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Judo World Championships: Japan Earns Tokyo Paralympics Host Country Slot, But Wins Only One Medal

300 judokas from 40 countries throughout the world gathered in Odivelas, Portugal for a chance to compete in the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games. Judo has employed a point system to determine who will compete in the Tokyo Paralympics, with points awarded to winners of tournaments hosted by the International Blind Sports Federation (IBSA). It had been announced that the IBSA Judo World Championships, held from November 16-18, would award the highest number of points of any tournament. Japan, being the host country of the Tokyo Paralympics, was also informed that they would be given the “host country” slot for all classes they competed in at the tournament. For this reason and some others, Japan sent judoists to compete in all classes of the IBSA Judo World Championships.

The results: Junko Hirose (Women’s 57kg) won a silver medal, and Aramitsu Kitazono (Men’s 81kg), Kento Masaki (Men’s +100kg), and Kazusa Ogawa (Women’s 70kg) all came in 7th. The results for all classes were as below.

  • ・Takaaki Hirai (Men’s 60kg): Eliminated in second round
  • Satoshi Fujimoto (Men’s 66kg): Eliminated in second round
  • ・Takamasa Nagai (Men’s 73kg): Eliminated in second round
  • Aramitsu Kitazono (Men’s 81kg): 7th place
  • ・Haruka Hirose (Men’s 90kg): Eliminated in second round
  • ・Yoshikazu Matsumoto (Men’s 100kg): Eliminated in second round
  • ・Kento Masaki (Men’s +100kg): 7th place
  • ・Sawa Shimada (Women’s 48kg): Eliminated in first round
  • ・Ayumi Ishii (Women’s 52kg): Eliminated in first round
  • ・Junko Hirose (Women’s 57kg): Silver medal
  • ・Hiroko Kudo (Women’s 63kg): Eliminated in first round
  • ・Kazusa Ogawa (Women’s 70kg): 7th place
  • ・Atsumi Nishimura (Women’s 70kg): Eliminated in first round

The Relief of Winning a Medal, and the Frustration of Being So Close, Yet So Far to a World Champion Title

Hirose (Women’s 57kg) moved steadily through the preliminary rounds, and in the quarterfinals, gained victory over Maria Santos (Brazil), champion of the IBSA Judo Pan-American Championships.

Her opponent in the finals was Zeynep Celik (Turkey), ranked No. 1 in the world. Though Hirose made some bold attempts right from the start, she was unable to maintain her balance in the face of Celik’s aggressive attacks. Said Hirose, “She had so many more tricks than when I went against her in ’17, and I was able to handle it the first time, but not the second.” 15 seconds into the match, she fell backwards onto the mat, and the referee’s “ippon!” reverberated through the venue.

Hirose (left; Women’s 57kg) was the only medal winner from the Japan team

“Her high level of skill has allowed her to win these medals, but the world is reacting—researching her moves, learning how to combat them. Winning a silver in this kind of condition is a win, yes, but she won’t be able to go any further in the future if she doesn’t diversify her skillset and improve her muscle strength,” said Women’s Coach Masaya Sato, in a level-headed analysis of the situation.

In the Team event held two days after her silver medal win, she was eliminated in the very first round, unable to complete her seoi-nage (shoulder throw), and having it used against her. Her only goal in the Tokyo Paralympics is a gold medal. And she will never stop training until she can see the light of it, glowing big and bright in front of her.

Finally, a Class Where He Can Realize His Full Potential

None of the Men’s judoists were able to leave memorable results. However, Men’s Coach Yoshiyasu Endo, who also served as the leader of the Japan team, had the following to say about Kitazono (Men’s 73kg/Rio Paralympics) who came in 7th in the tournament.
“He’s competed in a lot of different classes, from the 100kg to the 73kg, but for the Asian Para Games and for this tournament, we decided to have him in the 81kg. Seeing him in this tournament, throwing around foreign players a lot bigger than him, I realized this class might be the best fit for him in terms of utilizing his skills.”

In this tournament, Kitazono beat Nouri Jafari (Iran) an experienced judoka who has won various medals, including at the Paralympics, and is ranked 5th in the world, as well as Cyril Jonard (France), ranked 7th.

Kitazono (right) expressing his joy after his victory against Nouri Jafari, ranked 5th in the world

“At the Asian Para Games, I saw this signature move by a judoka whose style was similar to mine, and I trained for it hard in secret. I was able to use this move in this tournament, and realize I wasn’t wrong in my training methods and way of thinking. There’s only a year and ten months left until the Tokyo Paralympics. And I’ll be working as hard as I can for that moment until I can get up on that podium,” said Kitazono.

Unlike able-bodied judo, judo for the visually impaired begins with the opponents in contact with one another. As such, it was thought that judoka from areas like Eastern Asia, where people tend to be smaller in stature, were at a disadvantage. In this particular tournament, however, the Korean judoka seemed to perform exceptionally well in both the Men’s and Women’s events. “They have basically the same stature as Japanese people, but are good at maneuvering out of an ‘ippon’ by changing their position very quickly, even when they’re being knocked down. It’s amazing how strong they’ve managed to get, and it’s something we need to learn from,” said Coach Endo with reverence, watching from a distance as the Korean judoka got up on the winners’ podium.

Anticipation for a Comeback in Japan’s “Hallmark” Sport

The venue was filled with the passion of judoka from all over the world

This particular IBSA Judo World Championships, held less than two years before the Tokyo Paralympics, was an opportunity for the athletes to see where they stood in relation to the world. In the past, Japan had won two bronze medals in this same tournament, held two years before the Rio Paralympics. And in the actual Rio Paralympics, they had actually outperformed themselves, with a silver medal and three bronze medals.

In the same way, the Japan team is expected to outperform the results of this tournament for the Tokyo Paralympics. With Japan being the host country, however, there is also the expectation of a gold medal. Since para judo became an official event in the Seoul 1988 Paralympics, Japan has considered it to be the country’s “hallmark” sport, and has earned many gold medals to show for it.

In recent years, it has become increasingly difficult to attain a gold medal at the Paralympics, what with the general increase in judo skill throughout the world, and the extraordinary performances of judoka from countries like Uzbekistan and Korea. The Japan team, however, will take home the insight and potential gleaned from this tournament and utilize it, hopefully, to attain the greatest of achievements on the world stage of the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics. That is our hope.

text & photo by Ryo Ichikawa

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