Interview & Text by Senichi Zoshigaya │ Photography by Mika Ninagawa
43 Years Old and in “Desperation Mode”
Why I Want to Compete in the Tokyo Paralympics
It was December 23, with 2019 just ahead on the horizon, and the 33rd All Japan Judo Championships for the Blind and Visually Impaired was being held at the Kodokan in Tokyo. Satoshi Fujimoto of the Men's 66kg class, having competed on the front lines of the sport not only in Japan, but in the world, faced an unexpectedly tough battle from the very first match. Though he fought his way up and made it to the finals, that was as far as he would go in the tournament. For this 43-year old from Tokushima Prefecture aiming for the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics, time is running out. And he himself knows this better than anyone. His expression when he emerged at this interview the next day, however, was light, optimistic—as if he had come to some sort of decision. What does this long-time judoka, with his 25-year career, envision for his future?
The things people are capable of when they're really under pressure… It's funny—I'm always doing my best, but it really feels like I've gotten even better [laughs]
A Day After the Struggle:
The Present State of VI Judo in Japan
Yesterday you fought a series of intense battles. How do you feel about this tournament, looking back on it now?
For me the whole thing was just one big trial run for the Tokyo Paralympics. When I first heard about the match-ups for the tournament, I thought, “what?!” I was stunned. Makoto Hirose, Paralympian Yusuke Hatsuse, and young up-and-comer Daiki Saito, were all in my group, and I knew it was gonna be a tough tournament for me—that I might even lose in the preliminaries if I wasn't careful. I was very anxious about it, but after the World Championships, I decided to reset myself, and go into what I would call “desperation mode.” I really put a lot more time and effort into my practice than I'd done before, and thought about judo 24/7. The things people are capable of when they're really under pressure… It's funny—I'm always doing my best, but it really feels like I've gotten even better [laughs]. This past month has really been good to me in that sense.
For a long time in Japanese tournaments, you've been at the very top of the 66kg class. Were there any times in the past where you felt as immensely threatened as in this tournament?
No. Nowadays there are so many young people coming up the ranks, I'm not really in a place to “defend” my position anymore. This tournament I had no choice but to give it my all, appearances be damned. So I really was under a lot of pressure.
Your first match in the tournament was an excruciating battle with none other than Hirose. You two have been rivals for many years—you must know each other's strategies by heart.
That match was 30 minutes long, which was a first even for me [laughs]. Hirose's already retired from the Japan national team, but he's someone who just really loves judo. If he's at a tournament, he's there to win. And this is someone who's not even competing to get into the national team! It's like, “Really? Tone it down a bit!” [laughs].
I'm joking, because without him, I wouldn't have been able to experience such a tense match—a kind I rarely get to experience in Japan. And that is something that was really good for me. I've spent this whole month asking myself, “How are you gonna survive if you can't even make it past this simple hurdle?” and “What exactly are you even going for?” and all these other things, to rile myself up and get over my weakness of spirit.
You said you weren't in a place to “defend” your position anymore. Both Yujiro Seto, who you went against in the finals, and Saito, who was in your group and is 23 years old, are quite young. It seems younger judoka are really seeing a lot of growth as well.
For a long time, there hadn't been much growth in the younger athletes in the 66kg class. Now there are finally some people who seem like they could carry the torch in the future, and I'm genuinely very happy about that. But honestly, there's still so much more for them to deal with, to overcome. I think they're just now going into their “training” in the real sense. I just want them to experience as much as they can of that struggle, and of overcoming that struggle.
You've competed on the world stage for over 20 years now. How do you think the overall skill level of VI Judo in Japan has changed since when you were young?
This isn't exclusive to VI Judo, but I think the greatest difference between Japanese para-athletes now and in the past is just how much more support there is for young people now. For the 1998 World Championships in Madrid, we had to pay 200,000, 300,000 yen out of pocket just to compete. We weren't given national uniforms, so we were in shorts and just our regular clothes, not matching at all … It was so embarrassing, and I felt so ashamed. We were pretty much the only team for a developed country that came out like that. I think the circumstances in Japan now are built off of that earlier struggle. It makes me feel glad that I've been in this sport for such a long time.
Now we have the Tokyo Paralympics coming up, and I guess I just don't want the younger para-athletes to take all this for granted. Getting their traveling fees, training camp fees, even their transportations fees paid for—they shouldn't start expecting these things. Most of the para-athletes on the national team are full-time athletes. But back then, there were a lot of people who were masseurs, who worked at hospitals, who were self-employed—I myself have been a teacher my whole career. There's just so much more support now.
Feeling Out the Opponent:
Subtle Cues from the Judo Suits
At 21 years old, you competed in your first Paralympics—Atlanta 1996—and immediately won a gold medal. At the time, how did you feel about competing on the world stage?
At the time, I was a third-year student studying physical therapy in school. It was the summer vacation after the first part of my clinical training. That tournament was my debut on the world stage. And to be honest, I did feel like I could win it. But I had no real information about anything, and I do think it was just youth and sheer determination that got me that gold medal. In reality, I was stunned by how amazing everyone was [laughs].
In VI Judo in the past, you didn't start in contact with your opponent. You'd face each other, touch your opponent, lower both hands, and then finally you'd lock onto each other. This meant there was a battle to get a good grip right at the start, when you're right in front of each other. This was regardless of disability classifications, or whether you were blind or visually impaired.
That sounds like a completely different sport than that it is now.
Yes. I think it was really hard, especially for those in the B1 (blind) class. There were some who performed pretty well once they got used to it, but that rule change was really very important for the sport.
Just from touching their suit, you feel it—all this information and the energy coming off of them— and you know, “This guy is strong,” “He seems like he has a few tricks up his sleeve,” or “just Oh no, this is gonna be tedious.”
Now, the rules of VI Judo are pretty much the same as able-bodied judo, other than the fact that you start in a neutral grip. In other words, the defining characteristic of VI Judo is that you start in contact with each other.
Yes. You can tell a lot about your opponent from just this initial grip. Just from touching their suit, you feel it—all this information and the energy coming off of them—and you know, “This guy is strong,” “He seems like he has a few tricks up his sleeve,” or just “Oh no, this is gonna be tedious.” And when the game gets going, you just add to this initial impression, like “I was right, he's really leaning into my weaknesses,” “He really knows his offense,” or “This guy's got a lot of foot techniques.”
What kind of things can you tell from your lifting hand and your pulling hand respectively?
I think my right lifting hand is more important in that respect. My fist will hit my opponent's torso or chest, and will feel the power and energy in their body. When my opponent goes into an attack, I feel it with my right lifting hand and can stop it before it connects. When I'm the one attacking, I have to make sure my lifting hand does its job as well. And of course, your opponent's going to move, so when they do, you have to keep ahold of their collar and bring it up against their neck. This kind of stuff is really important for both offense and defense.
You need some time to envision what kind of opponent you're dealing with.
Yes—calmly, thoughtfully, and without panicking [laughs]. Recently, I feel I've gotten better at being patient, waiting it out, and not panicking when things don't go my way. This means I can try a lot more things, and create a lot more options for myself over the course of a match.
Do you have things that you like to do, or a direction you like to go in your judo?
First, neutralize my opponent. I'm good at doing things they don't like, like pulling on their suit so it's out of place. When I feel them not being able to bring in the techniques they're good at, I know it's working. It comes down to how quickly I can figure out their strengths, and how well I can neutralize them. That's my technique, I guess. Other than that, just trying to mow them down through sheer determination [laughs]. I think especially towards the end of a match, it can become kind of a test of endurance. It's a battle of who can withstand it the longest.
The Reason Behind His Drive for Tokyo, Becoming Clearer:
The People Who've Supported Him in Local Tokushima
You said you started judo when you were five years old. When did you start aiming for the Paralympics?
When I was a second-year in high school, Eiji Miyauchi, who is from Tokushima Prefecture and who was gonna compete in the Barcelona Paralympics, came to practice at Tokushima Commercial High School, where I was a student. Miyauchi was blind, and I remember when I was doing stretches with him, I wasn't able to explain to him what I wanted him to do—the side stretch, torso stretch, leg extensions, and so on. At the time I just thought “wow, it's really hard to explain things.” But then in my third year, my high-school judo career came to an end, and Yoshiaki Koizumi, the coach of the Judo Club at the time, told me I should go into physical therapy for school, and that I could try for the Paralympics that way. He'd worked at the Tokushima Prefectural School for the Blind in the past, and he knew that my eyesight was poor. Hearing that made me recall my experience with Miyauchi, and for the first time I started really thinking about the Paralympics—how maybe I could compete on the world stage as well. It was around then that I started becoming involved with VI Judo.
Had you planned to continue judo after high school?
I don't know. Who knows what I'd be doing right now if he hadn't told me what he did. I've always been blessed with people who give me advice when I across a crossroads in my life. I don't really know how, but whenever I'm struggling, someone's always there to open a door or lend me a hand. I find marveling sometimes at how things have worked out for me [laughs]. Though of course, it does come down to me making the choices and carving out a path for myself.
Looking back on your past interviews, it seems you were always very focused on the Tokyo Paralympics. Tell us why you've placed so much importance on Tokyo specifically.
I just think it's a once in a lifetime chance, maybe even less. I think if I didn't have the Tokyo Paralympics, I would've quit after Rio in 2016. I thought, “I'll be 45 years old at Tokyo, but I could still hack it.” It'd be an opportunity for the people who've worked with me in Tokushima to see me in action. Until now, there were very few people who would make the trip from Tokushima to Tokyo just to see me compete. About two years ago, some people I regularly work with in Tokushima, like my trainers and announcers, came to watch me compete, and they would say things like, “Hey, you were amazing!” I think the Tokyo Paralympics will have that kind of atmosphere, but on a much, much larger scale, and the thought of that is very heartening. I remember feeling like just that was enough reason for me to go for Tokyo. In the beginning it was just a vague feeling, but now I've finally started to understanding why I want to go for it, and what I want to accomplish.
It doesn't matter if I get full marks on the practice test if I can't then win a medal at the Tokyo Paralympics. When it comes down to it, the most important thing is to win that ultimate battle.
It's now less than a year and a half until the Tokyo Paralympics. What kind of year for you was 2018, in light of your journey to 2020?
It was a year that really tested me. First there was the rule change, which was a struggle to get used to. It drastically changed the way we fight and the way the matches play out, and the only real way to get used to it were in the matches themselves. So I had to develop all kinds of strategy within the matches themselves—try out technique after technique, fail at some, and work on new strategies from there. For the most part this year was just repetitions of this cycle.
This year I also competed in a lot of matches abroad. I did have an injury, but it actually became a good incentive for me to change up my game. I broke a rib in Jakarta, which led me to have deeper discussions with my trainer as to my game. So in that sense, this was also a year in which I was able to up my motivation and go into what I'm calling my “desperation mode.”
It seems you've gone a level above where you've been in the past.
It's because I was able to drive myself there, just thinking to myself, “I need to go further,” “I need to do more.” Of course, I'm not satisfied with the way things went for me this year, but I ultimately believe it'll be okay as long as I can win in the end. It doesn't matter if I get full marks on the practice test if I can't then win a medal at the Tokyo Paralympics. When it comes down to it, the most important thing is to win that ultimate battle.
Finally, could you tell us how you intend to put this plan into action for 2019?
I need to be reliable about winning the points for the world ranking when I can. I think winning even just one medal will help open up a path for the Tokyo Paralympics. I'm thinking within the country it's gonna be a battle against Seto. He's a rival, but also not a rival. I do think that in Japan, Seto and I are the top two in VI Judo, and since the top two people get to represent Japan at the Paralympics, it won't be a fight to the death in the true sense. But of course, I did lose in the finals this time, so I definitely want to beat him in the next tournament in June. Watch out, Seto [laughs]!
Born in 1975 in Tokushima Prefecture. Member of the Japan national VI Judo team in the Men's 66kg class. B2 (low visual acuity) class. His vision in his left eye was impaired due to an accident when he was young, and he currently has almost no vision in his left eye. Began judo when he was five years old, and switched over to VI Judo when he entered the Tokushima Prefectural School for the Blind High School. Won a gold medal at his first Paralympics—the Atlanta 1996 Paralympics—at 21 years old, as well as the two Paralympics that followed. Won a silver medal in the Beijing 2008 Paralympics. Though he did not qualify for the London 2012 Paralympics, he went on to compete in the Rio 2016 Paralympics and won a bronze medal. Currently aiming to compete in the Tokyo Paralympics in 2020.