August 3, 2021

Judo, baseball, keirin, these crazy, crazy, crazy Japanese sports

Don’t look for sumo in this selection of Olympic sports with a strong Japanese connotation. No lobbying would have been effective enough to include this traditional discipline and very little international, in spite of some Mongolian and Bulgarian champions on the Olympic program.

Conversely, judo, another national sport, is of course included. This martial art, created by Jigoro Kano in 1882, was lucky enough to be introduced to the Olympic Games during the first Tokyo Games in 1964. And has spread around the planet.

Tokyo 2021 will see the presence of another Japanese martial art, karate. But its ephemeral performance – it is already canceled in Paris in 2024 – has led us to this necessarily subjective choice.

Baseball, on the other hand, seemed essential. The opportunity to recall its Japanese history and its import from the 19th century by the Americans present in the archipelago.

Finally the Keirin, a funny track UFO born in 1948, deserved a presentation. And this even if the Japanese cyclists do not dominate at the world level their discipline, Olympic since 2000.

  • Judo, the Olympic martial art and of excellence

The Tokyo karate interlude – which made a flash appearance at the Games before disappearing from the Olympic program – does not change the case. In Japan, how to compete against judo, accustomed to the big meeting since the 1964 Olympics? Japanese judokas have thus gleaned 36 gold medals, or 27.7% of the titles in the country’s history.

Pierre Flamand, 49, French judoka and member of the public relations committee at the Japanese federation, notes the supremacy of this sport in the Archipelago: “It is the only Japanese martial art at the Olympics, he explains. That judo became an Olympic sport in 1964 and settled definitively in 1972, that gave it an international dimension. “

But, unlike football, which quickly escaped its English creators, judo remains an emblem and a national sport. “Japan constantly reminds all foreign nations that judo is Japanese. It is still the benchmark. No other country has grabbed it. Their judokas still teach the world. “

Trainer at Keio University, Pierre Flamand admires the simplicity of this original judo: “You have to grab hold of it with both hands and make it fall. The ippon still has value. The movements are made to excellence. When you watch a fight by a Japanese, it’s immediately recognizable and unique. “

Traditional, judo is not part of a dynamic of growth. “He suffers from the image of severe, harsh discipline. It’s not an easy sport, you have to hurt yourself, notes Flamand. There is a steady loss of practitioners. It is not – and by far – the most practiced discipline. ”

Despite this phenomenon, the institutions perpetuate the tradition: “From college, then to high school and university, young people have a lot of hours of practice. Sometimes six or seven a week is intensive. It maintains excellence, even if there are fewer judokas. ” And, unlike fashionable sports, judo retains a significant advantage: “A Japanese who practices judo seriously knows he can become an Olympic champion. It’s a hell of a source of motivation. “

  • Keirin, an “old-fashioned” discipline

We have known more effective lobbying. Invented in Japan in 1948 and introduced at the Olympics in 2000 under murky conditions (for a payment of $ 3 million, or € 2.5 million, to the International Cycling Union, according to BBC information in 2008 ), the keirin is far from having given the expected fruits. In five editions (two with women), Japan has won only a modest bronze medal in its discipline of track cycling, contested at the Olympics in the form of a short sprint between six riders.

“In Japan, it takes place on a concrete track, in an open velodrome, with a steel bicycle and a spoked wheel”, François Pervis, former world champion

Double keirin world champion 2014 and 2015, François Pervis explains this curious shift: “Internationally, it’s almost not the same rules as Japanese keirin, explains the Frenchman. Over there, it takes place on a concrete track, in an open velodrome [le pays en compte 47], with a steel bicycle and a spoke wheel. They are called heating pipes. It’s really old-fashioned… ”

The keirin, on which the Japanese are betting, is a microcosm that brings 3,000 runners to life: “In Japan, you are only disqualified if you knock your opponent down. You have the right to helmet blows, fish tails, shoulder to shoulder. Globally, it has become sanitized. You no longer have the right to touch the opponent. “

The Mayennais made the trip to Japan several times. “Local runners don’t have the international level. Most train like they did in the 1970s. 80 kilometer runs, little or no strength training or sprints, keirin is considered a profession and we go through the only school in the country, he says. The manager – an ex-runner who won it all in the 1960s – imposes his outdated training method. “

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Faced with this delay, a Frenchman was chosen to transform the elite of the Japanese keirin: the national team. “In five years, Benoît Vêtu, the best trainer in the world, has transformed average runners. To beat Japanese riders in international competitions, you have to be pretty damn fit now. “ The change is diffused internally: “These runners are starting to import their know-how into the national keirin. It takes time. “

  • Baseball, an imported passion

Baseball in Japan? From ancient history, recalls Yves Cadot-Daunizeau, teacher-researcher at Jean-Jaurès University in Toulouse: “This sport symbolizes the opening of the country from 1868.” Taking advantage of the desire for modernization of Emperor Meiji (1852-1912), the Americans settled in Asia and imported their entertainment there. “The Japanese seized this input from the West, then finally got it. “Japanese-style”, as with different techniques that arrived at that time. “ And this is how, for Japanese speakers, baseball is called the yakyu.

Read also Tokyo 2020 offers five new Olympic sports

This game of the ball and the bat first developed in schools, especially among an elite. “Sports newspapers will be enthusiastic about the first inter-school meetings”, says Yves Cadot-Daunizeau, also attached to the National Institute of Oriental Languages ​​and Civilizations (Inalco). Beyond the language barrier, baseball “Also allows a dialogue” between Japanese and American universities through sporting events, from the beginning of the 20th centurye century.

The local popularity of yakyu explains today his punctual return to the 2021 Olympic Games in Tokyo, after four editions between 1992, in Barcelona, ​​and 2008, in Beijing. Results for Japan so far: one silver and two bronze, the Americans, Cubans and Koreans sharing the gold.

If this team sport today faces competition from football, baseball can claim a singular virtue. “Some consider this sport to be even more spiritual than physical training., adds Yves Cadot-Daunizeau. As if to miss a bullet was to miss a dodge or a saber attack. “

Read also this interview from summer 2019: Haruki Murakami: “There are common emotions between the author and the reader”

Fans of Japanese literature also owe the work of Haruki Murakami to baseball, at least in its early days. The Japanese writer has often recounted the click that preceded his first book (Listen to the song of the wind, 1979), in the middle of a baseball game. “When I heard the sound of the ball against the bat, he tells the World in an interview published in 2019, I thought maybe I could write. “