Edition No. 24. Autumn, 2000. Today is

24th JUNE 2000

By: Ian Gutherie 6th Dan

Nippon BudokanOn a recent business trip to Tokyo I arrived at my hotel at 11am, tired, and suffering from jet lag. Rather than go to bed, and trying to adjust to the 8-hour time difference, I went for a walk. The hotel Grand Palace where I was staying, was situated five minutes walk from the Emperors Palace Gardens. Walking through the gardens I came across a huge building which I found out later was the famous Budokan Hall. However at the time I thought it was just another temple. Through the windows, I could see some people in judo suits and there were two young guys in black uniforms and armbands sitting outside. I noticed one of them had a cauliflower ear and I asked if he did Judo. "Hai!, was his reply. I asked what grade he was. "Ni Dan? San Dan?". "Ni Dan", he replied. I said "I am Roku Dan!"

He jumped to attention and ushered me through the crowd to the front of the queue. I went up the stairs just in time to see the teams being assembled and the officials making the opening speeches to the All Japan University Championships. From my position in the hall I had difficulty in seeing the contestants they were just dots in the distance. The Budokan is on three levels and unfortunately I was on the third level.

However, the last speaker was none other than Kisaburo Watanabe 8th Dan and famous Budokwai coach in the sixties. I had met Watanabe on a previous visit to Japan, and anxious to renew our acquaintance I promptly made my way down stairs. I asked three or four people if I could speak to Watanabe but none spoke English.

I saw this guy with a huge badge and rosette. I surmised that he was either an official or he was off to a wedding, so I asked if he spoke English. "Hi" was the response. I handed him my card and told him to take me to Watanabe. He promptly put a badge on my shirt and led me to the front mats where Watanabe was sitting. (I've never had a Blue Peter badge but I now know what it feels like!). Watanabe was his usual charming self and sat me down next to him with a first class view of the Championships. It was only afterwards, that someone told me he was chairman of the Tokyo students Judo Federation, a position of great honour.

Roof of the BudokanThe first thing I noticed in this competition were the weight categories. There were none! There were 60 kilo players fighting 120 kilo players. The smaller fighters were completely unfazed at having to fight veritable giants. One brilliant fight was Ishi, a 65 kilo player fighting 130 kilo fighter Nabeshima. Every time Ishi was lifted high into the air with a powerful Uchimata, he merely slid down Nabeshimas back into a handstand and immediately attacked with Ko-ouchi-gari. With 30 seconds to go in a five minute contest Ishi threw his opponent with a textbook 0-uchi-gari for Ippon.

The level of fitness was impressive, this ensured the majority of contests were non stop action. The range and speed of the techniques was quite brilliant, but with four mats in operation, it was difficult to focus on one mat. If a player scored 2 Yuko's and a Waza-ari, unlike the West, he didn't defend but carried on attacking to get a maximum score for his team, which made for a very exciting contest. One area I did question was the passivity rule. The referee in my opinion penalised players for passivity far too quickly, a penalty which would never have been awarded in the West. As soon as a player did not attack, he was penalised, this contributed to many players being countered.

Refereeing in Japan has to be the easiest job going. The players remain in the contest area and they never question a decision. Team coaches do not hurl abuse at referees. Although there was one instance where Muneta,( hotly tipped to be next World Champion at +100 kilos), was fighting and his opponent refused to hold on and duly received penalty after penalty until disqualified for passivity. He looked genuinely dismayed at his disqualification and refused to leave the mat, until his team mates dragged him off.

Suzuki, 100 kilos, and Muneta, l00 kilos, were undoubtedly stars of the Championships. Although the overall standard was very high, these two stood out head and shoulder above the rest. The range of Suzuki"s techniques was quite incredible. He scored Ippon in every fight ranging from Uchi Mata to some beautiful O-soto-garis, but for me the real star was 20 year old Muneta from Chuo University. His Uchi-mata was quite extraordinary. His opponent did not go up in the air, but rotated at high speed. Muneta controlled the sleeve and head. The speed and power of the Ippon was devastating, many of his opponents had difficulty getting up. His range of Ashi-waza (for a player of 100 kilo) and his speed were really impressive. As there were no weight categories Muneta fought many lighter players but incredibly moved at the same speed, in some instances, even faster.

Watanebe, Gutherie & YamashitaWatanabe explained that 316 Universities originally took part, each fielding a 7 man team. They were now down to the top 40 universities. For me one of the best parts was the warm up area where the players were doing Uchi-Komi. Again the range and speed was dazzling. I know it's a worn out cliche', about Japanese Judo being the best but I defy anyone to go to a Japanese championship and not be impressed.

Suzuki's team, Kokushikan University looked as if they were going to make the finals when out of the blue Suzuki was countered by a fairly innocuous Haria-goshi. I thought he would have spun out, something he had been doing all day, but no, flat on his back for Ippon. His team with its star player gone, disintegrated.

The final was a highly charged affair to say the least, between Chuo University and Meiji University. I said to Watanabe "Who do you think will win?" He replied, "On form it should be Meiji, but I hope its Chuo because I graduated from that university many years ago. In fact it is 24 years since Chuo won the Championships."

The atmosphere was electric. Anyone who says the Japanese are impassive and show no emotion haven't been in a Japanese Judo championship. With the score now 34 points it was clear that Toukai had won. The officials, the team and the reserves were completely overcome with emotion.

Three fights to go and the next players were on the mat waiting to fight, but both teams were in tears. One, because the team had won, and the other because his had lost. The spirit had gone out of Meiji, and even Muneta who had been quite brilliant over the two days looked a shadow of his former self, only winning by a very narrow decision. Watanabe, always gracious, was the first to offer his commiseration to Meiji.

An interesting aspect from my business trip was the help given to me by Watanabe. He arranged many appointments and accompanied me to translate. I would mention an industry and he would say 'I know the Vice President, he is an ex Judo player'. One day I mentioned a company and Watanabe thought for a minute I said 'Don't tell me you taught him judo!'. 'No' said Watanabe `but my friend did'. Sure enough the following day we attended a meeting.

While chatting, Watanabe mentioned that he knew Putin the Russian President as he was ex Judoka. "Is there anyone you don't know, I asked."

I am reminded of an American who went to Rome, and on the Sunday morning in St Peters Square when the Pope was about to give the Papal blessing to the masses, the American turned to his wife and said "Who's the guy in white standing next to Watanabe?"


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