Usain Bolt and the Holy Redeemer

    Usain Bolt and the Holy Redeemer

The bigger picture at the Rio Olympics:

Cambridge Bolt and Brommel

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Kousei Inoue in Rio
Japan’s Men’s Judo Team coach in Rio, Kosei Inoue

At the 2012 London Olympics, the men’s judo team from Japan did not win a single gold medal. Of the seven weight classes, the Japanese took two silver and two bronze medals in arguably their worst showing since judo premiered at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.

At the 2016 Rio Olympics, the men’s judo team from Japan won two golds, and equally important, scored a medal in each of the 7 weight classes. The last time Japan medaled in all classes? 1964.

If this is the return to the glory years for Japan, just in time for the pressure to really build for Japanese athletes at the Tokyo2020 Games, then the men’s judo coach, Kosei Inoue, deserves top judo kudos. Inoue, gold medalist in 100kg weight class at the Sydney Games, was at those 2012 Games as an assistant coach, and he observed a judo team in chaos, according to this Gendai Business article (in Japanese).

Judoka were confused as the team of coaches were not specifically assigned to weight classes, so the judoka were uncertain whose coaching they should follow. Judoka were bullied excessively. Injured judoka were threatened with being dropped from the team. As a result of that and particularly the results in London, the coach was fired, and Inoue was asked to take over the team.

Japan's Judo Gold Medalists
Judo gold medalists Mashu Baker (left), Shohei Ono (center) and Haruka Tachimoto pose during a news conference at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan on Tuesday. | KYODO

According to various sources, Inoue brought a winning mindset to the men’s judo team, focused the coaching on technique and playing to the strengths of each judoka, improving judoka’s strength, showing them to think outside of the Japan box, and emphasizing open communication between coaches and judoka.

Inoue ensured that his training sessions were not random and chaotic, but were focused on themes, like “technique”, or “finishing strong”. He also ensured that the judoka had their own coaches, and their own development plans. As gold medalist, Mashu Baker said in this Japan Times article, “After the London Olympics, Coach Inoue took over and I have had the pleasure of training under him. I don’t know what it was like in 2012, but I can say that under Coach Inoue we have had very personalized training which really looks at making the most of the skills of each individual athlete.”

According to a story on the television news program, Bankisha! (バンキシャ!), during the Rio Olympics, Inoue realized that while technique is important, foreigners did tend to be physically stronger, particularly in the heavier weight classes. Inoue ensured that his judoka were also improving their overall strength so that they would not be wrestled out of competitions.

Inoue also thought that the way non-Japanese fought in the judo dojo was important to understand. He thought it was important that his team know that the Russians developed their techniques from Sambo, a Russian wrestling sport, and that Brazilians developed their s from jiu-jitsu.

“The world is progressing fast. You’ve got to be aware of it,” Inoue said in this Japan Times article prior to the Rio Games. “Japan’s judo has been trying to do things its own way, as if Japan was the be-all and end-all of everything.”

Inoue may have gained this insight thanks to the Japan Olympic Committee, which selected Inoue to live in the UK, learn English, see how Europeans train in judo. Perhaps the JOC saw the coaching potential in Inoue, and believed the international experience would be of benefit. Inoue spent two years in the UK, including time in Edinburgh, Scotland with George Kerr, the president of the British Judo Association, and London, teaching at the famed Budokwai.

“I felt strong pride at what I’d done,” Inoue recalled in the Japan Times article. “But once I stepped out of my country, I didn’t understand the language and the environment. Their coaching style was totally different (in Europe). I felt like I had been taken down a peg. It was tough for me, but eventually, I began to think I was immature, that I didn’t know anything. The world is so big. So when people ask me what the best experience from being abroad was, I always tell them that I realized how ignorant I was.”

Inoue even sent his judoka, Ryunosuke Haga and Masashi Ebinuma, to train overseas on their own, to build their self-reliance and mental toughness, and they both secured bronze medals for Japan.

Inoue was shaping into the ideal coach for Japan’s national team. He knew what it was to be a champion in Sydney. He knew what it was like to be humbled in Athens, when he didn’t medal. He realized that the world offered a treasure trove of lessons that would

aska cambridge in rio
Aska Cambridge

When around 98% of a nation is perceived to be of the same ethnicity, it stands to reason that nationality and ethnicity are viewed as one and the same.

But Japan has been a magnet for those seeking opportunity as well as for Japanophiles, particularly since the economy boomed in the 1980s. As the influential Japanese television entertainment industry increasingly viewed diversity as a way to get more viewers, Japanese-speaking foreigners became more popular. Children of mixed marriages, those who essentially grew up Japanese, have now become de rigeur on Japanese television.

I was one of those foreigners who came to Japan in the 1980s, but because I am of Japanese ethnicity, I have been able to blend in. I get neither fingers pointed at me, nor praise for my Japanese proficiency. But even though my cultural background is American, I can see why the attention of Japanese still, to this day, perk up when a non-Japanese is in their midst. The non-Japanese is such a tiny population that they really do stick out. Like the majority of the film, Lost in Translation, the minority experience for the “gaijin” in Japan is clichéd. And yet true.

So when the Japanese men’s 4X100 relay team very unexpectedly took silver at the Rio Olympics, losing only to the vaunted team from Jamaica, it was a very special moment for Japan. Not only did the Japanese excel in an area they are not customarily strong in – the sprint – a 23-year-old named Aska Cambridge (ケンブリッジ飛鳥), the child of a Japanese mother and a Jamaican father – was a proud member of those Japanese speedsters. He ran for the Japanese squad, he speaks fluent Japanese, and yet, he doesn’t fit the everyday look of what most Japanese perceive as Japanese.

Mashu Baker and his mother
Mashu Baker and his mom.

When a 21-year-old Japanese won judo gold in the 90kg weight class at the Rio Olympics, Japan cheered. At the 2012 London Games, no Japanese won gold in judo, the most Japanese of all the Olympic competitions. In fact, no Japanese had won the 90kg weight class since it was introduced in 1980. So who brought back the glory? A person named Mashu Baker (ベイカー茉秋), the son of a Japanese mother and an American father.

At first glance, he looks Japanese. But it’s the name that sticks out. Baker is clearly not a Japanese name, and it is written in the press in katakana, the script reserved for foreign words. Interestingly, the first name “Mashu”, while spelled out in Chinese characters, was likely chosen because of its close approximation to the name “Matthew”. I don’t know what’s written on his US passport, but it’s possible the Bakers decided they wanted their son to be identified in Japan as a “ha-fu”, a child of mixed parentage.

“Ha-fu” over the decades, perhaps centuries, have on the whole experienced more prejudicial than preferential treatment. But I do not underestimate the power of role models. I am sure that the brilliant examples of Aska Cambridge and Mashu Baker will continue to help revise how Japanese, and the rest of the world, perceive what a Japanese is.

And that’s a good thing.