Ready for a good old fashioned rant? OK, strap in and let's go...
How many world class Japanese athletes can you name? I'm talking about genuinely world class, ones that would walk into any team (if it's a team sport) or at the top of the tree individually. I can think of two, Kosuke Kitajima the swimmer who won double golds at the last 2 Olympics and Ichiro Suzuki of the Seattle Mariners baseball team. For a country of 120 million people that doesn't seem a good return to me, so why is that?
Personally I think it all starts in school. I've written before about sadistic baseball coaches who train their teams literally to death every summer, I think that's a big part of it, but I think there are a few other factors as well. One is too much specialisation, this might seem counter-intuitive but bear with me. When I was a kid at school I got to play just about every sport the school could give me, so winter was rugby, football, hockey and cross country; summer was athletics (having a bash at all events) and cricket whilst all through the year we played indoor sports like badminton, squash, basketball, volleyball, gymnastics and I'm sure a whole bunch of other stuff as well. It helped that my school was next to a sports centre, but even if it wasn't we'd have still done a lot of this stuff. After school I could have joined a load of teams had I wanted to, I chose rugby but I could have represented the school at football as well if I had wanted - the more the better.
At a Japanese school, once you have decided you are a footballer, for example, that's it, you will play football all the time and it will be the only game you play. You will play it in the winter and the summer. You will not be allowed to play baseball even if you are quite good at it. You are a footballer and football you will play. Why is that? Doesn't it seem a bit rubbish? Rob Andrew, amongst others, was a blue at rugby and cricket for Cambridge - wouldn't happen at Waseda.
The argument, I'm sure, is that this makes you better at the sport you've chosen to specialise in, but that's hokum. The skills you learn in one sport will usually have a beneficial effect in other sports - think of the balance you gain from gymnastics, how useful would that be for our footballer? So I think they're missing a trick here, the more sports you play the better generally at sports you'll become, but that's not how it's done here.
But the real problem, I think, is all the fault of martial arts. Remember the film Karate Kid? Old Mr Miyagi gets Daniel-san to do menial jobs around the place - wax on, wax off etc. At the end Daniel says "you haven't taught me anything!" but then they spar and, lo and behold, cunning Mr Miyagi has been teaching Daniel the 'form' of the moves he needs to know. And that's the problem, in Japan it's all about form, or put it another way, it's about style over substance and especially being able to look correct, follow the form book and not being able to think for yourself. This might be a good approach for karate but it's a disaster area for everything else.
Walk past a school tennis club session and for 20 minutes you will hear the swishing of racquets but if you look at the session you will see a long line of (probably) girls swinging their arms practicing backhand, backhand, backhand, backhand, backhand, backhand, backhand, backhand, backhand, backhand, backhand, backhand, backhand. Stop, talk, talk, talk, talk, talk, talk, talk, talk from the coach. Forehand, forehand, forehand, forehand, forehand, forehand, forehand, forehand, forehand, forehand etc but, and this is the important thing, the only thing they will be hitting is thin air. Isn't the point of tennis to hit a ball? It's the same with baseball, swinging bats or throwing & catching; same for football, swinging your leg; I watched a rugby coaching session a while back for 14-16 year-olds and they weren't allowed to touch a ball for 30 minutes of the one hour session while they were running through back's moves! The point from the coaches is that you have to practice the move, but how can you practice hitting a ball if you don't, actually, hit a ball?
The problem is this creates generations of kids who can swing a bat but can't hit a ball properly - how can you learn the hand-eye coordination needed to hit a ball if you can spend half the time swinging the bat with your eyes closed? Also a generation of kids who are told what to do all the time so can't think for themselves and play what's in front of them. It also walks hand-in-hand with the Japanese trait of squashing individualism and being a member of a team - in the team you don't have to think as the coach tells you what to do, but it means that Japan will never create a 'genius' sportsman or sportswoman, a Chris Hoy, a Michael Jordan, a Kelly Holmes, a Dan Carter, a Lionel Messi, because these players used their brains and natural talent to excel at their sports. If any of these kids grew up in Japan they would have had talent coached out of them by the time they were 14.
It's such a shame as Japan has the wealth and resources to create athletes that should compete with the best on a regular basis. Their football team should, by any measure, be right up there, but they are functional and utilitarian at best - the best player they produced, Hidetoshi Nakata, was generally regarded as a maverick, difficult to mange and didn't get on with other players on the team. At least the managers had the good sense to pick him - just before the recent winter olympics in Vancouver a Japanese snowboarder and gold medal prospect Kazuhiro Kokubo arrived at Narita Airport in his official olympic blazer but with his shirt hanging out and his tie undone. The shock, the horror - he's a snow boarder, what do you expect? But officials from the Japan Olympic Committee (quite possibly the biggest bunch of old farts in the sporting universe, and as you can imagine, that's up against some pretty stiff opposition) wanted to ban the guy from the games - a gold medal prospect banned for not tucking his shirt in! You couldn't make it up. It took a quick bit of negotiation from some agent or other with the guy and a bit of top level mollification toward the JOC and finally the kid was allowed to go (once he tucked in his shirt, one trusts). Eventually he came 5th in his event and I wouldn't be surprised if his mental equilibrium was shot by the crap he had to go through before getting on the plane.
Last there is this. Do you know that characteristic is most prized by Japanese parents in their children? Courage? No. Intelligence? A distant second. Apparently the most prized characteristic parents want in their kids is, according to a recent poll, shyness. Apparently it is considered cute. Oh for fuck's sakes, cute! It might be OK for a 4 year old (though I would have serious reservations about even this) but you want to cripple your child for the rest of his or her life by making them socially inept, scared and unable to think clearly when conversing with another person? This of course has a far more wide ranging impact than just making decent sportsmen and women in Japan (for example the abnormally high suicide rate in Japan), but that was how this rant started so that's how we'll end. Can you think of a shy elite athlete? I can think of plenty who value their privacy but shyness? Elite athletes tend to have big personalities to go with their enormous egos which drive them on to win. Ichiro, who we mentioned above, has a pretty sorted ego, as did Nakata, that's what made them better then the rest of the baseballers and footballers of their generations, it's why their Japanese teammates didn't like them and why they ended up playing overseas. Let's hope a few more of them and their ilk come along and manage to slip through the fingers of their junior high school coaches and they find someone decent to nurture and develop their talent, not beat it out of them...