Judo in Japan is dangerously outdated

For years now the Japanese Sport Council has known of problems within its All Japan Judo Federation. But as more reports surface, it's becoming harder to sweep away concerns as merely the costs of the sport.

The above video is from an Al Jazeera story, published in 2011. But the problems it outlines haven't gone away. Just last week, the New York Times ran a story on the ongoing concerns in the Judo community toward Japan's long history of safety issues. Japanese elementary schools run Judo programs, to encourage fitness and confidence amongst its youth population, however many of these programs are run by instructors with minimal training and minimal oversight. The results have been catastrophic.

Over the past 30 years, 118 have died, and nearly 300 have ended up disabled or comatose.

The statistics have no parallel in other developed nations where the sport is popular. Officials at judo federations in both the United States and France said that while concussions had been common, there had been no known reports of deaths or traumatic brain injuries for young practitioners in recent decades.

Because of the unparalleled injury numbers, researchers have been looking hard for causes and solutions. Why would these numbers be so high in Japan when judo is practiced in countries the world over?

"The problem is that instructors are ignorant about safety issues," Murakawa said.

Dr. Robert Nishime, chairman of sports medicine for USA Judo, the sport’s federation, is a Japanese-American who has spoken to victims’ families. He said that the Japanese cultural trait of not giving up, called gaman, might explain why a concussion, which can be subtle, could be played down by the instructor or the child. The danger is that another head trauma soon after the initial injury can cause "second impact syndrome," which can be devastating.

The solution, as some see it, is a push for a more rigorous licensing and regulatory process. At the time of the Al Jazeera video, many instructors were working with as little as three days of training. While at the same time, the Japanese Sport Council was moving ahead with plans to make Judo a mandatory part of the school curriculum. France has been held up as the highest standard of Judo licensing, with the largest number of registered judo practitioners in the world. But Japanese government ministers have expressed disdain for similar reorganization, as "it would entail too much administrative reform."

However, such tales of injury are not limited to a mere lack of proper safety knowledge and are not limited to the lowest levels of the sport. In March of this year, the Judo Program had its funding cut by the Japanese Olympic Committee (JOC), following a massive abuse scandal.

In January, the coach of Japan’s national women’s judo team resigned after admitting he had physically abused 15 team members in the run-up to the London Olympics.

This prompted the Japanese Olympic Committee, which is bidding for the 2020 Games, to survey thousands of athletes and coaches among its 57 member federations. Last month, the results were announced: More than 200 athletes said they had suffered sexual harassment and physical violence from their coaches. The same day, the committee announced it would cancel ¥25 million, or $260,000, in annual funding to penalize the Judo Federation, saying that such abuse in sports was strictly prohibited. (via NYTimes article)

With its long running safety concerns and recent scandal of abuse, it's clear that wholesale change is needed. The institutionalized violence and harassment that has become systemic in Japanese Judo culture, threatens to tear down the sport entirely, and take with it a long and important tradition of martial arts practice and instruction. Japan has built itself as one of the world's cornerstones of martial arts, but if it cannot modernize the systems that have made it famous, it may lose them entirely.

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