Judo: Traditionalists thrown by the showmen

Japan's proud values under threat from new breed of fighter with scant regard for old etiquette
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The Independent Online

In hyper-technological Japan, with its sci-fi buildings, video mobile phones with full orchestral tone rings and bizarre fashion in the heart of the cities, judo has been one of the few bastions of tradition and old values.

In hyper-technological Japan, with its sci-fi buildings, video mobile phones with full orchestral tone rings and bizarre fashion in the heart of the cities, judo has been one of the few bastions of tradition and old values.

Training was (and largely remains) strict and harsh - starting with early-morning runs come rain, shine, snow or hail followed by arduous three-hour fighting practice where no quarter is given. Hierarchy was everything - older students battered the young students - the long-standing way to learn; everyone bowed on coming into the judo dojo (training hall); everyone wore the same white suits with black belts; those at the bottom of the ladder (kohei) carried the bags of their seniors (sempai). And Japan won the major medals at the international championships.

This was the order of things and no real judo man - because judo was synonymous with men - broke ranks. Curiously, there was never a shortage of Western aspirants arriving in the land of the rising sun to partake of this Spartan existence. It was demanding, it was gruelling, but it shaped men.

When women's international judo got going in the 1980s, the same orthodox values continued to be applied in Japan. Cauliflower ears and all. By and large, this had been responsible for the Japanese judo that still dominated the world and produced the medals.

But no one who attended the World Judo Championships here last week could miss the fact that this proud and established system is being threatened. Even scandal is penetrating the sacred bastion of judo.

The first shock came with the appearance of the light middleweight Yuta Yazaki on the second day. He walked on the mat with dyed red hair, bright red hair marked with squiggly black streaks. It would scarcely be noticed in football but in judo, where ancient etiquette is still a rule rather than a courtesy, it caused huge alarm. He was followed by Yoshihiro Akiyama, who had spiked coloured hair and sported a sun-bed induced tan. Then came Tomoo Torii, who sported a virtual Mohican haircut. Gasps from everyone.

There was worse to come. Akiyama came to the mat touched by controversy since there had been a furious row at his selection tournament when his opponent in the final had alleged he had put soap or wax or talcum power on his judo jacket. When he attacked with a fast spin, his opponent could not stop him because his hands slipped off his jacket. And, lo and behold, in the first exchanges at the World Championships, his French opponent was complaining, making gestures of wiping something oily off his hands. The referee felt the judogi but said he could not feel anything and the Frenchman was thrown like a beginner.

The next two fighters also complained, and were thrown. By the semi-final, Akiyama was given a judo jacket by the International Judo Federation and ordered to wear it. He lost, and ended up without a medal. The IJF will now conduct an inquiry into the matter.

These incidents weigh heavily on the Japanese judo community which is already suffering from a reduced interest in the home-grown sport. There are also troubles in the sumo world. Asashoryu, the current yokozuna (grand champion) in sumo is not Japanese but Mongolian and he seems unbeatable.

That would not be a problem except that he has been acting in a non-traditional way. In a recent basho he was disqualified from a bout because instead of throwing in the traditional manner, he lost his cool with an opponent (who as it happens was another Mongolian import) and pulled his carefully coiffured and oiled hair. That was tantamount to sacrilege. Yet no Japanese can put Asashoryu in his place in the dohyo.

The traditional judoka would not be unduly worried about the shenanigans of the foreigners in sumo. But they are deeply concerned about their own countrymen acting like showmen in judo. A leading Japanese newspaper reported that Yazaki came in to fight looking as red as a rooster here and when he left, having lost, he was making a sound like a forlorn cock.

Now the Japanese hate losing at what they regard as their national sport.

But not this time. The traditionalists point out that all three of the showmen at last week's World Championships left without a medal, and it is unlikely they will ever be picked to fight for Japan again unless they attend to their hairstyles.

Furthermore, the traditionalists are delighted that Japan's greatest wins came from fighters who are paragons of tradition: the Olympic light heavyweight champion, Kosei Inoue, who won his third consecutive title in a remarkable show of technical dominance, and the unbelievable, tiny Ryoko Tamura, who took her sixth consecutive world title.

These and others have, at least for the moment, held back the dilution of traditional judo values. But as the youth of Japan grow up on an increasingly intense diet of electronic games and professional wrestling, how long can the sport hold out?