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Judo and Kendo Looking for New Enthusiasts

October 7, 1999

Contestants vie for the Kinshuki and Gyokuryuki banners of victory in the national judo (left) and kendo championship tournaments respectively. (The Nishinippon Newspaper Co.)

Summer in Japan is the season of high-school sporting events. The biggest of these events is the All-Japan High School Baseball Championship Tournament that takes place every August at Koshien Stadium in Hyogo Prefecture. National championships are also held at this time of the year in the traditional martial arts, though, and many young participants vie for the honor of being the best in Japan.

Athletic Pastimes from the Past
Judo has now developed into a popular sport played around the world. In the country where it was born, it is one of the events at the "Interhigh"--the national high-school athletic championship hosted in a different prefecture each year--joining such major categories as track and field, swimming, and soccer. Champion judoka from high schools in each prefecture battle for the top spot in both team and individual competitions. Judo also features a separate national championship tournament in addition to the Interhigh, where the winning school takes home the Kinshuki banner of victory.

It was at the Tokyo Olympics in 1964 that judo first became an official medal event. Since then it has become an established international sport and has created many heroes and heroines, such as Yasuhiro Yamashita and Ryoko Tamura, who are immensely popular among young people. There are many judo comics that use past and present judoka as their models.

Kendo, also an event at the Interhigh, is a sport based on traditional Japanese sword-fighting techniques. Participants wear masks, heavy gloves, and other protective gear and spar with bamboo swords called shinai. In addition to the Interhigh, kendo has its own annual national high-school championship, which was held in late July in Fukuoka this year alongside the judo high-school championship tournament. The young athletes compete fiercely to take home the coveted Gyokuryuki, the championship flag that has been presented since 1916.

Kendo and judo, both of which developed as martial arts, are seen by many as ideal pastimes for youngsters. Fans of the traditional pursuits point out that they are not simply sports, but are rather more complete forms of training that instill important lessons, such as respect for others and personal discipline.

Changing the Sports to Keep Them Alive
Judo and kendo aficionados are not without worries, however. Because of the falling birthrate and the growing diversity of sports people are playing, the judo population is declining. The number of people on the rolls of the Kodokan Judo Institute, the apex of the judo world, was 24,303 last year--a drop of about 10,000 persons over the decade since 1989. One senior official of the All-Japan Judo Federation states: "We are very worried about the decline in the judo population. To revive the sport, we are looking to create a new image of judo that will attract everyone, from the young to the elderly." In an effort to restore the popularity of the sport, the federation is dispatching top-class judoka around the country to participate in "judo seminars." It is also considering creating a form of "judo gymnastics" incorporating some defensive judo techniques.

The number of kendo athletes is also seeing a decline. Although kendo remains deeply popular at the local level, as seen by the many people who practice at community training halls, recently an increasing number of children have been turning away from the sport. Many kids complain that the masks and other equipment are sweaty and smelly, particularly during Japan's hot summers, and that it hurts to get hit with the shinai. While kendo officials insist on the merits of their sport, noting that it builds character and provides good exercise, they are trying to address children's concerns. New safety measures in the works include a redesigned mask that keeps bits of broken shinai out more effectively.

Even as judo and kendo officials place importance on the traditions of the martial arts, they are also trying to adapt the sports to the present to ensure the traditions live on into the future.

Trends in JapanEdited by Japan Echo Inc. based on domestic Japanese news sources. Articles presented here are offered for reference purposes and do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Japanese Government.