Golf and Japanese mania for order and rules


If you haven’t noticed, the most popular sports in sports-zany Japan are imports. Homegrown offerings — sumo, judo, karate and so on — rank more like your mom’s oatmeal cookies.

Nostalgic and flavorful too. Yet out on the town lie far more exotic desserts. Like maybe . . . hot caramel banana soufflé. Or flaming peaches with almonds.

As good an illustration as any to explain Japan’s abundant passion for overseas sports. Sports such as tennis, figure skating, bowling, croquet and more.

With many of these sports having established — like apple pie a la mode or strawberry shortcake — well-defined niches in Japan’s social strata.

See the elite samurai status of Japanese baseball or the street-smart pizazz and vitality of Japanese soccer.

Not to mention the endearing anal retentiveness of that foreign sport that perhaps matches the Japanese spirit best of all . . .

. . . golf.

And with the U.S. Masters tournament currently underway in Augusta, Georgia, golf is now dessert of the day.

As for me, I learned my golf early on. Nephew of the high school golf coach and son to his six-handicap brother, as a boy I would caddy for all the family linksmen. And I soon picked up every nuance.

Like which swear words to use when you slice as opposed to those to apply when you hook. Or, after hitting out of bounds, the textbook perfect way to wrap your driver around a tree.

So golf is in my blood. Sort of the same way oatmeal cookies are. And I tell you golf fits this nation like how curry fits rice. It’s a match made in heaven. Except in heaven, you’re not allowed to cheat.

To start, golf is a white-collar sport and Japan has a dozen or so white-collar workers per square meter. And that’s in my morning commuter train alone.

You could just as well turn those trains from their downtown destinations and point them at a golf course. To immediate benefit.

Riders would drop their rush hour scowls and the economy certainly couldn’t get any worse. For golf teaches the best way to deal with any financial slowdown.

You just play through. Eventually you will reach a fairway less obstructed.

And in Japan a stroll down a fairway is like a walk in the park. Or a garden.

Now think about a Japanese garden. You have your manicured trees and your sculptured ponds and your raked over rocks.

And all of it manufactured. Japanese gardens are like starlets with implants. Eye-grabbing? Yes. Natural? No.

Now think about a golf course. The designed fairways, the clipped greens and the raked over bunkers all echo the artificial essence of a Japanese garden. So no wonder people here love being on the links.

Just like they love holding the club and swinging away. For this has deep ties with Japanese psychology.

Why? Because the key to Japanese fixation with order and rules can be connected to the diligence of kanji practice. Proper stroke order and form are hammered into students when young. So that kanji become the jello mold for the nation’s obsessive-compulsive fascination with detail.

Back to golf. Where form is critical. The stance, the swing, the follow through! Again, no wonder Japanese love it!

Thus in Japan, the golf course rubric of “Drive for show, putt for dough,” bows to a much more powerful rule:

“It’s not how you play the game; it’s how you hold your club.”

Golf stimulates that Japanese mania for prescribed order. It’s penmanship with a pitching wedge. Or a four iron. Or a three wood. Even the correct club selection satisfies the never-ending addiction for proper structure and order.

Not that this always results in better golfing. But everyone sure has nice form. So who cares if your score rises like the sun? At least you look good. And in Japan that matters.

Just like price matters. For Japanese know quality doesn’t come cheap. Even if they might stumble over this syllogism:

Quality is costly; golf is costly; therefore, golf has quality.

But while excellence may equal cost, cost may not equal excellence. Still, the price tag remains a useful guide.

And no one argues the price. From the bag of clubs, to the spiffy golf wear to the country club memberships, golf is more than just expensive. It is extravagant.

Which is why some people like it. The sport glows with status. People say land-starved Japan doesn’t need golf courses. Yet golf does feed the hunger for social esteem that gnaws at any middle-classed society. Especially one that is so overworked.

For me, golf offered not status, but aggravation. I played so poorly that I gave it up long ago.

How bad was I? “Fore” was the least frequent of the four-letter words I used.

Yet I do catch myself turning to the Golf Channel every now and then. Sometimes I’ll sit and watch the pros march up and down the fairways for hours.

And so says my wife: “And just who is anal retentive?”

I argue back that TV is by far the better way to enjoy 18 holes.

Especially if you have enough cookies.

  • Wim Wender beautifully portrayed the Japanese fascination with Golf in his 1985 visual essay on Yasuhiro Ozu “Tokyo-Ga”