Yasuhiro Yamashita overcome

Yasuhiro Yamashita won the gold medal in the open weightclass at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. He was the most dominant judoka of his generation. And he continues to be one of judo’s great ambassadors to the sport.

In an interview around 2004, Yamashita spoke about a talk he had had with an executive from NBC, the broadcaster in America that held the rights to coverage of the Olympics in the US. When Yamashita asked why judo was not so popular in America, the executive told Yamashita that it might be better to use English terms instead of the Japanese words used to describe the various judo techniques, and that the throws should incorporate a point system. More interestingly to me, the executive said that judo competitors should show more emotion. Yamashita said in the interview that he did not think that would be the right direction for judo.

I believe that the essence of judo should be protected at all costs. This essence is composed of, “Japanese language,” “courtesy and respect toward one’s opponent” and an “attitude that sets great value on the Ippon technique.” If these vital aspects of judo are lost, then the sport loses all the values that it has come to represent. In particular, I believe that the values of courtesy and respect are a most important foundation of the sport. In judo, even if you are victorious, you should avoid all temptation to show off, or to celebrate, and should maintain self-restraint and composure.

Yasuhiro Yamashita overcome 3

And yet, this debate over the proper way of carrying yourself as judoka, true to the way of the founder, Jigoro Kano, was why Yamashita’s victory at the 1984 Olympics was so poignant.

Yamashita carried himself stoicly during the competition, especially after he tore his right calf muscle in his opening match. He claimed in this video interview this attitude was a competitive advantage.

One of my strengths, though, is my grin and bear it attitude, and I knew there was no point in dwelling on it. I focused myself ready for the next match. If my injury became evident, it would make it harder. I was determined not to show any pain in my face and that I would chokehold my opponent to win. And that’s how I went into the remaining matches.

He competed without excuse or complaint, trying his best to hide his limp and intense pain, and ended up winning his four matches to win gold. That’s the judo way.

But when the judge signaled victory to the Japanese over the Egyptian, Mohamed Ali Rashwan, to win the gold medal, Yamashita lept to his feet. He thrust his arms into the air. Tears began to stream down his cheeks. In other words, Yamashita, who lost his chance for Olympic glory due to the boycott of the 1980 Moscow Games, who was at great risk of losing his second chance, had somehow emerged victorious – finally, an Olympic champion. Again, here is Yamashita describing his emotions.

Yasuhiro Yamashita tossed in the airBefore I knew it I was standing up celebrating. I’ve never shown such emotion at a victory before. I had no time to feel anything like that. My injured leg had been hurting so much. I’d been fighting the pain all the way to victory. I just felt, “Yes! I’ve done it!” (Yatta!) I don’t think I really knew what was going on around me.

At the end of the match against Rashwan, you can see Yamashita limp off the mat, pausing to turn around and make a swift bow. He quickly turns around, and limps off. He cannot bend his right knee and yet you can see him racing off the stage and down the steps and into the arms of his teammates, who then proceeded to throw the huge Yamashita into the air with glee.

He could not help but celebrate. He could not maintain his composure. And that was all right. Yamashita had climbed a mountain. And he was on top of the world.

Yasuhiro Yamashita arms raised
Yasuhiro Yamashita after winning gold in the 1984 Olympics, open weightclass, judo

He was 7 years old when he watched the 1964 Tokyo Olympics on television, where the Japanese won three of four gold medals in judo, at the sports Olympic debut. At the age of 10, he started training in judo at his elementary school. A few years later, as a second year junior high school student, Yasuhiro Yamashita wrote a report entitled “My Dream”. He wrote that he could see himself in the future, in the Olympics, watching the Japanese flag raised on the center pole, listening to Japan’s national anthem.

It took another 14 years, but on August 11, 1984, Yamashita had a chance to realize his dream. Up to the Olympics, Yamashita had won 194 straight matches, 189 by ippon, and so was expected to dominate at the Los Angeles Olympics and win gold easily. But his golden victory was far from easy.

First up for Yamashita was Lansana Coly of Senagal. Japan had already won gold in three other weightclasses, which might have put pressure on a less experienced first-time Olympian. But Yamashita made quick work of Coly, winning by ippon in 28 seconds.

Next up was Arthur Schnabel of West Germany. Yamashita needed nearly 3 minutes, but he was able to wrestle Schnabel to the mat and win by ippon. However, when Yamashita stood up to leave the mat, he was limping, favoring his right leg. With two more matches to go, he had torn his right calf muscle during the match.

“To tell you the truth,” Yamashita revealed in this video interview, “when I tore the muscle during the move, I thought ‘damn it!’ It’s a world where the winner rules, and where you can’t afford to show any weakness. I somehow managed to get through that match without letting my opponent know that I was injured. But I was a little depressed after that.”

After his defeat of Schnabel, Yamashita had only 45 minutes to ready himself for the semi-final match against Frenchman, Laurent del Colombo. In the documentary about the Los Angeles Olympics, 16 Days of Glory, Yamashita admitted that he was concerned, saying “in my semi final it was the first time I ever thought I might lose.” While Yamashita said that he would not exploit an injury to an opponent, and would keep to his original strategy, he didn’t know whether del Colombo would honor that unwritten rule.

Del Colombo went right after Yamashita’s right leg, kicking the inside of the leg and sent Yamashita to the mat – a very uncommon occurrence. It was not an ippon, and very quickly, Yamashita turned the tables, threw the Frenchman down and pinned him for victory and a chance for gold in the finals.

There was only one man in the way of Yamashita achieving his dream. This should have been Yamashita’s second attempt at gold, but when Japan joined America’s boycott of the Moscow Olympics, Yamashita had to wait another four years. So here he was, a four-time World Champion, the greatest judoka of his generation, on the verge of winning gold in the Olympics.

Yasuhiro Yamashita overcome 2Resolution came quickly.

Egyptian, Mohamed Ali Rashwan, had made his ways to the finals fairly efficiently. The Japanese and the Egyptian had never faced off against each other. And with the injury to his leg, Yamashita admitted that he had no strategy for the gold medal match. Rashwan went after Yamashita’s right leg, but Yamashita had shifted slightly and found air. Off balance, Yamashita wrapped his mighty right arm around the Egyptian’s waist and back and threw him down. With the full weight of Yamashita’s 128 kilograms, Rashwan flailed around on the mat like a fish flopping around for air. After holding Rashwan on the mat for 30 seconds, the referee declared the Japanese the victor.

Paul Maruyama, a member of the US Olympic judo team at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, was the color commentator on the American broadcast of the open category finals, and understood the significance of this victory. “Yamashita has won every title there is available to a judo man,” said Maruyama. “But this was the one that eluded him. He made the Olympic team in 1980 but because of the boycott, this was the one title he wanted more than anything else in the world, and he’s got it.”

And so when Yamashita got to the medal podium, Rashwan helping the limping Yamashita up to the highest stand, the Japanese remembered his dream as a 7 year old – to watch the Japanese flag climb the pole while he listened to the Japanese national anthem.

The gold medal around his neck, Yamashita realized that dreams do indeed come true.

Roy with 1964 Tokyo Olympic Torch
Roy with 1964 Tokyo Olympic Torch
The Olympians has been a labor of love for exactly two years. It is my sketchbook as I prepare for the mural masterpiece, a book on the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.

While my book’s focus is on the XVIII Tokyo Olympiad, I use my blog as an excuse to write about anything even remotely related to these areas: the Tokyo Olympics, the Olympics overall, Japan, and sports in general. In other words, I think of my blog as therapy for a restlessly curious mind.

How else could I go 730 straight days without missing a post?

Enjoy!

Japan 1964

 

Tokyo 2020

 

Random Rambles

Roy's 2nd Birthday
Roy’s 2nd Birthday
It’s been exactly two years since I started my journey to understand the context, the organization and the stories of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. My father was at those games as a news producer for NBC, and I turned one years old on Opening Day.

I moved to Tokyo for a third time in January, 2014, excited by Tokyo’s selection as the host city for the 2020 Summer Games. Surprised to find not a single book on the 1964 Tokyo Olympics in English, I endeavored to write the definitive record. On May 1, 2015, I started my blog, The Olympians is in many ways, the first draft of my book.

All, thank you for your wonderful comments and support!

 

Olympians 1964

 

Amazing Olympians

stamps 2

A friend of mine in Denmark recently sent me a wonderful gift – a commemorative souvenir stamp sheet that went on sale on October 10, 1964, the opening day of XVIII Olympiad in Tokyo.

It is a beautiful set that show off some of the iconic venues of the Tokyo Games, including the 30-yen stamp featuring the Nippon Budokan Hall. The popular Japanese martial art of judo was debuting at the 1964 Games, and the Japanese government decided to build  a structure just for judo at the Olympics.

Not only was the stamp publicizing the Budokan, it was helping to pay for it.

From the first Olympic Games in 1896 in Athens, governments have raised funds for Olympiads through the issuance of stamps. According to the IOC, more than 50 million Olympic stamp series have been issued since 1896, generating revenue for Olympic operating committees through surcharges on stamps.

Receipts of Olympic Fund Raising Association
From the final report of the Olympic Games

An organization called the Olympic Fund Raising Association was created in December, 1960, mandated with raising funds primarily from private sources. The Association was responsible for raising funds for the Olympic Organizing Committee, the Japan Amateur Sports Associations to help raise the performance level of athletes in Japan, as well as for the construction of the Budokan.

And according to the final report of the Olympic Games published by the Tokyo Olympic Organizing Committee, stamps were the Association’s best money maker, as you can see in the table below. What’s also interesting is the number of fund raising projects the Association oversaw: advertising in telephone books and trains. And not only did they make money off of selling cigarettes, but also thanks to legalized gambling in motorboat, bicycle and motorcycle racing, among many other things.

The Olympic Fund Raising Association raised a total of around JPY6 billion (USD16 million), and 16% or JPY963 million was due to stamps.

 

Stamps 1
The inside of the commemorative stamp booklet.
Keiko Fukuda_9th dan
Keiko Fukuda, Kodokan 9th dan, New York Times

She was tiny – 150 cm in height and 45 kg in weight – but Keiko Fukuda stood tall amidst the Pantheon of Judo greats. When she passed away in San Francisco at the age of 99, she was the last remaining connection to the roots of Judo, the founder, Jigoro Kano.

Fukuda was born of samurai stock in 1913, her father being Hachinosuke Fukuda, who was a master of jujutsu and Kano’s sensei. When Kano branched off and developed a new set of techniques and rules, he founded the discipline of Judo.

Judo in Japan has been a very male bastion since its inception. Judo associations in Japan have consistently been male dominated despite the rise of Japanese women judoka. But interestingly, Kano was a pioneer in gender equality, creating a women’s section of the Kodokan, the dojo Kano created in Tokyo. It was in 1926 when Kano started teaching judo to women, and in 1935, Fukuda was one of 24 women who trained at the Kodokan.

Fukuda was not only pioneering judo in Japan, she was doing so in America. She first traveled to America at the invitation of a judo club in Oakland, California in 1953, after she had achieved the highest rank a women could get – 5th dan. She taught judo for two years, and then came back to California 11 years later, eventually becoming the full-time judo instructor at Mills College, where she taught until 1978.

Keiko Fukuda_white striped black belt
Keiko Fukuda, wearing the black belt with the white stripe

In the 1960s, the glass ceiling for female judo was the 5th dan. But Fukuda’s friend and former student, Dr. Shelley Fernandez, was the president of the National Organization for Women in San Francisco, she petitioned the Kodokan to promote Fukuda to 6th dan. It worked, and Fukuda, as well as another woman named Masako Noritomi, were the first women ever granted a 6th dan.

So advances in women judo was taking place. And yet, one lingering symbol of stubborn male dominance persisted – the white stripe that ran the length of the “obi” for women black belts. You can see that belt around the waist of Fukuda in this picture below. While the International Judo Federation abandoned the black belt with white stripe to differentiate women from men, the All Japan Judo Federation has stuck to its traditional guns.

That is, until March 13. Finally, in 2017, 91 years after the pioneering founder of judo, Jigoro Kano, opened the doors to women, the All Japan Judo Federation decided to abolish the use of white stripes in women’s black belts.

Her amazing story has been told in a documentary released in 2012, called “Mrs. Judo – Be Strong Be Gentle Be Beautiful”.

EPSON scanner Image
L to R: Kim Ui-Tae, James Bregman, Isao Okano, Wolfgang Hofmann

Isao Okano had all the pressure in the world on him, as did all Japanese representatives of the judo team. They simply could not lose on their home turf, in the Budokan. But Okano, competing in the 80kg weightclass, made it all look easy. The 3rd dan form Chuo University swept through the competition. And in his semi-final bout against Frenchman Lionel Grossain, Okano wasn’t feeling the pressure – he was applying it.

Watch the above video. The chilling action starts from the 35 second mark and ends very quickly after that. Okano sends Grossain down with a right leg kick. As they hit the mat, Okano spins around and gets on top of Grossain, who is kneeling, with his head facing the mat. Grossain pushes upwards, sending Okano off, his body twisting so that his body is awkwardly facing upwards, and it appears the Frenchman has an advantage, his right arm pushing down on Okano’s chest.

But while Okano’s body is spinning, his right hand has solidly gripped the back collar of Grossain’s judogi. As the two middleweight judoka twist and turn on the mat, Okano has turned Grossain’s collar into a vise. As Okano twists away from Grossain to lift himself off the mat, Grossain’s collar puts tremendous pressure on the left side of his neck. In an instant, the pressure to Grossain’s cartoid artery restricts blood and thus oxygen to his brain, rendering him unconscious.

American Jim Bregman, who won bronze in that middle-weight competition, witnessed this match. “Grossain was very tough,” he told me. “Grossain was on top of Okano trying to hold him down, and Okano reached his hand across grabbed his gi, and put Grossain out. He’s stone cold out. With Okano’s skill and mat work, he choked him out.”

Okano had just advanced to the gold medal round, but the more immediate need was to get Grossain conscious again. Fortunately, Grossain was quickly revived by Okano, likely relieving every in the Budokan.

Okano executed a judo technique called okuri eri jime, which is the employment of the judogi in placing pressure on the neck. You can see Okano in this training video, showing very clearly how to execute this powerful technique.

Okano would go on to win the World Judo Championships in his division in 1965. More amazingly, he won the All-Japan Judo Championships in 1967 and 1969, while coming in second in 1968, a tournament that does differentiate by weight. In other words, he had to beat much larger judoka. At 80 kg, Okano (and Shinobu Sekine) is the lightest ever to win the All-Japan Judo Championships.