Kosei Inoue: When Judo Is in Your Soul


By Anthony Diao

During this pandemic spring, when most sports stakeholders reflect on the meaning, or perhaps the vanity of a lifelong commitment, let’s revisit the journey of one of the most respected champions to have ever stepped on a tatami. A man who got involved in judo like others do in religion and who, once his first career was over, continued his pursuit by becoming a coach inhabited by an idea ever more noble of his discipline.

A Shakespearian journey, like the two sides of a mountain. On the side where the sun rises stands a born judoka who became near-unbeatable, the hero of a nation and a generation. Where the sun sets, the same person, who became a different man after personal griefs and rare, but painful failures. For a decade, Jigoro Kano’s exegete, with unprecedented requirements at this level of fame and, now, responsibility, mentored worthy athletes and remarkable champions, going sometimes as far as revealing them to themselves in their simple and global humanity, infusing every gesture with his deep faith that even the rain didn’t seem to touch.

“Losing is dying. Winning is to give ourselves the right to live and fight another day.” Kosei Inoue was born on      May 15, 1978, in southern Japan, on the island of Kyushu, in the province of Miyazaki—it almost sounds like a name you’d see in a manga. He was a member of the Seijukan Dojo at five years old. The purity of his intentions and his obsessive quest for perfection made of him not a judoka among so many others, but the missing link between the Bushido we read about in books and the contemporary world in which the worship of immediacy leaves him indifferent. “Être dans le vent, une ambition de feuille morte”: dated from 1976, the haiku by French metaphysician Gustave Thibon seems to have been written for him.

  1. Square roots

The young years of Kosei Inoue are marked by a silent power and the geometric accuracy of a scythe. The typical competition day of the monk soldier during his beginnings with Sensei Harakawa is unchanging. Meticulously tidying his room like others go to war. Bow, grab, move. Rotate, jump in the air, rise again. Without a noise, without a cry, except at his triumphs in Birmingham, Sidney or the Zen Nihon, three personal Holy Grails in three years, marked by a juvenile and justified exuberance. Standing like a king in the arena, his head nodding, with a concerned look as to apologize for winning so quickly. His jacket is impeccable and spotless. Then his head is held high again, looking straight ahead, towards a horizon as far as it is internal. Behind him, a succession of short-lived Uke, on their back, soundly defeated. He waits as long as they need to bow slowly, almost contrite to have been on their path.

Millennials probably forgot about him. During that period, the charismatic judo world leader wasn’t the +100 kg David Douillet, double Olympic champion and quadruple world champion, nor -48 kg Ryoko Tamura-Tani, almost unbeatable for the last decade, but this hieratic -100 kg, filled with determination, whose apparent Adam’s apple and battered eyelids give him a false air of a pre-Rivonia trial Nelson Mandela. An “Onoesque” room, the aura of an astronaut, the rarity of a masterpiece. Olympic champion in 2000, triple world champion in 1999, 2001 and 2003, and that’s not even including the epic Asian Championships and Zen Nihon won under a crazy patriotic pressure. Any judoka dreams of the perfect ippon. He has a more noble aspiration: becoming Kosei Inoue.

“I remember the first time I saw him,” said Maarten Arens, 1995 European champion in -81 kg and Netherlands national coach since 2005. It was in Tokai University, in 1994. He was 16 and already, he was all you’d see on the mat. “He was like an elephant in a living room, going to Sagami private school and raised under the legendary Kazukata Hayashida, Nobuyuki Sato and Yasuhiro Yamashita. His uchi-mata, o-uchi and o-soto-gari were already lethal, no matter the age and pedigree of his opponent. Ultimately, it was Keiji Suzuki, protégé of Hitoshi Saito and Koichi Iwabuchi at the Kokushikan University, two years younger and with an even more precocious ashi-waza, who won the junior world title in 1998-one year before Kosei’s emergence. “We often talked about Ilias Iliadis’ power,” remembered the experienced French coach Thierry Dibert, “but he was most of all a guy who could perfectly position his hips. On the other side, Inoue’s perfect technique has often been praised, but he was first and foremost an athlete with exceptional physical abilities. Have you seen many others who could defeat giants like Nicolas Gill, Ghislain Lemaire or Stéphane Traineau like he did?”

His magnificent career was extensively documented on DVDs and YouTube. If we have to choose only three pictures, the first one would be from September 21, 2000, during an equinox storm in Sydney, with a magnificent uchi-mata during the Olympic final. An explosive tokui waza inherited from his father, a policeman, preceded by two sound o-uchi gari in front of a still-dizzy rival, the not-so-new Nicolas Gill. On that day, Montreal’s most decorated judoka would become the “Olympic champion from the rest of the world” according to Louis Jani, the Canadian team coach quoted by the Ottawa Sun on the next day and once again by Claude Gagnon in L’Homme aux milles mouvements, his biography published in 2017. The Athens flag bearer is at peace with himself and, twenty years later, he can find it funny to be forever known as the “upside-down man” on the most popular poster in dojos in the beginning of the 20th century.

On the podium in Sidney, like a year earlier in Birmingham, we could also see that framed picture of Inoue’s mother, who died of a cerebral embolism on June 21, 1999, at age 51. That would be the second significant picture of these years of triumph. It shows the sudden correlation between the intimate loss and the exponential quality and consistency of the one who could have been another shooting star, in the shadow of his older brother Tomokazu, who started judo later in life, who won the Kano Cup in January 1999 and was crowned the Asian champion in -100 kg in 2001. The third picture from these years is more fleeting. It would be the pensive expression on this phenomenon on top of the Osaka podium on September 11, 2003, who was fulfilled with his third consecutive world crown in -100 kg, but also a bit frustrated. Two years earlier, he had become the youngest judoka to win the triple crown (world-Olympic-Zen Nihon titles). Despite this accomplishment, the Japanese selection committee didn’t give in to his wish of trying a double crown three days later in the open division. Keiji Suzuki, his long-standing alter ego, his friend, but also a luxury double, whom he has faced twice during spring and defeated once, would justify his nation’s choice by winning the open division title.

After being on top of the world at 25, his descent was even more brutal. Fortunately, being prone to introspection after overcoming personal challenges, he had also learned some valuable lessons for his next life. The year 2004 is indeed the beginning of an entire Olympic cycle of a heavy and stubborn melancholy. In April, Keiji Suzuki defeats him at the Zen Nihon, validating the first reprimand from a year earlier at the Japanese Championships in the open division. Even though no one is a prophet in his own land, this double slap on the face of the Miyakonojo-native made his passion falter. He was seeking clarity about his goals: win and win again, yes, but why? Doubting some micro-details about his judo, the perfectionist was indecisive, even though nobody could tell. As the flag bearer of the Japanese team at the opening ceremony in Athens, he was defeated twice by Netherlander Elco van der Geest, followed by another loss against Azerbaijani Movlud Miraliyev under the helpless gaze of his coach, Osako Akinobu. Since his international emergence in 1999, the Japanese athlete had only been defeated once at the international level, in March 2001, a loss caused by the sin of pride against the former world and Olympic champion, Hungarian Antal Kovacs, during a team Euro-Asian tournament in which his coaches initially didn’t want to enter him.

All the reasons were pointing not to. A fragile knee, a lack of aggressivity, a defensive rather than conquering attitude due to his triple title, the man to beat and Japanese flag bearer in his prime: ten medals, 8 of which were gold, in 14 tournaments, half of the gold medals awarded for the Japanese sport during these Games… A less-known element is the surrealistic theory he confided in the British of Fighting Films in The Samurai, the third and last DVD of the box set dedicated to him in 2009. A moment of honesty that would make you smile if it didn’t come from such a truly scared giant, who lived that August 20th like the biggest shame of his life. “Seeing my name on the top left of the board, I understood that if I won all my matches, I’d keep the blue judogi on for the whole tournament. In theory, we should always have both the blue and white judogis in our bags. My dilemma was that by bringing the white judogi, I would admit the possibility of having to wear it, so the possibility of losing a fight.” Can a butterfly wings in Brazil cause a tornado in Texas? If even scientific theorists asked the question one day, the explanation of the dilemma is not to be ruled out.

Internal darkness. Numerous champions draw their ability to rise above their peers from a vulnerability they had to overcome. Sadly, this vulnerability is often grief, whether new or old. The loss of a father for Spanish Sherazadishvili, 2018 world champion in -90 kg or French Buchard, double World medallist in 2014 and 2018 in -48 kg and -52 kg. A stolen childhood for American Harrison, 2010 world champion and double Olympic champion in 2012 and 2016 in -78 kg. The loss of a comrade for Czech Krpalek, Olympic champion in 2016 and world champion in 2014 and 2019, in -100 kg and +100 kg, or of a coach for Portuguese Monteiro and her 19 Olympic, world and continental medals. For Kosei Inoue, who was only 21 when his mother died, the Stations of the Cross after Athens would only get more difficult. First on a physical level: a tear of the right pectoral muscle in the Kano Cup final, a sad January 9, 2005, against Belarusian Rybak—a fight he’d still win, by pride, with an o-uchi gari ken-ken under the chin that cost him a year and a half off the mat. On an emotional level, the brutal loss of his older brother, on June 16, 2005, when he was 32. A terrible tragedy, almost to the point of no return. “Before that, I’d say a little prayer before stepping on a mat,” he’d say two years later to the French bimonthly periodical L’Esprit du judo. “Not anymore. At his funeral, I thought, “No more Gods.” How could he come back from such a challenge? In the same interview, Kosei Inoue quoted Yamashita Sensei: “The problem isn’t our lives, but the way we live it.”

In 2007, his triumphant return in Paris was long-lived. The chivalrous challenge to perform in +100 kg to erase the defeat from Athens confirmed he was an “extraordinary man”, the kind the French band Les Innocents had been signing about since 1992, saying he “evolves in a solitary world”, “going on another century”. On that February 12th, a clear mind allows the royal blue Mizuno parka wearer to defeat a powerhouse like triple world champion, Russian Mikhaylin (in a fight that is probably the best tactical performance of his career), and to come back from a waza-ari in the final against Belarusian Rybak, winner of the semifinal against a 17-year-old French Teddy Riner. However, the soufflé deflated quickly. The comeback kid was defeated at the Japanese Championships in April, then at Worlds in Rio in September. With an unusual decision, the victory of Teddy Riner in the second round caused such a tremor that French newspaper L’Équipe dedicated the back cover to his exploit, written even before the tournament was over because of the different time zones.

In December of the same year, at the Kano Cup final, Kosei Inoue is defeated again, this time with a shido, against rising star Satoshi Ishii. On February 10, 2008, the defence of his Parisian title was far from certain. Having married the model and blogger Aki Higashihara three weeks earlier, Kosei Inoue was clunky. His judo was clumsy, but he kept fighting until the semis where, for the second and last time of their career, he was facing recently crowned world champion Teddy Riner. 11 years, 20 cm and a dozen kilos stand between the two men. In golden score, a counter from the French Goliath ends the most awaited fight of the Olympic year. He scores a koka. The score, which might not have been a score anywhere but in Bercy, stuns the fallen king and unlock the potential of the French prodigy. Teddy Riner just started a 6-year streak of non-stop triumph in front of the Bercy crowd. Kosei Inoue, walking alone in the underground corridors connecting the arena to the warm-up mat, was in tears. Inconsolable, he suddenly looked a thousand years old. His dream of winning back his honour lost in Athens by winning in Beijing in +100 kg was still alive. Two months later, at the Zen Nihon, Yohei Takai’s immobilization seals the fate of his first career. Like his predecessor, triple Olympic champion Nomura, the tatami sealed his fate and both legends have to leave their respective Olympic dreams aside.

For the heavyweight, this little death won’t last long. As writer Albert Camus wrote it, he was the kind of man who has learned “to welcome life even in suffering” and who internalized Marc-Aurèle’s precepts: “Give me the serenity to accept things I cannot change; the courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference.” Kosei Inoue was then thirty years old. Judo gave him everything and he gave everything he had to judo, without counting and without any regrets other than the few medals he didn’t win. As an aesthete attentive to the laws of balance and symmetry applied to the entirety of an existence, everything was converging and would soon make sense. The years of warming up were now over. That’s often how it goes: a judoka enters the dojo of life when he gets thrown on the mat.

II. Rising from His Ashes

“Mountains and rivers can be moved, but the human nature cannot” said a tormented Portuguese priest exiled in Japan in the 17th century in the movie Silence, by Martin Scorsese. Like numerous Japanese champions before and after him, the newly retired judoka needed some space before coming back fully armed. He needed to learn his job far from where he’d practise it, in the heart of foreign cultures that needs to be impregnated to be understood and, who knows, maybe open a durable dialogue. Other than the openly evangelical process inspired by Jigoro Kano, it’s about opening and refining a reading grid of the activity, and to ensure the purity of the emotions. And to step back from his own identity, an inhabitant of a country with a population of 170 million for 17% of habitable land, for which the Other is to be put on a pedestal, otherwise you end up alone; a dread in this archipelago where everything is a matter of groups and inclusive and exclusive circles. A country in which athletes like javelin thrower Kōji Murofushi, tennis player Naomi Osaka and judokas like Mashu Baker, Aaron Wolf and Christa Deguchi, by their mixed-race heritage, show that times are slowly but surely changing.

From one island to another, the trainee would end up in Great Britain, where his National Olympic Committee and Ministry of Education sent him. First landing in Scotland, where he’d spend six months at the Ratho National Centre near Edinburgh, where Euan Burton, Sam Ingram and others have fond memories of this unique expatriate, then in England, at the London Budokwai, twelves months during which he also left unforgettable memories to the Gilston Road facility residents. “I had travelled a lot until then, but at 30 years old, I realized that I didn’t really know the world,” he said in an interview. “I had learned a bit of English and learned new ways to teach our discipline while measuring its scope in those countries.”

To avoid the impostor syndrome that sometimes hits champions who went from the tatami to the coach’s chair too fast, Kosei Inoue’s progression of competence would be very gradual. His trial by fire was a memorable one. In 2009, at Rotterdam’s Worlds, he partook in the collective bender of the Japanese team on the night of August 30th, zigzagging in the streets with the team, as if to send the final hit after the historic debacle of the week: two medals and no title for the 7 male judokas competing. That’s what they needed to have a discussion and, maybe, listen to each other. A year later, in Tokyo, things were different. The speakers played “Medalist” by Takeshi Tsuruno all week long but, on the mat, the shinto temple is back at the centre of the village. Two Japanese in each category, four in the open division. 23 medals total, the title in -100 kg for Takamasa Anai—with one victory in quarterfinals with a de-ashi-barai after 4 seconds against Israeli Zeevi. Even better: on the last day, a Japanese, Daiki Kamikawa, put an end to the two-year streak of French judoka Riner. After that, Paris 2011 seemed less prosperous. The terrible tsunami on March 11 left its marks. It left a country that has been bled dry, shaken to its core and in its trust for institutions “Only the Japanese don’t know the truth” said an American official’s wife in the docudrama Fukushima, le couvercle du soleil by Futoshi Sato when leaving the facilities a few hours after the explosion of the reactor #1 of the infamous nuclear power plant, but it’s also a country determined to align with their elders from 1945: rise to the challenge and bounce back together. Eleven months later, the 2012 Games would punish an aging generation, still groggy from the previous year’s catastrophe, but also a panting system, where violence and bullying from “daddy’s judo” weren’t acceptable anymore. In London, no male judoka would be crowned—a first since the introduction of the discipline at the 1964 Games.

Find the movement again. Sometimes you need to hit rock bottom to bounce back up. Rock bottom, according to the then-current Japanese standards, happened in London. To replace Shinichi Shinohara as the kantoku (head coach) of the men’s team and to try to stop Japanese judo from getting more disorganized, Kosei Inoue is the perfect candidate, especially since his popularity was intact. That’s how in February 2010, the public in the first rows of the Paris Grand Slam had an overview of the respect towards the young coach. On that Sunday, Takashi Ono won the title in -90 kg with a superb uchi-mata ken-ken in the final against Uzbek Choriev. At the end of the contest, the crowd chanting, “Kosei! Kosei!” is unequivocal: people wanted autographs and selfies with the coach more than with the new champion. Called in as a reinforcement to regain prestige for the discipline after it’s been tainted with violence and vices (Masato Uchishiba, double Olympic champion in -66 kg in 2004 and 2008, was about to be convicted of rape), the providential man acknowledged that “It’ll be a big challenge, but that’s why I like it!” From the get-go, he renewed and rejuvenated the organizational chart. “I think it’s important to find a balance between tradition and modernity, and that’s why I’m very inspired by what is being done by my colleagues in professional sports, whether in baseball, football or rugby. We have a lot to learn from them about high performance and team management.”

His past, his experience and his credibility gave a lot of weight to his profession of faith, which he would repeat a few years later. The severity of his tone erased all doubt of false modesty: the man knows his worth and where he’s going. “We aim to become an organization known as one who has a winning team, all the time and naturally. For that, we need to improve the technique, physical abilities, psychological abilities, everything. Our goals aren’t only about the next fights. We’re looking at the next fifty, hundred years. In the Japanese federation, our goal is to make sure our athletes and our organization are ‘the strongest and the best’. We think this is a good slogan.”

His term starts with a triple victory at 2013 Worlds in Rio. Naohisa Takato on Monday, Masashi Ebinuma on Tuesday and most of all, Shohei Ono on Wednesday all mark the perfect launch of a new Olympic cycle under the label of reconquest. With an average age of 21, one enthusiastic (Takato), one resilient (Ebinuma and his fierce determination not to let his body betray his heart, as evidenced by his refusal to quit despite an elbow dislocated by his opponent at the beginning of the final) and an absence of compromise in front of mediocrity (Ono, stratospheric despite his quarterfinal facing Netherlander Elmont). Next to the mat, standing tall in his tracksuit or suit, Kosei Inoue is taking very seriously his new responsibilities, establishing the formal distance enforced by the high opinion he has of his function. That’s how things would be during the entire Olympic cycle. At the end of the day, in the mixed zone, his daily press briefing caused the gathering of Japanese journalists. “Judo is an important supplier of gold medals for Japanese sports. The expectations are high, and I understand that. If no journalist is expecting us in the evening, it means we haven’t done our job. If they’re there, it’s not a problem for me. I see it as an encouragement to keep up the good work.”

Good attitude. We usually find two traditional types of leaders: those who send their troops ahead to pave the way, and are only partially respected, and those who pave the way for their troops, showing by their example, their courage and their sense of responsibility. Kosei Inoue is clearly in the second category. His journey on and out of the mats allows him to be empathetic with those who win, because he has been used to winning, but also with those who lose, because he has known defeat as well. However, empathy doesn’t mean complacency. Actually, it’s quite the opposite. The man, raised by a father who was a policeman with perfectly ironed shirts and polos, wasn’t the kind to give ground to the hikikomori generation, those teenagers staying at home and only communicating with the outside world through social media. As he said in 2016 to the French daily newspaper Libération, he made “respect” and “gratitude towards the opponent, the staff and the dojo” the cornerstones of his work. “Judo is a product of the Japanese culture,” he says. “That’s what we have to demonstrate in each fight. People must look at Japanese judokas thinking they’re going to win every single time, like a clear evidence.”

In 2013, 2014 and 2015, the Japanese men’s team is back on top of the medal standings at World Championships. During the rest of the season, the raid is almost obscene. In the margins of this show of force, three symbolic gestures will mark the Olympic cycle of the young kantoku. The first one dates back to September 2014. Back from Worlds in Chelyabinsk, where he had to give up his world title (and a tooth) in the semifinal in -60 kg facing the future Olympic champion, Russian Beslan Mudranov, Naohisa Takato showed up to the press conference with his head down and shaved. His frequent tardiness to the Japanese team gatherings at Worlds wasn’t welcomed by the staff, who places the role model of their champions above anything else. Being a double world medallist is even an aggravating factor. He was demoted to the B team, with those who aren’t leaders, but the top 7 in each category. He was indefinitely not a sempai (senior) anymore, but a kohai (cadet), and had to carry out the thankless tasks of his status. Such was the explanation for his shaved head, symbol of first-year students, which he wasn’t anymore. The sanction went beyond only Takato when Kosei Inoue stood next to him to announce it, also with a shaved head. The rare gesture echoed when 40 years earlier, Yasuichi Matsumoto, coach of the Japanese team at the Tokyo Games, did the same thing to express his contrition the day after his protégé Akio Kaminaga lost the heavyweight final against Netherlander Anton Geesink and claimed responsibility in this national humiliation. In 2014, the message had a double meaning. From Inouie’s perspective: my athlete is to blame because I also am and I have to question myself. From Takato’s and the rest of the group’s perspective: if a coach as respected as Kosei Inoue has to humiliate himself to the point of shaving his head in public because of us, we should also rethink things over to make sure it won’t happen again. Two world titles and an Olympic bronze medal later, it seems like the lesson paid off. Far from patting himself on the back and making sure not to confuse authority and authoritarianism, Kosei Inoue commented this period saying: “Takato is very smart. He can think by himself about his tactics and strategy. I didn’t tell him much. I only tried to create an environment in which he could go further. I can see that he’s now more stable spiritually and more resilient through adversity.”

Inoue’s second powerful gesture concerned “his” category, -100 kg. 2015 World champion in the category, Ryunosuke Haga told L’Esprit du judo that a year earlier, after the humiliation of not being selected for Chelyabinsk Worlds, was when he found the motivation to win this world title. Not only wasn’t the current -100 kg competing—a historic first—but he was asked to travel with the team and sit on the bench. “By asking me to watch from the sidelines at Chelyabinsk Worlds, my federation punished me for weaknesses I didn’t want to see,” said at the time the Tokai golden boy. “All at once, I understood that, according to them, I wasn’t performing enough. It was a terrible disallowance. It was a psychological challenge, and it took me a long time to measure its benefits.” He was then invited to go train by himself for a month in Mongolia. “We wanted to help Haga refocus,” explains Kosei Inoue. “We wanted him to think and come back stronger. A decisive act was essential, like a big attack during a fight. It’s beyond the context of sport. We’re talking about moral education here. When I was young, I also messed around, and I’m grateful now for the people who knew how to make me progress as a human being.” After this crossing of the desert, the triumph of his protégé in Astana, followed by an Olympic medal in Rio, confirmed his good intuition: yes, sometimes a step backward is necessary to take two steps forward.

The third gesture almost went unnoticed at the time, however… In May 2016, the Japanese team to compete at the Games was announced. The Almaty Grand Prix wasn’t very important at the moment, except for the opportunity to train some of the next big names. The Japanese staff sensed it by sending only one male, -66 kg Tenri Joshiro Maruyama. At 22 years old, he was showing the signs of whom he’d become three years later, when he won his world title in Tokyo. Who was sitting on the coach’s chair on that day in Kazakhstan, when he could have sent one of his assistants instead? Kosei Inoue himself. His message: you’re not someone yet, but I believe in you, and I’ll be there with you and for you. “In my mind, the coach is a partner of the athlete, but also a fan. In theory, the athlete knows, but it’s good to remind him sometimes with a gesture.” Message received.

With a result of seven medals and two titles (one of which was, for the first time, in -90 kg) for seven male athletes at the Rio Games, Kosei Inoue’s team could cross their goal of being “obvious” winners. New rules or not, with or without the globalization of the scoreboard, the methodological puzzle adopted in 2012 started to have a meaning. The dynamic duo and the constant research for an ippon are the intention with each “hajime”. The opponents? The restraint shown by his opponents under all circumstances shows a consideration going beyond winning or losing. “They are also partners and friends. Without them, our judo wouldn’t progress. It’s critical for us, coaches, to teach this to our students. I think the recent progress shown in our results go hand in hand with the progress made by our students in their personal development. I truly hope that in the future, our athletes will become models as judokas and as athletes in general.” 

In front of the cameras, tears in the eyes of the former champion said a lot about his implication and his pride, he who attaches great importance to the one-on-ones with his athletes to make sure his message is well understood. A personal satisfaction: this spectacular national turnaround happened in the same city where, nine years earlier, Teddy Riner was the first one to defeat him at Worlds… After Italian Azio Gamba and his crazy bet (which was a success) to make “his” Russia the first nation at the London Games, the Japanese men’s team came four years later to put the record straight for Tokyo. A show of force with unforgiving calm, in the image of the picture that went around the world, capturing the synchronized and diligent bow of -73 kg Shohei Ono at the forefront and his coach Yusuke Kanamaru in the background. Would he release the pressure when his colleague in charge of the female team, Mitsutoshi Nanjo, quit despite five medals and a title, soon to be replaced by Katsuyuki Masuchi? Not if you know the man and his high expectations.

The 2012-2016 cycle had been a call to order. The next one, overseen by national technical director Jun Konno, would be to strengthen the achievements. In January 2017, L’Esprit du judo performed a comparison of statistics between the Japanese results at the Tokyo Grand Slam and the French in Paris. As host nations, both countries were allowed four competitors per category. What happened next speaks for itself: “In February 2013, the French team won eight medals, five of which were gold, at the Paris Grand Slam. In December of the same year, the Japanese team won 27 medals, 11 of which were gold, at the Tokyo Grand Slam. In 2014, the French team—without Teddy Riner, for the first time since 2006—won 12 medals, 2 titles in Paris, and in Tokyo, Japan won 26 medals, 7 titles. In 2015, France won 8 medals with 3 titles in Bercy, and in Tokyo, Japan peaked with 26 medals, 11 titles. Finally, in 2016, France had nine medals, two titles, and in December, Japan didn’t slow down despite their post-Rio transition: 35 medals, 10 titles.” Is it the good coach who makes a good team or the good team that makes the good coach? The question makes Kosei Inoue smile, and he’d rather remind the importance of “mutual trust between two fighters and those who oversee them, as well as the conviction to have the best team and the best staff, and to have made good decisions.” Beyond the medal count, what matters to Kosei Inoue is what these men are made of.

III. Towards the rising sun

One day, Finnish filmmaker Aki Kaurismaki was asked to put into words his admiration for his Japanese colleague Yasujiro Ozu, master of the still frame on the mats and complex, yet universal family nucleus, the author of the subtle and moving Tokyo Story and An Autumn Afternoon. “What makes Ozu so esteemed is that he never needed a murder, an act of violence or a gunshot to talk about what’s essential in a human life.” Is Kosei Inoue known for his eccentricity? His tattoos? His flashy media appearances? Did these worry even cross his mind at some point? After Rio, his priorities are the following: how to strengthen an already strong judo team? How to keep adding something that goes beyond the Japanese mono no aware (the sensibility for the ephemeral) and wabi-sabi (the acceptance of imperfection) to aim for a more universal contribution? “Any victory that doesn’t lead to the conviction and transformation of the partner is only an appearance of victory. To defeat without convincing means nothing,” said Jigoro Kano. When others would have slowed down, Kosei Inoue stayed on track for Tokyo 2020 and beyond.

“I think the thing that is most important globally is to keep fighting with passion, creativity and sincerity,” he said one day during an interview. “For that, you have to be convinced you can contribute to the improvement of judo in Japan and in the world by executing the lessons of Professor Jigoro Kano. The efficient use of energy (Seiryoku Zenyo) and mutual prosperity (Jita Kyoei) are two principles that go beyond Japan and are worth something globally.” On that point, like many others, his action is never to be dissociated from his mentor, Yasuhiro Yamashita, with political responsibilities becoming more and more important within the Japanese federation and the International Olympic Committee. “Both perspectives converge and complete each other perfectly,” said Hitoshi Sugai, 1985 and 1987 world champion in -95 kg, also from Tokai University. “They are both good and reliable people. Their kindness makes them esteemed by all.” This opinion is shared by Nicolas Gill, who is now at the head of the Canadian team. “Kosei surrounded himself by people with the same philosophy,” said the double Olympic medallist and triple world medallist. “People for whom generosity, education and communication are the foundations of a collective project. Politically, he’s equally careful to create relationships between universities and companies. You know he loves what he does and Yamashita was indeed a source of inspiration very strong in his journey.” According to Netherlander Maarten Arens, “judo simply needs him. Who today can exemplify respect at the same level?” 

Respect. The word came up. The one that is earned as much as it is inspiring. “He takes care of himself,” said the former world champion and double Olympic medallist Stéphane Traineau. The Frenchman is talking about the assiduity of his “old” rival, who’s twelve years younger than he is and decided, after a few years of letting himself go, that he wouldn’t do that anymore; after all, he’s not the kind of man to “fall into an outdated spirit”, as said by writer Georges Bernanos. “I saw him in camp in Houlgate leave for a run at 7 in the morning with his staff and come back before their athletes were ready for breakfast,” added Belgian Damiano Martinuzzi, coach of European champion and double Worlds medallist Toma Nikiforov. “He and his team come back from camps as exhausted as their athletes. He’s being a model by getting involved and by giving space and consideration to everyone. He clearly understood something, because his team looks like they’re having fun, and that’s something new.”

For Algerian Sofiane Abadla, “he was able to elevate his role again.” As someone used to the circuit, the former -73 kg is impressed to see a forty-year-old like Inoue not hesitate to cross the invisible line that separates coaches and athletes on the international scene to go get the best foreign champions and, for a randori, “sweat and show them where they’re at.” Many also remembers that his new role coincided with a new initiative, simple in appearance, but that would mark the era. On their chair, Inoue and his staff take the time at the beginning and end of each fight to bow to the mat and the opponent’s coach. A gesture that seems trivial, but that would soon be adopted by everyone on the circuit and was as good for the credibility of the sport than the arrival, in 2009, of the suits in finals. A “soft power” gesture somewhat reminiscent of the huge impact on public opinion of the change room left impeccable by the Japanese soccer team after their elimination during World Cup in 2018.

“The current Japanese staff isn’t getting ready for the Games. They are working for the future, which is different,” commented Marjan Fabjan, who coaches Urska Zolnir and Tina Trstenjak, the two previous -63 kg Olympic champions. As an autodidact who owes his success to his intransigence and in-depth understanding of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation stakes, the Slovenian coach is hit by the “calm, determination and team spirit” the kantoku taught his men. For Frenchman Patrick Roux, Russian women’s team’s coach since 2013 after having been high performance director for Great-Britain from 2009 to 2011, it’s a true “hidden revolution”. That’s exactly the title of an article published by the former European champion and Worlds medallist in Spring 2019 in L’Esprit du judo. He had been “at least 20 times” in Japan, but hadn’t been back in three years. He recounted being astonished during a recent three-week stay in Kokushikan, Teikyo and Tsukuba, by the global evolution of training to something bold, invigorating and in line with the era and its participants. If his observation mostly described the women’s team, he quickly understood that the movement touched everyone. “By using elements of a slightly modified traditional model, the importance of ‘sempais’ for example, the management of athletes was now about the concept of empowerment, meaning an enlarged self-empowerment, more power to individuals or groups to influence the conditions of the project.” 

He then added: “The girls in Teikyo work as a living organism, a team, with barely any outside leadership. Well-timed feedback, analysis and questions, a general enthusiasm and 200% involvement every day are similar to what I’m talking about in my articles. I’ve admired the results of such empowerment after seeing the life, the creativity and the involvement in practice and in training. Uchi-komis with nuance and personalized movements and actions to cause a reaction, to fake, to use all the parameters smartly, with a group of young judokas aged 19 to 23, already virtuoso, that we’ll probably never hear about on the international level, but incredibly strong, having fun in each training (…). He found that this renewal wasn’t only for “a small commando of 14 to 28 privileged athletes getting ready for the Games on Tokyo.” He rather saw “a true conceptual revolution for training staff, young students, athletes-to-be, cadet and junior, as much as the elite (…).”

Examples to illustrate this change of paradigm are plenty, starting by the very clean nage no kata that he made a point of demonstrating at the Budokan with his brother Tomokazu at the 2012 Zen Nihon—how many renowned coaches would have had so much humility? A few years ago, during the Prague Open, Lukas Krpalek remembers having seen him stay last on the mat to sweep the straps and empty plastic bottles left by his own athletes. “How could you not want to give back to a coach with such class?” said the giant Czech, who never hid the high esteem he had for his Japanese colleague. In Mittersill, in Austria, during an international camp organized by the European Judo Union in January 2018, the thousand fighters attending were surprised to see Hifumi Abe alone. Titled world champion in -66 kg a few months earlier, new Japanese judo phenomenon, aged 20, was sent by himself, without a coach or a physiotherapist, in a snowy Central Europe country from which he didn’t know anything. To leave for the unknown and grow in adversity, another gesture… In February 2019, at the Dusseldorf Grand Slam, Kosei Inoue discreetly came down the stands to say a few words to Shohei Ono, winner of a very tensed final agains

t Masashi Ebinuma, right before the podiums. By the time the -73 kg Olympic champion raised his head to thank his coach, he was already gone. More than the words said, the gesture of stepping over a gate to congratulate an opponent mattered. Another image would be on July 7, 2019, at the Montreal Grand Prix. Kosei Inoue walked with Mashu Baker, -90 kg Olympic champion, after a victorious semifinal against Brazilian Macedo. On their path, both men had to walk along the next mat where two other Olympic champions, former -100 kg Lukas Krpalek and Teddy Riner, were competing neck to neck in a highly anticipated semifinal. Focused on the debrief and the next fight of his protégé, Kosei Inoue walked without looking at the heavyweights fighting. The question hasn’t been asked to Mashu Baker, but there is every reason to believe the athlete appreciated the attention.

The opposite is equally true. Despite being reigning world champions (2013 and 2017), when Shohei Ono and Soichi Hashimoto were faced with disciplinary issues, they weren’t given any special treatments. When asked about Hashimoto’s situation, guilty, in February 2018, to have let an unauthorized friend enter the building of the Japanese Institute of Sports Sciences and punished with a severity leaving the rest of the world speechless, Kosei Inoue said: “I believe, and I always tell my athletes that you should be held accountable as a delegate of Japan and have a form of auto-consciousness as judokas. That’ why when one or the other violated the rule, I held them accountable. I think this is an important element of education not only as an athlete, but as a person. Our ultimate goal is the following: on top of becoming judo champions, we are modelling our behaviour on how we could, through judo, become people who can adapt correctly to society and how to become people who can emphasize what we have learned in judo and use it to contribute to a better society.” Have the main people involved been aware of the educational dimension of the punishment? “Yes. They pay for their mistakes; they think about the path they should follow and they acknowledge the situation they find themselves in. I think they are developing in this process. However, they are still young. They’ll need to grow more while taking on various challenges. I also think it’s the normal course of things to acknowledge their mistakes, setbacks and defeats. I think the most important in this context is to find out how we can help our students. Lately I feel the society becoming more vigilant and severe. Sometimes a situation seemingly innocuous can cause another one, irreversible, perhaps putting an athlete’s life in danger. It’s extremely important to teach our students how to prevent such a situation and, in case it does happen, support them so that they can be reborn and progress again. I truly believe it’s critical.”

However, discipline isn’t the only lever of performance. The secret is to build the unity between the mind and body, and to embody that unity too, commented Israeli Gil Offer, Ori Sasson’s coach, who was notably this at the 2016 Games in +100 kg: “He’s part of the team, he’s a good listener and he knows how to deflate egos by keeping his athletes out of their comfort zone to renew the dynamics.” Like in many other countries, but with a different historical background, Japanese social media now show smiling young judokas, victories, birthdays, weddings; in short, dynamic and intense lives. Calligraphy workshops, pottery, Brazilian jiu-jitsu camps in Brazil, cohesion camp in Hawaii at the beginning of 2020, everything is an excuse to create relations with unexpected experiences that make sense, moments pushing further and further the limits of the dojo while still keeping an appearance of simplicity and the infinite patience of the artist who would “paint the same rose a thousand times,” according to an old Zen tale… then yes, laptops, algorithm and detailed scient

ific data are more than ever part of the staff’s daily life, a 2.0 team whose plethoric staff seems to be checking the sites during big championships. In dojos or universities, travelling foreign coaches witness a progressive inclusion of the athlete, that the quality is slowly overtaking the quantity and intensity of the volume. However, some things never change: “In Tenri, I saw Mr. Inoue talk to Mr. Anai, the University director, so that he’d say something to Mr. Ono, Mr. Anai’s student,” said Italian coach Raffaele Toniolo.

So, to be one. To embody unity, in line with the M.I.N.D project, launched in 2014 by the Japanese federation to improve judokas’ attitude: Manner, Independance, Nobility and Dignity. An acronym that “reminds the importance of the mental element in progress”, like said Patrick Roux in the aforementioned article… and to build positive expectations. “Big championships are rare opportunities in life to surpass oneself. It’s a beautiful thing.” Kosei Inoue sees the mixed team tournaments, which have been dominated by Japan since their beginning in 2017 in preparation for the next Games, as an opportunity to understand even more the notions of maximum efficiency and prosperity and mutual welfare. “Lately, people had a tendency to be more selfish. For me, living in a society means to live with a cooperative spirit. The team tournament allows us to work towards this, which is good.” 

The Olympiad that started after the Rio Games divided the judo community in two groups: Japan, and the rest of the world. Budapest 2017? Four individual titles for the men’s team, top nation. Baku 2018? Seven medals, two titles, top nation again. Tokyo 2019? Seven medals, two titles, still top nation. Moreover, the incredible density of the women’s team—notably nine medallists among nine competitors, five of which won the title in Azerbaijan—the triple win in the mixed team event, cadet and juniors are coming in strong… By looking at some of these rankings carefully, a realization strikes: how many countries can afford not to bring Soichi Hashimoto to the Games, #1 in the world, 2017 world champion in -73 kg, runner-up the following year and triple champion of the Masters and Paris Grand Slam? None, unless they have Shohei Ono as an alternative.

Time for questions. On February 9, 2020, at the AccorHotels Arena in Paris, Japanese Kokoro Kageura stopped Teddy Riner’s winning streak at 154 matches. It happened in the third round of the Paris Grand Slam, after an uchi-mata sukashi in golden score, similar to the one that could have given Shinichi Shinohara the title 20 years earlier in Sydney against French David Douillet. An even stronger symbol: Keiji Suzuki, usually in charge of the heavyweights, couldn’t travel to Europe because of a recent knee surgery. Kosei Inoue himself had the privilege of being alongside his young heir from Tokai, whose name means “shaded heart”. The same Kosei Inoue who was already on the coach’s chair nine years, four months and twenty-six days earlier at the Tokyo Yoyogi Gymnasium for the previous defeat of the Frenchman, was sitting in the front row again to see the man who, twelve years earlier in the same room, pushed him once and for all out

the door and who had since psychologically destroyed the five Japanese fighters who crossed his path… Was it finally the breaking point to put the red and white flag on top of the heavyweight podium again? Was the position cursed? Kageura lost the final against Netherlander Henk Grol, missing an Olympic selection that was within reach… We remember that after his heavyweights’ loss, Harasawa and Ojitani in 2017 at the Budapest Worlds, Kosei Inoue apologized: “It’s my fault as the head coach. I felt the challenge of the competition again. Other tournaments will come, and I’m convinced they can improve. As long as they keep being involved, we will be fighting next to them, without fear of setbacks and without giving up. This attitude is a way of life. I’ve tried it as a competitor and I think that’s what gave me the strength to keep going.”

A few days later, when he announced six of the seven selected athletes for the Tokyo Olympic Games—-66 kg Hifumi Abe and Joshiro Maruyama would have to face each other at the Japanese Nationals Championships in April—Kosei Inoue moved the world by bursting into tears when he had to explain the difficult choices that had to be made in some categories. “My first thoughts go out to those who fought during this Olympic cycle and weren’t chosen.” Behind the tears was a second message. For those not going, an infinite gratitude (rarely expressed at a high level) for elevating the group by their involvement. For those who stay, the responsibility is now to prove themselves worthy of the trust in their potential, if only out of regards for those left behind.

A few days later, the coronavirus pandemic reshuffled all the cards. Will the Tokyo Games, the goal of the entire sports community for the last four years, happen one day, 80 years after the cancellation of the 1940 Games, also in Tokyo? Will Japanese judo meet the expectations set by the two previous cycles? Would the very precise program be able to adapt to a postponement? Can the program surpass the restlessness already shown during 2019 Worlds, during the rehearsal in the same Tokyo Japanese Budokan where, in 1964, Netherlander Anton Geesink had suddenly globalized the discipline? Will Kosei Inoue give up his seat to Keiji Suzuki, in the perfect continuity of their former rivalry (three victories each and a tie). Will he follow the path of his sempai Yasuhiro Yamashita, with increasing political responsibilities? Will he want to spend more time with his family and kids—the eternal secret challenge of a great destiny? What would Jigoro Kano think of the path of this successor, so mindful of passing on his lessons and to keep pushing further every day? What medal, what achievement would finally make him feel like he has done enough? “For now, live in the question,” wrote one day Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke. “Maybe one day you will slowly, without noticing, find the answer.” — Anthony Diao

Acknowledgements: Gotaro Ogawa, Noriko Mizoguchi, Kosei Inoue and everyday judokas requested during this seven-year work.

© 2017 Canadian Kodokan Black Belt Association, All rights reserved

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