Written by Jo Crowley on 25. Jan 2024
Photographs by Gabriela Sabau, Emanuele Di Feliciantonio

Shohei Ono, with two Olympic golds and 3 world championship titles, stepped back from competition after the Tokyo Olympic Games in the summer of 2021. He has since taken temporary root in Scotland, learning English and delivering classes and seminars both in Scotland and further afield. Perhaps there is now enough distance to ask Shohei how he feels about retirement and the future.

Shohei One bowed out at the Tokyo Olympic Games, with one more precious gold medal won.

“I was lost at first, about not being a competitor. Should I continue my judo life or start again and change to a new life? I had no chance to do the latter though. Everyone was hoping I would continue to the next Olympic Games, in Paris.

I tried to practise every day but there was a lot of stress coming through this period. At the Tokyo Games, if I had stress I would practise and get rid of that stress but practise after the Games didn’t get rid of it in the same way. I am not sure why I couldn’t do it. I thought I had to practise everyday because everyone put pressure on me and hoped I would stay in judo but it was impossible for me. I wanted to perform in competition still but also, both before and after Games, there was Covid and so there was no audience and that was important for me too. I wanted to show my judo self always, like my Tokyo Games self. I wanted to show people that my judo style is complete and do so by winning the Games.”

The Ono uchi-mata. The final of the 2019 World Championships, Tokyo.

“In Paris there will be a lot of judo fans and so of course I would have liked to have shown them my judo too. I wanted to challenge myself one more time but because my heart was emptied and felt finished, it was not easy at all.

There were only three years from Tokyo to Paris. If it was four years, I could have had a break for one year and then start again in time but three years was just too short to give me the break I needed.

I felt pressure from national team coaches to come back but the break was very important for me. I had 6 months out and spent private time with friends and enjoyed some travelling to nice places but the pressure on me was never released.

When I was back in the dojo at Tenri I couldn’t do randori very well. It was ok but I felt quite negative; my mind wasn’t right. That feeling stayed in me. I used to live in Kodogakusya and this place was built specifically to help improve judo in Japan after Geesink won in 1964 against Kaminaga.”

Anton Geesink (NED) defeated Akio Kaminaga (JPN) in the first heavyweight Olympic final, 1964.

“Sometimes I feel like ‘the Last Samurai.’ There is a line between the first and the last Olympic Games and I feel connected to them both. Kodogakusya was built because of the first and I was the last to come from there; it is now closed and so that circular story was important. With that in my mind also, I could not really think about Paris. To stop in Tokyo was to complete a beautiful story.”

A smile to mark a completed story.

“I was competing in IJF events as a national team member for more than ten years, since the London Games. I joined the seniors after the junior worlds in South Africa, where I won.”

Shohei Ono: 2011 junior world champion.

“I couldn’t win senior categories at first but after London I won the Kodokan Cup and Tokyo Grand Slam and then the next year, in 2013, I won the worlds in Rio, my first senior world title.”

Shohei Ono in action at the 2013 World Championships, Rio De Janeiro.

“Kosei Inoue was head coach there, the first time for him too. His head coach history is the same as my national team history. Suzuki is also a great head coach but, again, to stay would have broken that story. Inoue and I came through that period together in our respective roles.”

Shohei Ono and Kosei Inoue.

“I was proud of making judo history during those ten years. I wanted to show my judo style and wanted to make the IJF judo rules improve more by showing my best, showing what is possible. I wanted to be like a text book. For example, people outside judo may ask ‘what is judo?’ and I would like to be used to show the correct judo style, to be an exemplar.

Like this:

Beautiful judo? Shohei Ono.

Correct judo? Shohei Ono.

Strong judo? Shohei Ono.

This has also been my goal.

My teammates often stole my techniques like a gripping style in the arm pit or other things. Judo children take my osoto-gari or uchi-mata and I watch them in seminars and can see my style and this makes me happy.”

It is clear that to be the best can be complicated and it is a very challenging life to step away from. Shohei Ono is still reflecting and analysing and coming to terms with a new kind of daily schedule. However, at this time he remains a big part of the worldwide judo community, whether as an exemplar, a coach, an inspiration.

“It’s ok to be finished but I am sad because my technique is deteriorating. It’s normal but is still strange for me.

I would like to experience other things in life now but I always want to keep my connection to judo. I appreciate Tenri University and also my sponsors and I want to return their support to them; it is my commitment. Asahikasei is my sponsor; it is important to appreciate them.

I will return as a judo coach in Tenri. I am in Scotland now but I am also a coach for Tenri. I am asked a lot if I will be a national team coach but I am not sure about this longer term and right now I don’t want that. I am happy to be a coach for my company and for Tenri. I will live back in Tenri and move to different places sometimes and this will give me the chance to travel and learn and teach and for now this is correct for me.”

Shohei Ono at the Scottish Open Championships, January 2024.

To travel, to learn and to teach are three occupations which have their core in the origins of judo so it is fitting that one of the greatest judoka ever is living this way. It is aligned and feels circular, just like the story of Ono’s competitive career, as he described it.

“One day I want to lead seminars for judo coaches too, not just for judoka. So many give strange instructions and it’s ok to have many styles but we must always try to teach correct, beautiful, strong judo. Judo needs ippon and ippon needs to be seen widely as the benchmark, the goal.”

Shohei Ono's ippon judo on display at the Tokyo Olympic Games, 2021.

“Now in the world I see a lot that is shido-driven and it is sometimes uninteresting. To be honest it doesn’t look like some judoka are seeking to have the best style. Judoka must throw for ippon and then we can increase the popularity of judo. Immediate results are the most important thing to so many people instead of style, but if they were to concentrate on style, maybe their results would be better.

I like the styles of Matthias Casse (BEL) and Tato Grigalashvili (GEO). They are aggressive and technical and they aim to throw for ippon, often earning no shido, and this is amazing. They don’t have the same style as me and I appreciate this a lot. They found their own judo but obeying the simple principles of positive, ippon judo.”

Casse (BEL) and Grigalashvili (GEO) are always seeking positive kumi-kata. World Championships Doha 2023.

“We need to grip but often in European judo the breaking of the grips is very common, even taking up the majority of the contest time. Step by step we must move from the grip to the attack to the throw and then later to beautiful throws, so we must grip positively simply to take the first step. Casse and Grigalashvili do this and we see how it contributes to a strong pace in their contests.”

“Recently I have seen many judoka more focused on physical training than technical training but throwing for ippon IS judo, it is the point and we must find a way to come back to this.”

Tato Grigalashvili (GEO) is always hunting for ippon.

Tato Grigalashvili fights for ippon and always with respect for those around him.

I want to have a good experience in Europe and visit many places as well as giving many seminars. It is very important for me to talk with European judo guys and to keep learning about different judo methods.”

Whatever Ono chooses to do with his new schedule and freedom in the coming years, his contribution to judo is already more than substantial and having him now contributing to coaching discussions and the delivery of technical judo education events is exciting.

Shohei Ono has demonstrated ippon judo throughout his career and he is now living by his judo philosophies, sharing his principles with others. The chance for judoka and coaches around the world to have some insight into his methods and to discuss his ideas is invigorating for our whole community. Judo itself scores ippon here!