Although supposedly close to Putin…Yasuhiro Yamashita “feels a strong sense of palpable discomfort.” | FRIDAY DIGITAL

Although supposedly close to Putin…Yasuhiro Yamashita “feels a strong sense of palpable discomfort.”

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Yamashita walking with Putin, shoulder to shoulder, in 2004.

Yasuhiro Yamashita, 64, president of the Japanese Olympic Committee (JOC) and a 1984 Los Angeles Olympics judo gold medalist in the open-weight division who is a close friend of Russian President Vladimir Putin, 69, who invaded Ukraine expressed full support for the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) recommendation to exclude athletes and officials from Russia and Belarus from international competitions.

Regarding his personal relationship with President Putin, who has been suspended and stripped of his honorary presidency and honorary 9-dan by the International Judo Federation (IJF), he said, “We are not as close as you think. Many people in Russia are under that illusion,” he said, denying that they are close.

Toshiki Tsuda, a part-time lecturer at Kokushikan University and sportswriter, revealed that Yamashita’s words sounded hollow, saying, “I originally had no expectations for him as a sports leader, but I was stunned by his flip-flopping remarks.

This embrace must indeed be close…?

In Japan, however, many people have come into contact with scenes that reveal the intimacy between the two men. Yamashita seems to want to distance himself from an authoritarian figure who has drawn global condemnation for his military actions, but what has happened in the past tells the truth about their relationship.

When Mr. Putin, who is also a judoist, visits Japan, he always makes a point of visiting the Kodokan, the “head temple of judo” in Tokyo’s Bunkyo Ward. According to press reports, Putin bowed and said, “Kodokan is my second home,” and when he was presented with an honorary sixth-degree red and white belt, he humbly said, “I have not reached the level of ability and state of mind to squeeze this belt,” and jumped into the hearts of the Japanese people.

He also made a decisive remark. I am a judoka, so I know the value of this red and white belt. I will continue to study and devote myself to it so that I can squeeze it as soon as possible after I return to Japan,” he added, expressing his “respect for judo. Many of those involved felt sympathy for Mr. Putin’s words.

Yamashita, who served as a guide right next to Putin as he delivered the decisive line, was awarded the “Order of Friendship with Russia” in 2014 and the “Order of Honor of Russia” in 2019, and was even hailed by Putin as “the most respected Japanese person” in the world. Mr. Tsuda continues.

President Putin has made one move after another to win the hearts and minds of the Japanese people. Chairman Yamashita must have been elated by the repeated lip service and medals. To say at this juncture, ‘We are not as close as you think,’ would only sound bland. It would have made more sense to say, ‘No, you misunderstand President Putin.

Now that Vladimir Putin has launched his invasion of Ukraine, the fact that he had a hold of Yamashita, one of the most iconic figures in Japanese judo, may have been a “coup” for Putin, who was trying to expand his network of contacts in Japan.

In addition, the most painful part is that “the greatest treasure of the Japanese judo world” was handed over to Mr. Putin.

In September 2017, at a Japan-Russia summit meeting in Vladivostok, then Prime Minister Shinzo Abe presented Putin with “Seiryoku Zenyo,” a handwritten calligraphy by Kodokan founder Jigoro Kano. The book was written in the U.S. around April 1938 and has been kept in the Kodokan’s collection.

Seiryoku Zenyo” is Jigoro’s teaching that “whatever you do, use your mental and physical strength effectively to achieve your goal,” and is a fundamental principle of judo, along with “Jitokotai Kyohei” (co-prosperity for oneself and others).

Jigoro’s teaching is “I can no longer ask you to give it back. It is a sign that Japan’s top political and sports leaders have been played by the deft Mr. Putin, who has been through the gauntlet many times. It is a pity, or at least a bad aftertaste,” said Tsuda.

For Japan and the Japanese, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is not a war in distant Europe.

In December 2016, President Putin also visited Kodokan during his visit to Japan. On the left is then Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and on the right is Yasuhiro Yamashita (Photo: Afro)
December 2005, when President Putin gave judo instruction to children in his native St. Petersburg, Russia. Gold medalist Yasuhiro Yamashita, who was a professor at Tokai University at the time, and Kosei Inoue, who later became Japan’s national judo coach, were also invited to teach (Reuters/ Afro).
In December 2005, President Vladimir Putin gave judo instruction to children in his native St. Petersburg, Russia. President Putin also practiced with Yasuhiro Yamashita wearing a judo uniform (Photo: AFLO)
  • Photo Takuma Arimura

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