TOKYO • Judo is known for its killer throws and lightning-fast grappling moves, but the sport has a lesser-known application popular in Japan - the ancient healing art of "judo therapy".
Over its decades-long history, judo has branched into two areas. The "sappo" (kill method) developed into the Olympic sport and the "kappo" (resuscitation method) grew into the art of "judo therapy".
Judokas use their knowledge of how joints, limbs and muscles move to defeat opponents, but in "kappo", therapists try to speed up the body's natural healing mechanism to treat injuries that do not require surgery or hospital treatment.
"Simply put, we are specialists in things such as broken bones, dislocations, bruises and sprains," said Mr Hiroyuki Mitsuhashi, an executive at the Japan Judo Therapist Association. "Rather than performing surgery like in orthopaedics, we use our hands to heal."
More than 73,000 licensed judo therapists work at over 50,000 clinics across Japan. They are especially popular with student athletes and those suffering from the nagging pain of old injuries that doctors would consider already healed.
Travel agent Yoshie Takahashi, 59, broke her right wrist in January. She went to hospital, but X-rays showed her treatment had failed to align the fracture properly.
She went to Mr Mitsuhashi, who used judo therapy techniques to manipulate the joints and realign the bones correctly.
"I am much more comfortable here. I am feeling less pain," Ms Takahashi said after a visit to Mr Mitsuhashi's clinic, where she received treatments including dipping her wrist in a tub of warm water with ultrasound waves, a treatment said to accelerate healing.
"I think judo therapists are more patient-focused. They explain things fully until you understand."
Apart from treating injuries, judo therapists are also helping to keep seniors fit and healthy in Japan, where more than 28 per cent of people are aged 65 and older.
Many judo therapists offer classes of low-impact judo-inspired exercise that are keeping seniors sprightly and more resistant to falls.
During one such class earlier this year, judo therapist Taisuke Kasuya put seniors through their paces at a Tokyo community centre.
For some three decades, Mr Kasuya has taught modified versions of a low-intensity exercise with slow movements, using a breathing technique similar to the Chinese practice of taiji.
But the original exercise was devised by Jigoro Kano, the revered father of modern judo.
"Use your body efficiently. That promotes your metabolism and stabilises your mental state," said Mr Kasuya, who holds a black belt in judo, reciting Kano's teachings.
"We use the philosophy of working on both your body and your mind," he added.
The judo-based exercise has eased chronic pain for septuagenarian Yasue Ikezumi, a retired pharmacist who has taken Mr Kasuya's exercise class for 15 years.
"This is different from other exercises. I feel my joints are becoming flexible," she said. "I was in such pain in my 60s. But I am now almost 80 and I am able to keep up my fitness. It's like I am able to restore my body."
Judo-based exercises can help improve the sense of balance and prevent falls for many seniors, said Mr Koichi Haramaki, a martial artist who teaches judo in the western Wakayama region.
He holds a weekly class for seniors on how to fall.
"The ultimate purpose is not for the elderly to master the moves. But by rolling on mats and practising moves, they use their semi-circular canals (part of the inner ear that governs balance) and stimulate their cerebellum," he said.
"If you practise how to fall, in the end, you stop falling. Your balance improves."