Homare Sawa

Why the Japanese Keep Winning World Championships

Despite being born in Boston, I spent my grade school years in Kamakura, Japan. My third grade teacher, Mr. S, was a catcher in an amateur baseball league. He used to throw chalk at students not paying attention, and I remember being hit by one in the head.

Mr. S was feared by his students, and he taught as if all of his students were baseball players. He emphasized team play, sacrificing of oneʼs desires for the sake of the whole. He taught us that paying attention was the best way to survive a class. Call it pre-Koshien training. Koshien is the famous high school baseball tournament held every spring and summer. It is where a good pitcher is discovered and then asked to throw over five games in a row in a span of a week. Think of Daisuke Matsuzaka of the Boston Red Sox. He threw nearly 400 pitches in two days at Koshien, winning the championship after 17 innings in a tight game for Yokohama High School, and became a national hero. If you ever wonder why he is so ineffective now as a 36 year-old, you can rewind the tape of their high school championship to see the inevitable: no pitcherʼs arm can withstand that kind of abuse as a teen.

Japan, a country the size of California, has won a remarkable array of championships in recent times. Nadeshiko teamʼs surprise victory in the Womenʼs World Cup reinforced the notion that being outsized, out-powered and largely ignored does not mean that a country cannot win championships. Japan is a perennial power in the Little League Baseball World Series (though they lost a close one this year to a team from California). They won both World Baseball Classics. But there was a time not too long ago that the Japanese would contend for, but never win a championship.

If Mr. S is an example of what is pervasive in Japanese education, you can expect that many actually see education as overlapping with sports. For the Japanese, playing and excelling in sports is just part of culture. But Japanese teams always seemed to be literally dwarfed by the world. Though they contend in world stages, it was rare for Japan to win championships. That is, until 2004. At the 2004 World Baseball Classic, I saw something I had not seen before in a Japanese team. It was a harbinger of things to come.

Sadaharu Oh, the national hero of Japan, with his idiosyncratic balancing on one leg like a stork, as he timed his many home runs, was the manager of the first ever World Baseball team. Matsuzaka was on the mound for many of their key games, including their championship game against the formidable Cuban team. But it was in their game against the sure-to-be-in-the-finals Americans that I noticed something.

The US powered in some runs, and I was expecting the Japanese team, as they have done in the past, to look very stoic in the inevitability of a loss. Japan had always felt inferior to the US since WWII. The post-war sentiment was that the Japanese would work very, very hard to recover from the war, but when it came to leadership, it would always be deferred to others, especially the Americans. Even if you come close to winning something, you almost let that possibility go. I expected to see a face of resignation.

But the 25 year-old starting shortstop for the Japanese team, Munenori Kawasaki, looked out from the dugout during the next inning, watching his teammates come to bat. Kawasaki had dyed his hair with chestnut-blonde highlights and looked more like a Japanimation character than a stoic baseball player. But, I saw in his face something I had never seen in a Japanese athlete. He was actually having fun.

Up to this point, competing in a championship was a kind of duty, a bland effort toward a stated goal. Kawasakiʼs face said, “Isnʼt this cool that we are playing against the US and we are only down by one run? My counterpart is Derek Jeter and we can actually hold our own!” This was a new face of someone without the baggage of the post-war atomic debilitation or industrial work ethic as the only answer in a grey vision for restoration. This face said, “Heck, this is only a game, but we can match with anyone and we might win this whole thing.” And they did, celebrating on Petco Field in San Diego with Matsuzaka on the mound against a team that should have defeated them.

Japan’s women’s soccer team is called by a nickname “Nadeshiko Japan”, named after yamato nadeshiko, a pink plant, but also a figure of speech for the beauty of Japanese women who are modest but have inner fortitude.

With Nadeshikoʼs win in the Womenʼs World Cup, we will remember, of course, one of the most thrilling matches ever played, by men or women. The Japanese team broke through unprecedented categories. The US team has the best goalkeeper in the world, Hope Solo, and has never lost in a Penalty Kick shootout or even missed a penalty kick in the whole tournament. No team has ever come back from a deficit in the last ten minutes of a regular game, and in the finals, no team has ever come back from a deficit in the last ten minutes of overtime. When Abby Wombach scored in her typical dominating fashion in the last minutes of overtime, no one expected the Japanese women to come back. But this team, stricken with the devastating earthquake and tsunami of March 2011, decided that they had nothing to lose, but everything to gain. This was not just a stoic, hard-working team; this was a miracle team that created something out of nothing.

I saw the same creative energy, a quick strike that flowed out of Kawasakiʼs face, on the Nadeshiko team. And that outlook was evident much earlier in the tournament as they shocked the host and expected champion, Germany, in the the final seconds. It was a “nothing to lose” attitude combined with the trademark Japanese determination that brought the victory. Not only were they playing against the heavily favored Germans, or Americans later, they were thinking of the people who lost their lives in the tsunami and earthquake and the people who lost desire to live in the uncertain shadows of the Fukushima power plant. (One of the players actually plays for Fukushima, a team that has not practiced since March 2011.) All of the training that came from practicing on the grassless, hardened grounds of a Japanese soccer field, or from enduring chalk-throwing teachers, came to play. They were determined to be wholly present every second of the game, to make every move count. They found a resilience in focused attention rarely seen on the world stage. They moved as one, collectively inviting a whole nation to come on the field with them. A quick strike is all you need and the Japanese disadvantage of having small bodies became an huge advantage in those last minutes of play.

We saw Homare Sawa, who would steal away the MVP from Abby Wombach and win the Golden Goal award for most goals in the tournament, score with a simple flick of her right foot off a corner kick. But what the viewers may not have realized is that for that play to work, you have to convince the defender who has been guarding you for the entire game that you are going to head the ball. The other players on your team also have to set themselves so that one precious run toward the front of the goal will not be blocked. This corner kick was a set play, but it takes the entire front team to set themselves up so their captain has a shot of making that diagonal, counter-intuitive, run. If you are a small, but quick, finessed player, that, at the last minutes of the game, is the only play you have.

The execution was flawless and the game was tied. Then I saw something that echoed Kawasakiʼs face seven years ago. Norio Sasaki, the Japanese coach, faced his team before the penalty kicks to determine the winner. Squatting down to speak to the exhausted team, he was smiling. I have never seen a Japanese coach smile before, especially in such a crucial moment. This was a proud father-like face releasing children to also be proud of what they already accomplished. Whatever happened next was irrelevant. This smile transgressed the stoic Japanese norms, while the Americans wore steely faces. Destiny already decided the outcome: Japan dominated in the penalty kicks, even with their diminutive goalkeeper, and Homare Sawa became a national hero, holding high the golden trophy. Jumping up and down on the stage, the whole team looked like Smurfettes with a World Cup.

In Japanese, the name Homare means “to praise.” My mother, an avid sports fan reading the Japanese newspapers, noticed that her Chinese ideograms are unique. Sawaʼs parents did not use the usual ideograms of “to praise.” Homare is made up of two ideograms instead. “Ho,” meaning the husk of wheat or rice, and “Mare,” meaning extraordinary or a miracle. Imagine that: an ordinary substance to be discarded causing a miracle. Did her parents ever anticipate that their daughterʼs right foot would redefine greatness?

So the next time you see the Japanese play on the world stage, do not count them out. If youʼve been hit by a piece of chalk many times, you are not likely to forget to pay attention. And if your country needs inspiration, you are likely to provide one. You may even smile as you do so.