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Sunday, Jan. 11, 2004

MEDIA MIX

Japan's 'Seabiscuit' shows losers can be winners too


There are few cliches as dubious as "Everybody loves a winner." Does everybody love a winner? The fans of the Hanshin Tigers certainly don't love the Fukuoka Daiei Hawks.

In fact, a case could be made for people loving losers even more, especially in a world that is becoming increasingly polarized between the haves and the have-nots. In a Christmas Day editorial, the Asahi Shimbun remarked that 2003 was notable for a tendency to divide everyone and everything into winners and losers, and that the tendency itself made people more sympathetic toward the latter.

This tendency partly explains the sudden and immense popularity of the 7-year-old racehorse Haruurara. On Dec. 14, at the Kochi Race Track, Haruurara lost her 100th race, a milestone that made the evening news, despite the fact that the race itself wouldn't have normally rated a mention even on the nightly sports roundup. On Jan. 2, a record 8,000 people attended the races at Kochi, where Haruurara came in ninth in a field of 10. The track, which like most horse racing venues in Japan is now deep in the red, made 2.2 million yen that day, almost all of it from bets placed on the hapless Hokkaido-born filly to win, even though everybody who placed them knew she wouldn't.

Is this a sign of collective masochism? The foreign press, which picked up the story as yet another example of "Weird Japan," tends to explain the horse's popularity as one of identification. Japanese people, they think, anthropomorphize the horse's losing efforts on the track as the ganbare spirit that assuages their own anxieties over the escalating competitiveness of everyday life.

This theory only makes sense if you actually believe that the world is divided cleanly into winners and losers. A better way to explain the Haruurara phenomenon is to compare her to another racehorse that once lifted the spirits of a nation: Seabiscuit.

As documented in the Hollywood film of the same name which, coincidentally, opens in Japan on Jan. 24, Seabiscuit was a runty horse that eventually defeated the most powerful thoroughbred in the United States during the Great Depression, thus becoming a symbol of pluck for the huddled masses.

On the surface, Haruurara, who has never won a race, has little in common with Seabiscuit, but "winning" and "losing" are human concepts that have no meaning to a horse. In the movie, much is made of Seabiscuit's supposed instinct to win, but it's obvious this idea is projected onto the horse by his owner, his jockey, and the hoi polloi. What the audience sees is simply an animal that loves to run.

The most significant aspect of Haruurara's "career" is not that she's lost 101 races, but that she has lost 101 races and is still racing. Normally, a horse that doesn't win is retired sooner rather than later. Her trainer, Dai Muneishi, was once a jockey himself, and in 10,000 races he never suffered an injury. Statistically, this indicates that Muneishi was not an aggressive rider. In an article in the Asahi Shimbun he said that "as long as a horse can run, then I want it to run." Such an attitude perhaps makes him "a bad trainer," he admits, since it means he'll let an inferior racehorse back on the track; but winning races is less important to Muneishi in the scheme of things.

And in the scheme of things -- meaning life itself -- Haruurara is a winner. A racehorse who doesn't win races is a sinkhole for money and if it isn't lucky enough to get put out to pasture it may end up as basashi (horse sashimi). Because Muneishi's regard for horses as individual beings is stronger than his regard for horse-racing as a commercial enterprise, Haruurara is allowed to race again and again. Her fan base, which mushroomed last summer after Fuji TV's morning wide show did a feature on her, developed inadvertently, which makes it all the more impressive. People from all over Japan send her more apples and carrots than she can eat. There's a CD single about her, as well as a new coffee table photo book.

People like Haruurara because she is a horse among horses, with recognizable traits and tics (she always gets extremely nervous right before a race). If people project unhorselike aspects onto her, they have nothing to do with competitiveness. An anonymous visitor to Haruurara's Web site says that he appreciates the horse's "take-it-easy attitude," and an NHK documentary about the horse that has already aired twice features a woman with cancer who says that her outlook was changed by this creature that didn't care about winning or losing.

The Asahi editorial, which mentions Haruurara, takes the idea further, by saying that an obsession with winning can undermine one's integrity. Americans seem to care less about the reasons for the war on Iraq than they do about whether or not they can win it. Komeito, whose fundamental platform is peace and social welfare, has shown it is willing to compromise those tenets by hooking up with the Liberal Democratic Party just so that it can be part of the ruling coalition. Conversely, the LDP is willing to hook up with the Komeito, with whom it has nothing in common philosophically, in order to ensure victory.

Haruurara is incapable of such cynicism. Her victory will be a long and happy life: She's due to retire soon and has received an offer from a riding stable in Tochigi, where she will be a star. In "Seabiscuit," the folksy trainer who turns the ornery nag into a champion says that you shouldn't put down a horse just because it's outlived its role. A horse is always good for something, he says, "even if it's just being looked at."



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