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Sunday, Sept. 21, 2008
Civility penalizes Japan's refs
By EDAN CORKILL
My first reaction on hearing that a Japanese alliance of sports associations would hold a study weekend on international refereeing was that it was "too little — too late."
After all, that very day a Cuban taekwondo fighter at the Beijing Olympics, Angel Valodia Matos, had kicked a Swedish referee in the head. In the annals of international sports refereeing, surely we had risen to a nadir of sorts.
Not that the Swedish referee in question would have attended this particular study event (on the last weekend of the Olympics) at the National Training Center in Akabane, Tokyo, or that his attendance would have saved him from his moment of "ouch." But who knows, as this study session included a seminar on "international communication" in sports, maybe it would save him or others from such unsporting excesses in the future.
So, having been perversely overlooked as a potential Olympic shot put or skeet-shooting medalist myself, I decided to attend this "international communication" seminar, which required me to drag myself out of bed one balmy Sunday morning for an unseemingly sporty 8 a.m. start. I stumbled onto a train feeling like I'd adjudicated on a few too many unruly Cubans myself.
The Japan Top League is a group of nine ball-sport organizations — including the Japan Basketball League, the Hockey Japan League and the Japan Softball League — aimed at improving Japan's international competitiveness through an exchange of information and expertise. They've been operating since 2005, and this year, for the first time, they decided to hold a study group to improve the performance of their umpires.
At this point I should make a disclaimer, because it so happens that The Japan Times was involved in staging the seminar on "international communication" to which I was blearily headed.
Importantly, though, an important gent named Nobuo Hashimoto, director and chairman of the Japan Basketball Association Committee of Referees (and a longtime basketball referee), was to be present to provide objective insight into the problems faced by Japanese umpires overseeing international matches.
Let the games begin.
As far as referees are concerned, "games" begin with self-introductions with fellow referees.
"One time I did this, I didn't know how to greet my colleague, so I blurted out, 'Let's get together,' " recalled the refreshingly honest Hashimoto.
"That's like saying, 'Let's go for a drink sometime,' " pointed out a JT staffer on hand to give native English-speaker input.
" 'Pleased to meet you,' will do the trick," Hashimoto advised. The 41 assembled referees seemed impressed with this advanced wisdom. Suggestion duly noted.
Next came what to do with an overly excited basketball player.
"Combining the phrase 'calm down' with a hand gesture is the best option," said Hashimoto, moving his hands as if he was patting a pony.
The assembled referees liked that small profundity, too. A three-pointer to Hashimoto!
As for the discussion of handshakes, however, all went not so smoothly.
We got through the eye-contact bit, but when a handball ref fresh out of Malaysia inquired as to the etiquette regarding double-handed handshakes combined with prayerlike gestures, our instructor almost dropped the ball.
He shakily recovered, though, breaking an awkward silence with, "If you just do the normal handshake, wherever you are, you will not offend anyone."
Video replay, anyone? No, Hashimoto was safe.
Come to think of it, performing in front of a bunch of referees was always going to be tough. After all, what could escape their 41 pairs of predatory eyes?
"Japanese people's first instinct when they don't understand something is to smile," continued Hashimoto. To a room suddenly beaming knowingly with smiles, he continued: "In a tense situation on the court, this can be like pouring oil on a fire. Best to keep a straight, expressionless face."
Another dangerous culturally specific behavior, it seemed, was the edgy business of nodding.
In conversation, the Japanese nod has a habit of colluding with the Japanese bow, at which point it can, so to speak, cost the subject the game.
Hashimoto explained: "If you're refereeing a match and you need to confer about something with your assistant referees, then you form a huddle and talk. If one thing is for certain, it is that at that moment everyone in the entire stadium is going to be looking at you.
"If you are listening to an assistant referee and you keep nodding, then it's going to look like you are just agreeing with what he's saying. You're not taking the initiative!"
Ah huh, thought the refs, nodding in agreement.
Next came a series of pointers on pointing.
Pointing with index finger outstretched is, apparently, rude (though not as rude as other digital gestures, you may well think). But, most importantly, if you want to beckon someone, you do it with your hand faced up, not down. Beckoning with the hand facing down (as is the normal, and polite, Japanese way) is liable to be interpreted as "go away," explained Hashimoto — which is the opposite of what you want them to do.
Hashimoto got his own international experience during a stint with the Lithuanian Pro League in 2004, but he said the most thrilling match he'd ever officiated was when an All-Star team from the U.S. toured Japan — with Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, et al.
"It was just the best," he said when asked to describe the experience.
Still, he continued, although many refs assembled for the study weekend had experience working overseas, their most common encounters with foreign players would come in local leagues. "More and more foreign players are coming to play in Japan," he said. "So this kind of communication training is going to become more and more important."
I could only nod in agreement and congratulate him (with a double-handed handshake, for sure) on a game well played.