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Judo Diplomacy: How martial arts became a diplomatic tool for Russia and Japan

Karim Zidan delves into the history of judo in Japan and Russia, how its sports culture connected the two nations, and why it is being used as a modern tool for diplomacy. 

Olympics Day 6 - Judo Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

During the 2017 Eastern Economic Forum (EEF) in Russia’s Far East, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe jokingly proposed that both Russian president Vladimir Putin and his Mongolian counterpart Khaltmaa Battulga take part in a judo exhibition against Japanese Olympic gold medalist Yasuhiro Yamashita.

Speaking directly to Yamashita, who was also present at the international forum, Abe asked whether the grappling demonstration would be possible.

“Yamashita-san, can you not invite the two presidents with black belts to Japan, via the Japanese judo federation? That way Mr. Yamashita and the two presidents could demonstrate kumite [training against adversary in martial arts]. What do you think? It could be interesting.” (h/t Tass.ru)

The statement, a rare martial arts related comment at a forum primarily dedicated to procuring investment in Russia’s Far East, could be seen as out of the ordinary for those unaware of the three aforementioned world leaders’ enthusiasm for the violent sport. Both Putin and Battulga are blackbelts in judo, and Abe is an avid fan of the sport. Battulga also ran Mongolia’s judo federation years before becoming president.

Naturally, the three politicians took a break from the forum on Friday to attend the International Vladivostok Jigoro Kano Junior Judo Tournament. The tournament marked the 100th anniversary of the first contest between Japanese and Russian judokas – a significant date that highlights the complicated century-long relationship between Russia and Japan on the judo mat, as well as the political arena.

Russia & Japan’s Shared Judo History

Twelve years following the Russian Empire’s defeat at the hands of Empire of Japan in 1905, the two nations came together to compete in a historic judo tournament that took place in 1917.

The tournament, which was held in Vladivostok, was organized by Vasili Oshchepkov, who had attended the Kodokan Judo Institute in Tokyo, founded by Jigoro Kano, six years earlier. Oshchepkov, who was promoted to a first degree black belt in 1913, went on to become the founder of Sambo (acronym of “samozashchita bez oruzhia” - self-defense without weapons), a new martial art developed and popularized within the Soviet Union.

Oshchepkov began organizing judo tournaments in 1915, when he had already returned to Russia and took on work as an interpreter for counterintelligence. By 1918, he had hosted two tournaments in Vladivostok and had even begun teaching local police the martial art.

By 1929, Oshchepkov had become the primary judo coach of the main sports club belonging to the Red Army, as well as a teacher at the Russian Moscow Institute for Physical Education. With newfound resources to analyze various martial arts now at his disposal, Oshchepkov developed Sambo, a sport that remains a fundamental base for the vast majority of mixed martial arts fighters in modern Russia, including arguably the MMA greatest heavyweight Fedor Emelianenko.

Despite Oshchepkov’s important achievements and ongoing legacy, his life came to a tragic end in 1938. Accused of being a Japanese spy, he was arrested in 1937 as part of Stalin’s political purges and eventually disappeared, along with thousands of other victims. Oshchepkov was 45 at the time of his death, which was officially reported as October 10, 1938. According to official records, he died of a heart attack in a prison in the Tverskoy District, an ill-fated end to a legendary figure in Russian martial arts.

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While Oshchepkov’s death was untimely, his life’s work helped establish a shared and lasting martial arts culture between Russia and Japan.

The 100-year anniversary tournament attended by Putin, Abe, and Battulga was a joint effort between organizing committees in Russia and Japan. The driving forces behind the International Vladivostok Jigoro Kano Junior Judo Tournament were the head of the Russian Judo Federation Vasily Anisimov and member of the Executive Committee of the International Judo Federation Yasuhiro Yamashita. When asked why he showed such interest in organizing the event, the Olympian explained that judo represented the shared “cultural values” of both nations.

“Russia and Japan are two great powers that are shared only by the Sea of ​​Japan,” Yamashita told Russian state news agency Tass.ru. “It is important to understand that our countries have a rich history, cultural values. And friendly relations are impossible without mutual respect of cultures. Russia was one of the first to develop judo and preach its values. And I am very pleased today with the fact that Russia and Japan can share their experience in such a beautiful sport as judo.”

Judo as a tool for diplomacy

In January 2016, Putin was filmed at a training session in Sochi alongside the Russian Olympic Judo team. Following a short grappling demonstration, the Russian president honored the team's Italian head coach Ezio Gamba by granting him Russian citizenship.

Under Gamba’s guidance, the Russian male judo team won gold medals at the Olympics for the first time in the nation’s history. The achievement, which helped raise the team’s status in competition, as well as enhance the state’s image on the global stage, did not go unnoticed. In 2013, Gamba was awarded the Order of Friendship for his contributions to the development of Russian sport. Putin even suggested that Gamba’s success in Russia has helped strengthen ties between Russian and Italy.

"Today, I spoke over the telephone with Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, for quite a while, on working matters, but I also told him: 'you know, your citizen, Ezio Gamba, works here in Russia, he brought our team to a wonderful result in 2012, to excellent success at the Olympic games, to the best result in the history of Olympic games," Putin said.

Putin has long used sports as a tool to enhance his image as a healthy and masculine leader. A blackbelt in judo, Putin has regularly been quoted speaking fondly of the sport he considers his “first love.” He has repeatedly been shown landing hip tosses on state TV while dressed in an immaculate judogi. Local judokas present at the International Vladivostok Jigoro Kano Junior Judo Tournament even suggested that the president’s interest in the sport is pivotal to the sport’s popularity.

"I think the fact that Putin loves judo does help it to be a more popular sport," judo master Vladimir Sinistin told CNN. "And if your leader does judo and has an athletic title, and Putin is a master of this sport, of course this sport gets more attention.”

Apart from winning the right to host events such as the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi and the upcoming 2018 World Cup, Putin continues to heavily invest in sports because he is aware of the domestic benefits and international prestige reaped from successful global competitions. For the Kremlin, sports are a means to advancing political interests - a tool for diplomacy between nation states.

When asked whether Abe’s proposal for a grappling exhibition between Putin, Battulga, and Yamashita was a serious one, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov revealed that while it was likely meant in a joking nature, it aimed to show a “positive development” in the relationship between the three nations. As a result, judo has become a source for diplomacy between nations with complicated geopolitics.

“Taking into account the explicit and even friendly character of the contact, one can assume that the proposal was aimed to show a positive development of Russian-Mongolian and Russian-Japanese relations, positive dynamics in the relations among the countries in the region that are interested in developing the Far East … I would not treat that literally, that is rather a proposal full of metaphorical meaning,” Peskov said.

Putin’s strategic use of sports as a political tool has been mimicked domestically, including by Yunus Bek-Yevkurov, the head of Ingushetia, and Ramzan Kadyrov, the much-publicized warlord at the helm of the Chechen Republic. While Kadyrov took this initiative a step further by establishing an MMA promotion to serve as an arm of his government and a farming system for his private army, he also plans to erect a judo arena and name it after Putin. As a result, it is evidently clear that in order to achieve relative success in Putin’s Russia, one must apply sports as a means to an end.

Abe & Putin – A complicated relationship

Over the past 10 months, Prime Minister Abe and President Putin have met twice at bilateral summits to make progress in the decades-long territorial dispute between their respective countries. In December 2016, the two leaders met in Japan, while the second summit took place in Moscow last April. The aim of their repeated meetings is to come to a resolution regarding the disputed Northern Territories (the Etorofu, Kunashiri, Shikotan and the Habomai islet), which Russia has had control of since World War II.

Japan views the territorial dispute as an unresolved issue from World War II and as a matter of national security. A resolution would do much to deepen the relationship between Russia and Japan. While a transition of ownership back to Japan is unlikely ahead of Putin’s upcoming election campaign in 2018, the two countries are discussing potential economic cooperation on the islets. Yet while it is certainly a start towards establishing good will with Japan, it also highlights the complicated history between the two nations.

Given the already intricate relationship between Russia and Japan, it isn’t much of a surprise to witness their respective politicians use unorthodox methods outside of economic and diplomatic relations whenever possible. Famous examples include the “ping-pong” diplomacy between the United States and China in the early 1970s, as well as the “pin-down” diplomacy between the US and Iran in the 90s.

In this particular case with Russia and Japan, sports have been able to transcend the historical and political boundaries placed between the two countries, at least to a certain extent. Through martial arts such as judo, Russia and Japan have been able to realize their shared interests and cultural elements through sports.

“An important factor of our relationships is also the concern for the healthy way of life of young people, the transfer of the invaluable experience of our athletes to the young generation of judokas,” Yamashita explained when asked why he was interested in hosting the judo tournament in Russia. “This became one of the main incentives that influenced the decision to organize a tournament in Vladivostok. After all, it will be organized specifically for juniors.”

“There is also an idea to invite the Russian youth team to Japan to exchange experience, we discussed this with the general manager of the Russian national team Ezio Gamba.”

While we may never witness the presidents of Mongolia and Russia compete in a grappling exhibition against an Olympic gold medalist, the mere suggestion may have helped ignite their geopolitical relationship.