On August 4, 2002, the San Francisco 49ers played the Washington Redskins in Osaka. For many fans around the world, this game was simply the first nationally televised 2002 NFL preseason game.
For San Francisco and Osaka, it was an important opportunity for these cities to commemorate their long and mutually important relationship as they celebrated the 45th Anniversary of the Sister City relationship.
|| Consul General Shigeru Nakamura, an avid sports fan, sat down with Joyce Millet to discuss the importance of sports and the role sports can play in building international relationships.
Q: Do you think sports play a role in bridging cultural gaps and improving international relationships?
A: The importance of sports is many faceted. Sporting events are wonderful entertainment for fans and participants around the world. Sports can be a wonderful teacher, providing a way for people to learn about themselves, learn to set goals, and understand the importance of discipline, leadership and teamwork. These skills can lead to success in school and in the workplace. International sporting events provide a showcase for different cultures by promoting mutual understanding between nations. Sports often play an important role in international diplomacy. Sports events are also a popular topic of both business and social conversation. When getting together with friends or business colleagues, it can be very useful to know something about their favorite teams.
Q: What are some notable examples of sports playing a role in international diplomacy?
A: One of the most famous examples, referred to as "ping-pong diplomacy," was the surprise invitation from the People's Republic of China to the US table tennis team in 1971. A sporting event was able to accomplish what diplomats could not - a break in the ice between the United States and the PRC. This year, Japan and South Korea co-hosted the 2002 FIFA World Cup - the first to ever be held in Asia. Many viewed these games as a vehicle for improving ROK-Japan relations.
Q: What is the significance of the American Bowl game played in August in Osaka?
A: This year's American Bowl, the first in Osaka, provided the opportunity for fans in Osaka to attend a NFL game and enjoy the festivities. It will certainly have an impact on the popularity of the sport in Kansai and Western Japan, as this area is considered the hotbed of American football in Japan. More importantly, it is a way for San Francisco and Osaka to renew their long and important sister city relationship. It was wonderful that a delegation of Sister City members traveled to Osaka to celebrate the 45th Anniversary and attend the game.
The American Bowl began in London 1986, to let fans around the world enjoy NFL Football and learn something about American culture. Japan has hosted the American Bowl at Tokyo Dome since 1989 with 2002 being the first ever played in Osaka. Hopefully there will be more games played in Osaka in the future.
Q: Football actually has a long history in Japan. Do you think it will become much more popular?
A: Football was first introduced in 1934 by an American teaching in Japan. He put together teams at three Tokyo Universities and soon the game was a hit. The corporate league was started in 1971 and in 1984 the Rice Bowl was introduced with the game's MVP winning the Paul Rusch Cup in honor of the American teacher who is considered the "father of Japanese football." Japanese have preferred rugby to American football, although this may be changing as people have more chances to play as well as watch the game.
The popularity of football is catching on with the younger kids as well. The recent formation of the Chestnut League for kids in elementary and junior high school is a good example. There are eighteen teams in the Kansai region now belong to this league. Currently, American football is played mostly at the amateur level, but with the increased exposure to and interest in the game, this may change in the near future. Football is played at the university level, with kids starting at around 20 years old. This is probably much too late in order to develop the necessary skills required to play in the NFL.
Q: What cultural differences do you see in the way the game is played?
A: American football is a sport where skill and size are important. It is a physical game, intensely competitive and requires strategic ability. This type of physical game is missing in Japanese sports.
However as interest increases, it is expected that more Japanese athletes will be seen on pro football teams. Players, such as Masafumi Kawaguchi, who played in the 49ers-Redskins game in Osaka, will keep making the effort to qualify for the NFL. One thing that I notice in the US, more than in Japan, is the free agent system. This forces and/or encourages players to move around a lot more. The result is a loss of identity and frustration on the part of spectators. Ideally, sports figures not only play for a team, but also become part of the community. It would be impossible to ever think of Joe Montana as anything but a San Francisco 49er. People probably don't remember that Joe went to Kansas City.
Q: Did you play any sports when you were young? American kids have many opportunities to participate in sports. How about in Japan?
A: I enjoyed a lot of sports as a child. I played baseball and belonged to sports clubs in school. I also played rugby for a short time in my university. Kids in Japan have the opportunity to participate in sports through school clubs. These activities take place after school every day. Students choose a club, either sports (baseball, soccer, judo, kendo, track, tennis, swimming, softball, volleyball, rugby, football) or culture clubs (English, broadcasting, calligraphy, science, mathematics). Students usually select a club shortly after the school year begins in April and these activities give them an important opportunity to socialize with their peers and learn to develop good sportsmanship and teamwork skills.
Q: Baseball still reigns as the king of sports in Japan. There are a lot of well-known Japanese players contributing to "America's Favorite Pastime." What impact have Japanese players had on game and do you feel this contributes to better US - Japan relations? What impact have American players had on the game in Japan?
A: Baseball was introduced into Japan in 1873 (beginning of the Meiji Period) by an American teacher in Tokyo, Horace Wilson. Someone said that in the United States, the game of baseball was adapted from games played in Europe and it eventually evolved into the modern-day game. For Japan, we were able to import the finished product. The differences are more cultural and philosophical than structural. The Nankai Hawks sent the first Japanese player, pitcher Masanori Murakami, to the San Francisco Giants almost forty years ago. Thirty years later, Nomo came and started a "chain reaction - a locomotive" for Japanese players. Famous names that most American fans know are: Ichiro, Shinjo, Hasegawa, Yoshii, Taguchi.
These Japanese players are not only popular in the US but in Japan as well. Thanks to the information age, news about international sports is very accessible and people are much more aware of Japanese achievements in the sports. In fact, many of the sports news broadcasts in Japan begin with information on the Japanese players in the US. Japan has learned much from the US both at the amateur and professional level. Thanks to the assistance from the US, Japanese skills have improved. And, there is a long history between Japan the United States. This has and will continue to build strong friendships and better understanding.
Q: What are some differences in the way baseball is played in Japan and the US?
A: Although baseball is played in both the United States and Japan, the way it is played, the philosophies and styles of play are very different. These differences in the game reflect basic cultural differences between the two societies. Nevertheless, the sport of baseball continues to be a strong cultural connection between the two countries and cultures.
For example, in American baseball, the focus is on the offense, going for the big play and home run. Americans are more individualistic and the goal is on one's own achievement as well as the teams. In Japan, the focus is on the defense, trying to gain a run, bunt and advance the runner, sacrifice out. In other words, the key is on the team. Another difference is toughness. American players are very tough. They endure long road trips, up to 5 hours from coast to coast, through as many as three different time zones. If Japanese players traveled that distance they would end up in Southeast Asia. This leads to mental as well as physical strength and increased stamina. They also play more games in the US than in Japan - 160 to 140. This is not to say that one set of circumstances is easier than the other, just basically different which requires adjustment.
Q: Given the popularity of players like Ichiro and Nomo among American sports fans, do you think this will encourage Americans to learn more about Japan?
A: It has been clearly demonstrated over the years that sports can build friendships, improve understanding and break down cultural barriers. The recent Sister City Delegation visit to Osaka on the occasion of the 45th Anniversary and the debut NFL American Bowl game in Osaka is an excellent example.
© 2002 Joyce Millet. All Rights Reserved.
Printed with permission on the San Francisco-Osaka Sister City website.