Live in Budokan: Famous arena gets another Olympic spotlight

Nippon Budokan just feels like a special place, even for those who don’t understand the surprising amount of sports and music history that has happened under its beautiful roof.

Tokyo – Nippon Budokan sits peacefully in a lush green park in the center of Tokyo. Visitors admire the elegant lines of its Buddhist temple-based design before stepping into the grand reverence of the arena, where countless martial arts champions have been crowned since opening with the first Olympic judo tournament in 1964.

Budokan just feels like a special place, even for those who don’t understand the surprising amount of sports and music history that has happened to wake up Mount Fuji under the drifting roof.

Although no fans will be in attendance when Budokan hosts the Olympic debuts of judo and karate at the second Tokyo Games, it is much more than a martial arts hall – a literal translation of its name.

A two-time Olympic judo silver medalist for Britain, who competed at Budokan in 1978, “this is where it all began.”

Widely revered as the spiritual home of modern martial arts, Budokan has become a shrine to the greatest achievements of the Japanese sporting spirit—particularly in judo, the domestic discipline that resonates deeply in Japan. It has also hosted important sporting events of more questionable purity, such as Muhammad Ali’s bizarre fight against Japanese professional wrestler Antonio Inoki What is now considered the forerunner of mixed martial arts came under special regulations in June 1976.

Budokan has also developed into a live music venue, hosting almost all the great talent of the last half century.

The Beatles were the first rock band to play it in five landmark shows in 1966. Icons from Bob Dylan and ABBA to Frank Sinatra and Led Zeppelin later staged historic concerts. Dylan, Cheap Trick, Ozzy Osbourne and Blur are among the many artists who have recorded live albums well known there due to their combination of excellent acoustics and enthusiastic, well-behaved Japanese fans.

This weekend, Budokan may also be just where the beleaguered Japanese public starts feeling better. The Painful Process of Hosting These Olympic Games, who have been battered by scandals and unrecognizable by the coronavirus pandemic because of their inaccessibility to fans.

But nearly 57 years after Budokan hosted judo’s Olympic debut, the mostly empty ground hosts Japan’s home sport again in some of the Games’ first competitions. The stage is also set in a way that particularly pleases judo conservatives such as Adams: Budokan’s tatami are on a raised platform with a surrounding safety zone, similar to 1964.

Naohisa Takato (men’s 60kg) and Funa Tonaki (women’s 48kg) will try to cheer up their nation on Saturday by claiming Japan’s first gold medals of these Games. The Japanese media is focusing excessively on the opening-day judoka, suggesting that the two golds could change the public’s overly ambitious perception of these games.

Takato and Tonaki also hope to set up an avalanche of success for the powerhouse Japanese judo team, which could each struggle for a gold medal. The pressure is undeniably huge, but Takato is ready to face off at Budokan after claiming a disappointing bronze in Rio de Janeiro.

“Last time, I was focusing too much on the lead role to promote the team, which made me nervous,” Takato said. “So this time I won’t think about it much. I will think about my victory and hope to make the team happy as a result. I believe Tonaki should get the first gold medal for Japan, And I’ll follow him to become the first male medalist.”

Less than a week after the eight-day judo tournament concludes with the first Olympic mixed team competition, Budokan will host the Olympic debut of karate, another beloved Japanese martial art finally getting its opportunity to shine on the greatest stage.

The fighters who grace the Budokan floor will remember it forever – just ask Adams.

He considers his victory over his Japanese opponents 43 years ago as one of the greatest achievements of his sporting life. The Japanese crowd was always respectful, but enthusiastically partisan – and when Adams won, the eerie silence that fell on Budokan was unforgettable for them.

Like everyone who loves judo, Adams is crushed by the absence of fans next week. Budokan’s importance is inextricably linked to its Japanese crowd, whose combination of enthusiasm and respect has helped set this unique institution apart.

“The atmosphere is what makes Budokan a different place, so I feel for all these athletes,” Adams said. “The Olympic title is the most important thing. That’s what they’ll remember in the end. But it’s a shame.”


Associated Press writer Kantaro Komiya in Tokyo contributed to this report.


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