Yuko Shimazawa, freelance writer


Human Rights Watch (HRW/ Head office in New York), an organization that investigates and monitors human rights in more than 100 countries in the world, held an on-line press meeting on July 20 to present a report documenting the physical punishment and abuse that Japanese child athletes suffered in sport training.

Of the 381 respondents under 25 years of age 19% indicated that they had suffered violence during sports activities. The results of the investigation, which included interviews with more than 800 people, including former Olympic/Paralympic athletes, were compiled into a report entitled “I was hit so many times I can’t count”.

Keiko Kobayashi, a member of the Japan Judo Accident Victims Association (JJAVA), was the only family member of a victim that attended the press conference along with HRW staff and lawyers.
“I’m impressed that the All Japan Judo Federation (AJJF) is seriously dealing with the issue. However, the results have not yet reached judo teachers. When instructors change, severe injuries will be zero,” she appealed.

Her son suffered serious brain injury during judo training at junior high school
In 2004, Ms. Kobayashi’s youngest son, a third-year junior high school student, was practicing randori (free practice) with the coach of the school judo club. The coach, who was once a national champion, threw her son continuously for 7 minutes. A cerebral vein was damaged due to head rotation and he lost consciousness after the coach twice used choking technique. Emergency surgery was conducted. He miraculously survived, but sustained serious brain damage.

In 1983, Japan Sports Council started keeping records of student deaths in schools. Between 1983 and 2011, 121 junior high and high school students lost their lives due to judo injuries in school. In Japan people have often accepted judo injuries by suggesting that judo is a high-risk sport because it was a martial art. In 2015 and 2016 three junior high and high school students died during judo practice at school.

Last year two cases of serious injuries involving elementary school students were reported. Both victims had hit their heads during judo practice at dojos, developing acute subdural hematoma. In the first case, which occurred in January, a 4th grade elementary school student was severely injured when he was thrown during judo training organized by the Japan Junior Sports Clubs. The second case involved a 5th grade elementary school student, who died after hitting his head during judo practice at a city training hall in September.

In overseas countries, however, judo is not regarded as a risky sport. Ms. Kobayashi found out in 2010, with the help of her friends, that in France, Germany, UK, USA, Australia, New Zealand and Italy the number of people who had died as a result of judo injury was zero.

She sent emails to judo federations, sports organizations and hospitals in the above countries with the support of her friends. Even in France, where the judo population was about 600,000, 4 times as many as in Japan, no one had died or been seriously injured due to judo. She immediately reported the results to the Ministry of Education.

The ministry checked her findings in 2013. They received the same results; that none of those countries had recorded judo injury resulting in death.

The definitive difference between judo teaching in Japan and overseas countries
Why did no one die in overseas countries while 121 students died in Japan?

Ms. Kobayashi stated that many countries had developed measures to conduct the safe teaching of judo. In the United Kingdom, judo is taught based on a document entitled “British Judo Association Child Protection Policies and Procedures – Safelandings”.

“Safelandings” indicates that physical abuse may occur due to overly hard randori without a technical justification, overtraining which disregards the capacity of the players growing body, and inappropriate levels of physical exercises as punishment. Furthermore, when female students are taught, it indicates that the instructor must explain in advance that they will touch the student or what they will do, to allow the student to understand. Children’s rights are fully considered.

“Safelanding” has been translated into Japanese by Ms. Kobayashi and her supporters.
The translation can be found on the Japan Judo Accident Victims Association website.

She stated that similar programs were available in other overseas countries where judo was popular and that they had promoted training of coaches capable of safe teaching.

Judo participants among junior high school and high school students decrease

The reporting of serious judo injuries at schools, an assault of a collage female judo club member by a 2011 Olympic gold medalist and the power harassment by the 2013 manager of the national female team lead to the damage of judo’s image. Partly affected by these events, judo participants in Japan has been declining over recent years.

The number of the AJJF registered members in the beginning of June was 55,000, which was less than half the number of members the same month last year. The registration was affected by the coronavirus pandemic. Compared to JFY 2019, when there was 140,000 registered members, it indicates that the AJJF is losing about 5000 members every year.

Let us compare judo and other sports played by the youth in Japan.
The following table shows typical after-school sports students enjoy at junior high schools.

Sport FY2009     FY2019
Judo 33,604  ⇒ 20,460 (▲35%)
Soft baseball 307,053 ⇒ 164,173 (▲47%)
Basketball 172,342 ⇒ 160,190 (▲7%)
Soccer 223,951 ⇒ 187,708 (▲16%)
Table tennis 149,019 ⇒    159,737 (+7%)

The number of male students in junior high school judo clubs decreased 35% between 2009 and 2019. The total number of junior high school students decreased 9% over the same period from 1,800,000 to 1,650,000 due to declining birth rate. The reduction of judo club members is much larger than that of basketball or soccer club member reduction.

The oldest data available of the number of junior high school judo club members, recorded by the National Junior High School Physical Culture Association, was 46,067 in 2001. When the data of 2001 and 2019 are compared, it shows a reduction of 56% over 18 years.

Family who lost their son when he was first year junior high school student talk about concern
Hiromi Murakawa (52), who had lost her son Koji (12) of acute subdural hematoma when he was a first-year junior high school student in 2009, said “I don’t think judo teaching has changed much.” In July, soon after Koji joined the judo club as a beginner, he attended practice with senior club members and a coach. They used judo techniques against him for approximately 50 minutes in a 30℃ judo hall, causing a fatal injury.
“The judo community has not changed. The consultations JJAVA have had with victims or their families were all about abuse and harassment by the coach or unreasonable teaching. The situation may have changed in other sports but not in judo,” Ms. Murakawa said with resentment.

Keiko Kobayashi, who demonstrated that there was no judo related death among the youth in other major countries, expressed her feelings, “I don’t hate judo. I just want judo, which my son loved, to become a sport that everyone enjoys.”

At the end of the interview she said, as if addressing the judo community, “I firmly believe that we can eliminate death due to judo by learning from the measures introduced in other countries.”

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