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February 21, 2019

How Japan uses sports to spread its culture

Kenya Judo Coach Joseph Waweru Mburu./victor imboto
Kenya Judo Coach Joseph Waweru Mburu./victor imboto

When he visited the Japan International Cooperation Agency in 1995, Joseph Mburu met volunteer judo coaches. This piqued his interest in the sport, and he started training at the institution.

Since then, the Ruiru Training College prison officer has practised judo and perfected his skills. He has attained the second dan black belt and is now waiting for his international coaching licence.

Mburu is currently the Kenya Judo Team coach. OJune 12-22 he took five judokas, including African Junior and Cadet bronze medallist Carols Ochieng, to the International Training Camp in Tokyo, Japan, under the sponsorship of the Japanese government. The others were Peterson Gathiru, John Nderitu and Milton Kuloba.

Mburu says although the Kenya Judo Association had participated in the International Training Camp before, this was the first time they received sponsorship for the training.

“This was good exposure for us and our preparations for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo,” said Mburu, who is also training 30 youths under the age of 19. 

Of interest is the use of sport to spread culture, which the Japanese have excelled at by either exporting their sports, such as judo, or supporting athletes in other countries.

In Kenya, for example, those who have benefitted from Japanese support include Douglas Wakiihuri, who won the gold medal in the marathon at the 1987 World Championships in Athletics in Rome, Stephen Mayaka, the late Joseph Otwori, Eric Wainaina, Thomas Osano, Daniel Njenga and the late Samuel Wanjiru. Some ended up settling down in Japan.



 Since the late 19th Century, the Japanese traditional sport of judo has been diffused throughout the world and established its position as a global sport. Through globalisation, judo has been changed and influenced by the transfer of power to organisations such as the International Olympics Committee and the International Judo Federation.

 In recent years, the dependency relationship between sports and culture has become an important area of concern among sports sociologists. Examination of the cultural and historical transformations of specific sports may provide significant insights into the nature of this relationship.

Fushimi Katsutoshi, a student at Oregon State University, did a study to explain how the meanings and the forms of judo, as a sport, have been transformed and or maintained in the society of origin, Japan, and in an adoptive society, the United States.

Research by Kings College London into major sporting events found that their popularity provides a powerful means of showcasing a nation’s achievements and values and its ability to manage major projects.

Katsutoshi interviewed judo instructors in the US and Japan, observed selected clubs and tournaments, talked to judoists, and analysed sport-specific publications to develop the credibility of the findings. He developed three hypotheses: One, the forms of judo are independent of the dominant society; two, the meanings of judo are strongly dependent upon the dominant society, and three, the forms of judo in Japan have been subject to greater variance than judo as practiced in the US.

 He also explores the deeper meanings of judo to individual participants in each country, and for the US, he noticed three themes emerge: Judo as a means to form friendships, to express individual abilities, and three, persistence of the Kodokan-Japanese orientation.

For Japan, he noticed judo as a means of self-discipline and judo as a championship sport. When considered jointly, both ethnographic inquiry and favourite possessions investigation suggested that there were culturally different reasons why individuals in the two countries chose to seek involvement in the sport.

Basically, American judoists tended to emphasise friendships and the value of individual achievements, whereas their Japanese counterparts valued the nature of individual effort and respectful feelings for their instructor and the instructional process.



However, Wakiihuri says staying in Japan for six years didn’t change his culture.

“It is your decision to change. You are not influenced. Do you start running because you stay with a runner?” he asked.

But influence isn’t about changing beliefs or attitudes. It’s all about what one claims to be about at the moment: changing behaviour.

The Japanese, in what they indicate as “international cooperation and exchange through sport", say their main aim is to “cooperate with developing countries to promote sports and the Olympic and Paralympic movement in both tangible and intangible ways”.

Japan has a long history in contributing to sports by sending coaches, providing equipment, and assisting to enrich the sporting environment. This pillar, they say, aims to further implement international cooperation and exchange programmes through the strategic and best use of existing resources.

“We have recently started judo classes, which are held at our premises on weekly. Over the years, the Japanese embassy has offered other martial arts, including karate and aikido," Seiji Tashiro, director of the Japan Information and Culture Centre at the embassy.

To advance and popularise judo in Kenya, the embassy will hold the Judo Ambassador’s Cup this month, he says.

 However, there have been problems with management in the judo federation, which Mburu says made the Japanese withdraw their support and, in 1998, led to its collapse. It is only after elections were held in the federation and changes effected that Japan came in and sponsored the team.

There are other reasons why judo is hard to run. “It is an expensive game to run,” Mburu says. He says a judo carpet goes for Sh300,000, and a pair of uniform costs Sh28,000.

 The game has a presence in Nairobi (Kaloleni, Kahawa and Rongai), Kiambu, Nakuru and Mombasa. Italians have been instrumental in facilitating clubs in Malindi.

In Africa, it is now in Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco and Egypt — basically teams that were, or have previously competed, at the football World Cup.

On why the Japanese are keen to invest in this game, Mburu gives two reasons: To maintain the sport as their own, and to make it competitive on the global stage.

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