Taking quick little tap dancer-like steps, the children move nimbly across the dojo's tatami mat floor. Careful not to step on the strings of the agility ladder laid out for the drill, they start moving from the right edge of the mats, stepping as taught by their teacher. They work their way toward the left edge and a waiting opponent, whom upon reaching, they proceed to flip with a shoulder throw.
The judo dojo is located in the residential district of Sucy-en-Brie in the outskirts of Paris. The training session involving 30 French junior high school students is rather unconventional.
"This drill is to practice maintaining balance while moving one's feet up to and including the throw. These kinds of steps would not be used in competition; however, first off, I think it is important to make things fun. For each practice I always make sure to incorporate something different from the last one," said the head instructor, Philip Bukya, 52.
Popular with spectators, a packed venue each day
Approximately 58,000 judoka are registered with the French Judo Federation. That number is a little over three times larger than that of Japan, birthplace of the martial art. Compared with Japan, where the number of registered competitors has been in a slight decline since peaking in 1993, the number of practitioners in France has continued to grow steadily since the judo federation was established there soon after the end of World War II. Symbolic of judo's popularity in France is David Douillet, 43. A gold medal winner in the heavyweight division at the Atlanta Olympics and again in Sydney, he was appointed Minister of Sports for the country last year.
In France, judo has the fourth largest number of participants following soccer, tennis and horse riding. It is also popular as a spectator sport. The World Championships in Paris last August drew a daily crowd of about 13,000, filling the arena to almost 90 percent capacity.
Judo participants, such as the children at the dojo in Sucy-en-Brie, make up a large portion of the sport's population in France. According to the judo federation, children 12 and under account for 70 percent of registered participants.
Why is judo so popular with children here? Federation Vice President and General Secretary Jean-Rene Girardot, 57, explains: "Important things can be learned from judo such as etiquette, the observance of rules and self-control. Parents want their children to take judo because it's ideally suited for instilling discipline and teaching manners. As it is a sport in which participants compete directly against each other, it also helps develop social skills. In France it is common to be involved in a number of sports at the same time so if one doesn't work out, it's easy to drop it."
Hikari Sasaki, 44, winner of the 66-kilo division at the Seoul Olympics in 1988, where women's judo made its first appearance at the Games as a demonstration sport, is now teaching children judo at a dojo in the town of Plomelin in western France. When she first started teaching four years ago she was perplexed by the student's reactions, which were different from what she had experienced in Japan.
70 percent of students are children, requiring ways to prevent a loss of interest
"Even with small children, if they are not convinced of the reason for doing something or feel it isn't fun, they won't practice. Finding ways to prevent them from becoming bored and continuing to practice is difficult," said Sasaki. For very young children she applies various methods to keep them interested, such as having them get down on all fours on the tatami and play tag.
The efforts of Japanese judoka explaining the teachings of Jigoro Kano (1860 - 1938), the founder of judo, in an easy-to-understand manner were instrumental in having the sport take root in France. Mikinosuke Kawaishi, a judo practitioner who lived in France from before the start of World War II, established a style of judo instruction known as the "Kawaishi Method." His approach introduced the awarding of colored belts to encourage advancement through the ranks and also simplified techniques for instruction, helping popularize the sport.
Still today, after more than 60 years, Shozo Awazu, 88, who along with Kawaishi helped popularize judo in France after World War II, continues to teach once a week at a dojo in Paris.
"Since first coming to France, I have not changed my style of seeking to make the children have fun and gain the trust of the parents," Awazu said. "The Japanese method of instruction should not be imposed."
In order to become a "sensei" and teach at a dojo in France, hopefuls must complete a curriculum over 300 hours in length and also pass a national exam of both written and practical components. Along with judo knowledge and technique, the exam covers areas such as basic medicine, including emergency care, and anatomy and exercise physiology. The aspiring teacher must also possess at least a second-degree black belt.
Differing from Japan, where past performance as a competitor carries significant weight, it can be said that France has created its own unique judo culture by establishing clear standards for the role of teacher.
Nobuhisa Hagiwara, 53, who has taught judo in France for 30 years said, "Leisure, education, fitness training, self-defense, French people pursue judo for a variety of reasons. Compared to Japan, where people of similar age groups and levels get gather and practice, (in France) people of varying levels and purpose come together in the same place. That's probably a reason why so many people participate."
Higher level training for an elite few
Along with a growing population of judoka, France is also threatening Japan with the caliber of its top-level practitioners. Including team and individual events at the World Championships in Paris in August last year, France beat Japan by one medal, six to five, in the race for gold. In the team event, where each country puts forth their best members, Japan lost to France in the finals. The French have a lot of top-ranked fighters, including Teddy Riner, who has four consecutive championships in the over-100-kilogram event and counting, and Lucie Decosse, who has her own two-win streak going in the women's 70-kilogram class.
France has performed strongly in the Olympics as well. Since judo became an official sport at the Tokyo Games in 1964, the country has won a total of 10 gold medals, second to Japan's 35.
In addition to judo being taught at junior and senior high schools in Japan, practitioners who do well in local and national tournaments generally go on to enroll in known judo powerhouse high schools and universities. After university, though some high-level judoka may continue their judo careers as members of the police or as sponsored corporate employees, many return to their universities where the bonds are strongest.
In France, on the other hand, there are generally no opportunities for learning judo at school. Dotted across the nation are about 5,700 small and large clubs, and while still in their junior years, dominant fighters are brought into the powerful organization of the national federation.
Olivier Remy, 36, chief editor for the magazine L'Espirit du Judo, points out that there are very interesting differences between the countries in their approaches to developing judoka.
"In organized judo in France, a small number of athletes with potential are brought together from all over the country and trained intensively. It is logical, however, the number (of judoka) at the top inevitably becomes thin, and they do not bring the skills and techniques they have acquired back to their original clubs.
"On the other hand, the Japanese judo world is of a 'giving back' type. In many cases, even after the person has entered the workforce, the place they practice judo is (their former) university. Top-level judoka habitually practice with those below them, passing on techniques. There is friendly competition between rival schools where the participants try to improve by learning from each other. Japan has a foundation for turning out a large number of high-level judoka."
So are the capabilities of French judoka on par with their Japanese counterparts? When the question was posed to top-level judoka and coaches in France the unanimous response was "nowhere near."
National team head coach Benoit Campargue, 47, said, "Compared with us their suppleness and precision of technique, among other factors, are completely different. The French must constantly model the Japanese."
Every year the French Judo Federation sends about 100 judoka and coaches to Japanese universities and other dojos as the French continue striving to improve their technique.
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