No.134 [ENCOUNTER] Promoting social cohesion

Lee Thompson is a professor at the Faculty of Sports Science at Waseda University, Tokyo./ Eric Rechsteiner for Zoom Japan

Lee Thompson, a sports specialist in Japan, has no doubt that the Japanese approach is unique.

Zoom Japan interviewed Lee Thompson, a professor at the Faculty of Sport Sciences of Waseda University in Tokyo, about how the Japanese approach sport. Thompson specializes in the relationship between sport and the media and is the author, with Allen Guttmann, of Japanese Sports: A History (University of Hawaii Press, 2001). 

Do you find any differences in participation in sport between Japan and the West? 

The first question we should ask ourselves is, what is sport? Many people think they have a clear idea of what sport is, but this concept actually takes a different meaning depending on the country. In Japan, for example, they use the loan word supootsu, but, in the past, this was subsumed under the umbrella term taiiku, which we commonly translate as “physical education”. Indeed, for many years, sport and physical education were considered more or less the same thing. I was just looking up the Sasakawa Sports Foundation website, and I found some data about how many Japanese do sport and which sports they practise. What I find interesting here is what is included as “doing sport”. The survey is broken down by age, but you will see that walking is listed as a sport. It’s actually the most popular sport in Japan across all ages except for the 18 to 19-year-old group where the two most popular sports are strength training and jogging/running. 

What is even more interesting is that they’ve listed two similar activities: walking – written wookingu in the katakana alphabet (made up of phonetic symbols, each representing one syllable), which is equivalent to sport walking – and sanpo, which literally means going for a walk or strolling. So as you can see, different countries have different ideas of what constitutes a sport. 

It seems that throughout history, especially from the Meiji period onwards, sport has been used to control people’s bodies and minds and, more generally, as a nation-building tool. In your book, you often mention baseball as a sort of “ideal” sport that exemplifies the modernization of physical activity in Japan. Also, in your 2015 essay (“Sport in Japan in the Early 21st Century: An Interpretation”) you point out baseball’s collective virtues – teamwork, self-discipline, self-sacrifice. 

Yes, I think this is very much the case, not only in Japan. Historically speaking, both in Europe and America the authorities have always taken a great interest in sport. And that’s also why sport, in Japan sport has tended to be subsumed under the concept of physical education because physical education was a tool to develop good citizens and soldiers. 

As for baseball and its collective virtues, sport in general, and team sports more specifically, represent activities where you are able to create the ideal worker and citizen. From the point of view of the authorities and the employers, team members work well in a group. Each member plays a certain role and they focus on filling that role. Also, especially in Japan, sports are very much oriented towards the coach and the manager who give directions and tell everybody what to do. The coach and manager are featured prominently even in television coverage. When you watch the high school baseball tournaments, they will feature the manager as much as or even more than the players themselves, which points to the central role that authority figures play in Japanese sport. 

However, something interesting happened in the early 1990s when the J-League (professional football league) was created, and then Japan co-hosted the FIFA World Cup in 2002. Until then, the Japan Soccer League consisted of amateur clubs and wasn’t that popular, but professionalism brought football to the fore. Football took off at the turn of the century and now rivals baseball in popularity. 

What I think is worth noting is that although football and baseball could be looked at in the same way, football in Japan comes across as more individualistic. At least, that’s my impression. In other words, in football there is more opportunity for individual expression. I’m thinking, for example, about what football players are allowed to wear. While baseball teams tend to impose a certain conservative look (short hair, no facial hair) and exercise very strict control over the players’ private lives, footballers are more flamboyant (maybe because of a strong Latin American and European influence) and many of them dye their hair. That new attitude brought a new ethos to Japanese sport.

J-League - Photography
The creation of the professional football league (J-League) has changed many ways Japanese people engage with sport./ Eric Rechsteiner for Zoom Japan

In Japan, the focus is on institutionalized and supervised physical activities. Would you agree that the social control exercised by the State through sport has slowed the development of more individualistic and/or hedonistic sports in Japan? 

I guess it’s true. That said, such sports as surfing, skateboarding, snowboarding and competition climbing have recently become quite popular in Japan. These kinds of sports are sometimes referred to as self-expressive sports as people take part in them as a way of expressing themselves. So Japan may have been slow at accepting what you call hedonistic sports but they have finally arrived and it seems they are here to stay. 

At the same time, these sports are being coopted into the modern sports industrial complex, like the X Games. Such events have contributed to popularize and legitimize these sports. As you know, people used to look at skateboarders as sorts of delinquents, and the skateboarders themselves probably self-identified that way as well. It was a kind of subversive thing, a subversive use of public or private spaces. But now they build skate parks and have tournaments and competitions and prize money. There’s prestige to be had if you win medals in international competitions like the Olympics, a prestige that reflects on your country. So now the business world and the government have got involved, and I think that their interest has significantly changed the ethos of these sports. 

So I agree that some people may see the “libertarian” or individualistic appeal of, say, skateboarding. But I have to admit that I wonder when a young person decides to take up this sport now, what sort of image do they have of it and what it means to be a skateboarder? You know, using the city landscape in ways it was not intended to be used, like riding down the steps of a staircase in a city park or outside a public building or something like that. Or do they think about winning a gold medal at the Olympics? Probably many of them consider it just another sport, and their parents are happy when they show an interest and buy them the helmets and the elbow pads. They drive them to a skate park and maybe even hire a coach (laughs)! I wonder to what degree skateboarding has been coopted into the modern sports industry.

In your writing, you pointed to a current trend of decreasing social control by the state. 

Let’s say that the State wants to keep a certain degree of social control, but at the same time, it does not want to incur the expense. In fact, the government has set up the Japan Sports Agency, so in that sense it might appear that there is more social control, but if you look at what they’re doing, they’re trying to outsource the actual sports-related expenses. Even in schools, rather than having a teacher oversee the sports club activities, they try to have someone in the community do it. Also, they’re encouraging private fitness clubs and things like that rather than building community centres or pools for public use. They are trying to privatize a lot of this, which I think is an interesting kind of contradiction.

Gianni Simone

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