kano, the man who invented judo. The mission of Kodokan is to promote judo as a “martial art” while that of the AJJF is to develop it as a sport. Though the difference may sound academic, martial arts are by definition fighting skills. The desired result of training is the capability of defeating an opponent who means to do harm. Violence is thus a moot point to a true adherent of judo, since martial arts are violent by nature. However, the sport of judo that has proliferated worldwide attempts to downplay violence and emphasize quantifiable agility and strategy.

Aera claims that Uemura installed himself as the “dictator” of judo by surrounding himself with yes-men cross-affiliated by loyalties to common schools or home towns. As a result, not only is abuse tolerated and probably encouraged, but judoka, whether men or women, are deemed nothing more than tools for boosting Japanese judo as the only genuine form of the discipline in an international sports community that has diluted its purity as a martial art by adding all sorts of rules.

And if the media seems late to the issue, as Bunshun claims, it may be due to the fact that it is implicated in the scandal itself. One of the women’s strongest complaints was the way the members of the London Olympic team were announced. All the judoka were assembled in a hotel room filled with TV cameras and made to wait for several hours. Finally, officials read out the names of the lucky few who would compete, and the cameras were ready to capture the reactions of both the winners and the losers in a closeup. Aera said that this bit of theater, showing “some players going to heaven and some going to hell,” was dreamed up by Fuji TV, which broadcast it live.

The AJJF believes that judo has no meaning without the Olympics, and the Olympics have no meaning without TV. Tokyo Shimbun columnist Minako Saito remarked that the only reason the AJJF, the government and the media are suddenly worried about abuse in judo is because of the Tokyo hosting bid. The impulse now is not to solve the problem, which would take months if not years, but “to put out the fire.” Were everyone genuinely concerned about the welfare of the athletes, the only recourse would be to “withdraw Tokyo’s candidacy.”

  • Gerald Lafon

    The AJJF is wrong. Judo has meaning well beyond the Olympics.