It’s just not baseball

Despite there being a page-long explanation of the rules in the current junior high school PE textbook, very few of my students have even heard of cricket, let alone played it, so while Mrs M, M Jr and myself were in London over the Christmas holidays, I was interested to see the following article – published as part of a regular column called Bridging People – in Eikoku News Digest, one of a handful of Japanese-language newspapers available in the UK:

Building bridges between the UK and Japan

In September 2012 a motion was proposed in the Scottish Parliament to recognise the activities not of a Scotsman but of a Japanese man. He was to be commended for his untiring work in popularising cricket – a sport normally regarded as the preserve of the English gentleman – in his home country. His influence has spread far and wide, and through his activities he has formed lasting connections around the world.

Naoki Miyaji – profile

Born on 16th September 1978 in Tochigi Prefecture, Japan (full name Miyaji Alex Naoki / 宮地・アレックス・直樹).
Graduated from Keio University.
Completed an MA at the London School of Economics.
First chosen to represent Japan’s national cricket team in 2000.
Has since played in Melbourne, Australia and for various clubs in London.
CEO of the Japan Cricket Association since 2008.
Created Cricket For Smiles, a project to support the recovery from the Great East Japan Earthquake.

On 12th September 2012 at the parliament building in Edinburgh, the capital of Scotland and a World Heritage Site, a motion was proposed to commend Naoki Miyaji. Miyaji was being acknowledged for his efforts in popularising cricket in Japan, although at the time, he was representing his home country on an overseas tour.

The following day in Samoa, a tiny island in the South Pacific, Miyaji had just finished practicing for the the upcoming World Cricket League [a tournament for national sides without test status], and was about to go out for an evening meal with his teammates. One of them showed his mobile phone to Miyaji, saying, ‘Look, this has just popped up on the news’. Miyaji peered at the screen and saw a report about the Scottish Parliament’s motion to commend him. Miyaji – now back in Japan and working hard at the offices of the Japan Cricket Association – reflects with a wry smile, ‘At the time I had no idea what it was all about.’

Naoki Miyaji was born and brought up in Japan by his Japanese father and Scottish mother, and as a ten year old went to stay at an aunt’s house in Wimbledon, West London for the summer holidays. During that brief trip he attended a sports camp and had his first encounter with cricket. Miyaji had neither seen nor heard of the game in Japan, ‘but for some reason,’ he says, ‘it made a strong impression on me’. In junior high school he brought up the subject with a surprised ALT, who as Miyaji recalls, ‘certainly didn’t think he’d be talking with a Japanese student about cricket!’ Pleased that her son had taken an interest in the culture of her home country, Miyaji’s mother bought him a complete set of cricket equipment, which he used at the local park with his brothers, making up the rules as they went along. Miyaji began to play cricket properly after joining the cricket club at Keio University. ‘To be honest, even then we didn’t properly understand the rules. In fact,’ he says, laughing, ‘on the first day of practice I was the only person who brought a bat with them!’

Miyaji, who had loved sport since he was a child, played a key part in the inter-university tournament six months later, and was subsequently chosen to represent Japan at Lord’s – the headquarters of cricket and hallowed ground for players and fans alike – against a prestigious MCC team. ‘The MCC players had an aura of nobility about them,’ says Miyaji. ‘They were energetic but relaxed at the same time. They listened to our questions intently and always had an intelligent answer. I thought to myself, “so this is what a true gentleman is”.’

Having spoken English with his mother since he was a child, Miyaji is now fluent, so he looks after Japanese teams when they are on tour in the UK, and acts as a point of contact for the International Cricket Council when he is in Japan. Since being chosen as a member of the national team he has had plenty of opportunities to travel, appearing as far afield as the United Arab Emirates, Botswana and China. Seeking opportunities to improve his technique, he has played in Australia, and of course in England, the birthplace of cricket. But while cricket has opened a window onto the world for Miyaji. rather than moving abroad, he has chosen Japan as his base. Here, awareness of cricket, which is popular in countries all over the world, is low. Even if you are chosen for the national side, there is no coach and no practice ground, a situation that Miyaji decided he had to try and change.

The Great East Japan Earthquake struck on 11th March 2011, and at the time Miyaji was in Tokyo, on his way back from representing Japan at an invitation match in New Zealand. At the end of February that year, a devastating earthquake had struck the south island of New Zealand, and he had also travelled there to discuss plans for a charity event. After the quake in Japan, however, Miyaji redirected his efforts towards the recovery in his home country.

When the quake hit, his mother was living in Shichigahama Town in Miyagi Prefecture. She survived, and soon afterwards opened a knitting class as a way of bringing the local community together. ‘Maybe I can do something as well,’ Miyaji thought. It wasn’t within his power to hand out food, give shelter or provide the kind of essentials that would enable victims of the disaster to survive, so instead, he thought, why not play cricket with children in the area as a first step on the road to recovery. The Japan Cricket Association, of which Miyaji is CEO, is an NPO with the aim of increasing opportunities for people to enjoy playing sports, thereby popularising cricket. ‘At times like these,’ he thought, ‘if you can’t do anything as the representative of a visible organisation, then what exactly are you representing it for? Since people in the disaster-stricken areas were saying that the smiles and laughter of their children were their biggest inspiration, I started the Cricket For Smiles project to enable children from those areas to have fun, and to enjoy playing cricket.’

At schools in the disaster-affected region of Tohoku, lessons were being taught in temporary classrooms, and playing fields and sports halls were either partly or wholly unusable. In other words, during breaktimes and after school, children had no chance to play baseball, soccer and so on. In that environment, regardless of whether or not the instinct to play such a completely novel sport existed, the rules were changed to enable playing in a limited space, and plastic bats and rubber balls were utilised, so that cricket became a fun game that got people moving and brought smiles to their faces. After a workshop in Kessen-numa City in Miyagi Prefecture in which staff and parents from numerous elementary and junior high schools took part, Cricket For Smiles was taken up by the Kessen-numa Board Of Education, and cricket lessons were started at every school in the area.

‘The Scottish Parliament commends Mr Miyaji and the Japan Cricket Association for developing the Cricket For Smiles programme.’ This is a phrase taken from a motion proposed on 12th September 2012. ‘It’s not me who should be recognised,’ says Miyaji. ‘It’s the people who have turned cricket into a global network’, says Miyaji, a sentiment that is backed by the many supporters of Cricket For Smiles: by the donations of money and cricket equipment from Indian people in Dubai, from Schools in Scotland, from Scots in Shanghai, and from New Zealanders in London.

‘In Japan the scope of cricket is extremely narrow, but around the world, its influence travels far and wide,’ says Miyaji, and thus, a man who lives in East Asia, where cricket is treated as a ‘minor sport’, is actually an important part of a much bigger picture.

As the original text of the motion points out, ‘there are now over 3,000 regular cricketers in Japan, with teams at both senior and junior level, including some 30 university teams’. So perhaps this sport of the English gentleman can one day overtake baseball as the most enjoyable thing to do with a bat and a ball on a summer’s afternoon in Japan.

(Donations can be made to Cricket For Smiles via their homepage, which can be viewed in both English and Japanese.)

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