HIRATSUKA, KANAGAWA PREF. - Judo had always been a reliable provider of Olympic medals for Japan since the sport was first officially included in the 1964 Tokyo Games.
But that stability wavered four years ago at the London Olympics. For the first time ever, Japan’s men failed to win a gold medal in any weight division.
Following the London Olympics, Kosei Inoue took over as head coach of the men’s national team, a position that has always carried an unimaginable burden. But after the humiliating collapse in London, the pressure must have been even greater for Inoue.
However, Inoue, who is going gray on the sides at the age of 37, perhaps due to the responsibility, doesn’t complain about the role and the daunting task he has in front of him.
“No matter what you do, whether it’s your daily job or (athletic) competitions, you carry pressure on your shoulders. I think it’s the same for everyone else,” Inoue said in an exclusive interview with The Japan Times at his office at Tokai University, where he serves as an associate professor at the Department of Physical Education.
“For me, it’s a position with the Japanese national team, but whether it’s heavy pressure, struggle or pleasure, I’ve made up my mind to deal with it.”
His pride in representing a sport that originated in his own country helps Inoue go about his work without fear of failure.
“Judo is the only sport in the Olympics that started in Japan,” Inoue said. “I’ve decided to do my job with pride as a Japanese and pride as a judoka.”
Reflecting on the disastrous results of the men’s national team in London, Inoue didn’t offer any excuses, adding that things happen for a reason.
“Various factors contributed to our losses,” he said. “You can roughly divide them into mental, technical and physical matters. But you can’t pinpoint one particular reason.”
Meanwhile, Inoue thinks judo in Japan may have become too caught up in a conventional way of thinking while the sport has spread rapidly across the globe. He said Japan’s past glories, in the Olympics in particular, may have hindered its ability to keep up with global trends in the sport.
“The world is progressing fast. You’ve got to be aware of it,” Inoue said. “Japan’s judo has been trying to do things its own way, as if Japan was the be-all and end-all of everything.”
Maybe thanks to his young age, Inoue has adopted a more flexible attitude and is not afraid to change his coaching methods.
Inoue believes the time he spent in Europe following the 2008 Beijing Olympics inspired that mentality.
Inoue spent two years in Edinburgh, Scotland, under European judo great and current president of the British Judo Association George Kerr, whose club has an exchange program with Inoue’s Tokai University, as a Japan Olympic Committee overseas trainee. He believes the experience broadened his horizons.
Inoue said the Japanese style of judo traditionally focused more on quantity rather than quality, trying to instill a tough mentality. But in Europe, which Inoue describes as “the mainstream of judo today,” judoka train more efficiently.
“A balance between efficiency and inefficiency and a balance between scientific things and unscientific things — you have to look at those, otherwise there’s no progress for our game,” Inoue said. “We’ve switched our mind-set that way.”
Inoue is best known for winning the 100-kg division gold medal at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, where he won every bout through ippon, capitalizing on his signature uchimata maneuver. It made the man from Miyazaki Prefecture a national hero.
Winning an Olympic judo gold is undoubtedly a life-altering accomplishment for any Japanese. But his time in Scotland provided Inoue with another valuable experience.
Inoue considers himself a successful judoka, having won at the Olympics and multiple national and world championships. But he was completely humbled by his experience in Europe, after failing to defend his title at the 2004 Athens Games and retired after he missing out on a berth at the Beijing Olympics.
“I felt strong pride at what I’d done,” Inoue recalled. “But once I stepped out of my country, I didn’t understand the language and the environment. Their coaching style was totally different (in Europe). I felt like I had been taken down a peg.
“It was tough for me, but eventually, I began to think I was immature, that I didn’t know anything. The world is so big. So when people ask me what the best experience from being abroad was, I always tell them that I realized how ignorant I was.”
Inoue’s time in Europe gave him the opportunity to study how the rest of the world competes at judo. But that doesn’t mean Japan has to follow suit.
As a judoka, Inoue is pleased that he sport has attained such a global reach. But as Japan’s national team coach, he realizes his squad now faces a stiffer challenge on the international stage.
“Judo, when we refer to it in Chinese characters, that’s what started in Japan,” Inoue said. “But when it’s written as j-u-d-o, in English, it’s a complex sport that derives from other martial arts. For instance, it’s sambo in Russia, and Brazilian jiu-jitsu in Brazil. So it’s complex judo versus our judo.”
So what’s the “judo in Chinese characters?”
“That’s judo where you firmly grip (your opponent’s jacket), throw him, hold him, sometimes choke him, and go for an ippon. We think that’s our own brand of judo,” Inoue said.
He believes that’s the best strategy for Japanese judoka to outperform their rival foreign foes.
“OK, so if Japanese developed themselves physically, would that scare foreigners? I don’t think so,” Inoue said. “If you can grip them, throw them and hold them on the ground, you can outperform foreigners who are physically better than you through your technique.”
Inoue’s dedication and leadership seems to have rubbed off on the men’s national team, which has regained its pride since he took over. One such indication came at last August’s world championships in Astana, Kazakhstan. Japan’s men earned three gold medals, two silvers and two bronze medals in the individual competitions (Japan also grabbed the team gold).
But of course, as in many other sports, delivering an outstanding performance at the Olympics, the world’s biggest sporting extravaganza, has a far bigger impact.
“What makes heroes in judo is the Olympics,” Inoue said, agreeing that there are presently no Japanese household names in the sport in the way he used to be.
Inoue and the All Japan Judo Federation selected six male judoka for the Rio Olympics (Naotoshi Takato for the 60 kg division, Masashi Ebinuma at 66 kg, Shohei Ono at 73 kg, Takanori Nagase at 81 kg, Mashu Baker at 90 kg and Ryunosuke Haga at 100 kg) in early April, and added Hisayoshi Harasawa for the over-100-kg class later in the month.
Inoue insisted Japan is now loaded with potential Olympic gold-medal winners “in all weight classes.”
For a team that returned home with zero golds four years ago, it sounds like hyperbole. But Inoue has faith in his men.
He referred to a pair of gold medalists at worlds last year, Ono and Nagase, as his core competitors.
“I told our guys, ‘Be confident, we’ve got members who can make new history for (Japanese) judo, so let’s make history by performing at our best in Rio,’ ” Inoue said.
Some might say that the Rio Olympics will be an important bridge toward Japan’s hosting of the Tokyo Olympics in 2020.
But Inoue disagrees with that notion. He understands that the Tokyo Games could boost judo and other sports, encouraging children to get involved. But at least for him, the focal point is the Rio Olympics this August.
“How much we show our own, Japanese judo in Rio,” Inoue said. “That affects our judo going forward. That’s the determination we have going in this Olympics.”