Friday, 18 July 2014

Japanese Musings V: The Sporting Life

world-map osawano
This week’s offering is actually one of the original set of Japanese Musings, writing whilst I was in Japan all those years ago. They were written as emails, one a week, to friends and family and that comes through in the style which is quite different to the stuff I produce these days. It’s up to you to decide whether I’ve improved or regressed as a writer.
This week’s topic is also quite fitting, the World of Sport just after the World Cup has ended, I watched the Tour de France fly past in Yorkshire and only a few weeks before I head up to Manchester to watch England v India in the 4th Test Match. Sport is a greaat bringer together of people from disparate cultures around the world, it’s a language that we speak in common that does not involve politics or religion. One of my first experiences of interacting with foreign cultures came when I was in Sixth Form, just 18 years old and the Euro 96 football tournament was hosted in the UK. In the pub I drank at some Danes came in and we befriended them, took one for a night out on the town and let him stop at my house, much to my parents’ ire. It was a great experience and one that inspired me to more and more foreign interaction. Incidentally, that tournament was won by the Germans and, as was proven last weekend in Rio, some things don’t change. Still, this time, as then, they deserved it.
Keep travelling!
Uncle Travelling Matt

Links to all the Japanese Musings:

Series 1

Japanese Musings I: Heads, Shoulders, Knees and Toes

Japanese Musings II: O-ha!!!

Japanese Musings III: The Thin Blue Line

Japanese Musings IV: Nihon no Shokyu

Japanese Musings V: The Sporting Life

Japanese Musings VI: A Bad Day

Japanese Musings VII: Time, time, time…

Japanese Musings VIII: The Joys of Internationalisation

Japanese Musings IX: Meri Kurisumasu!

Japanese Musings X: It’s Cold Outside!

Japanese Musings XI: Moomins and Mydo Cardo

Japanese Musings XII: Engrish

Japanese Musings XIII: Valentine’s Day

Series 2

Japanese Musings 2.1: Arrival: Tokyo

Japanese Musings 2.2: Arrival: Inaka

Japanese Musings 2.3: Riding the Kamioka-sen

Japanese Musings 2.4: Onsen

Japanese Musings V: The Sporting Life
Ok, so this week's musings concerns the extremely important subject of Sport. Why am I am writing about this today, well I shall explain in due course.
Firstly, I must state that Sport in Japan is completely different to the UK. Although this may be disturbing to some readers, it grieves me to inform you that the gospel of Football has not fully reached the Japanese populace. Even more heart-rending is the sad state of affairs that exists here where people are ignorant of the Gospel of Cricket. Yes, it's sad, but sadder still, it is true.
That is not to say however, that these isles are without sport. Quite the opposite in fact, the Japanese are actually extremely sporty people indeed. Football, whilst having a minute following and passion attached to it in comparison with Europe, still is practised and supported and there are other games too, including a strange sport named baseball, . No, it is strange but the Japanese really are quite passionate about sport and this shocked me due to their pretty pathetic showing in more or less anything they partake in, except Judo or Sumo of course, but there again any country can invent a sport and then win at it constantly… except England.
No, what surprises me is what they actually get excited about. The Olympics certainly affected these people, especially the Olympic Football Tournament. Now, excuse me, I am a football fan and what's more I know many more in various countries but never in my life before did I meet someone who cared about Olympic Football. The World Cup, aye tis a different matter, the European Championships too, and even maybe the CONCAFA Cup, (or whatever it's called). But the Olympics, no. The Auto-Windscreens Trophy generally attracts more interest, (though to be fair, considering who the present holders are, that is far from surprising). But this is not what I am here to talk about. The Olympics are over, and good riddance. No I am here to talk about Japan's 55th National Sports Tournament.
Every year, (presumably since WWII), Japan holds the Kokutai, its own National 'Olympics'. Each year it is held in a different ken, (county), and this year the Annual Kokutai is in Toyama-ken. Needless to say, the whole ken has been getting more than a little excited about this. And Osawano in particular has been going sincerely over the top. The reasoning is simple. Osawano is a town of 22,000 people, not big at all, but by chance many of the regions sporting facilities happen to be within her borders. On top of that, the town itself seems to produce an excess of sporting talent, which no doubt is some compensation for the lack of academic talent which is all too obvious at Osawano Junior High. Indeed, one of Japan's Olympic Swimmers came from the town and a few weeks ago, the whole school had to watch the guy race. He came 6th, but hey, it's the taking part that counts.
So, the whole ken has been going games crazy and everywhere you go, the ubiquitous mascots can be seen. To be honest, the mascots are more than a little strange. They are two strange figures, one of whom is brown, he (? - I assume it's a he), carries a torch and has no eyes, instead just a banner around his head with 2000 on it. I think that maybe two of the zeros are meant to be his eyes, but it is not too successful if they are. His mate is white, has a beak, and eyes two, but also arms and legs. Except that one arm is more like a bat or something. Now it may be meant to be a Snow Grouse, the prefectural bird, and all I can say is that if it is, it is no wonder that that particular creature is virtually extinct. No, they are pretty poor mascots, no doubt at all, though of course I had to buy the key-ring which now hangs from my car mirror. Just getting into the local culture, I'm sure you understand.1

toki_kaze Toki and Kazae
Anyway, today, the whole school went to watch a softball match, and I went with them.
Softball is a game that I never encountered before, so I was quite looking forward to this dose of alternative sporting culture. I settled down in the stand next to a bloke with a weird glass eye. Now here it seems, I had performed my masterstroke, for this bloke turned out to be THE man to be sat next to. His strange stare apart, I was most glad to be sat next to him for from the word go he started plying me with beer. Now of course, initially I thought about refusing, since I was actually at work an all, but then I considered that it may be rude to do so, and thus, in the name of International Relations, (and for this reason alone I must stress), I accepted.
Many times.
On top of this, Glasseye-san also turned out to be the life and soul of the Osawano Softball Fraternity. From the word go, he got up and sang and clapped with the enthusiasm of a Pentecostal Pastor. Aye, he was a good bloke to sit next to and thus I watched my first ever game of softball.
japan kokutai1 Getting ready for the game (Glasseye-san is in the foreground)
Now Softball is a sport rather similar to Rounders or Baseball, in the respect that it has a bat and a ball and they run round several bases. For some reason though, it has seven innings, each of which does not last too long. This particular game was Toyama-ken versus Fukuoka-ken. It ended two-nil to Toyama, (yeah!!!), though it must be stated that I would imagine that Fukuoka's nickname is not "The Softball Ken". They didn't even get close to scoring. Toyama on the other hand were unlucky not to get a lot more, but there again they did have two players from Osawano, (according to Glasseye-san), so this is hardly surprising.
japan kokutai2 The victorious Toyama team

All in all, whilst not a bad game, I cannot imagine me ever becoming a softball fan. The essential problem is the length of the game, less than two hours. Now, as far as I am concerned, there are two types of game. One that is exciting, full of adrenalin rushes and does not last very long. Football and Rugby are prime examples. The second is more relaxed. Instead of excitement, you get a whole day (or five) to watch the match at your leisure, fully appreciate the skills being displayed, and of course, the beverages on offer. Yes, this is the category that cricket occupies. Instead, softball threatens to be like cricket, yet as soon as you are settled down, the innings ends and the other team gets in. On the other hand, it has little of the excitement of football, and by dint of the fact that there is a bat and ball, and no kicking, it really doesn't fall happily into that category either.
Well, whatever, it was a nice change from "Hello, how are you? Today we will learn about how to greet each other" and so I ain't complaining.
And remember, its only two years to go until the next World Cup!
japan kokutai3 Getting close to the big stars

Written Osawano-machi, 20th October, 2000
Copyright © 2000, Matthew E. Pointon

1They are Toki and Kaze respectively, taken from the 55th Annual Kokutai slogan which is “Ai-no kaze, Yume-nosete” (On the wind of love, with dreams). 'Kaze' means 'wind'; not sure about 'Toki'. The prefectural bird is called the 'raichou' in Japanese and in English is sometimes referred to as the 'Thunderbird', hence the local express trains being a picture of the bird on the front and being called Thunderbird also.

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