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[Judo] [32nd All Japan Judo Championships For the Blind and Visually Impaired] Tough Event for Japan

The 32nd All Japan Judo Championships 2017 For the Blind and Visually Impaired took place on November 26 at Kodokan in Tokyo. Blind and visually impaired judo athletes have few opportunities to compete at events, and even fewer to compete with international peers. For this reason, non-Japanese judo athletes have been invited to this event for the past three years. Because top athletes were invited, primarily Rio Paralympic and World Cup medalists, non-Japanese athletes won all men's classifications. This was a hard blow for Japan, even though many Japanese athletes did not compete this time, including last year's champion Takamasa Nagai (73 kg class), Aramitsu Kitazono (81 kg class), Yusuke Hatsuse (90 kg class) and Kento Masaki (100+ kg class).

Women's 57 kg class Junko Hirose was the lone champion

Junko Hirose put on a great performance amidst the overpowering non-Japanese athletes.

Junko Hirose in the women's 57 kg class was the single Japanese athlete to win. Hirose said, "There were simply very few competitors. I am not at all happy with how the matches went." Nevertheless, she won all matches and seemed to gain some confidence. "Since winning the bronze at the Rio Paralympics, I was under a lot of pressure, but this time I was able to turn support into strength. I want to strengthen my throws and muscle power, and learn to compete aggressively," she said, showing a strong will to improve. Korea's Seohyun Kim took second place and Japan's Yui Fujiwara took third.

The women's 48 kg class was won by Korea's Yeonju Oh, showing her solid abilities by defeating Rio Paralympic silver medalist Carmen Brussig (Germany). Japan's Shizuka Hangai lost to Brussig and took third place. She showed disappointment in the results, saying, "I lost to Carmen in Uzbekistan and took third place, so this time I was determined to win. I fully intended to win until the match went into the Golden Score time... I am very disappointed."

The women's 52 kg class was taken by Rio silver medalist Ramona Brussig (Germany). Second place was Ayumi Ishii (Japan), who finished fifth in Uzbekistan. She commented, "It was disappointing because I lost to an ippon (highest scoring win) at the end," but continued optimistically, "For Tokyo, I hope to strengthen my lead from ashi-waza (foot and leg techniques) into o-waza (winning moves)."

Sweden's Nicolina Pernheim won the women's 63 kg class, followed by Kazusa Ogawa (Japan) in second place and Cindy Simon (U.S.) in third. The women's 70 kg class was a default win by Japan's Atsumi Nishimura, the only contestant. The women's 70+ kg class was a face-off between non-Japanese athletes: Yeeun Lee (Korea) defeated Lori Pierce (U.S.).

Competition for "Best in Japan" between non-Japanese athletes

The men's preliminaries took place in the morning in a round robin format, and the top four athletes of each weight class continued on to the finals in a tournament format. In the men's 60 kg class, Japan's Daiki Saito, who competed in the 66 kg class last year, was the only Japanese to proceed to the finals. In the first match, Saito lost to Romania's Alexandru Bologa with an ippon, placing him in third. Bologa won the class after defeating Korea's Sungjin Jang with an ippon.

High expectations for newcomer Seto

In the men's 66 kg class, three Japanese athletes proceeded to the finals—Satoshi Fujimoto (gold medalist at Atlanta, Sydney and Athens), Makoto Hirose, and newcomer Yujiro Seto. Everyone watched with high anticipation for Japan, but Korea's Yongho Youn took the crown. Youn defeated Hirose in the first match and Fujimoto in the final match, both with nage-waza (throws) ippons.
Because of an old injury flaring up, Fujimoto was not able to put his whole strength into the competition, but said, "One good result was getting an ippon with a newaza (pinning techniques) in the preliminaries, despite my condition. It is a great opportunity to compete with overseas athletes who have different styles, so I hope they will continue to invite them." He talked of his ambitions: "It is about 1,000 days until the Tokyo Paralympics. I think this will be my first and last Paralympics in my own country, so I will train towards it with all my strength."

Fujimoto got a seoinage (shoulder throw) on Seto.

Fujimoto and Seto competed in the semi-final match. Seto only began para judo this August at the Blind Student Judo Meet. He is a promising newcomer who has competed at the Kinshuki National High School Judo Tournament, a non-para judo event. At his first blind judo tournament in August he struggled with the para judo style of starting with a hold on the opponent, but this time he demonstrated the results of the last three months of strength training. He won both matches in the preliminaries and proceeded to the finals, where he competed with Fujimoto, a legend in this class. Fujimoto took a seoinage (shoulder throw) ippon, while Seto was distracted by watching out for Fujimoto's newaza.
Seto showed complete respect towards Fujimoto, saying, "As someone who has been competing internationally, he is at a completely different level in both strength and game strategy. I was helpless." That said, he is already facing forward: "I will train hard for 2020 Tokyo, including the possibility of dropping my weight class to 60 kg."

Takamasa Nagai (Japan), last year's champion, was not able to compete in his 73 kg class due to an ankle injury, and the championship went to Korea's Seungjun Yang. Genki Ishibashi (Japan) took second place and Masayuki Yanagawa (Japan) took third. The men's 81 kg class finals included three Japanese athletes—Yuji Kato, Hiromitsu Kikuchi and Yoshiyuki Sasaki—but it was Korea's Yungho Kim that took the crown. Kim defeated Sasaki in the semi-final match and Kato in the final match, both with nage-waza ippons.

Haruka Hirose defeated his Korean opponent in the semi-final match.

In the men's 90 kg class, Japan's Haruka Hirose defeated Korea's Woonsub Jeong in a heated semi-final match, and proceeded to the final match against the U.K.'s Elliot Stewart. Hirose hung in with great persistence, but in the end lost to the physically stronger Stewart with an uchi-mata (inner thigh throw) ippon, grabbing hold of his back collar. Hirose reflected, "I felt the difference in strength between myself and the non-Japanese athletes. I need to work on strength building." He hopes to attend the Tokyo Paralympic Games together with his wife, who won the women's 57 kg class this day, and said, "In Rio I was aiming for a bronze, so in Tokyo I will aim for a silver."

In the men's 100 kg class, last year's champion Yoshikazu Matsumoto (Japan) lost to Christopher Skelly (U.K.) in the semi-final match. Skelly then defeated Ben Goodrich (U.S.) in the final match with a waki-gatame (armpit arm lock) ippon. The finals for the men's 100+ kg class took place during the round robin format, won by Jack Hodgson (U.K.). Howard Wilson (U.S.) took second place and Mike Larsen (U.S.) took third, making it a class dominated by non-Japanese athletes.

After the event, Yoshiyasu Endo, event chairman and men's Japan team coach, spoke of the significance of the event. "The participation of powerful athletes from overseas, including Rio medalists, made this a high level competition. There are few blind judo competitions, and even fewer international events. If Japanese athletes compete with strong opponents, they will get better even if they lose. Technique alone, without strength, often cannot get you through international competitions. Strength can be gained through training, so I hope many athletes will work on this." He also commented on the possibility of creating a new event: "We may have to reconsider this format of inviting non-Japanese athletes to a tournament that is meant to decide the best in Japan. Ideally we would have a Japan Cup for inviting overseas athletes, separate from the All Japan Championships."

If Japanese athletes can compete with non-Japanese athletes more often, we can avoid a situation in which Japanese representatives compete in their first international competition at the Tokyo Paralympics. It is crucial for blind judo athletes to gain more opportunities to compete with overseas opponents.

text by Shigeki Masutani
photo by X-1
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