AS coach of Japan's judo team, Yasuhiro Yamashita knows how to give way to an assailant. After all, that's how one wins in the art of judo, which in Japanese means ``gentle way.'' But the former world champ is not willing to give way when his country's only contribution to Olympic sports is looking less and less like its original self, and Japan is losing its historic dominance in judo.
``Slowly, judo is changing from the art of throwing your opponent into winning by just any means,'' says Yamashita, as he watches his players tussle and toss the foreign competition during the 1990 international Kano Cup in Tokyo last month.
``We are happy that judo has become so popular, but it's losing its purpose. What can we do?'' says Yamashita.
Be disciplined, according to the philosophy of the 19th-century founder of judo, Jigoro Kano, and wait calmly for your rival to make a mistake.
``Foreign competitors will someday return to the orthodox way,'' says the founder's grandson, Yukimitsu Kano, president of the All-Japan Judo Federation, or Kodokan.
But for Japan, the rival is the giant International Judo Federation (IJF), whose 150 member-countries have taken over the role of guiding a sport invented in 1882 and which was derived from Japan's ancient martial arts.
And ever since judo entered the Olympics as an official sport in 1972, Japan's clout in setting the standards has been diluted by the global democracy within the IJF.
Little changes irk Japan
``Judo must adopt international rules,'' says Lawrie Hargrave, a New Zealander and IJF president. ``The English don't claim that only they understand cricket. Any sport dominated by one race will lose its appeal.''
Even little changes have irked Japan. In Europe, for instance, blue has been added to the traditional white for the color of the special tunics and trousers worn by judo contestants, and the mats are going blue, too.
``White is the symbol of the Japanese spirit,'' says Kodokan official Akira Kai. ``We can never change the color.''
But the blue color helps referees and fans see the mat action better. Most of all, blue looks better on television. ``Modern sport is only as good as its TV ratings,'' says Mr. Hargrave. ``We have to come up with new gimmicks.''
One gimmick proposed by IJF officials is to offer prize money in judo, an abomination to Japanese purists.
``If judo is fully internationalized,'' states Nobuaki Yamamoto, Kodokan general-secretary, ``then judo is dead.''
New IJF rules aim to speed up judo matches for the sake of spectators.
But Japanese prefer the old style of a player patiently trying to flip his opponent. New rules also keep combatants in strict boundaries. Japan prefers loose borders and lax refereeing.
To the Japanese, judo is a test of will between two men. But new rules that allow for small penalties have turned referees into a third force in a match. One player can force an opponent to commit a small infraction and then just ride out the match to win.
A rudiment of judo is that a 90-pound David can swing a Goliath onto the ground with minimal force. But Japan has had to accept a Western idea of fairness. Players are now separated into weight categories.
Worst of all, say the conservative Japanese judo leaders, women's judo will make its debut in the 1992 Olympics. European women are expected to dominate. ``My grandfather did not intend judo for women,'' says Mr. Kano.
Many Japanese also detest the loss of the traditional style of combat in judo.
``The style has become more like wrestling, yet Japan cannot quite accept that,'' says Yoshisada Yonezuka, president of the United States Judo Federation. Yonezuka left Japan three decades ago to teach in the US.
The Japanese barely agree to call judo a sport, although there are 2 million enthusiasts in Japan. The founder created judo to educate young men. It is derived as harmless self-defense from the bone-breaking jujitsu, one of the many types of hand-to-hand combat developed by samurai, ninja, and other warriors of feudal Japan.
Such martial arts rest on the idea that reality does not exist independently, but lies in the relationship of something to something else. In judo, two players are in fluid motion, like ballet dancers, with hands on each other's lapels and sleeves. The absolute size or strength of a player does not matter, at least in theory. Rather, it is the relative positions of the two that counts.
``Most of the power is in your fingers - get a grip on your opponent and feel his moves,'' says Mr. Yonezuka. ``It's a mental concentration. Don't give that grip to a Japanese, otherwise they will throw you.''
This ballet can quickly become high-speed ballistics. Each player looks for the other to break balance first. Any fear or even a strong desire to win can upset the serenity needed to maintain one's balance. If one player falters, the other uses the motion to render a throw, sometimes just by falling backward to ``give way'' to the momentum.
`Judo Saga' film prototype
To judo purists, the art of winning is more important than just the win. Using only muscle is ``unnatural,'' say the Japanese. Almost every player in Japan knows this truth from seeing ``Judo Saga,'' the first movie ever made by famed director Akira Kurosawa.
Filmed at the height of World War II, ``Judo Saga'' is the prototype for all later marital arts movies, from Bruce Lee classics to ``The Karate Kid.''
At one point in the film, a man uses judo with mere prowess to throw several jujitsu experts into a bay. In words echoed today to foreign judo players, the man's teacher warns him:
``To act as you did, without meaning or purpose, to hate and attack - is that the way of life? No. The way is loyalty and love. This is the natural truth of heaven and earth.''
While staking its unique claim to judo philosophy, the hard fact for Japan is that it is losing more and more in international tournaments to the beefy Westerners, especially the Russians and French, as well as Koreans.
``The Japanese still have the bullet, but they just can't shoot it,'' says Yonezuka.
Christopher Angle, an American who studied judo in Japan, says, ``The first time a Japanese runs into a buzz saw of a Russian, he discovers that he better have strength.''
Reluctantly, Japanese coaches are turning to Western techniques, such as weight training and wrestling. The Japanese must make up for having shorter legs and arms than Westerners, explains coach Yamashita.
As Mr. Kano watches the cup match named after his grandfather, he says many of the new rules must be eliminated, step by step, to return judo to the days of the dramatic throws.
``Who will want to watch judo if it is just a matter of escapes and small points?'' he says.
As he speaks, a Russian player on the mat throws an American player into the air and onto his back with one bold, single move, and just two seconds into the match. It is a fine example of that good old-fashioned judo, a harmony of combatants with spirit and effort. The Japanese crowd roars with delight.
``See?'' he says, ``Everyone is happy!''