Daniel Krieger and Norkio Norica-Panayota Kitono of The New York report.
Hundreds of children in Japan have suffered catastrophic injuries doing judo under school supervision. Over the past 30 years, 118 have died, and nearly 300 have ended up disabled or comatose.
The statistics have no parallel in other developed nations where the sport is popular. Officials at judo federations in both the United States and France said that while concussions had been common, there had been no known reports of deaths or traumatic brain injuries for young practitioners in recent decades.
The frequency of judo deaths in Japan concerned Ryo Uchida, an assistant professor at Nagoya University, who studies school safety. He was the first to compile the figures, based on school accident records from the Japan Sport Council.
Uchida’s study, published in 2009, tracked 108 deaths since 1983, the earliest data available, but did not include nonscholastic judo centers, whose injury rates were unknown.
“Because we were ignorant,” Uchida said, “the accidents kept happening.”One thing that led to this, he said, was “wrong coaching techniques” that push students too hard, which can make a sport with body contact and collision, like judo, lethal.
Yoshihiro Murakawa learned this when his 12-year-old nephew, Koji Murakawa, suffered a head injury in 2009 and died a month later. He had no idea Koji had been but one of numerous school judo casualties until he was contacted months later by Yasuhiko Kobayashi, whose son had been badly hurt doing judo at school.
Murakawa said he and Kobayashi had been “astonished” by Uchida’s study. This prompted them to start the Japan Judo Accident Victims Association in March 2010.
“The problem is that instructors are ignorant about safety issues,” said the aunt of a dead Judoka said.
Dr. Robert Nishime, chairman of sports medicine for USA Judo, the sport’s federation, is a Japanese-American who has spoken to victims’ families. He said that the Japanese cultural trait of not giving up, called gaman, might explain why a concussion, which can be subtle, could be played down by the instructor or the child. The danger is that another head trauma soon after the initial injury can cause “second impact syndrome,” which can be devastating.
Murakawa would like Japan to implement a rigorous certification program for judo instructors like the one in France, which has the most registered judo practitioners in the world, 76 percent of whom are children.
When asked whether such a system could work in Japan, Yuichi Toshima, of the education ministry’s Sports and Youth Bureau, said it was unlikely because “it would entail too much administrative reform.” (He also expressed skepticism about the safety records of the United States and France.)
The ministry urges the Judo Federation to send qualified instructors to schools, he said, adding, “ultimately, it’s up to the principals who hire the instructors.”
But having a more qualified teacher might not have prevented what happened to Yasuhiko Kobayashi’s son, Taichi, now 23, whose head injury, which left him cognitively impaired, was at the hands of his own instructor.
In December 2004, the 15-year-old Taichi attended a judo class at his junior high school in Yokohama. According to a lawsuit brought by his parents, his instructor, an All-Japan champion, choked him during a sparring session until he fainted. Taichi came to and continued, but the instructor choked him again and threw him on the mat. Taichi stood up again but then collapsed. Paramedics found him in critical condition.
In the aftermath, Kobayashi said, a sympathetic faculty member told him that the school had lied in the accident report, claiming the injury had had nothing to do with judo. Kobayashi insisted that the principal correct the misinformation, and the family won its lawsuit in 2011, one of at least a dozen legal victories for victims’ families in the past four years.
Physically disciplining children is still widely accepted in Japan, especially by coaches and parents, who see it as a legitimate educational tool. Uchida, the school safety researcher, strongly objects to the practice.
“They call it corporal punishment,” he said, “but more precisely, it’s violence and abuse.”
Murakawa said he held the Judo Federation and the education ministry accountable for maintaining ignorance about judo’s dangers and for allowing a culture of abuse to go unchecked for so long.
“We Japanese are also to blame for this,” he added. “We have accepted violence and allowed it to keep happening.”
A 2011 story by Al Jazeera covers Judo in Japanese schools.