We started off, as the soccer club does almost every day, with what I was assured were ten laps of the pitch, but which felt like several more, alternating between a sprint along the sidelines and a jog along the goal lines. I pulled my left quad within seconds of setting off because, oddly, we hadn’t done any stretching beforehand: the students had been stuck indoors studying since 8.30, so perhaps they were eager to get going, and just to make things that little bit more challenging, we all carried a half-litre bottle of water in each hand. By about the third or fourth lap, I was seriously considering giving up, as quite apart from the veritable waterfall of sweat cascading from my brow, I had begun to get a tight feeling in my chest. As the sun poked through the clouds for the first time that morning, I also wondered whether I might be in the early stages of heatstroke.
When I was going through a jogging phase a few years ago, I read that interval training – ie. alternating between jogging and sprinting – is one of the best ways to increase your stamina over long distances. Sadly I was far too lazy to try interval training for myself, and having finally experienced it first hand, my advice to any budding jogger would be to start off with a very small amount of sprinting and build up from there, rather than going straight in with a half-and-half mix of the two.
After a ten-minute drinks break I thought we might get to play some football, but no such luck. (‘When it’s raining heavily,’ explained H-kun, who is the team captain, ‘we do stuff like this. If you play soccer in the rain people end up catching cold.’) The next exercise involved jogging round the pitch in a line as before – still carrying water bottles in our hands – with the last person in the line sprinting to the front and shouting ‘Hai!’ (‘Yes!’), then the new last person doing the same, and so on and so forth. With about fifteen or twenty people in the line, this meant that I was only sprinting for about ten seconds every couple of minutes, but the accumulated physical exertion was beginning to take its toll, and when Y-sensei looked up at the clock on the side of the school building and said, ‘Another seven minutes!’ I couldn’t face any more and stopped for another drinks break – or rather, keeled over at the side of the pitch and wheezed like a forty-a-day smoker for a few minutes, before gulping down another litre of water and waiting for the dizziness to stop.
I managed to re-join the line for the last couple of laps, but by the time we had completed those, even if we had been given the chance to start practicing our dribbling skills or free kick technique, I’m not sure I would have had the energy to join in, so was quite relieved when Y-sensei told us to jog down to the other end of the pitch and round off the training session with some kusa-tori.
As we squatted down, kama in hand, and began pulling up weeds near the goal line, Y-sensei asked each student in turn what they thought the purpose of kusa-tori was, and gave marks out of a hundred depending on their replies.
‘Three or four years ago,’ said Y-sensei, ‘this pitch was covered in weeds. They were all over the penalty area, which got in the way of us playing properly. Since then we’ve been paying more attention to doing the weeding, and the soccer team has started winning.’
‘The team with the tidiest pitch,’ he continued, ‘is the team that wins.’
Making your school football team do the weeding may seem like a slightly ridiculous thing to do, but it made me think of another point that Malcolm Gladwell makes in The Tipping Point. His theory – based in part on studies of a reduction in New York crime rates in the early nineties – is that a person’s environment has just as big an influence on the likelihood of them committing a crime as their background or their personality. The people running the New York subway system turned around crime levels at least in part by cleaning up graffiti. They also clamped down on fare dodging, which because it was so prevalent and so visible, was influencing normally law-abiding citizens to join in.
On a recent episode of Honma Dekka?! (ホンマでっか？！/ Is That Really True?!) – a TV show that has a panel of academics and experts reveal a variety of interesting new trends, discoveries and inventions to a panel of celebrities – one of the experts cited a study which showed that around the time of large firework displays, just as levels of discarded rubbish increase, so do levels of petty crime. In other words, people’s behaviour degenerates in direct correlation with the cleanliness of the environment in which they find themselves. Surely it is no coincidence that Japanese children, who grow up cleaning their schools and weeding their playing fields, and whose parents and grandparents place such importance on keeping their homes spic and span (and their toilets in particular), turn into adults who are less likely to commit crimes.
A lot of westerners criticise the Japanese education system for being too regimented – militaristic, even – and more like national service than school. While I am not necessarily in favour of national service, I am beginning to see the benefits of a system that keeps its students fit, healthy and active, gives them regular and multiple goals to work towards (not to mention properly commemorating the reaching of those goals with ceremonies, prizegivings and so on), and teaches them the benefits of using every spare moment to practice what they do until they master it, all without having to fire a gun or drive a tank.
Perhaps things have changed, but when I was a child, unless you happened to go to private school or have parents who could afford to pay for private tuition, the scope for taking part in extra-curricular activities was woefully small. Admittedly there was a teachers’ strike when I was at middle school, but even allowing for that, with the exception of rehearsals for the annual school play, I hardly ever stayed later than 4 o’clock, and certainly never went to school during the holidays. More to the point, I can’t imagine that any member of the current England football team has ever got down on his hands and knees and tended to a football pitch (do they even clean the senior players’ boots any more, as apprentices did in the old days?). If they had, perhaps they might be able to display a little more humility, and devote themselves a little more selflessly to their team.