Sunday, April 12, 2009
Japanese scratching their heads over fungus that is killing judo
Richard Lloyd Parry in Tokyo
They are among the most famous fighters in the world, renowned for their discipline, speed and toughness. Now Japan’s martial artists are being laid low by an epidemic that is inflicting them with itching, disfigurement and baldness.
Doctors and officials say the sport of judo is facing ruin because of an infectious skin fungus spreading through clubs across Japan. It is passed from one participant to another during the grappling that is at the heart of the sport.
Practitioners of Western-style wrestling and the ancient sport of sumo have also been afflicted by Trichophyton tonsurans, a skin-eating fungus similar to athlete’s foot. So concerned is the sport’s governing body, the All Japan Judo Federation, that it commissioned research to gauge the extent of the problem.
It revealed that almost one third of judo clubs and half of all high-school judo teams have been struck by the fungus, which is highly infectious and difficult to treat. Its symptoms include patches of redness on the neck, face and upper body, which are often itchy and swollen.
The fungus most often affects the scalp, sometimes causing patches of skin to flake off, but often displaying few obvious symptoms in the early stages. Left untreated the fungus can enter the hair follicles, causing loss of hair. Treatment consists of a three-month course of drugs.
The prospect of fungus-infested Olympians or sumo wrestlers deprived of their famous topknots has caused wide disquiet. “The federation has become worried about the situation,” said Seitaro Hiruma, a professor of dermatology at Juntendo University, Tokyo, who carried out the research.
“Now they are saying that if they leave this infection unchecked it will ruin Japanese judo.” In a letter to judo clubs across the country the federation pleaded with judoka, as judo practitioners are called, to take part in the survey. “If this infection spreads it may harm the image of judo and can’t but contribute to the decline of the sport,” the letter read. “So please cooperate with this research.” The contagion is a side-effect of the great success of judo and its growing internationalisation since it became an Olympic Sport in the 1964 Tokyo Games. Professor Hiruma said that Trichophyton tonsurans originated in Latin America. “The infection started in America in 1960s after the revolution in Cuba when lots of refugees moved into US,” he said. “Wrestlers brought it into Europe and the infection spread among the wrestling population.” In Japan the number of wrestlers is small – 50,000 – compared with 500,000 judoka. Japanese judo athletes got infected in Europe and brought it back to Japan.
- Sumo wrestlers are expected to grow their hair long and fix it in a topknot similar to that worn by samurai during the Edo period. Yokozuna Tochigiyama, one of Japan’s most successful sumo wrestlers, retired in his prime in 1925 as he did not have enough hair
- Tottenham striker Jermain Defoe was asked by a journalist why he had cut all his hair off. The superstitious footballer replied: “I had to, I only ever seem to get injured when I have longer hair”
- In the 1998 World Cup the Romanian team emerged for their match against Tunisia with bleached hair. The decision had been made to reverse a curse placed on the team by the Romanian Orthodox Church
- In Ancient Greece Olympic wrestlers were among the only men, besides slaves, to keep their hair short to keep their opponents from grabbing it during a bout