Train gang - Issue 168 - Magazine | Monocle

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Like any true judoka, Haruki Uemura is modest about his sporting achievements. A ninth dan black belt, a World Champion (Vienna, 1975) and an Olympic gold medallist (Montréal, 1976), Uemura, 72, is adamant that he was nothing special until he turned 18. Even then he had to work hard for his success. “I was the smallest in my weight class – I was 100kg and 174cm tall,” he says. “Most of my competitors were 190 centimetres and up. I remember one who was 220cm and 170kg.” He still beat them all. 

Since 2009, Uemura has occupied the most revered position in Japanese judo: president of the Kodokan Judo Institute in Tokyo, which might be described as the sport’s spiritual home. Kodokan was founded in 1882 by Jigoro Kano, the man who first created judo. Back then there were only a handful of disciples; today there are millions of judoka in more than 200 countries. 

There are many judo federations but it’s the role of Kodokan to rule on everything from technique to ranks, banning dangerous moves and codifying 100 techniques to keep global judo competitors on the same page. The institute’s modern eight-storey home sits close to Tokyo Dome. Judo practitioners from home and abroad come to train and study here. 

There are training spaces, accommodation and classes for men, women and children; a library (with 5,000 books relating to judo), a hall of fame and the biggest training mat of all, the main dojo. There are more than 150 instructors enrolled to teach here. They teach technique but also reiho (decorum), respecting others and fair play. “A good judoka is strong but kind,” says Uemura. 

Kodokan dispatches instructors around the world. Uemura’s colleagues are all seasoned judoka too. They understand that judo is not just a sport but a way of learning about life. “This job is all about communicating judo to the rest of the world and to the next generation, so I’m constantly researching and reading old books,” says Uemura. “There is still so much for me to learn.”

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