The view from here - Japan - Schools thrown by martial arts diktat

9th March 2012 at 00:00

For a sport whose chief aim is throwing one's opponent to the ground or forcing them to submit while being strangled or choked, the meaning of the word "judo" may seem odd - it translates as "gentle way".

There are growing fears in Japan that the martial art may not be quite gentle enough. From next month, thousands of junior high school pupils will find it a compulsory part of their timetable, sparking concerns that pupils will be struck down with injuries or may even be killed. Under plans to make children fitter and healthier - as well as giving them the discipline that comes with studying a martial art - the Japanese government has said that all pupils in the first and second years of junior high must study judo, kendo or sumo.

While sumo has a tradition spanning many centuries and is still an extremely popular spectator sport, the number of Japanese people who participate is small, not least because of the rarity of the hulking frames that are needed to be successful. Judo is more popular, with even Japan's new prime minister, Yoshihiko Noda, the proud owner of a black belt.

The majority of schools are expected to choose judo as the martial art they put on the PE timetable, but national newspapers have raised concerns about injuries and the lack of specialist training among teachers. Figures show that over the 28 years until 2010-11, 114 students in junior and senior high schools died due to injuries suffered while doing judo, with another 275 left with severe disabilities. First year junior high students accounted for more than half of the fatalities, research from Nagoya University showed.

Experts are concerned that the rush to get the martial art into schools could lead to many more pupils being hurt. It is believed that children will be throwing each other over their shoulders before learning "ukemi", the crucial ability to fall properly without hurting yourself.

There is also concern that teachers will be instructing their charges with only the scantest of knowledge. According to The Mainichi Daily News, education boards in several areas of Japan have been awarding black belts to teachers after just a few days' training. "A teacher with a pseudo black belt teaching judo to junior high school students is hardly different from a newbie driver becoming a driving instructor," the newspaper said.

The lesson appears to be that increasing participation in sport is a good idea if no one is going to get hurt. In that case, perhaps martial arts was not the most sensible addition to the timetable.

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