Judo Blog: Li’l McKenna at our Dojo; the next Tani?

Photo from ‘Tani Ryoko Monogatari’ (Japanese publication) by Yoji Hongo, 2008
When little McKenna Kaneko (video) showed up at my dojo 5 years ago besides being an adorable kid in our Tiny Tots class there was a certain spark you could feel. She was highly driven, the middle child of 3 girls she would strive for perfection. She also quickly fell in love with judo!

Having traveled to Fukuoka the home of Japan’s golden girl Ryoko Tamura in 1995 as part of a Nanka Goodwill Judo Mission, I was very familiar with her legacy. This recent Facebook post by judo historian Brian Watson tells her story.

Ryoko Tamura Judo’s Golden Girl

Ryoko (aka Tani) was born in Fukuoka, Kyushu, Japan, on 6th September 1975 and started judo at the age of seven. Eight years later, weighing a mere 43 kg, she won her first major title in the -48kg class at the 1990 Fukuoka International Judo Championships. She continued to compete in this -48kg weight class throughout her extraordinarily successful contest career. A career which was highlighted by her being selected flagbearer for Japan’s Olympic Team at the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games and later by the winning of two Olympic gold medals, one in Sydney in 2000, and the other in Athens in 2004. Prior to these achievements, she also won gold at the 1994 Asian Games and gold at the 1995 Universiade. In the biennial World Championships, she ascended the victor’s rostrum seven times: 1993, 1995, 1997, 1999, 2001, 2003, and 2007 – a fantastic record.

In the early days of female judo competition, Japan’s women contestants were no match for the top European competitors of the day who garnered all the gold medals at the inaugural Women’s World Judo Championships held in New York, U.S. A., in 1980. It was a similar story at the 1982 Women’s World Judo Championships in Paris, France, where again all the gold medals went to the European stars. However, at the 1984 Women’s World Championships in Vienna, Austria, Kaori Yamaguchi became the first Japanese female world judo champion when she took gold in the -52kg category. Nevertheless, at the subsequent 1986 World Championships staged in Maastricht, Holland, at the 1987 Championships in Essen, Germany, and at the 1989 Championships held in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, and yet again at the 1991 Women’s World Championships in Barcelona, Spain, the Japanese women’s team, although somewhat improved in contest skills, failed to win even one gold medal.

In 1993, in Hamilton, Canada, things at last began to change for Japan’s judo women when Ryoko Tamura captured the first of her -48kg world championship titles. Her subsequent string of outstanding gold medal triumphs soon resulted in her becoming a household name throughout Japan, especially so, by her nickname of Yawara-chan.

Early in her judo career, Ryoko became a great fan of British judo star Karen Briggs (Inman), four times world champion, and therefore earnestly sought to emulate Briggs’s achievements. Throughout her contest days, Tamura never appeared to me to have much physical strength. She was, however, possessed with incredible speed and agility. These twin attributes in particular helped her attain many conquests. In the final of the 2000 Sydney Olympics, for instance, I recall that she fought the taller and physically stronger Russian contestant, Lyubov Bruletova.

Soon in their encounter, Bruletova approached Tamura aggressively in order to take firm grips, but Ryoko managed to evade Bruletova’s attempt, instantly spun around for an uchi-mata attack whereby the Russian, completely taken by surprise, seemed to blindly advance onto Ryoko’s outstretched leg and was thrown for a spectacular ippon. Their contest lasted a mere 36 seconds.

In her university days, Tamura studied literature at Teikyo University and following graduation in 1998 gained employment at the giant Toyota Motor Corporation. In 2003 she married Yoshitomo Tani, a professional baseball player with the famed Orix BlueWave team. They have two sons. In 2010, Ryoko Tani retired from competition following her momentous 20-year, star-studded career in which she was defeated on only five occasions. She then entered the world of politics in the summer of 2010, and shortly thereafter, at the age of thirty-five, was duly elected a member of Japan’s House of Councilors where she served for six years.

These days, Ryoko Tani occasionally appears in corporate advertising campaigns and acts as a TV commentator at some of the main judo tournaments. Perhaps the most significant aspect of her legacy is that she still continues to inspire a host of young girls to take an interest in judo. Her attainment of 16 major international championship medals: 11 gold, 2 silver, and one bronze, has encouraged Japanese girls to read books and cartoon character comics, some of which are based on Ryoko’s remarkable judo life. Many of her legion of fans eagerly wish to follow in her tracks. Although her contest days are long gone, the golden girl’s popularity still remains a positive stimulus for the further expansion of women’s judo.

B. N. Watson, Tokyo

Posted - January 14, 2022


Tani is often compared to the popular Yawara cartoon character in Japan

Back to Li’l McKenna

In all seriousness, our McKenna has shown a tremendous natural ability towards learning judo. The way she flows into throwing techniques is simply amazing. McKenna’s challenge is to curb her desire for perfection from preventing her development as a judoka. She is way too hard on herself, second place to her is a loss! I often talk her about the samurai concept of mushin - no mind or mindfulness.

I constantly have to remind her of judo’s zen maxim; fall down seven time get up eight and that failure is the key to success. Needless to say as her Sensei, I realize how important keeping McKenna grounded and making judo remain a fun activity is tantamount to her long term involvement.


April - 2022

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I’m always looking for new subjects to write about regarding judo as well as contributions from my readers. Please send them to gary@garygoltz.com,

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