Soccer club サッカー部

It was pouring with rain until about 10 o’clock last Thursday morning, so instead of doing three and a half hours of soccer club, I did an hour and a half. In that hour and a half, though, I sweated off at least a couple of kilos, pulled a muscle in my leg, felt like I was about to have a heart attack, did a spot of gardening and didn’t kick a single football.

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.

The rellies

Once Mrs M and I had recovered from our jet lag sufficiently that we weren’t liable to have a narcoleptic attack and fall asleep while driving, eating or having a chat, we went to visit some of the in-laws. Mrs M’s mother is one of seven siblings and her father is one of six, so there are plenty to choose from, and today we headed for the coast, where our first stop was Ajigaura, a small town with a sandy beach which in the summer is packed with daytrippers.

Particularly with relatives, but also with superiors at work, tradesmen and so on, it is customary to address people by their title, so Mrs M genuinely doesn’t know the Christian names of some of her aunts and uncles, and where I would say ‘Uncle Dave’ or ‘Auntie Dave-ette’, for example, her family have attached names to their relatives based on where they live, or other seemingly random criteria. So instead of saying ‘Uncle Ken’ and ‘Auntie Rika’, Mrs M talks about Yui-chan-papa and Yui-chan-mama (Yui being Ken and Rika’s eldest daughter), and when I asked what her mother’s older brother was called, Mrs M couldn’t remember. ‘He’s just Oji-chan (uncle),’ she said, although more importantly, he is the choh-nan (eldest son / 長男), and as well as being responsible for looking after his ninety-year-old mother – Mrs M’s maternal grandmother – the ownership of her house in Ajigaura will one day automatically revert to him (a system that rather neatly bypasses any family squabbles about who will inherit what when their parents have passed away).

The Ajigaura clan has its fingers in plenty of pies, including a car park opposite the beach, a kiosk for refreshments, a shower block for those customers who need to wash the seawater out of their hair after going for a swim, a camp site, and a business making kansoh-imo (dried potatoes / 乾燥芋), which believe it or not are quite a delicacy in Japan. Their house is at the end of a long driveway among an assortment of greenhouses, garages and outbuildings, and when we turned up, there were still large cracks in the steps leading up to the front porch. Having sat down around the kotatsu – which as well as giving off its own heat was positioned on an electric floor blanket, no less – talk soon turned to the earthquake.

‘The front door wouldn’t open at all until I repaired it,’ said Oji-chan ‘and the whole house moved about thirty centimetres, so all of the water pipes had sheared off. I managed to repair them as well, although it took a while to get hold of the parts. They were all sold out at Joyful Honda [for some reason, DIY superstores in Japan are often prefixed with the word ‘joyful’], and at the ironmonger’s down the road, he had the parts but he couldn’t get at them straight away because everything had been turned upside down in the earthquake.’

When the radio began broadcasting a tsunami warning, Masao-oji-chan – Oji-chan’s younger brother, who also lives in Ajigaura – began chauffeuring everyone to higher ground, taking one vehicle at a time.
‘We’ve got seven or eight cars and vans, so I was going back and forth, back and forth… From where I parked them at the top of the hill, I noticed the tide going right out. You could see the sea bed in the harbour, which has never happened before. There were a couple of ships further off the coast, and once the warning sounded, they headed north.’ (I’m pretty sure this is what Masao said, and I suppose it makes sense to head towards a high wave rather than to have it hit you side-on or from behind – there was some eye-opening footage of a ship in the tsunami that illustrated this point, although it doesn’t seem to be available any more on the BBC homepage.)

The harbour faces south-east, with a long concrete wall stretching around its northern perimeter, and it was probably this that saved Ajigaura from more serious damage.
‘There were three or four big swells,’ said Masao, ‘and the tsunami reached right up to the coast road. It stopped there, though, so we didn’t have to evacuate completely.’
‘We used the stream that runs behind the house when the mains water was cut off,’ said Oji-chan, ‘and once word got around, people were coming from all over to stock up. We’ve got a petrol generator as well, so we managed to get the bath going.’
‘One of the bathrooms is out of action because all the tiles are broken,’ continued Masao, ‘but the other one is OK. The bath is on a bit of a slant, mind you – probably about two centimeters off, I should think.’

‘How about the aftershock last night?’ said Kikue-oba-chan, Oji-chan’s wife. ‘Were you OK?’
‘That was scary enough for me,’ I said – whilst it was probably only a four or a five on the Japanese version of the Richter Scale, it was still the biggest I had ever experienced.
‘He was straight up out of bed and standing by the front door ready to leave!’ said Mrs M.
As our futon began to shake from side to side and the sliding doors and windows began to rattle, Mrs M had stayed put, contemplating whether or not to dessert the warmth of the duvet, but I wasn’t going to take any risks.
‘That’s what they say, though, isn’t it?’ said Masao, laughing. ‘Don’t worry about anyone else, just save yourself!’

A couple of kilometres inland at Hara, we found the usual scene of Yaeko asleep beneath the kotatsu (Yaeko often does night shifts at an old people’s home, and the last time we visited, she had worked from 3pm the previous day until 9am) and her dad (Shuhzoh-oji-chan) watching their enormous flat-screen TV, which is permanently switched on, and at probably forty-eight inches across completely dominates their modest front room. Yaeko’s mother, Taka-oba-chan (aka. Hara-oba-chan – it took Mrs M several minutes to remember her Christian name when I asked later on) had her leg in plaster from falling off her bicycle, but still insisted on hobbling through to the kitchen on crutches to make us a cup of tea. This being Japan, there was no chance of her husband offering to help, so Mrs M went instead, which left me and Shuhzoh on our own together.

Shuhzoh looks permanently dishevelled, with his baggy clothes, ruffled grey hair and one or two missing teeth, and while he never drinks alcohol, over the years he has apparently gambled away ‘enough money to buy a house’ on pachinko. Possibly because he used to work as a fisherman – seafaring types often seem to have developed the strongest dialects – his Japanese is extremely difficult to understand, and without Mrs M to chip in as interpreter, I tried my best to nod in the right places as he rattled on about the earthquake and its aftermath. He said something about Fukushima in relation to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, something else about politicians (derogatory, as far as I could make out), and something about what happened when the earthquake struck as he was working in the factory next door.

‘I was standing at my machine and this big chunk of metal came shooting past me from behind. It only missed me by this much.’ He pinched his thumb and forefinger until they were almost touching. ‘Must have weighed about thirty kilos – I’m lucky to be alive, you know!’

I understood this last bit a little better, because Shuhzoh repeated it for Mrs M’s benefit when she and Taka returned with the tea. Shuhzoh and Taka’s other daughter Yumiko then appeared with several children in tow – both her own and Yaeko’s. As the chohjo (eldest daughter / 長女), Yumiko – like Oji-chan in Ajigarura – is responsible for keeping an eye on her parents, and although they don’t live under the same roof, Yumiko and her husband have built a house directly next door, while Yaeko and her family will soon move to another house down the road, where we had all congregated for the tatémaé ceremony before Christmas.

At this point Yaeko finally stirred, and was soon urging me to give her children English lessons. ‘Go on,’ she always says to them when I am there, ‘say hello!’ At which point they invariably run from the room in fear, and on this occasion, with the house now full of people, Mrs M and I soon followed suit, although not before Mrs M remembered what she had been meaning to ask Shuhzoh all along.

‘Was the TV OK in the earthquake?’ she said.
‘Oh yes, it was fine,’ said Shuhzoh, and pointed to its base, which was firmly fixed to a glass-fronted unit with four large screws.

From the archives IV

Baldie Song in School Broadcast – Teacher With Thinning Hair Enraged

In an elementary school in Maehashi City, a song that ridicules people with thinning hair was broadcast via an elementary school’s PA system.

It is understood that a teacher in his 40s with thinning hair was angered by the song, and made 28 pupils prostrate themselves on the classroom floor. The song, which is called ‘Fugue for Baldies in a Minor Key’, came from an internet video site and is by a duo called Brief & Trunks.

On December 30th at 1pm, around one to two minutes of the song were broadcast. Whilst he was with the headmaster, the teacher in charge of the broadcast club heard the song and rushed to the studio. He then stopped the broadcast and told off six members of the broadcast club, making them prostrate themselves on the floor for around a minute. Four days later, twenty-seven more children who were listening to the song were asked to prostrate themselves.

A problem came to light after some of the children’s parents contacted the school. It was pointed out that ‘because the teacher has thinning hair, he flew into a rage’, although the teacher in question has stressed that, ‘I did not become angry because of my personal feelings’.



From the archives VI


Woman in silver seat has shorts cut with scissors

A man has been arrested for property damage by police in Higashi Matsuyama, Saitama Prefecture, after a woman who was asleep on a train had her shorts cut with a pair of scissors. The suspect, 57-year-old Kohji Takahashi of no fixed address, claims to be employed as an architect.

At around 6.45am on the 19th, on board a semi-express train travelling from Sakado to Sakama on the Tobu-Tojo line, Takahashi was sitting to the left of a twenty-year-old vocational college student, who was asleep in a ‘silver seat’. The suspect is alleged to have cut the left thigh of the woman’s shorts in three places, the cuts measuring approximately ten centimetres in length.

‘The woman was occupying a sliver seat, and I became angry because I thought an OAP would not be able to sit there,’ Takahashi said.

The woman did not realise that her shorts were being cut, but having woken up when Takahashi stood up to leave, she got off at Takasaka station and reported the incident to a member of staff, who made an emergency call.


電車内で寝ていた女性の半ズボンをはさみで切ったとして埼玉県警東松山署は、器物損壊の疑いで住所不定の自称建築作業員、高橋耕二 容疑者(五七)を逮捕した。
逮捕容疑は十九日午前六時四十分ごろ、東武東上線池袋発小川町行き準急電車が、北坂戸—坂間を走行中、シルバーシートで寝ていた女性専門学校生(二〇)の左隣に座り、持っていたはさみで、女性の半ズボンの左太もも部分三 カ所を約十センチずつ切った疑い。
半 ズボンを切られている最中は気付かなかった女性だが、高橋容疑者が立ち上がったことで目が覚め、自らも高坂駅で下車。事情を聴いた駅員が一一〇番通報し た。