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A level playing field?

National Sports Festival bars gaijin, and amateur leagues follow suit, reports

by Debito Arudou

Sports are seen as a catalyst for international communication. Even the Olympic Games were established a century ago to promote world peace — through people meeting and competing on level playing fields.

Never mind linguistic, historical, or cultural differences. The rules of the game are understood, bodies get trained to peak health, and the young learn the value of team spirit and sportsmanship. In other words, give people a ball and a goal, and let friendships form. Unless you are a foreigner in Japan.

Foreigners are barred from competing in Japan’s largest amateur athletic meet, the National Sports Festival (Kokutai). Ironic, since the Japan Amateur Sports Association (JASA), which runs the event, has an English Web site proclaiming “Sports for All.”

Starting in 1946, the Kokutai is held three times a year: winter, summer, and autumn. It has competitions in 42 different sports, most famously high school baseball, but also adult leagues. It is also sponsored by the Ministry of Education and the host prefecture (this autumn, Shizuoka), meaning large investments of national and prefectural tax monies.

Of course, foreign residents are also taxpayers. So why are they barred? Because, officials say, the Kokutai brings out Olympic-quality athletes. Ultimately entrants must have Japanese citizenship.

This rule would hardly be contentious at the Olympic level. After all, if citizenship were not required for national representation, talented athletes would theoretically sell themselves to the highest bidder, and rich countries would take all the gold medals.

Yet the Kokutai is not the Olympics, and JASA has been unconnected to the Japan Olympic Committee since 1992.

Nevertheless, here’s what happens because the Kokutai is treated like an Olympic qualifying round:

RUDE AWAKENINGS

Yes, foreign kids are barred from teams and tourneys with their Japanese school chums. But bear in mind that “foreignness” in Japan runs deeper than the expat community in international schools. The majority of registered foreigners are the “Zainichi” Koreans, Chinese, et al, who often enter Japanese schools. In just about any other developed country they would be citizens already — because they were born here.

In creeps the dispiriting effect of disenfranchisement. Why push yourself to be the best when you’ll only be disqualified for a condition at birth? It also sends the wrong message to impressionable Japanese youth — that foreigners deserve exclusion.

THE TRICKLE-DOWN EFFECT

Foreigners who cannot compete in the Kokutai are barred from regional and local sports leagues as well. Why build a team dynamic good enough for the prefectural or national level, only to have it disrupted by a government weeding for foreigners? Better to save yourself the trouble and build a team without any.

DECREASE IN QUALITY

What better way to train a team for international competition than by utilizing international talent? Japan’s professional soccer, basketball, rugby and sumo associations have long understood that, allowing imports. But not Japan’s national amateur sports leagues. Some assert that Japanese people are smaller than foreigners and thus suffer a disadvantage. To them, exclusionism levels the playing field.

CASE IN POINT

Douglas Shukert is a Sendai resident and a lifelong hockey player. Witnessing the embryonic state of Japan’s hockey leagues, he tried to join to help raise the level of play. However, the Miyagi Ice Hockey Federation (MIHF) said he would not fit. Of the two prefectural hockey leagues, one was for “serious” players, the other for women, the handicapped, beginners and foreigners.

Only the first league could go to national tournaments, including the Kokutai. “This is like banning foreigners from a private sports club, which also happens in Japan,” says Shukert. “The difference is that with a club, you are banned before you pay. But with national tournaments, funded by our taxes, you are banned after you pay.”

Shukert felt strongly enough to take this issue to court, suing JASA, MIHF et al in 2001 for, inter alia, taxation without representation, false advertising, and encouragement of racist attitudes. “Sports for All” was then amended by the defendants to mean “Sports for All ‘Nationals’ ” (“kokumin”).

Still, a 1993 court case in Fukushima ruled the Kokutai is also for “prefectural residents” (“kenmin”). Since “kenmin” includes foreign residents, who would win this match?

On July 25, 2003, the Sendai High Court ruled against Shukert, saying there was “no evidence” for any of his claims.

“The purpose of the Kokutai is for raising the awareness of sportsmanship and health, and contributing to the development of culture and sports — amongst Japanese.”

Why excluding foreign residents was essential to accomplish these goals was left unclear, except to say, “the Kokutai effectively uncovers representative athletes for international competitions.”

“Basically,” says Shukert, “there is a belief in Japan that sports should be divided into ‘serious sports’ and ‘sports for fun’.”

“Serious sports are for winning gold medals and glorifying Japan, so resources should be devoted to developing Japanese athletes, not wasted on foreigners.”

Claiming this segregation is a violation of U.N. treaty, Shukert will now ask the Supreme Court for permission to play in a local league.

It comes down to this: What are amateur sports for? For health, recreation, and making friends? Then there is no reason to exclude foreigners. For national glory? Then athletes will be sorted by nationality, ultimately down to the local leagues.

But I doubt even the International Olympic Committee would agree that winning medals is the overriding purpose of competition.

Sumo shutout in Fukushima

Although professional sumo is renowned for some resistance toward foreigners achieving its top ranks, it still allows, with some restrictions, participation regardless of nationality.

The same cannot be said for amateur sumo leagues. Take the case of Marshel Copple, 25, an educator in rural Fukushima Prefecture. When his coach, Mr Kiyota, tried to enter him in a prefectural tourney last December, Copple’s application was rejected. Reason? He’s a foreigner.

“It’s just policy. We don’t exactly know why,” said local officials. “After all, there is no precedent for a foreign sumo wrestler in this area.” Passing word up the chain of command, the Fukushima-ken Sumo League made the refusal clearer.

Again, it was due to the Kokutai. “How can he participate in an interprefectural meet when foreigners cannot enter the National Sports Festival?”

“I feel frustrated and exasperated,” says Copple. “I am a big fan of martial arts, and love sumo because it’s so pure. No complicated rules, no points system. I want to wrestle. My town and my coworkers are very supportive, and I’ve never really experienced exclusionism like this before. But the attitudes of a few authorities are coloring my whole view of Japan.” “I had no idea this would happen,” says Coach Kiyota. “I thought the rules were more open.”

What of the claim that foreigners are more powerful and therefore enjoy an advantage in sports? Kiyota believes it’s “irrelevant.”

“Even if more foreigners come in and are better, they will make Japanese athletes more hungry for victory. And that will make sumo more interesting for everyone,” he believes.

As rules apparently differ between prefectures, the Fukushima league is still deliberating whether to let Copple in. “Maybe next year, who knows?” says Kiyota. There is no deadline. Meanwhile, Copple participates in demonstration matches, where victories do not count.

What of foreign wrestlers who wish to start younger and work their way up the ranks? They had better find another way to compete outside of Japan’s amateur leagues, especially those connected with the Kokutai.