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.

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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.

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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”.

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Members of the US Olympic Judo Team in 1964: George Harris, James Bregman, Yoshihiro Uchida, Paul Maruyama and Ben Nighthorse Campbell

When it was announced in 1960 that judo would make its Olympic debut in 1964 in Tokyo, Ben Nighthorse Campbell knew he had to be there. He had to be there not only to compete in the Olympics, but also to train. Japan was the mecca for judo, a martial art developed by IOC’s first representative from Japan, legendary Jigoro Kano.

So after years of training in the United States in high school and college, as well as in the US Air Force in South Korea, Campbell resolved to go to Japan and train at the Japanese judo powerhouse, Meiji University. In the 1960s, there was no organized funding system to train and support American athletes in judo, so Campbell sold his car and his house, and even cashed in his life insurance policy to pay for his trip to Japan.

“I’m not sure what I was thinking,,,it’s really hard,” Campbell told me. “You can’t believe the difference (between training in the US and Japan). You have to live with a lot of bruises. I was training 5 hours a day, first at Keishicho (where the police trained) in the morning, and then at Meiji in the afternoon. If you broke your nose, you had to show up. If you broke something else, you had to stand at attention for hours until you healed.”

Campbell, who would go on to serve in the US House of Representatives and the US Senate from 1986 to 2005, representing the state of Colorado, said in his biography, Ben Nighthorse Campbell: An American Warrior, “the training, in fact, was absolutely brutal. My nose was broken a couple of times, I lost two teeth, and I guess I broke or dislocated virtually every finger and toe I’ve got and suffered any number of bruises, contusions, and swollen ears.”

Training with the very best judoka in the world twice a day every day in Japan shaped Campbell into a champion, as he won US national titles from 1961 to 1963, and a gold medal in the open weight division at the Pan American Games in 1963. He also attended the Tokyo International Sports Week, which was held precisely one year prior to the actual start of the 1964 Olympics. This was a dress rehearsal for officials and planners, a way to test out preliminary operational plans, including the opening ceremonies. But it was also a legitimate sports competition for athletes who were invited.

Campbell was already in Japan for Tokyo International Sports Week, and pulled off what was considered an upset at the time. He defeated the captain of the Meiji University team, someone who was considered a strong candidate to make the Japan judo team. So when Campbell went to New York City for the Olympic trials, he was at the top of his game. He went on to win seven out of seven matches, five of them on falls, and won a spot on the US Judo Team.

ben-nighthorse-campbell-in-competition

With only four months to go before the Tokyo Olympics, Campbell had to stay in shape and stay away from major injury. Unfortunately, he was not in Japan, where the competition was keen. Instead he trained against a large number of inexperienced judoka, which according to Campbell, can be unpredictable, and lead to awkward maneuvers that can lead to injury. As it turned out, Campbell had just such an experience, tearing his anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee. With the Olympics around the corner, Campbell felt he had no choice but to grin and bear the pain.

In his first bout in the Budokan during the last days of the Tokyo Olympics, Campbell faced off against Thomas Ong of the Philippines. The match was over in seconds, as Campbell simply rushed Ong and swept his legs out from under him for an ip-pon. His second-round opponent was a far heavier opponent from Germany, Thomas Glahn. And in the midst of battle, Campbell’s knee gave way, and then so did any chance of winning a medal. Campbell forfeited and hobbled off the mat. “If my knee was OK, I could have beaten him,” Campbell told me.

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Campbell and Geesink, from the book Ben Nighthorse Campbell: An American Warrior

Glahn would go on to earn a bronze medal, but could not do better as he lost to Japanese judoka, Akio Kaminaga. As it turns out, Kaminaga was the only Japanese not to win gold when he lost famously to the huge and hugely talented Dutch man, Anton Geesink.

And then the Olympic Games ended. It was time to say farewell. Campbell was hanging out with one of his friends from California, Don Schollander. Having won four gold medals at the Tokyo Olympics, the swimming golden boy Schollander was pegged to carry out the American flag for the closing ceremonies. But according to Campbell, Schollander had to leave, literally during the closing ceremony. So somehow, during the march in the stadium, Schollander handed Campbell the flag for the rest of the march. Campbell’s knee was aching. Cold winds were whipping through the late October evening. And the flag and its pole, apparently, is not so light. But according to Campbell in his biography, it was a weight he would bear with pride, not just on that day, but throughout his days of service.

Campbell has never forgotten that moment. He remembered it clearly twenty-five years later when, as a member of Congress, he voted for the amendment to make desecrating the American flag a crime. “I got some heat from the liberals for that vote, but it made no difference to me. I told my colleagues on the House floor that I didn’t fight in Korea or carry our flag in the Olympics so some fool could burn it.”

jigoro-kano
Jigoro Kano

The Mayor of Tokyo, Hidejiro Nagata, had a dream of bringing the Olympics to Tokyo in 1940. And in order to convince the International Olympic Committee (IOC), he could think of only one Japanese who might have a chance to influence the Westerners, who may have looked on Japan with bemusement at best. His name was Jigoro Kano.

Born into a sake-brewing family in 1860, Kano had advantages over the majority of children in Japan. As a teenager, he was able to study English and German in private schools run by Europeans. And since he was physically small and weak and wanted to become stronger, he had access to the very best practitioners of jujitsu. At the age of 19, he performed his art in front of then-former American President Ulysses S. Grant, who was visiting Japan in 1879. Kano became so proficient at jujitsu that he would go on to form his own school – what the world today knows as Judo.

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Jigoro Kano at a demonstration in Vienna

Kano was considered an authority on sports and fitness in the early 20th century when the IOC was looking to include Japan and Korea in their Olympic roll call of participating nations. The Japanese government received the IOC’s invitation to the 1912 Olympics and turned to Kano to represent Japan officially on the IOC. By 1932, when the IOC was kicking about possible host cities for the 1940 Olympics, Kano was already a veteran of the 1912, 1920 and 1928 Olympics

The 1932 Los Angeles Summer Games was an Olympiad where Japanese athletes did remarkably well, not only making Japan proud and adding momentum to Mayor Nagata’s push for the 1940 Olympics, but also convincing the West that Japan was an up-and-coming power. On the last day of the Los Angeles Olympics, the IOC held a grand celebratory party, and the person selected to give the keynote was Jigoro Kano.

Kano was 72, but full of energy and charm. As Julie Checkoway writes in her terrific book, The Three Year Swim Club, the press in America found him “playful” and “charming”. As Checkoway noted, it was not uncommon for him to lift the hem of his Japanese robes to reveal his legs with a sly smile. But more importantly, Kano was an internationalist. And the world was in need of internationalists.

The League of Nations was formed in 1920 in the wake of World War I, which turned Europe into a bloody war zone for over 4 years, resulting in the deaths of 9 million military personnel and 7 million civilians. The spirit of the formation of the League of Nations was to promote peace and prevent the ugly history of world war from repeating itself. The Olympic Movement, established by Baron Pierre de Coubertin, was a precursor of the League of Nations – a philosophy of peace and friendship through the competition of sport. Kano understood the Olympic Movement and the heart of the IOC, particularly the IOC leader, Henri de Baillet-Latour of Belgium. Here is how Checkoway described Kano’s address to the IOC.

Jigoro Kano’s remarks at the Biltmore were directed as much at the Belgian baron as at anyone; Kano spoke of the fear that it was too easy for the world to have of other countries. ‘People,’ he intoned, ‘are prone to think that what they are accustomed to is good and right,’ and that ‘whatever is foreign to them is mistaken and harmful,’ and he pointed out that the Olympics, if held in Tokyo in 1940, would serve to echo and reinforce the beliefs and values that served as the foundation set down by the movement’s founder. To hold the games in Japan was to extend Coubertin’s vision and to bridge the global gap that existed between West and East and bring together all nations in pursuit, Kano said, of ‘a common purpose.’ And while Kano hadn’t returned home in 1932 with the candidature yet in hand, he had succeeded in appealing to Baillet-Latour and others like him, who were open to a wider vision of the world.

 

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Jigoro Kano at the 1936 Berlin Olympics

And yet, it took another four years before the final decision was made. Kano was now 78 years old. And while he was the face and authority of Japan in the eyes of the IOC, bureaucrats in the Japanese government thought that they could seal the deal by greasing the wheel, which according to Checkoway, created misunderstandings between the IOC and Japan. For example, a Japanese delegate at the 1936 IOC meeting in Berlin apparently tried to convince Mussolini to withdraw Rome’s bid to host in 1940 in exchange for cessation of arms sales to Ethiopia, which Italy was looking to colonize. Baillet-Latour frowned on this blatant attempt to mix backroom political deals with his Olympic Movement.

And yet, Jigoro Kano prevailed. As Checkoway wrote, Kano convinced many in the IOC that “Tokyo was no different from London, Paris, Los Angeles, or any other city, and he had won hearts when he asked that ‘the Olympic torch light the way to the Orient.'”

The great founder of Judo, and the visionary Mayor of Tokyo got their wish – an Olympics in Tokyo!