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Sole Japanese referee for Tokyo Olympic judo sees similarities with her fireworks business

Akiko Amano, a pyrotechnician and the 15th head of Sohke Hanabi Kagiya Co., is seen in Tokyo's Edogawa Ward on July 7, 2021. She is the sole Japanese referee for judo in the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games. (Mainichi/Kazuo Yanagisawa)

TOKYO -- As judoka from around the world compete heatedly in the Tokyo Olympics, a woman from downtown Tokyo is serving as the sole Japanese referee for judo in the games.

    Akiko Amano, 50, a resident of the capital's Edogawa Ward, is a top-class international judge. But she has another profile: the 15th-generation operator of a long-established fireworks maker dating back to the Edo period (1603-1867), now called Sohke Hanabi Kagiya Co.

    For Amano, who herself was a leading judoka during her school days, it is the first Olympic Game in 13 years in which she is refereeing judo since the 2008 Beijing Games.

    Her first encounter with judo dates back to her elementary school days, when she, then a second-grader, started practicing at a dojo hall her father, Osamu, had opened to cultivate talent among local children and youths. The now 84-year-old father was the 14th-generation head of Kagiya.

    When she was a third-year junior high school student, she was selected as one of Japanese national team members designated for performance enhancement. In 1986, she clinched the bronze medal in the Fukuoka International Women's Judo Championship.

    After graduating from university, however, she retired as a judoka. Just as she was receiving training as a pyrotechnician in Yamanashi Prefecture to inherit her family business, her father encouraged her to take up a role as a judo judge, saying, "I hear the Tokyo Judo Federation is going to foster female judges, so why don't you try that?"

    That was the start of her double-career. She first acquired the domestic class-C license as a judo judge, and went on to obtain class-B and -A licenses, before becoming a "continental" referee for the International Judo Federation. In 2005, she moved one rank higher, becoming an "international" referee. After officiating for many international tournaments, she was tapped as one of the 20-plus judges for the Beijing Olympics.

    In the meanwhile, she has also been keeping busy with her family business that she took over in 2000. In addition to the summer festival season, there are also various fireworks events in other seasons, such as at tournaments in autumn and countdown events. Her tasks range from preparing and having meetings for the events, to serving as the on-site director on the day of the displays. Since the Beijing Games, she had been unable to aim for an Olympic referee post because the summer games always coincide with the peak fireworks events season.

    Akiko Amano serves as the chief referee at the Olympic trials for the Japanese men's 66-kg judo category, as seen in this photo taken at the Kodokan judo hall in Tokyo on Dec. 13, 2020. (Pool photo)

    Yet when Tokyo won its bid to host the 2020 Games, her desire to judge for the local Olympics grew. In order to acquire enough points to be appointed to that dream position, she hopped from one international tournament to another as a referee from 2019, meaning she was outside Japan about half a year.

    After all these endeavors, she received an email from the judo federation in February notifying her of her selection as a judge for the Tokyo Games.

    "I felt relieved, as it was all thanks to the help I received from so many people, including my family," Amano recalls.

    As a judge at the Beijing Games, she closely witnessed numerous judoka rejoice over their wins or being devastated by their losses, after they had devoted their lives to the Olympics. Watching how seriously the athletes fought each and every bout, "I found myself naturally crying once the matches were over," she said.

    This time around, her mindset when refereeing for the Tokyo Olympics is a bit different from the Beijing Games 13 years ago.

    "For athletes, (the results in the Olympics) are not the end of the world. There may be bad times, but good times will surely come," she notes.

    As the current head of her family business and the mother of her only daughter, she says, "I have reached an age where I'm expected to foster people. All the more because of that, I need to keep in mind that I judge in a way that can allow athletes to battle without regret, and move on to their next goals."

    Her family's fireworks business, too, has had both good and bad times during its more than 360 years of history. Amid the coronavirus pandemic, the firm has been experiencing tough times due to the cancellation of many fireworks events. Yet despite the adversity, Kagiya has organized a number of fireworks displays in various parts of the country, in the hope that the COVID-19 crisis can be brought under control.

    "We will do what we can do at the time by firmly taking this age to our hearts. And we'd like to pass the memory to the future by keeping records of our time," Amano pledged.

    In the Tokyo Games, she's been refereeing both men's and women's matches every day during the eight days of judo events.

    "I think there are both happy and hard times, and I believe there's a sense of achievement after overcoming the tension. I'm looking forward to all of that. I'd like to spend my time attentively," she said.

    (Japanese original by Kazuo Yanagisawa, Tokyo Bureau)

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