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'Failure is Not Just an Individual Matter'
A professor of sports philosophy explains why Japanese athletes have become expert in saying sorry

The Agony of Defeat: The enormous expectations Japan places on its athletes mean no one is having much fun

September 27, 2000
Web posted at 3:00 p.m. Hong Kong time, 3:00 a.m. EDT

On the roster of career choices, "sports philosopher" sounds like a fairly inventive one. But that's exactly what 39-year-old Mitsunori Urushibara, a professor at Japan's Shikoku Gakuin University, is. Really. TIME Tokyo Bureau Chief Tim Larimer talked to Urushibara recently as some of Japan's Olympians in Sydney cracked under intense pressure to bring home gold medals.

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TIME: Why does Japan put so much pressure on its athletes?
Urushibara: Japanese athletes are placed in sports circles, which are just a miniature version of Japanese society, where each individual knows where he or she is [placed] in terms of the community. Each person knows exactly what is expected of him or her. The role of the group, not individualism, is very important.

TIME: The group mentality affects just about everything in Japan, no?
Urushibara: It works positively in team sports, like volleyball. That's why Japan was really good at volleyball back in the 1960s. And that's why they're good at soccer now. Sometimes, when it works in a positive way, this kind of pressure works. But in individual sports, when there is extremely strong pressure on an athlete to win, and he cannot, then he is put in very weak position, and his position in the community is questioned.

TIME: That sounds like what happened to Suzu Chiba, the swimmer who lost at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996 and was left off of this year's team.

Urushibara: In her case it wasn't an individual issue, but a matter for the team. When we talk about 'the team,' it is different from the concept of 'the team' in the West. In the Japanese athletes' mentality, the team means village, a very old-fashioned village where a mayor lords over the other villagers. A very hierarchical relationship exists. In this case, the mayor is the head of the swimming federation. He's like the Emperor. Chiba therefore has to act like one of the village members. She should have known what to do for the community-- and feel responsibility. Because of the village mentality, failure is not just an individual matter. Athletes are also terrified of being excommunicated from the group.

TIME: That sounds horrible! It's bad enough to lose, but then to think you'll be shunned after you lose.
Urushibara: That's the characteristic of Japanese sports. It's pretty much an authoritarian system that rules.

TIME: Doesn't this kind of pressure hinder Japanese athletes?
Urushibara: I think you are probably right. On the other hand, it sometimes helps.

TIME: Do you feel sorry for the athletes?

Urushibara: Well, yes, and it was really a relief that Ryoko Tamura [the 48-kg judoka] got the gold medal. If she didn't win, it would have been a terrible thing. Japanese people really pressure the athletes. The Japanese media also play a role in this. Everybody experiences this culture of pressure: bosses do it to workers, the media does it to athletes... They make it so the sports are not just to enjoy. In the process they make the athletes agonize over their events. It's often said the difference between the U.S. Major Leagues and Japan's professional baseball league is that the Japanese players don't enjoy the game.

TIME: Before the Olympics started, I interviewed baseball pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka. He started to talk about having fun at the Olympics, how he was looking forward to meeting players from other countries. Then he stopped himself and said, "I shouldn't say that. Of course I am going to pitch well and win."
Urushibara: That's very characteristic of Japan. You know, many Japanese people came to Australia and went straight from the airport to watch the Japanese soccer team play. They didn't even go to their hotel--the next day they were back at work. That is typical: They came to Australia not just to enjoy themselves, but to cheer for Japan. My Australian friends asked me, "Why don't they go sightseeing?" I told them they just came to see the soccer game, but the Australians couldn't understand that.

TIME: Do these fans ever have fun?
Urushibara: Young people came wearing samurai wigs. Older people cheered and waved flags. They cheered in the right way--the way you are supposed to. It was very Japanese. They aren't just enjoying themselves; they have a sense that it is compulsory, that they have to behave in the correct way as a Japanese. I lived in Australia for a long time, so I was kind of neutral. I wasn't cheering wholeheartedly. The other Japanese looked at me and were wondering, "What nationality is this guy?" Japanese fans are very polite, on the other hand. Europeans use slanderous words at soccer games. Japanese don't do that. Another typical thing: While I was there, a Japanese girl was calling a friend back in Japan, from a telephone booth. She said, "I came to Australia to cheer." I thought that was very Japanese. She didn't come to watch the game. She came to cheer for the athletes.

TIME: The baseball fans in Japan are famous for their robot-like, monotonous cheering. It can really give someone a headache!
Urushibara: Especially the cheerleaders. They are not even looking at the game. They are there to cheer the team, not to watch the game. It's like a job.

TIME: We laugh about this, but of course there have been examples where this kind of pressure has had tragic results. Like the marathon bronze medallist in 1964, Kokichi Tsuburaya, who committed suicide when injury forced him to miss the Games four years later.
Urushibara: I hope the Japanese athletes today won't be cornered to that extreme. That's why I think we need to remove this kind of pressure.

TIME: Are things becoming any more relaxed?
Urushibara: I think nowadays it's becoming more accepted that athletes enjoy the sports. They don't have the mentality that they have to win for country, by any means, as it was during the war and after the war.

TIME: The great Australian swimmer, Ian Thorpe, finished second in one of his races. He didn't apologize. He just said something like, "Well you can't win everyday." Would a Japanese athlete ever say that?
Urushibara: Of course not! They would say, "I am sorry, I couldn't do it." Behind the words is the attitude that "people above me have done so much for me." It's this vertical arrangement of groups in society that I have been talking about. And the people above the athletes, like the coaches or the officials or the sports federation, would say, "I have done so much for you, so go for it."

TIME: I'm reminded again of what a difficult burden it must be to be Japanese!
Urushibara: It's not as simple as many foreigners think. It's more complex. There's a rule that lower people obey upper people. And you cannot rebel. People in the upper level have to tuck the lower people under their wings and look after them. The system exists in Japanese corporations as well. Upper level people feel comfortable being at the top. People under them are comfortable being protected. They know where they are in terms of the group. There's a certain sense of security and comfort in that.

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