Tears of Judo Head Coach Kosei Inoue Who Led Japan to Record-High Five Gold Medals

On July 31, when Japan’s Mixed Team lost against France in the finals, the judo competition of the Tokyo Olympics ended.

By Hiroyuki Tai

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©JMPA

On July 31, when Japan’s Mixed Team lost against France in the finals, the judo competition of the Tokyo Olympics ended. This was also the moment Kosei Inoue completed his nine-year battle as the head coach of the men’s national team. His tenure of two terms, eight years plus one for the Olympics postponement, was according to the rules of the All Japan Judo Federation.

Yet, Shohei Ohno (Asahi Kasei) murmured tearfully, “I can’t believe it’s over…… I don’t know what to say. I’ll miss him, and it breaks my heart.” The words of the two-times straight champion of men’s -73 kg class expressed precisely the feelings of the members who had travelled on board the great ship, Kosei Inoue.

Record-High Five Gold Medals for Men’s National Team

The 43-year-old leader of men’s national team accomplished the finest feat by gaining record-high five gold medals at the Olympic games hosted by the home country. Just a decade ago, Japan’s forte judo had been pushed almost out of bounds, but Inoue brought it back to the center of the mat. At judo’s sacred place, Nippon Budokan, where they bid farewell, the players and coaches tossed him up in the air three times. When he was back on his feet, he turned his face towards the tatami mat and wept openly.  

“I’m proud to have fought with such wonderful athletes. I’m the happiest man.”

Condensed in the three tosses filled with emotions were the tears he shed as the coach in the three Olympic games.

Japan Too Obsessed with Style and Tradition in 2012

The humiliation of the 2012 London Olympics became the overall driving force. Although the Japanese men’s team won four medals, it lacked the gold for the first time in history. This was a disastrous defeat for Japan’s judo, destined to be ever-victorious.

The athletes were exhausted by the overload of matches for qualification screening, and the practice method that pushed them to the limits, emphasizing quantity over quality. Meanwhile, the foreign counterparts were constantly developing the global judo by integrating their own martial arts and could apply techniques from any position. Obsessed with tradition and the style to “gain proper grip and aim for ippon,” Japan failed to keep up with the global trend and lost its direction for competing.

Inoue was the men’s heavyweight coach for the London Olympics. After finishing his studies in the U.K., he became fully involved in the team in 2011, the year before the Olympics. Although he felt awkward with the team’s reinforcement policy, it was difficult for a late-comer to voice opinions in the establishment that had been running since the fall of 2008. The team failed to gain the top title in all categories at the London games.

At the venue, acquaintances from various countries asked him, “Kosei, what’s happened to Japan? Is Japan okay?” The words of the Italian coach Ezio Gamba, who revived the Russian national team from no medals to gold medals in three weight classes, opened his eyes.

“Kosei, it’s not the outside. Look inside.”

He meant the enemy was within.

Sobbed Uncontrollably, “I Want to Say Sorry to the Players”

He regretted being too shy to voice organizational reform in the judo world, a vertical society based on seniority. On August 3, when the competitions ended for the male and female seven weight classes, the Japanese team held a dinner party at a Chinese restaurant in London. There, people around him were taken aback by Inoue’s uncontrollable weeping. According to the person who held Inoue’s enormous body as he almost crumbled to the floor, he was quivering with tears rolling down his cheeks, sobbing, “I feel terrible for the players…… I’m sorry……”

In face of this painful reality, others were also moved to tears.

If head coach Shinichi Shinohara fulfilled his normal tenure of two terms, eight years, he would have coached until the 2016 Rio Olympics. With grave concern for Japan’s judo, calls for radical change arouse from within and outside the organization. Shinohara chose to step down that fall. On November 5, 2012, Inoue, merely 34, was selected as the new head coach.

Inoue Suffered More Hardships as a Player

Inoue was born in Miyazaki Prefecture as the youngest of three children. As a boy, he learned judo from his father, Akira, who was a police officer. He became the national champion in elementary and junior high school, as well as at Tokai University Sagami High School in Kanagawa Prefecture. With a dignified expression and a stoic atmosphere, he performed a spectacular uchi-mata that hoisted the opponent high in the air.

At the 2000 Sydney Olympics, where he won the gold medal in the men’s -100 kg class, he was praised for his judo style and became a true star. At the top of the podium, he held up the picture of his mother Kazuko, who had passed away suddenly in June of the previous year—a moving scene we will remember in the history of Olympics.

Many think his days as a player were filled with glory. Yet Inoue experienced more times of hardship. In 2005, he ruptured his right pectoral muscle, the vital area on the side of his tsurite (lifting hand). He raised his weight class to the +100 kg category and struggled in international competitions. He announced his retirement when he failed to qualify for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. The defeat at the 2004 Athens Olympics, which he says he lives to regret, consequently led him to become a successful coach.

In 2003, Inoue won the third consecutive World Championship, and seemed set for a second straight victory at the Olympics. He became the captain of the Japanese Olympic Team. But in mid-March of the Olympic year, he hurt his knee and suffered from food poisoning, and was not in perfect condition. Yet he still pushed himself to the limits in practice and attended the competition, believing nothing but victory.

When he saw his name at the top of the tournament chart, he decided he will only need the white uniform if he is taking the championship. He left the blue one that may be necessary for the repechage round at the Athlete’s Village. The stunning result was no medal. By the point he lost in the fourth round, he lost his drive and was completely defeated in the repechage.

Don’t Want the Players to Experience the Same

Inoue recalls, “I couldn’t fulfill my commitment as the national team member. Why didn’t I hold out and go for a medal? In my life, I have nothing but regrets about the Athens Olympics. I didn’t take any tactical or strategic measures, and just charged on with the gung-ho spirit. This was a predestined defeat.”

As the head coach, whenever he talks about his feelings at the time, he always adds the phrase, “I don’t want the players to experience the same.”

In life, there is no such thing as a wasted match. His mother passed away suddenly at 51, and in 2005, his elder brother also passed away abruptly from a disease at 32. With these sad events, he had developed his life lesson: “You never know what will happen tomorrow. Live each day, each moment to your fullest.” Head coach Inoue, despite his sudden appointment, was full of determination and commitment. 

Analyzed 20,000 International Matches

According to the lightweight coach Minoru Konegawa, Inoue’s teammate from the Tokai University judo club, the meeting was held on November 9, 2012. With the first domestic competition due to start on the following day under the new organization, the national team coaches gathered in a conference room in Chiba City. At the opening, Inoue spouted out, “From here, I’m putting everything in to fight towards the Rio Olympics. If there’s anyone here not ready to commit themselves to the national team, please leave now.”    

Of course, no one left the room. Coach Konegawa recalls his body froze on hearing this, yet he also said, “As the Tokyo Olympics was due to begin, even if things got tough and I wanted to run away, I remembered the tension in that room, and it gave me the energy to move forward.”

Inoue continued his drive to recover lost ground. He introduced the solo overseas training program to ingrain toughness in the national team that was full of elite athletes.

Seeing the global trend towards power, he included muscle training in team practice instead of leaving it up to the players. He also invited professional trainers and nutritionists. The team also began using videos, since the former management had been reluctant for fear of taking on stereotypical views. Moved by Inoue’s enthusiasm, the Scientific Research Department gave full support by analyzing about 8,000 overseas matches before the Rio Olympics. For the Tokyo Olympics, there was an accumulation of almost 20,000 match analysis.

More than anything else, Inoue devoted his energy to reforming the players’ mentality. They should keep the motto, “Japanese judo only aims for the championship” at the back of their minds. However, even if they miss the top title, they need the mental toughness to finish by winning the third-place play-off. Inoue was convinced that this tenacity will elevate into the strength to catch up and turn the tables from a losing position.  

To the athletes who lost despite their best efforts, he encouraged them to make use of the experience in the next match. To the press, he said it was his fault for not letting the player win. He talked about his bitter experience at the Athens Olympics to the players, but he also had the human touch and empathy for them. His attitude had astounding effects for the generation that admired his gallant performance at the Sydney Olympics during their youth. Japan’s national team transformed itself into a true fighting group.

“I Still Can’t Control Myself. It’s the Most Memorable Event in My Life.”

In the three years since 2013, the team has won a series of world championships in three, two, and three weight classes, and has also gained a gold medal in the -81 kg and above categories, which has been a weak point for Japan. After defeating the inner enemy, Inoue turned outward. With the idea that “those unable to cope with new situations cannot survive,” he launched countermeasures against global judo, exposing the athletes to Georgia’s Chitaoba, Russia’s sambo, Mongolian sumo, and Okinawan sumo, a close combat sport.

He did everything he could. At the Rio Olympics, Japan won medals in all seven weight classes for the first time in history, including two golds. As the players embodied the creed “there is no wasted match in life” on the big stage, 38-year-old head coach Inoue commented at the interview zone on the last day, choking and streaming tears. “I have nothing but gratitude for the wonderful players, coaches, and staff. I still can’t control myself. It’s the most memorable event in my life.” His tears differed completely from those he had shed four years ago.

That night, at the celebration dinner held at a churrasco restaurant in Rio de Janeiro, he was all composed. Amid the congratulatory mood, Inoue delivered a speech, saying resolutely, “I want to tell everyone that I consider this our starting point.”

You Can’t Change the Past, But You Can Change the Future

While proceeding along the path he paved in his first four years as the head coach, the one-year postponement of the Tokyo Olympics and the restraints for training caused by the pandemic baffled him. Yet, his philosophy—each weight class shouldn’t rely on one player; have the second and third players in the roster and keep spurring the players—has produced results. Naohisa Takato in the -60 kg class and Hifumi Abe (both at Park24) in the -66 kg class that survived the fierce battles for the Olympics qualification, have grown mentally.

These two geniuses, who have learned to think, won in the first and second days of the competition. The perfect start led to an unprecedented rush of gold medals. Also, based on his own failure to win two consecutive championships in pursuit of nothing but victory, he conveyed to Ohno, the previous champion, the counterintuitive thinking of “assuming defeat and the worst-case scenario, while clearing each task.”

Even the top player with absolute strength responded. During practice, Ohno worked thoroughly on risk management, such as starting from a cornered situation or a position he was not good at. He accomplished the feat of two consecutive gold medals with his solid performance.

The team that continued to grow towards the Rio Olympics has matured over the past five years, blossoming into a large flower, the result of head coach Inoue’s passion. He led the team with his progressive spirit: “We can’t change the past, but we can change the future. We have to change.”

When the team could not have training camps because of the COVID pandemic, he held online meetings once or twice a month. He stressed the significance of being able to compete at a time like this. He himself re-appreciated how precious it was to see the next day coming.

On the last day of the Tokyo Olympics, the leader who achieved the huge undertaking of reviving Japanese judo wept openly and said, “I had the honor of fighting together with the wonderful athletes, supporting staff, and coaches. It was an invaluable experience in my life.” 

If it were tears of regret in London, then they were tears of joy in Rio. We could call them tears of accomplishment in Tokyo. The long journey of head coach Kosei Inoue, spanning across nine years, over 3,000 days, reached its final stop in the shimmering gold of midsummer.

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