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The Asahi cries foul on school sports

by Philip Brasor

Special To The Japan Times

Baseball fans were disheartened to learn that Texas Rangers pitcher Yu Darvish would be out for the entire 2015 season because of elbow surgery. The right-hander could still have a promising Major League career, but like other Japanese pitchers who have crossed the Pacific, he seems cursed by infirmities that affect his ability to throw.

Three compatriots currently active in the U.S. have had to undergo the same type of surgery, and that number doesn’t include Daisuke Matsuzaka, who had the operation but is now back in Japan. The latest pitching star to debut in the States, Masahiro Tanaka, may succumb to an identical fate, since he missed the latter half of his rookie season due to elbow problems.

The American sports press has theorized that the malady is caused by the inordinate number of pitches these players threw when they were young. It’s common for Japanese high school pitchers to throw complete games on a regular basis, and the wear and tear comes to a head when they hit their late 20s. Japanese coaches have labeled these assertions culturally ignorant. The vast majority of high school pitchers are not going to progress to the big leagues, and so they should be allowed to make the most of their youthful passion for the sport. At any rate, the American guideline of limiting a pitcher to 100 throws a game in order to safeguard his arm is anathema in Japan, where konjō, a word that describes a single-minded “spirit,” is the operative sensibility in amateur athletics.

This concept is now being questioned in Japan as well. A feature about kumitaisō (group calisthenics) in the Feb. 17 Asahi Shimbun includes comments from Ryo Uchida, an associate professor at Nagoya University who has studied school athletics. He found that between 2000 and 2010, there were 364 sports-related “accidents” at elementary, junior high and high schools nationwide that resulted in death, but when he looked more carefully at the problem he discovered that the injuries were not due to a philosophy of “winning at any cost,” which is what he expected, but rather the coaches’ focus on “education,” which in this case translates as discipline. The harsh training techniques used in sports clubs are meant to strengthen a child’s mind as well as his or her body.

Uchida thinks that most coaches know nothing about the human body and what it can withstand. Many, in fact, don’t know that much about the sport they are coaching. According to the Japan Sports Association, half of all school athletic club coaches have never played the sports they are teaching, but it’s not something schools are concerned about because the real point of athletics is to impress parents. Winning goes a long way toward that end, but winning can’t be guaranteed, so coaches look for other ways to make their charges look good.

It is this desire to impress that has led to the popularity of kumitaisō, a label attached to pseudo-athletic activities in which students show off their ability to perform as a team. There is no overt competition involved, and teachers are hard put to explain the physical benefits of such exercises. In fact, the Asahi reports that some parents are against kumitaisō since it can easily lead to injuries, including broken bones.

Kumitaisō came out of undōkai, those intramural school sports meets that all parents of Japanese elementary and junior high school students are compelled to attend once a year. The most common form of kumitaisō is the human pyramid, where students get down on their hands and knees and stack up on one another’s backs, though more ambitious physical education teachers attempt human towers, where they stand on one another’s shoulders.

Yasuhiro Sakaue, who has written a number of books on schools sports, says physical education was introduced into public schools in the late 19th century in order to build stronger bodies that might someday go off to war. Consequently, school athletics have always had a militaristic cast, though after World War II, the government tried to remove all martial reminders from physical education programs. What happened is that the martial mindset migrated to after-school sports clubs, which place a premium on shūdan kodo (group behavior) and so adopted military training methodologies. The idea of konjō, however, didn’t become widespread until the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, when mental strength was considered essential to achieve difficult athletic goals. Shūdan-shugi (groupism) and konjō-shugi (spirit) combined into the belief common to all team sports in Japan that the individual must sacrifice himself for the good of the collective.

But a survey carried out by the Asahi showed that most people don’t play sports because they want to belong to a group. They play sports for personal fulfillment, and associate school sports activities, whether in class or extracurricularly, with “obligation.” Some respondents said they never really “enjoyed” athletic pursuits until they were out of school.

A followup forum in the paper included comments from a wide range of readers, including parents who confessed to watching undokai with a mixture of awe and anxiety. Yes, they were impressed by the efforts, but also afraid that something would go wrong, which is exactly what makes things like human pyramids impressive. One elementary school teacher explained that the interest in kumitaisō is a generational thing. Older teachers don’t see the value, but younger ones think it will improve their standing among students and parents, and with the rise of YouTube, the kumitaisō movement has become almost a cottage industry. There are training courses that give teachers the tools to build bigger and better pyramids and to avoid injuries (“in the event you lose your balance and fall, roll up into a ball”). Some adherents want it to become an Olympic event, which brings the whole idea full circle. Is the world ready for konjō?