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Judo family matriarch shares passion with next generation

Wakako Ueno, who raised three daughters to become Olympic and world champions, still gets on the tatami at the age of 64 to show girls how to perform the moves
Wakako Ueno, who raised three daughters to become Olympic and world champions, still gets on the tatami at the age of 64 to show girls how to perform the moves Yasuyoshi CHIBA AFP
4 min
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Toma (Japan) (AFP)

Wakako Ueno raised three daughters to Olympic or World Championship glory and now the matriarch of Japan's most-decorated judo dynasty is passing on her passion to the next generation.

The 64-year-old puts around 10 children as young as seven through their paces in her tatami-mat dojo in the small town of Toma, more than 900 kilometres (560 miles) north of Tokyo on the island of Hokkaido.

Each session starts with the children sitting on their knees to recite the teachings of judo founder Jigoro Kano, who stares down at them from a small black-and-white portrait on the wall -- "judo is about harnessing your mental and physical strength in the most efficient way possible."

But the coach says she wants to transmit the enjoyment of judo to the next generation. "Judo is fun. It's exciting. I want the children to experience that excitement," she told AFP.

Ueno fell in love with the sport 40 years ago, learning it from her late husband. She still remembers feeling "exhilarated when she was able to throw her opponent cleanly."

But at that time, there were few female judokas around and she grew frustrated. "There were no women at all. So I practised with my husband but I had no chance of winning. I was upset."

So, along with her husband, Wakako threw herself into preparing their eldest daughter Masae for international judo competition. She would go on to win Gold at the 2004 and 2008 Olympics.

"I had no choice. Judo was the same as eating. It was part of our lives," said Masae, now 41 and working as a part-time judo coach in Tokyo.

Her father took the lead in her training and he took no prisoners.

She once had to stand in the middle of the tatami floor fighting against 10 boys one-by-one. Female judokas were rare at that time, so her training partners were almost always stronger boys.

"I had to keep pushing forward even if I was thrown by my opponents," said Masae, adding that her father's methods stripped some of the enjoyment out of the sport.

"He was strict so I have no memory of having fun doing judo. I did it because I had to!" she added, now able to laugh at the memory decades later.

Her sister Yoshie, who won bronze at the London 2012 Olympics, recalls similar brutality from her father, who would swing a bamboo sword while yelling at underperforming students.

"It was scary. Even if we wanted to run away, we couldn't," said the 36-year-old, now a national team coach.

But she nevertheless credits her upbringing with the family's astonishing success on the mat. "Judo education was ingrained in us at home. That's why we are who we are now," she told AFP.

"There aren't many families whose members all do judo. Maybe a father but rarely a mother as well."

- '80 percent is tough' -

The Uenos are keeping it in the family as youngest daughter Tomoe, a 30-year-old former junior world champion, is now helping her run the dojo.

Wakako is aiming to spread the word about judo, which is declining in popularity -- from a peak of 250,000 practitioners in 1993 to just under 150,000 in 2018, according to the All Japan Judo Federation.

"Baseball is on TV every day. Football as well. Children are attracted to the sports that are shown on television," she said. While judo spikes in popularity during the Olympics, once every four days is not enough, she said.

Looking back, Wakako has realised that she and her husband may have driven their daughters too hard in their pursuit of victory.

She recalls being so shocked when Masae crashed out of the 2000 Sydney Olympics after losing three matches that she couldn't even speak to her.

"I regret that. Athletes are already under so much pressure. I decided after that to remember it is the efforts they are making that are the most important. It's not all about the medals," she said.

Now she wants to continue her husband's legacy in coaching and toughen up the younger generation -- but without the strict training methods.

"In judo, 20 percent is fun and maybe the remaining 80 percent is tough. But by overcoming this, you'll be strong physically and mentally."

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