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Saturday, Sept. 26, 2009

Look for the 'mounted knights' at undo-kai


Special to The Japan Times

It could be any weekend in September or October, in any town across Japan. Excitement hitches onto every breeze as teams face off against each other, brightly colored headbands proclaiming allegiance.

It is the penultimate event. Three members serve as base support, while a fourth member balances precariously on their backs or shoulders, wearing hats: These are the "mounted knights."

One knight stands out, usually by the special band or hat he wears. He is the token bearer, and opposing teams target him especially. The last token bearer standing marks the winner.

In a chaotic melee of snatched hats and strategy, mounted knights, the guardsmen or the offensive players, scramble to defend their own token bearer while pursuing the other teams'. The whole event recalls some far away field in a samurai war.

Although the battle appears viciously fraught with potential injuries to my American eyes, my Japanese husband assures me it is now a paler version of itself. "In my day, you only won if you wrestled the token bearer to the ground," he informs me, with something like nostalgia.

This event, kiba-sen (roughly translated to Mounted Knight's Battle), is the highlight for Sports Day, or undo-kai, at many elementary schools. I peek out from half-covered eyes as one sixth-grader makes a diving grab for the token-bearer's hat. He falls.

Japanese undo-kai neatly represents to me all that is admired and abhorred about Japanese sports culture, and it can be summed up in one word: konjo.

Konjo can mean passion, guts, mental toughness; giving it all by risking it all. I was raised in sports-crazy Florida, but I still don't quite understand konjo.

A friend tries to explain more precisely. "It's that attitude in sports where you don't need water, you can run 12 more laps with just your strong will."

Wait. I say. In the Japanese summer? No water?

"Summer, winter, it doesn't matter if you have konjo."

I see, I say, not seeing at all. In Florida, no water means dehydration, means heat stroke, means death.

I try to be reasonable. Like Japan, America treasures a deep sports culture; unlike Japan, America controls its youth sports programs with a definite litigious eye towards safety. Kiba-sen would never go over in America; indeed, my husband's colleagues at an international school here in Japan laughed him out of the meeting when he suggested adding it to the agenda.

Talk of kiba-sen prompted another nostalgic meandering from my husband. "The best event was botaoshi," he tells me. My husband tries to explain this, um, sport, which involved masses of children clambering up a 6-meter pole in order to topple it, after bodily fighting past defenders. "Someone always bled or dislocated a finger," he says proudly. I stifle a gasp.

My husband knows Japanese sports intimately, as a baseball player throughout the system, as a physical education major in university.

His tales of "discipline" sometimes seem like neatly packaged bullying: being forced to squat on the trains (to improve his balance) or carrying all the team equipment, single-handedly (to show respect for his elders on the team).

Many Americans are familiar with these strict Japanese sports ethics, thanks to the success of baseball players like Ichiro Suzuki and thanks to the international popularity of Japanese martial arts, budo.

I do applaud Japanese sports culture. I marvel at the teamwork and determination of schoolchildren. I respect the way sports teach philosophy and ethics. I admire the emphasis on respect and hard work.

But I despair when I hear of it going wrong. There is both the beauty and the barbarous in Japanese sports: the concept of konjo next to the reality of Japanese summer with no water break, or the sumo wrestler savagely killed by teammates giving out "discipline."

Of course, even in safety conscious America, several athletes a year die due to overheating. Athletes in America, too, lose control of their emotions in the heat of competition, with the rare fatal result. How much is konjo, and how much human nature driven to extremes in competition? Yet what are we humans, without competition?

Human nature again shows its terrible beauty at Koshien. For those readers not in Japan, or who manage to live in total seclusion during the annual spring and summer games, Koshien is Japan's high school baseball championship tournament.

Nationally televised, commanding a wide audience throughout Japan, youngsters gain immortality on the field. Daisuke Matsuzaka and Yu Darvish both were household names long before turning professional, due to their performances at Koshien. Hideki Matsui started a nationwide controversy over sportsmanship after he was intentionally walked five times during one game.

Teams battle all year to qualify, with only one chance to win at Koshien before "knock-out." To me, the final scene of each game resonates with the bittersweet beauty of life itself. The winning team's anthem plays; the other team scoops up dirt, wipes tears, and heads for home to try again next year.

Something special remains in undo-kai, a blend of competition and team unity, a careful mixture of individual and group success (or failure).

Japan is definitely a land of rising sun, of purity and innocence and good; but it is also a country that welcomes the shadows, and Japanese sports perfectly reflects this duality of life. As you pass by a sports field in Japan this autumn, look for kiba-sen, and cheer for the indefatigable human spirit, or konjo.



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