Books for Christmas: Yamashita the gentle giant: Insight into the fighting spirit of Japanese judo provide an intriguing selection of sports literature

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The Independent Online
JUST because judo was given to the world by the Japanese does not make them the best at it, just as the British have found in other sports. But the fact is that although there were around 80 countries at the World Championships in Canada in October, four of the eight men's gold medals went to Japan and they remain the country to beat. This is despite training methods that are roundly regarded as outmoded and even counter-productive. They force their competitors to endure three- hour sparring sessions and mind- numbing repetitious practice. Yet it can also be admitted that often not only do they win, but that they win well, with spectacular classical technique.

This autumn saw the release of a book which gave a rare insight into the making of a Japanese champion - and not any old champion, but Yasuhiro Yamashita, the most successful competitor Japan has ever produced. For an incredible nine years - from 1977 until his retirement in 1985 with Olympic and world titles - he remained unbeaten. He is now Japan's team manager.

In The Fighting Spirit of Judo, published by Ippon Books ( pounds 10.99), Yamashita goes some way to explaining his mental as well as his technical preparation and raison d'etre.

His principal motivation was to win the Olympic title. He clearly had outstanding natural talent, technically and physically - at 16 and 17, he was running riot through hardened veterans at the police dojos, and winning national competitions. By 18 he was doing the same with Westerners.

But his success was not just about purpose and ability. Running through his judo and his attitude was the acceptance of the concept of shugyo or ascetic training. Judo, for Yamashita, was not just about medals and glory: it was equally a training for life.

'No matter how good people thought I was, I always felt I was not yet at the top,' he said with a humility that was really felt.

He lived by maxims as much as judo techniques. 'Turn your weaknesses into weapons.' 'Your opponent is never as weak as you think; your opponent is never as strong as you think.'

His unbeaten stretch ran for 203 matches. He once revealed that he was told, at an early age: 'Imagine that the man you are facing has just killed your father.' When Yamashita spent a year in England, teaching at the London club, The Budokwai, he was known for his gentle, gentlemanly manner. At 127 kilos, he was a formidable sparring opponent, and while everyone who practised with him felt his power, he always appeared smiling and genial. However, he once admitted to me: 'When I was training for compeition, I had to smile. If I showed my real feelings of determination on my face, no one would practise with me.'

In addition to Yamashita's history, ideas, and favourite techniques, The Fighting Spirit of Judo also includes an intriguing chapter written by Nobuyuki Sato, his sensei and mentor. In his characteristically engaging manner, Sato talks about the special relationship between the two - a master and pupil understanding which matured through the years in an atmosphere of intense mutual respect.

Ippon Books, an imprint devoted exclusively to judo, has also issued Great Judo Championships of the World by Oon Oon Yeoh ( pounds 10.99), the first attempt at compiling results of the major international championships. There are results and essays covering the history of each events as well as short, anecdotal portraits of a few of the leading stars with photos.

There are mistakes - Britain's Densign White is credited with fighting in two categories in the Los Angeles Olympics - but it is a valuable - and the only - source of information for everyone interested in international competition.

Ippon Books, 55 Long Lane, London, N3 2HY.

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