Japan’s Judo Revival: Men’s Coach Kosei Inoue Leads Japanese Judoka to Prominence in Rio

Kousei Inoue in Rio
Japan’s Men’s Judo Team coach in Rio, Kosei Inoue

At the 2012 London Olympics, the men’s judo team from Japan did not win a single gold medal. Of the seven weight classes, the Japanese took two silver and two bronze medals in arguably their worst showing since judo premiered at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.

At the 2016 Rio Olympics, the men’s judo team from Japan won two golds, and equally important, scored a medal in each of the 7 weight classes. The last time Japan medaled in all classes? 1964.

If this is the return to the glory years for Japan, just in time for the pressure to really build for Japanese athletes at the Tokyo2020 Games, then the men’s judo coach, Kosei Inoue, deserves top judo kudos. Inoue, gold medalist in 100kg weight class at the Sydney Games, was at those 2012 Games as an assistant coach, and he observed a judo team in chaos, according to this Gendai Business article (in Japanese).

Judoka were confused as the team of coaches were not specifically assigned to weight classes, so the judoka were uncertain whose coaching they should follow. Judoka were bullied excessively. Injured judoka were threatened with being dropped from the team. As a result of that and particularly the results in London, the coach was fired, and Inoue was asked to take over the team.

Japan's Judo Gold Medalists
Judo gold medalists Mashu Baker (left), Shohei Ono (center) and Haruka Tachimoto pose during a news conference at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan on Tuesday. | KYODO

According to various sources, Inoue brought a winning mindset to the men’s judo team, focused the coaching on technique and playing to the strengths of each judoka, improving judoka’s strength, showing them to think outside of the Japan box, and emphasizing open communication between coaches and judoka.

Inoue ensured that his training sessions were not random and chaotic, but were focused on themes, like “technique”, or “finishing strong”. He also ensured that the judoka had their own coaches, and their own development plans. As gold medalist, Mashu Baker said in this Japan Times article, “After the London Olympics, Coach Inoue took over and I have had the pleasure of training under him. I don’t know what it was like in 2012, but I can say that under Coach Inoue we have had very personalized training which really looks at making the most of the skills of each individual athlete.”

According to a story on the television news program, Bankisha! (バンキシャ!), during the Rio Olympics, Inoue realized that while technique is important, foreigners did tend to be physically stronger, particularly in the heavier weight classes. Inoue ensured that his judoka were also improving their overall strength so that they would not be wrestled out of competitions.

Inoue also thought that the way non-Japanese fought in the judo dojo was important to understand. He thought it was important that his team know that the Russians developed their techniques from Sambo, a Russian wrestling sport, and that Brazilians developed their s from jiu-jitsu.

“The world is progressing fast. You’ve got to be aware of it,” Inoue said in this Japan Times article prior to the Rio Games. “Japan’s judo has been trying to do things its own way, as if Japan was the be-all and end-all of everything.”

Inoue may have gained this insight thanks to the Japan Olympic Committee, which selected Inoue to live in the UK, learn English, see how Europeans train in judo. Perhaps the JOC saw the coaching potential in Inoue, and believed the international experience would be of benefit. Inoue spent two years in the UK, including time in Edinburgh, Scotland with George Kerr, the president of the British Judo Association, and London, teaching at the famed Budokwai.

“I felt strong pride at what I’d done,” Inoue recalled in the Japan Times article. “But once I stepped out of my country, I didn’t understand the language and the environment. Their coaching style was totally different (in Europe). I felt like I had been taken down a peg. It was tough for me, but eventually, I began to think I was immature, that I didn’t know anything. The world is so big. So when people ask me what the best experience from being abroad was, I always tell them that I realized how ignorant I was.”

Inoue even sent his judoka, Ryunosuke Haga and Masashi Ebinuma, to train overseas on their own, to build their self-reliance and mental toughness, and they both secured bronze medals for Japan.

Inoue was shaping into the ideal coach for Japan’s national team. He knew what it was to be a champion in Sydney. He knew what it was like to be humbled in Athens, when he didn’t medal. He realized that the world offered a treasure trove of lessons that would benefit his team. And he made sure that communication was not a barrier. According to The Japan News, he wanted not only to be able to easily and openly share his thoughts, but also have his team share their learnings with each other.

“After assuming the managerial role following Japan’s collapse at the London Games, Inoue put his focus on communicating with the team members. He frequently held face-to-face talks with athletes, making sure they were satisfied he had received their messages. The coach also established a group on the free communication app “Line” with the heavier judoka such as Haga and Harasawa under the title “Road to revival of the 100-kilogram and over-100 kilogram divisions.”

As heavyweight silver-medalist, Hisayoshi Harasawa, said after his final match, “I was able to make it here because I trusted the coach.”

My assumption: the Japan Olympic Committee will continue to place its trust in Inoue, on the road to Tokyo 2020.

Kousei Inoue wins gold in sydney
Kosei Inoue wins gold at the 2000 Sydney Olympics