Soccer star Hidetoshi Nakata, a former member of Japan’s national team, told the media in the weeks leading up to the World Cup: “Wārudo Kappu no koto wo kangaeru to Nihonjin de aru koto wo saininshi ki suru (ワールド・カップのことを考えると日本人であることを再認識する, When I think about the World Cup games, I reconnect with the fact that I’m Japanese).”
To most people, the comment seems a little strange. This guy has to be reminded to reconnect to something so obvious? But to many Japanese, it makes perfect sense. Many Japanese go through long periods of their lives preferring not to think about their nationality, or pretending to be anything but Japanese.
When one of my brothers was in his mid-teens, he went around saying he was adopted and was actually from the Dominican Republic. (He had a head full of naturally curly hair as evidence.) We siblings were annoyed out of our skulls, but in our hearts we understood. Who would actually want to own up to being Japanese? It was just too hopelessly dasai (lame) and too encumbered by historical baggage, not to mention the stigma of being good at boring stuff like making copy machines and bad at things that really matter, such as sex and soccer.
So it was with much pride and a sense of redemption that we were able to broadcast to the world: soccer, too (サッカーもね, sakkā mo ne)! Our sports-and-exercise obsessed nation — from 5-month-old babies attending their first swimming classes to 90-year-old runners banging out the kilometers in the Tokyo Marathon — was giddy with glee at the news that the “Nippon daihyō (日本代表, Japan representative team)” made it to the “Besto 16 (ベスト16, the top 16 teams).” And it seemed that suddenly, on a nationwide scale, people stopped pretending to be from the Dominican Republic. At the Hachiko crossing in Shibuya, the giant digital screen displayed the team singing the national anthem, and girls tottering on heels and clad in the shortest miniskirts in the Eastern hemisphere actually stopped in their tracks and wept with emotion.
When the team landed at Kansai Airport after those glorious weeks in South Africa, more than 4,000 fans turned up to welcome them home and say: “Yūki to kandō wo arigatō! (勇気と感動をありがとう, Thank you for giving us courage and inspiration).” What they didn’t say, but probably felt, was genuine pride to be Nihonjin (日本人, Japanese) and a newfound joy to hear the national anthem sung four times in front of the world.
Ah, the “kokka seishō (国歌斉唱 the singing of the national anthem).” Not so long ago, singing it anywhere but a sumo tournament was something that just wasn’t done. We were told that terrible things would happen, like the whole of Asia erupting in tears and indignation, and the matter being taken up at the U.N. Security Council.
In the school system, the anthem was a particularly touchy subject. My brothers attended a uyokukei (右翼系, rightist) boys’ school, with emphasis on physical discipline, pre-Meiji Era (1868-1912) literature and kendo, which meant the anthem was quietly sung every year on graduation day. But in some years, depending on the political climate, it wasn’t sung at all.
As for the Catholic missionary school that I attended, singing the anthem was totally unheard of. I only learned the words well into adulthood, and only by accident. This sort of thing would be unthinkable to anyone from the United States, where the anthem is woven into the collective national psychology, as iconic as the bald eagle, and is sung whenever, wherever, in whatever political climate. Fourth of July cupcakes with Stars and Stripes icing, anyone?
This year, thanks to the daihyō chīmu (代表チーム, the national team), we can indulge in a little national-identity celebration. For women, part of the joy is in rediscovering the virtues of the “Nippon danji (日本男児, Japanese male),” with their distinctive traits of being majime (真面目, serious), kamoku (寡黙, reticent), jibunni kibishiku (自分に厳しく, hard on one’s own self), massugu (まっすぐ, straight as an arrow), and chūjitsu (忠実, loyal) — as demonstrated by the team. Now widely known as the Blue Samurai, they’ve made us glad to be Japanese women, able to witness our countrymen in their best and brightest moments.
Granted, it didn’t last very long, but there has been a change. It has been so slight as to be imperceptible, but the molecular chemistry of being Nihonjin has definitely shifted. As for my Dominican brother, he took off from work to attend the games and came back with a veritable halo: The heavens parted, a ray of light struck and he’s now . . . Japanese.