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Japanese seek spiritual strength at Tokyo Olympics

Judo champion shows the true meaning of martial arts lies in showing respect rather than cheering and shouting

Japanese seek spiritual strength at Tokyo Olympics
France's judo team celebrate after beating Japan at the Tokyo Olympic Games on July 31. Even while playing the very same sport, Westerners and Japanese treat it very differently. (Photo: AFP)

Shori Hamada, the Japanese female judoka, had just won the gold medal in judo's 78-kilogram category at the Tokyo Olympics. She bowed before her opponent without liberating a single smile, well aware of the respect that one is supposed to owe to one's opponent.

She waited to get out of the dojo — the fighting ring — to first bow as respect to the sacred ground and then finally smiled. But that too was a very disciplined smile.

TV commentators were impressed as they said “warawanai ne” (she doesn’t laugh, eh). “Kei-ii wo haratta” is the respect for those who lose. “Budouutsukushisa,” the beauty of budou, one other commented.

Before diving into the explanation of the meaning of budou, let’s take a look at what was going on the same day on the beach of Chiba during the surfing final.

The Brazilian Italo Ferreira was battling the Japanese Kanoa Igarashi. The Brazilian had a good lead but there were still a couple of minutes left before the end of the competition.

Despite this, while his opponent was still fully committed to his final run and trying to recover the disadvantage, Ferreira left the "battlefield" and started returning to shore, screaming joyfully with his arms raised to the sky.

In Japan, such tricks or deceptions are considered dishonorable practices

His teammates on the shore were cheering him back while his opponent was still trying to chase the right wave to make a number and maybe strike back with a bit of luck.

You can only imagine what the Japanese must have felt.

Psychologically, this would be equivalent to a boxing match where one fighter gets out of the ring and begins hugging his coach, declaring himself the winner before the round is over. It is a calculated move directed at breaking the opponent’s spirit — the very definition of unfair play.

In Japan, such tricks or deceptions are considered dishonorable practices. But in the West, they are often part of the training in certain sports. It is common knowledge that soccer players, while still very young, are taught how to fake a fall to fool the referee into giving a penalty kick.

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Judo, now recognized as a sport in all respects, more so with its entry into the Olympics, was initially born as budou. But in Japan, it is still thought of as budou, which literally means the “way of war.” It could also mean a form of mental education. 

Conquering the adversities of everyday life is the true meaning of martial arts. Students develop a type of warrior spirit that enables them to withstand life’s adversities, and not just without breaking but getting up and fighting back. Weaknesses become a strength, while fears turn into courage.

Typical jujitsu, karate, kendo and sumo are all budou or ways of war. 

But budou is not a sport. It is an ethically driven martial discipline that commands respect for the dojo in which one trains. Respect for the teacher, companions and adversaries are foremost priorities.

Budou can also be considered as fun activities for non-professionals, but you cannot practice them superficially. They require seriousness, commitment, responsibility and respect.

In kendo, for example, there are world championships, matches and tournaments being held. But it is unlike any other sport. You cannot rejoice in the field. You get disqualified.

One is focusing on the body, while the other is seeking moral integrity, which ultimately translates into spiritual strength

Kendo is the codification of a series of techniques that were once used to kill, so what is there to celebrate in victory? When one exults, budou loses its meaning.

Judo debuted at the Olympics in 1964 when Tokyo was hosting the Games. As it became an Olympic sport unlike kendo, it soon became Westernized as a “wrestling match.”   

After the first-ever victory by a Westerner (a Dutchman) over a Japanese opponent, the winner had to intervene to calm down his teammates who were all cheering and screaming. He did so because he had studied the martial art in Japan, not in the West, and so still retained the idea of judo as budou. For his gesture, the Dutchman was highly appreciated by the Japanese.

But if you would have watched the judo team final between Japan and France the other day, and witnessed the victorious French athletes shouting out of their lungs in unrestrained joy inside the dojo (not outside), you could easily comprehend the difference.

Even while playing the very same sport, Westerners and Japanese treat it very differently: one is focusing on the body, while the other is seeking moral integrity, which ultimately translates into spiritual strength.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News

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