土 Because I'm not ready to decompress and dissect my recent trip back to Oh Canada! I'm going to talk about the easiest thing that comes to mind right now: Japanese high school baseball. I'm not a sportswoman (the name itself gives me the shakes) by any means but I find myself watching the High School Baseball Championships on TV this afternoon with the beau. I have been known to say that baseball is 8 innings too long so I would normally whine and complain about such a situation and make us go out to avoid watching sports but I blame my malaise on a lethal combination of jet lag and a big CoCoichi curry lunch. Yes I was craving rice when I woke up for the fifth time this morning like a pregnant woman craves pickles. I ate a little rice Back Home but it wasn't enough. I'm feeling Japanese at last! All those tasty bagels for 10 days and I was ready for some rice! So now I am full and sleepy and this lapsed American has just been given her very first explanation of baseball rules by her Japanese boyfriend in Japanese. Gotta love globalization!
Aside from the rules I am also getting a cultural education and am now wide awake with new cultural awareness. The Championships happen over 10 days every August, and are followed by every media outlet possible. Every prefecture sends their best high school team to compete for the final title and emotions run high for both the players and those on the couch.
When the tube first went on today we caught the end of a game and I was initially confused with the scene before me: the players were on their knees frantically scooping dirt into bags with their bare hands, some of them crying, and a line of photographers were also on their knees getting sensational close-ups of the fiasco. When I asked the beau what this strange dirt-scooping ritual was, he explained that each player on the losing team takes dirt home as a memento. Sweet. But really a fairly sad sight to behold, a team of sniffling high school boys taking home some dirt because that's all they get as the losers. How very Japanese.
The summer championship has sparked conversations over the last couple of years with people I would never peg as baseball fans. Back when I was prostituting myself as a private "conversation" teacher to feed myself through school, every August my "students" would excitedly tell me about how their prefecture's team was doing. City-dwellers in Japan, especially those in from other prefectures, all like to talk about their home prefecture and love it, love it, if you can also show your knowledge of their prefecture's sports teams, food or animals. That said I would sometimes get lucky if I had unintentionally heard something about one of my student's prefectural team and would then have to fudge my way through a lesson heavy with ball talk. So when it turns into August in Japan, everyone and their uncle are following the high school baseball games at Koshien stadium near Osaka. The public here loves to exult in the winners and also cry for the losers; the summer championships are particularly significant for players in their last year of high school as it will be their last championship before they graduate and there are a lot of tears.
The winning teams have some happy snifflers but the losing teams just cry and cry. And cry. And scoop dirt. Not having ever felt such strong emotions connected to sports maybe I just don't understand but isn't loser crying also bad sportsmanship? These boys (young men?) have so much pressure put on them for these championships. Aside from the general crazy amount of pressure to ganbatte for the team and perform well, the whole country is watching and these summer championships are the be all and end all for the players. Japanese high school and university sports clubs are fairly cultish and strict to the extreme to start with and these baseball teams take it even further. Ridiculous amounts of training, high levels of expectation and then the actual games-televised, hotter than hell, and extremely loud with the non-stop cheering songs- it's no wonder the word gaman gets thrown around more than baseballs and these boys fall to their knees crying when they lose. Gaman is one of those lovely Japanese words that in English translation means to bear or endure and in Japanese means so much more. It gets thrown around much like ganbatte when you want to tell someone to endure their crappy situation because really, why try to make it better when you can just grit your teeth and take it like a good soldier?!
It's not fair of me to write it off as bad sportsmanship however, as the games are steeped in respect rituals. When each game finishes the teams line up, take off their hats, and bow to the other team. Then they run off either exultant or crying.
Another interesting aspect of the games are the militaristic cheering squads. Called oendan these groups practice, are synchronized and take their jobs just as seriously as the actual players. The freakiest part is the cheering captains whose movements often remind me of North Korean propaganda dance videos. When I finished my year at university here the squad captains came to our graduation ceremony and did their freaky dance on stage while we were encouraged to sing along to a taped school song sung by what sounded like the Japanese army circa 1944. Wait I thought, I don't recall being in a country under a military dictatorship. Have a gander at this video. Sadly, we didn't get the cheerleaders.
The TV announcers today were talking at one point about the hachimaki head wraps the cheering peeps were wearing and how they were generations old. I asked the beau about this, assuming the design or letters on them were old but he assured me the wraps themselves were old. Well they wash them right? naive and micro phobic me asks. Negative. And by the way, those cheering uniforms the squad captains are wearing have never been washed either. They are said to carry the dirt and sweat of all the enduring captains who have come before but that's about it. I hope they are wearing a layer underneath, poor things!
If you want a cultural experience yourself, watch the final game tomorrow afternoon, it should be the pinnacle of dirt-scooping to date. This blog was brought to you today by the kanji tsuchi and its meaning of dirt.