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Nadeshiko Japan show that a relaxed approach gets the best results

by Philip Brasor

The national women’s soccer team that just won the FIFA World Cup in Germany is called Nadeshiko Japan. “Nadeshiko” is the name of a flower, but it also represents a certain ideal of Japanese femininity that’s demure, quiet and accommodating to men; or, at least, it used to be. Japan’s victory over the United States exceeded most people’s expectations, and demureness had nothing to do with it.

Nadeshiko is also the name of the professional women’s soccer league that has seen its fortunes soar since the return of the national team. Last Sunday, in a game in Kobe that featured four of the national team players, including captain Homare Sawa, attendance topped 17,000, almost twice as many people as had been projected and 19 times the average attendance at Nadeshiko games last year.

Many will be surprised to learn that professional women’s soccer has a longer history in Japan than in almost any other country. The Japan Women’s Soccer League started in 1989, and according to the weekly AERA enjoyed a fair amount of popularity in the early 90s with the runup to the emergence of the J League. Sponsors were eager and teams had enough money to hire players from overseas. In many cases, the teams were owned by companies, which simply made the players employees. The biggest team of this era was Nikko Securities Dream Ladies, which won the championship in 1996, two years after the league changed its name to L League.

But as the decade faded so did women’s soccer. Succumbing to Japan’s long night of economic stagnation, firms restructured and abandoned their athletic programs. By the turn of the century all that remained was a handful of company teams (like Tepco’s in Fukushima and Yomiuri’s in Tokyo) and regional clubs struggling for sponsors. Foreigners were let go, and players not affiliated with companies had to support themselves with day jobs. Attendance dropped so low that most teams stopped charging for tickets. Unable to pay for stadiums, they staged league games on public fields. The current Nadeshiko League contains nine teams comprising 231 players, only five of which have what are considered “pro contracts.”

During this same period, the J League maintained good attendance, which implies that soccer fans would rather watch men than women. In comments made during an interview on TV Asahi’s “Front Line” last week, veteran sports journalist Seijin Ninomiya said the Japan Football Association and, in turn, the media never actively promoted women’s soccer. Did the media ignore women’s soccer because most soccer fans weren’t interested? Or were most soccer fans not interested because the media ignored women’s soccer?

A more significant question would be: How did the Japan national team become world champions in spite of this lack of interest and attendant paucity of resources? The media have answered this question with a feel-good narrative about Nadeshiko Japan’s pluck and resilience, which sprang from its desire to raise the spirits of their countrymen, still devastated by a natural disaster. It’s an irresistible story that indirectly credits the team’s success to how different it is from conventional Japanese sports endeavors.

The first women’s sports organization to make an impact on the world stage was Japan’s volleyball team, which won the gold medal at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Dubbed Toyo no Majo (Witches of the Orient), the team’s success was credited to its coach, Hirofumi Daimatsu, who mercilessly drove his charges to the brink of mental and physical breakdown with his dictatorial style. “If something was black and he said it was white,” recalled one member of the team to a TV Asahi reporter, “we said it was white.”

This training style has always been the standard for organized sports in Japan, and the former member testified that neither she nor her teammates “enjoyed playing volleyball.” That isn’t to say she regretted the experience given what it led to; only that she would never wish such an experience on anyone else.

The Japan women’s volleyball team also won a medal at the 1976 Montreal Olympics, but until the mid-90s Japanese women athletes were mostly invisible, and it may have had something to do with resistance to this imperious coaching style, which takes on a more sexually sinister cast when the coach is male and the athlete is female. Another discouragement was basic male entitlement. “In the 1980s, whenever I passed boys during practice,” a female long distance runner told Asahi, “they’d spit at me.”

A quiet revolution was taking place, capped by Yuko Arimori’s silver marathon medal at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992. Her coach, Yoshio Koide, had encouraged her to believe in her abilities. Traditionally, empathy had nothing to do with cultivating athletic prowess. It was all about konjo (fighting spirit), which is characterized by punishing workouts, “spartan” rules and the kind of ballistic behavior made famous by baseball manager Senichi Hoshino. But over the next two decades Koide’s style of coaching slowly took hold in the world of women’s sports, and the results have been impressive. In 1988, Japanese women won 3 summer Olympic medals to the men’s 11. In 2000, the women won 13 to the men’s 5.

At Nadeshiko Japan’s post-victory press conference, head coach Norio Sasaki explained that he felt it was important to “understand each player’s personality” and allow them to “think for themselves.” His job was to come up with strategies. The press conference’s relaxed vibe was the perfect embodiment of this equitable relationship, and may have made as much of an impression on the public as the victory itself. The team’s collective attitude surely made an impression overseas. ESPN’s Mark Young has already declared Japan’s win the sports story of the year, and the American pop singer, Jill Sobule, disappointed that her team lost, nevertheless tweeted that Nadeshiko deserved to win. Besides, she said, “they have cool haircuts.”