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Part 2 in a series on the World Judo Championships that get under way Sept. 9-13 at Yoyogi Gymnasium in Tokyo.
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In Japan, where judo originated, female judoka have been putting up some impressive results while their male counterparts have struggled in international competitions. But just 30 years ago, female Japanese judoka were trapped in an unfortunate environment.
"Judo was considered a men's sport," said Kaori Yamaguchi, 45, who pioneered Japan's nascent women's judo movement. "Women's judo was always treated differently. Women were treated as weak beings who gave birth, and even judo instructors seemed overly sensitive during practice."
Back then, women's judo required participants to be "feminine." There were restrictions in place that now seem hard to believe. "Okueri" (gripping the back of an opponent) and "newaza" (ground techniques) were forbidden.
Meanwhile, women's judo developed as a sport in other parts of the world--mainly in European nations like France and Britain--as judo became popular worldwide. In 1980, the first Women's World Judo Championships were held in New York. Yamaguchi, who won a silver medal in the 52-kg category at the competition, says she was surprised at the rough fighting styles of foreign athletes.
"It was my first competition overseas, and the first time I competed against foreign judoka. It felt like descending a mountain and suddenly entering a competition," Yamaguchi said.
At the 1980 competition, the Japanese team won only one medal--Yamaguchi's silver--in the eight weight categories. Japan was far behind its foreign counterparts when it came to women's judo.
Hisashi Yanagisawa, 63, who was in charge of training the Japanese women's judo team back then, said, "The result was inevitable. In Japan, women were still in the custom of sitting with their knees folded in traditional fashion as a greeting before judo competitions, unlike men's judo."
Yanagisawa remembers the days when he started training the women as "more like a seminar."
Women's judo became an exhibition sport at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, and became an official sport at the 1992 Barcelona Games. Around that time, Ryoko Tamura (now 34 years old and named Ryoko Tani after her marriage) made an impressive debut on the world stage.
Tani was a national star known to fans as "Yawara-chan," after a Japanese comic series about a girl who participated in judo.
Tani's style of tying her hair short in a ribbon became a huge trend among girls nationwide. As if inspired by Tani's achievements, the Japanese women's judo team won five gold medals at the 2004 Athens Olympics, marking a golden era for Japanese women's judo. Tani would go to win seven world titles and two Olympic golds in her impressive career, which is still going strong.
Even now, Japanese women boast the world's top rankings in four weight categories between 48 kg and 63 kg. Tomoko Fukumi, 25, who competes in the 48-kg category, and Misato Nakamura, 21, who competes in the 52-kg category, both were inspired by Tani. These two weight categories have been considered more difficult to win in Japan than in the rest of the world.
Noriko Kitada, 44, who coached the Japanese women's judo team at the 1996 Atlanta Summer Olympics, said, "It will continue to be important to have star judoka like Tani. A star's presence should increase the population of women's athletes."