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Published: August 21, 2011

OSAKA, JAPAN — The first women’s World Judo Championships held in New York in 1980 was itself a victory for judo’s female participants, who had overcome fierce opposition from officials and sectors of the public who believed it was inappropriate for women to partake in fighting sports.

While the event was not a particularly successful one for the Japanese fighters — who won just one medal after being overwhelmed by their larger, better-trained Western opponents — it was the start of something bigger. At the Judo championships in Tokyo last September, Japanese women came away with their best tally ever: 13 medals, 6 of which were gold.

The achievement reflects a wider trend in Japan of growing success in women’s elite competitive sports. In 2008, the women’s softball team won its first Olympic gold medal when it beat the undefeated Team U.S.A. at the Beijing Games. The women’s national baseball team has won the past two World Cups, and last month, the Nadeshiko soccer team became the first in Asia to win a World Cup.

The rise of Japanese women in sports over recent decades has often been in games that used to be the domain of men, like golf, wrestling and marathon running, which women were excluded from in the Olympics until 1984. As for judo, the Japan women’s team is favored to come out on top again at the World Judo Championships in Paris, which begin Tuesday. The women on Team Japan, six of whom have top world rankings in their divisions, owe their success in part to those who pushed through the gender barrier.

“In Japan, judo was considered a sport for men only,” said Kaori Yamaguchi, the pioneer who won that lone silver medal back in 1980 and who is now a professor at the University of Tsukuba in eastern Japan.

But as it gained ground in the West, the International Judo Federation caved in to pressure from countries like Britain and France, who demanded a women’s world championships. “Foreign judoka all had a strong will to fight,” said Yamaguchi, using the collective term for judo fighters.

Many Japanese were concerned that judo — a sport created in Japan — would come to be dominated in the women’s category by non-Japanese fighters.

“The women’s section of the sport was being stolen by foreigners,” said Mark Law, author of “The Pyjama Game: A Journey into Judo.”

The looming likelihood of a women’s Olympic event, Law said, prompted officials to give way, and before long a Japanese women’s team was being readied with access to the best coaches in the world.

Yamaguchi became the first Japanese woman to win a world championship title in 1984, and when women’s judo first appeared at the Olympics, in Seoul four years later as a demonstration sport, she took a silver medal. A role model for the next generation, she also inspired a popular manga cartoon called “Yawara! A Fashionable Judo Girl,” about a girl whose grandfather urges her to master judo and win a gold medal at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.

Another ambitious young girl who had taken up judo — against her mother’s wishes — during Yamaguchi’s rise was Ryoko Tamura, who, at 16 years old, upset world champion Karen Briggs at the 1992 Barcelona Games and took a silver medal. That marked the beginning of one of the most successful and inspirational sports careers in Japanese history. At 145 centimeters, or 4 feet 9 inches, tall with a signature ribbon in her hair fashioned after the heroic manga character, she was nicknamed “Yawara-chan” after the cartoon character inspired by Yamaguchi.

Tamura won seven world titles, two Olympic gold medals, and obliterated the stereotype of the subservient Japanese wife by continuing her career after marriage and taking her last title after giving birth. Last year, she won a seat in the upper house of Parliament and began a second career in politics.