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Bullied and burnt out

FUKUROI, JAPAN (AFP) – Japan is the home of judo but a brutal win-at-all-costs mentality, corporal punishment and pressure to lose weight are driving large numbers of children to quit, raising fears for the sport’s future in its traditional powerhouse country.

Underlining the scale of the problem, the All Japan Judo Federation cancelled a prestigious nationwide tournament for children as young as 10, warning they were being pushed too hard.

A pressure group dedicated to those injured or killed while practising the martial art said that 121 judo-related deaths were reported in Japanese schools between 1983 and 2016.

Japan regularly dominates the Olympics judo medal table but federation president Yasuhiro Yamashita told AFP that the values of the sport are being lost as parents and coaches chase short-term glory. “Judo is a sport that emphasises humanity,” said Yamashita, who is also the president of the Japanese Olympic Committee and won gold at the 1984 Los Angeles Games.

“If you see no worth in anything but winning, and the result is all that matters, that gets distorted.”

The number of people taking part in judo in Japan has plummeted by almost half since 2004 to about 120,000, according to the federation’s figures. Children account for the steepest decline.

Reports have emerged of primary schoolchildren being forced to lose weight – sometimes up to six kilogrammes – so they can compete in a lighter division.

Young children are taught the same dangerous moves as Olympic athletes and intense training regimes can leave them injured or burnt out.

Parents and coaches have been known to berate referees during matches and corporal punishment still exists, despite reforms in a sport that has been plagued by abuse and bullying scandals over the years.

The All Japan Judo Federation decided to take action in March by cancelling a national tournament for elite children aged between 10 and 12, planning to replace it with events such as lectures and practice sessions.

A child with a judo instructor during a training session. PHOTO: AFP