Tuesday, February 1, 2011

'School judo deaths prompt protest in Japan'

'School judo deaths prompt protest in Japan' - this is the title of a disturbing article that was posted on The Age website on January 3, 2011 (http://www.theage.com.au/world/school-judo-deaths-prompt-protest-in-japan-20110102-19d03.html). The article reports 110 children have been killed in school judo practice since 1983. The article is quite thought provoking, particularly when you do a little research, and even more so when you study injury science.

The article reports that:
The [Japanese] government's bid to make the martial art compulsory in schools has alarmed parents. Research showing that an average of four children die each year during judo lessons in Japan has alarmed some parents as the country prepares to introduce martial arts as a compulsory school sport. Yoshihiro Murakawa, one of those concerned about the government's plan, is convinced his 12-year-old nephew died in a reckless judo practice.
The article refers to a website that is dedicated to this problem (http://judojiko.net/eng/). This website, Japan Judo Accident Victim's Association, reports that:
Over the 27-year period 1983 to 2009, 108 students died as a result of judo accidents in Japanese junior and senior high schools (age range ca 12 to 18years), 60% of them from brain injury. The mean of four deaths per year is significantly higher than in any other school sport. ... Note that these figures do not include deaths from accidents outside school such as in private judo clubs, so the total number of deaths in young people is higher still. There have also been a large number of serious injuries, many of which have resulted in chronic higher brain dysfunction or persistent disturbance of consciousness.
The website also contains an analysis of the 'cause' of the deaths which is quite interesting (http://judojiko.net/eng/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/en_judo_data110110.pdf).

The Age article reports: '"Many factors are involved here," Mr Murakawa said of his nephew Koji's death during judo club training. "First of all, many judo instructors at Japanese schools are too ignorant about what to do when a serious incident occurs," he said.'

Firstly, an understanding of injury based on an injury science perspective will confirm there are many factors involved in an injury. As I am attempting to explain in my obviously tentatively titled book, Injury Science and Pain [something] for the Martial Arts, injury can be analysed according to three factors interacting over three phases. Secondly, Mr Murakawa refers to the ignorance of judo instructors. This is an issue which my work is attempting to rectify.

This article has sparked some spirited discussion on the Internet. Here I refer you to a forum page dedicated to this article on the Aikido Journal website (http://www.aikidojournal.com/blog/2011/01/28/school-judo-deaths-prompt-protest-in-japan-from-theagecomau/). Apart from the uninformed, dismissive posts, Patrick Auge posts the following:
Accidents will happen. However teachers can reduce risks by emphasizing safety and by being there. In my past experience, Japanese judo club coaches were too often absent and senpai did not have enough maturity to control the intensity of training.
The mantra of injury control professions is 'injuries are not accidents'. I have the utmost respect for Auge. However, when you're exposed to the work of the injury field you gain a different perspective of injuries. You most definitely gain an appreciation of what can be done to analyse the potential for injuries, and what can be done to prevent injury and control the severity of an injury should it occur. Injuries ARE NOT accidents. Or at least most of them are not.

Without disclosing the detail of the work I'm spending every day on, I have to agree with Murakawa and Auge regarding the quality of instruction with regards to safety in the martial arts. For instance, within the Jan de Jong Self Defence School, the assistant instructor and instructor gradings, 1st kyu (black and white belt) and 1st dan (black belt), include teaching gradings and the requirement to obtain a first aid certificate. Having said that, I was asked to teach my own branch within two years of training while I was just an orange belt (3rd kyu). Through my obsessive training I was exceptional in my abilities and as it turned out I possessed very good teaching and student relationship abilities. However, I had no teaching experience, I had not assisted any instructor as is the norm for the school, and I had no training in trauma management of any sort. I now see this posting as irresponsible (though we cannot judge with hindsight. Different times.). I had to deal with a student who was going into a epileptic episode, and I just winged it. One student injured her back while being thrown. Are these accidents? Or, as injury science would suggest, are these injury events which could have been anticipated and measures put in place to prevent them or reduce the severity of these injuries?

We don't teach how to hit a ball, catch a ball, throw a ball, roll a ball, or any such innocuous skill in the martial arts. We teach techniques which are designed to potentially injure, non-fatally or fatally, a person. We throw ourselves around in martial arts such as jujutsu and its derivative arts (aikido, judo, and hapkido) using ukemi waza (breakfalling techniques). Many of the deaths on the abovementioned website have followed throwing techniques or breakfalling techniques. Journeyman is currently blogging (http://japanesejiujitsu.blogspot.com/) a series dedicated to ukemi waza. The Japanese judo experience should instill a sense of respect for these techniques.

You have to ask, what do the instructors know about injury, injury prevention, and injury control? What qualifications do they have if an injury occurs. All the other instructors and assistant instructors within the Jan de Jong Self Defence School had completed a first aid course. At least that is something.

We need to ask questions. But we can only ask questions if we understand the subject matter. Most people still refer to 'accidents' when the injury field have taken steps to remove the concept. Accidents imply unforseeability and randomness. Put an inexperienced person in charge of a class as Auge described, how much unforeseeabilty and randomness is there in any resultant injury?
Yasuhiko and Keiko Kobayashi, whose son suffered a brain injury when he was 15, questioned whether the government was fully prepared, saying there hadn't been a thorough investigation into the causes of serious judo incidents. 'With so many children dying, there was no single case taken to a court for a criminal charge,' the father said.
Why hasn't there been litigation. I'm not a fan of litigation, but why hasn't there been litigation in this age of litigation. Might I suggest that the martial arts are by and large not taken seriously. They lack credibility. Why else would you allow people to instruct people in techniques designed to non-fatally or fatally injure a person without demanding some sort of safety study. If we want the martial arts to be a serious subject of study other than on the fringes of society for 'fringe-dwellers', we need to take the martial arts seriously ourselves. What better place to get an understanding of injury than in a discipline dedicated to the study of injury with a view to the prevention and control of injury.


  1. Those are extremely disturbing statistics! I really don't see how you could put martial arts into a national school's curriculum - there can't possibly be enough suitably qualified instructors for every school in Japan! It's an accident waiting to happen. At least with private clubs parents can pull their kids out if they don't trust the instructor, but if it's compulsory education they can't - that's a real worry.

  2. SueC. You raise a good point. I must confess my concern is raising the standard of martial arts instructors knowledge across the board, and thereby hoping to increase the credibility of the martial arts overall. But yes, you cannot possibly have enough 'qualified' instructors if martial arts is made compulsory.

  3. I must agree that the numbers are telling a disturbing story. It would appear that not only the number, but the nature of the injury is disproportionate to other school sports, mandatory or otherwise. I have to agree with Sue C's comments on this one as well. If it's a mandatory part of the school curriculum, are the instructors people with a life long love and deep understanding of Judo? Or are they teachers that have been just been given another subject to study.

    It takes skill to do martial arts, it takes even more to teach it. As far as injury prevention or treatment, I would hope that any teachers learn about brain injury and trauma as the symptoms don't always present until later on. Heck, even in the UFC, if someone is knocked out, I believe there is a forced rest period to ensure recovery before they can be cleared again. This is combined by close scrutiny by the referee to protect the fighters. This level of monitoring is, at a minimum, necessary in a school situation.

    I'm all for the benefits of martial arts, and believe they are very beneficial to young people, in that they develop character and confidence, but I still think it's something you should want to do, not have to do. I also find it surprising that there has been no litigation. Having said that, I am not familiar with the education system in Japan, nor can I make fair comment as to whether civil suits are as common place as they are in North America.

    Fan or not, in one of Steven Seagal's earlier films, he told a story about how his character had been told by a master that it was easy to hurt people, harder to heal, so he had to learn healing arts first. Wisdom in 80's films, who knew?

    P.S. thanks for the mention of my blog.

  4. More english info about current situation: http://judo.forumsmotion.com/t2121-japan-judo-accident-victims-association-jjava#18133


Your comments make my work all the more relevant as I use them to direct my research and theorising. Thank you.