In the wake of Japan’s disastrous World Cup campaign, the mood in the country has swung quickly from darkly pessimistic to remarkably upbeat. Much of it has to do with the appointment of the new national team coach, Ivica Osim.
Unlike his predecessor, Zico, Osim is reputedly a coach that understands the way to the Japanese heart, not by being polite or likable, but by both being an oni (ogre) and being taiikukai-kei (loosely translated as from the school of athletic aesthetics) to his very core. Most pundits are now saying that Zico was too lenient on his players, and that consequently they became deluded as to their real capabilities on the pitch.
Osim, on the other hand, shows no mercy on his stooges. An absolute disciplinarian and the type to tataite nobasu (crush the players’ esteem in order to help them grow), Osim was picked for his steely determination. After all, he pulled the wimpy J. League team Jeff United Chiba up from obscurity to making it into a genuine contender.
Interestingly, there is a long-standing tradition in Japan of trusting and admiring bullies, especially sporty ones like Osim.
This has much to do with our school system. Starting from chugakko (junior high school) when extra-curricular sports activities begin in earnest, the no-pain, no-gain, fight-till-you-drop sports attitude is drummed into teenagers in a way that can mold and shape their entire adult life.
Naturally, some kids take to the taiikukai-kei value system with gusto, while others learn to fervently hate the whole sports and taiiku (physical education classes) package.
I liked sports, but I still entertained fantasies of fixing my school tennis coach’s feet in clay and pinging sweetly struck forehand drives at him with the hundreds of Dunlop balls he busted during practice just to prove a point, which invariably amounted to: “Omaera zenin kuzuda! Bakayaro, yamechimae! (You’re all trash! You idiots, why don’t you just quit!)”
Back then, concepts like “verbal abuse” didn’t exist, especially not during bukatsu (extra-curricular school activities). You either learned to stay on the, um, ball, or you learned to drop out. And when you happened to be at a shingakuko (an upper-crust school where students are adept at both sports and study), dropping out often put a permanent dent on your hyoban (reputation) and your life as a teenager: You were a loser. You were weak. You were too uncoordinated.
But you forged on, despite the fact that fewer things in life are as grueling as bukatsu no renshu (practicing extra-curricular activities), and fewer things can be so meaningless as the traditional practice methods favored by Japanese sports bullies for decades.
These include doing usagitobi on a long, steep staircase (literally “rabbit jumping,” or squat-jumping with one’s hands clasped behind the back), kuki-isu (literally, “invisible chair,” bending the knees and supporting yourself in a sitting position with your back touching, but not leaning, against the wall) and every bully’s favorite, endless marathon laps around the kotei (schoolyard) under a scorching midafternoon sun. Never mind that these activities took up much more time than, say, shooting drills on the soccer pitch or swinging the shinai (bamboo sword) used in kendo.
The first rule of thumb seemed to be that everyone had to weep, pass out, vomit or all of the above from sheer exhaustion — before we were allowed to actually play the sport of our choice. And let’s not even mention the trials and tribulations suffered during gasshuku (intensive training camp), which amounted to doing all that and then some, from dusk till dawn.
This is the rub, however: taiikukai memories last a long, long time. It can bond people like nothing else.
They say love brings people together. Well, in Japan it’s the knowledge that the other person went through the same muscle strains and liberal pouring of sweat that builds trust and inspires camaraderie.
Coach Osim probably knows all about it. Famed for piling the work-outs onto an already-crammed training menu and making his players run and run and run, he has tossed off remarks like: “They throw up, so what? That’s what soccer is all about, no?”
Truly, the man seems to have been fashioned by some taiikukai-kei god up in sports heaven. Or hell.