Sport


UPDATE (12/8/2016): The last few days this post has received a lot of new hits, the first time it’s been noticed in 4 years, and this is obviously because the judo is on at the Rio Olympics. I’d just like to say that this year there seems to be a lot less of the faffing I discuss below – a lot more victories on real points, lots of ippon, and few refereeing decisions. Also Japan has won a gold and lots of bronze, which is nice. So I guess sometime in the past 4 years the Judo authorities must have had a good long think about how to make their sport more interesting. I wonder if UFC forced them to reconsider …? Anyway, if you’re reading this post now, please bear in mind that some of these complaints don’t apply as much to the judo you’re watching – whatever reason you came here after watching judo at the 2016 olympics, it was worse in 2012!!

On Thursday the Yahoo Japan news service began a countdown to the first Olympics ever in which no male competitor won Judo gold. Watching the olympics from Japan means I have been exposed to a feast of judo competition, and it has been very exciting. It has also, however, been extremely frustrating and at times boring, because there seem to be a few serious problems with the way judo bouts are conducted. The frustrations boil down to basically two main complaints: almost everyone wins on penalties rather than technique; and judge’s decisions are extremely opaque. There’s something vaguely wrong with winning gold medal because of accumulated penalties, rather than anything you actually did, and it’s also frustrating to watch someone hurled to the ground by a moderately well-applied throw, only to have it come to nothing. This is especially frustrating because one well-applied throw (ippon) wins the match no matter how many not-quite-so-good throws the opponent has applied, even if the effective results of the throws are in both cases essentially the same. In essence, the points awarded to a move are based not on how much it damages the opponent but on how well it was applied.

Having a history in kickboxing, this seems like a very strange idea to me. You don’t win knockouts in kickboxing by kicking someone more beautifully than they kicked you. A knockout should be objectively determined by the opponent’s inability to continue fighting, not by a dubious judgment about whether the technique was better applied than the previous move. Also, one should be able to lose a fight through accumulation of minor infringements, especially since the minor infringements incurred during the Olympic bouts largely seemed to be “stalling.” It doesn’t just make the fights sometimes boring to watch, it makes the end of the fight frustrating, I don’t think it encourages players not to stall, it doesn’t reward the best players, it puts too much weight on split-second decisions by judges, and I think it reduces the amount of technique put on display. I think judo could be made more interesting and pleasurable to watch (and maybe better to participate in too), though enacting a few changes to make it flow a bit more like boxing…

  1. Move to multiple rounds: A single five minute round, with a subsequent three minute “golden score” round, simply encourages stalling and thus the accumulation of penalties. Wrestling for five minutes is enormously physically demanding, and attempting even one serious throw (or getting out of one serious attempt at a hold) can take it out of even the fittest of people. A 30 second break between two three minute bouts would discourage stalling, since it would enable the fighters to take a break after herculean efforts, but it would also give them an opportunity to consult with their coach, regroup mentally, and consider weak points in their fighting. This would make moves in the second round much more effective. Given most bouts go to a three minute golden round at present, all bouts could simply be set up as three, three-minute rounds with no golden score, and the audience would get to enjoy not just fresh fighters in the second and third rounds, but changes of tactic as the fighters consult during breaks
  2. Knockouts should be objective: It should not be possible to score a knockout win if the opponent is not actually knocked out. Holding someone down for 25 seconds, doing a particularly beautiful throw, all good things but completely irrelevant to victory. A knockout should be either a submission hold forcing the opponent to tap out, or a choke that knocks them unconscious. Anything else should just be points in the bag, and there should be no points for holding someone down for 25 seconds – what’s the purpose of that? Players should only be holding each other down on the ground for the purpose of getting a submission hold – if they can’t get one on after a judicious period of time the referee should break them up and restart the fight. That will stop this kind of silliness.
  3. Move to a boxing-style points system: Rather than having categories of points that don’t interact (ippon, waza-ari, yuko), throws and failed submission holds should be scored on arithmetically accumulating points (1 for a partial effort, 2 for a beautiful effort), and any bout that doesn’t end in a knockout should be judged on the sum of these points, like boxing. This shift, more than anything else involving penalties, will put an end to stalling, because if players know that two imperfectly-executed throws will count as much as one beautiful throw, they will try harder to use techniques instead of fiddling with one another’s collars for three minutes while they try to put on that perfect match-winning throw. It’s a simple fact of fighting that every attempted attack sets you up for a counter, and if you know that by putting yourself out there you make it easier for your opponent to win the match with just one throw, you won’t act until you’re certain. The result of all this faffing around is the accrual of penalties, and fights won on penalties. A point-style system won’t stop this kind of silliness, but it will at least encourage application of judo techniques during the actual bout.
  4. Penalties should not win fights: except in extreme cases, obviously, but penalties should only make the difference in a close fight (except perhaps safety penalties). I personally think penalties for stalling should not exist (except in the most egregious of cases), because fighting can be a thinking woman’s sport, and people shouldn’t be penalized for having a counter-attacking style or for taking their time against an opponent with longer reach or different techniques. No one wants to watch a fight with no moves being made, but no one wants to watch a fight where the competitors are going through the motions to avoid a penalty even though they’re both dead on their feet.
  5. Take the judging away from the referee: The referee can’t see all angles of the battle, but it’s the referee who currently decides whether a move is ippon or waza-ari or yuko. Sure, the ringside judges can interfere but to a large extent judging is currently done by the referee. I think this will just lead to bad decisions. A panel of three judges, watching from different angles, should decide all points-related issues, and the referee should adjudicate on the fighting stuff – whether to break up foes who have gone to ground, whether a move was unsafe, etc.
  6. Ditch the prissiness and bullying: Several times I watched a fight actually being interrupted so that the referee could tell a contestant to do up their belt. This seems amazingly prissy to me, and it’s a mark of a sport that is obsessed with its traditions. These athletes are at the top of their field in the world, they train really hard and work with extreme discipline to get into this event, where they get in trouble for even a few seconds of time wasting no matter how exhausted they are – but the referee can stop the fight to worry about their belts. I think that’s plainly quite insulting and it strikes me as a hallmark of the kind of bullying that is endemic in the “traditional” martial arts. I also notice that the ringside judges point at each other when they are discussing a disagreement, and some team coaches clearly have a very bad attitude towards discipline – I watched one telling scene where a French woman won her bout, and upon reaching the edge of the mat received a blistering earful of abuse from her coach. That’s not how you inspire athletes and its not how you make a sport into a spectacle. So ditch the fussing about uniforms and tradition, and treat it for what it is – a sport that should be conducted in a way that makes it fun for participants and viewers alike. Speaking of which …
  7. Mouthguards and groinguards should be mandatory: I watched a German woman in a state of panic after copping a hand to the face, because she wasn’t wearing a mouthguard. I can’t believe that she was allowed within reach of the olympic stadium without a full set of protective equipment, and the idea that she could be competing in a sport at this level with no protective gear is astounding. I can’t find the rules online but it appears that at least some federations have banned mouthguards, which is hard to comprehend. I’m pretty confident that this is unnecessary, and martial arts newsgroups certainly have reports of wrestlers who wear them in sparring (as do many judoka, I think). So why not in competition? This is another classic symptom of bullying in sport and it should be stamped out immediately.

So in essence, move to boxing-style judging systems, make knockouts objective rather than subjective, remove the judging role from the referee, and ensure that the fighters get regular breaks and an opportunity to consult with their coaches. And don’t insult them by fussing about their belts – it’s childish and patronizing. Maybe with those changes judo can become as fun and engaging as the other great combat sports – boxing, kickboxing and mixed martial arts.

And, speaking of which – today is the first day of women’s boxing in the Olympics, which is nice. But why aren’t kickboxing and MMA in there? If kickboxing became an Olympic sport, Thailand would be in the top 10 countries every time!

I’ve been enjoying the Olympics from the vantage point of my air-conditioned couch, and because I’m in Japan I’m getting to see only the sports that interest Japanese viewers, so at the moment it’s wall-to-wall Judo and swimming. Of course, having something of a soft spot for China I’m quite happy to see them coming up in the world of olympic sports, and this year’s sensation is Ye Shiwen, the 16 year old swimmer whose performance has sparked controversy. An American high up in swimming circles claims she must be a drug cheat, because not only did she beat a man in one leg of her medley (and not just any man – an American man), her times have improved rapidly in just a year or two, and her freestyle leg was just so much faster than her other legs.

Of course this has pissed off the Chinese delegation and Chinese media no end, though to her credit Ye Shiwen has responded in a level-headed manner both in and out of the pool. But she might be surprised to hear that she has found some strong defenders in the Australian press. The Sydney Morning Herald has an article disputing all the main claims of the American coach, and suggesting that both Australian and American achievers could be accused of drug cheating if judged on their performance alone. About Ms. Ye swimming faster than an American man (Lochte) in her freestyle leg, he points out that she didn’t actually beat his medley speed overall, and in any case four other men in Lochte’s race did beat Ye’s time in the same leg – they were all swimming their hearts out to catch up with Lochte, which is what Ye had to do in her freestyle leg to catch the leader.

John Leonard’s other big complaint is that Ye shaved five seconds off her previous best at this Olympics. The Herald’s article tears this complaint apart:

It wasn’t an insinuation Rice had to deal with when she clocked her world record in 2008, which was at the time an absurdly fast result.

Earlier that year, Rice shaved a startling six seconds off her personal best time to hit 4.31.46 at the Australian trials. American Katie Hoff reclaimed the mark a few months late before Rice countered at the Beijing Games, reducing it to below 4.30 for the first time. In contrast, people seized on the fact Ye reduced her PB by five seconds to claim the new mark of 4.28.43 as genuine grounds for suspicion.

The article also points out that Leonard’s comparison of Ye’s times now with two years ago are unfair because of Ye’s age:

To the wider sporting world, Ye is only now becoming a notable name. Yet to swimming diehards, she has been one of the rising stars for some years, even if her surge of form in London has caught most people by surprise. Beisel and Rice had been the favourites for gold.

Ye won the 200m IM at the Asian Games in 2010 (2.09.37) and the 400m IM (4.33.79), all at age 14. At the time, she was listed at 160cm tall. Now, the official Olympic site lists her 12 cm loftier at 172cm. That sort of difference in height, length of stroke and size of hand leads to warp-speed improvement.

To me these paragraphs also contain an insinuation of bad faith against Leonards: he clearly, as a swimming insider, knows that Ye’s times have grown with her age and body size, and should be aware of her history. So why is he making the complaints so openly now? Would he be happy to have them made against Michael Phelps or Stephanie Rice when they started their careers? Is it fair on Ye that her improvement should be immediately slated home to drugs? The accusations have already hit home, with the doping committee making an unprecedented release of her pre-olympic drug testing results to calm the waters, but it’s probably the case that the claims won’t die down.
I think that she’s probably not a drug cheat (or if she is, she’s doing the same undetectable cheating as everyone else) and Leonards and others who insinuate that she is are well aware that her performance is natural. But these people are watching their nation’s long-standing dominance of this sport sliding out of their grip as China’s performance improves. There are also insinuations of “military-style training camps” (always a marker of repression when they do it, but of efficiency when we do it), tightly-controlled sporting worlds, etc. But in fact the Chinese swimming world is quite open and employs foreign coaches, one of whom wrote an illuminating opinion piece for the Guardian, indicating exactly why China is improving its performances so fast: hard work. This coach writes:

Chinese athletes train incredibly hard, harder than I can explain in words and as a coach who has placed swimmers on five different Olympic Games teams, I have never seen athletes train like this anywhere in the world.

They have an unrelenting appetite for hard work, can (and will) endure more pain for longer than their western counterparts, will guarantee to turn up for practice every single time and give their all. They are very proud of their country, they are proud to represent China and have a very team focused mentality.

He adds that there is no special talent selection program, but that he just selects those players he sees and thinks are good. But he gives an interesting insight into the supposedly centrally-managed, state mandated programs that are always painted in such a negative light when they compete with Western athletics – in fact, like so much of Chinese “communism” they’re probably more free market than those in the West:

Let’s also not forget that this is their only avenue for income; most do not study and sport offers them a way out or a way up from where they and their families currently live in society. If their swimming fails, they fail and the family loses face … my athletes are salaried and receive bonuses for performance; I am salaried and receive bonuses for performance. We all want performance, not mediocrity, not sport for all, but gold medals – and they are not afraid to say this.

He also observes that China gives him all the funding he needs, and enormous freedom to manage his coaching programs:

If I want a foreign training camp, money is available; if I want high-altitude training – money is available; if I want an assistant coach – money is available; if I want some new gadgets or training equipment, guess what? Money is available.

I think this is the real threat that people like Leonards are worried about. As China becomes wealthy, it is pouring money into playing catch up not just industrially and economically, but in the cultural and scientific pursuits that have traditionally marked out the west as “advanced,” on the assumption that fast development in these areas will lead to results that will challenge western cultural hegemony. They don’t want to be pinned down to traditionally “Asian” sports that often have lower value (ping-pong, badminton, the traditional martial arts) but want to compete in areas that, by being traditionally western strongholds, often have higher cultural value attached to them: swimming, basketball, soccer and gymnastics. And by dint of their combination of rapid economic growth, rampant nationalism, and highly successful mix of central planning and free market ideas, they’re going to catch up fast. The doyens of a previous era of cultural and sporting superiority don’t want to accept it, just as a previous generation of industrialists couldn’t accept Japanese superiority in industry, and a previous generation of military planners couldn’t believe Japanese naval and air superiority.

As China continues to improve its sporting prowess, I think we’ll see more of the same, allied at times with accusations of cheating and corruption. But I think, given the sour grapes China’s growth is producing in many areas in the west, we should approach many claims about their sports programs and sportspeople with a great deal of cynicism and caution.

Kitty-chan meets Jabbito!

I went to my first ever baseball game last night, with the students and staff of my department. We watched the Giants (Tokyo) vs. the Tigers (Osaka), a resounding Giants victory (about 6-3) – or at least I guess it was a resounding victory, because I know  nothing about baseball. One of our students was a graduate of a famous baseball high school, so before we went we arranged a special seminar for him to educate the foreign staff and students (about half the department) on the ins-and-outs of this mysterious game, but sadly his lecture was shambolic and his explanations mostly confined to teaching us the Giants’ song. How that took 40 minutes I cannot fathom, since it consists only of saying “oooooooo” a lot.

It was fun, although most of the time I was talking to the people around me – just like cricket, I suppose (there’s lots of ways that baseball is like an abridged version of cricket). The woman in front of me, pictured here with her Giants-themed kitty chan scrunchie, was not interested in conversation however – she was a very serious fan indeed. Perhaps it was through the power of her regular banzai that her team won.

This trip to the baseball and some recent experiences in Akihabara have me marveling at the gender-inclusiveness of Japanese hobbies and sports, and I’ll be posting on that when I get time in the next few days…

Saturday night was boxing’s equivalent of a neckbeard giving a naked reading of Carcosa on Sesame Street. It was the chavtastic moment when the final nail was hammered into the coffin containing heavyweight boxing’s credibility. The first hint of the sport’s rapid decline was evident when Tyson returned from prison to “knock out”  a series of patsies; it looked beyond salvation when that same man turned cannibal; but briefly under the rein of the Klitschkos we could all pretend that it had regained some life. But on Saturday night, surely, the sporting public gave up on the farce that is the “sport” of heavyweight boxing, as two classic representatives of everything that is wrong with modern Britain re-enacted a classic Friday night in Guildford, while the only civilized representatives of the sport looked on in horror and barely-disguised scorn.

Of course, the brawl was just the sad end of a sorry series of events, any one of which would have seen the end of a man’s career if perpetrated in a less forgiving, more reality-based sport. The scene was the face-off between the 40 year old Vitali Klitschko (46 fights, 44 wins, 40 KOs), “Dr. Ironfist,” from the Ukraine fighting out of Germany; and 28 year old Dereck Chisora (18 fights, 15 wins, 10 KOs), whose win record is lower than Klitschko’s knockout rate. Klitschko is one of a pair – between him and his younger brother Wladimir they own all the titles in heavyweight boxing – and the talent is so thin on the ground that they have to stoop to beating up men like David Haye, the third leg in Saturday night’s sad showdown. Chisora, perhaps hoping to psyche out the un-psychable Ukrainian machine, Chisora engaged in a series of pre-fight antics that would embarrass anyone with any taste: first he slapped Vitali Klitschko at the weigh-in; then, he spat water in Wladimir Klitschko’s face during the pre-fight introductions. In between this, he refused to allow Wladimir to witness his hand-wrapping, which required some sensitive negotiations and led to a delay in the fight. The Klitschko’s response to this behavior was typically level and measured: after the slap, Vitali was heard to say “You’re fucked now Dereck, you really are fucked,” but otherwise didn’t do much (and revealed in the post-fight press conference that he wasn’t able to knock Chisora out because his right hand was injured). The video of the water-spitting incident shows Wladimir (59 fights, 56 wins, 49 KOs) licking his lips and giving a tight little smile, but no other response – this man is his brother’s prize, and there’s a lot of money at stake, so he restrains himself from taking revenge on a man who is so clearly beneath his regard.

Really, these are not men you want to anger. And it’s a sad indictment of the management of the sport that Chisora even tried: had he engaged in either of those antics before a rugby match, he would certainly not have been allowed to play, and would most likely have been banned for life. The press is talking about 6 months for Chisora, and only because of what happened at the post-fight press conference.

It was at the post-fight conference that we really saw how much British boxing has lost of the dignity it built up under Bruno, Hollyfield and Lewis. Klitschko’s promoter was asked if he would bother with any more British contenders, given the behavior of Chisora and Wladimir’s previous opponent, David Haye, who famously promised to “hospitalise” Wladimir and taunted him continuously in the weeks leading up to the fight, but then put in a terrible performance on the night, that he blamed on a broken toe. The promoter said he would look elsewhere, but was interrupted by the infamous (now retired) Haye himself, from the back of the conference, demanding a fight with Vitali. The promoter’s response, in perfect English: “You don’t get to fight anyone. Chisora showed his face, you just showed your toe.” Chisora’s promoter then suggested a face-off between Chisora and Haye, with the winner to face “a Klitschko” (like a penitent at the altar of boxing …) Haye’s response: Chisora had already lost 3 fights in a row, so why should Haye bother? Chisora took offence to this and walked up to Haye, demanding that Haye “say it to his face.” And so the schoolboy brawl commenced, and ended with Haye swinging a camera tripod around and nearly braining his own trainer. In the video you can see, while all this is happening, Klitschko standing on the podium like some gentle giant, sneering down at his defeated British opponents as they brawl with each other over their own failings, like spoilt children.

This is British boxing in the new millenium: being sneered at by civilized, educated boxers from Europe. There is no talent left in Britain that the Klitschkos will deign to face, and even if there were, on reputation alone the British are best left well outside the ring, brawling in car parks where they belong. Britain has always been one of the top two countries for heavyweights, and British heavyweights have carried the sport with a certain dignity and poise, but in just 10 years the division has been dragged into the gutter by its reprehensible promoters and fighters.

The problem for those of us who enjoy a fighting art mirrors, in many ways, the problems role-playing faced in the 80s through accusations of satanism and addiction. Those of us who enjoy boxing and understand it know that it is a thing of beauty when done properly, but for those looking in from the outside it clearly resembles nothing more than a sanctioned brawl, in which barely-civilized men pound the crap out of each other for excessive amounts of money. We ask them to trust us that this sport is more than mere barbarism, and we point to its elements of discipline, courage and respect – which we like to hope are more than just a silly myth – as evidence that it is worthy of a little more respect than mere brawling. We also want people to think it’s not a particularly dangerous sport – which compared to Rugby it probably isn’t – and we point to the strict adherence to rules of combat as evidence of this. But it’s kind of hard for the general public to believe us when they see the sports peak performers bashing each other with camera tripods and threatening “I’ll fucking shoot him.” It’s the Carcosa problem, in essence, only being played out in front of the cameras on national TV. And it has a spillover effect: as UFC is gaining popularity and professionalism, its more popular cousin, boxing, is making fighting arts look like uncivilized brawling. How is UFC going to make headway then? And how will we be able to, for example, over turn bans on women fighting (often justified on the basis that it’s “uncivilized”) when the men at the top of the art are doing their best to encourage a ban on anyone fighting?

Some promoters have clung onto another great stereotype of the sport that I think has been used to gain it respect it probably never deserves: the “rescuing urban yoof” myth, that boxing offers working class and poor kids “a way out” and offers youth involved in gangs and crime a way to reform and learn to respect themselves and others. Watching the behavior of Haye and Chisora, and comparing it with PhD-endowed Vitali Klitschko, the conclusion is obvious: education makes men better, boxing makes criminals more dangerous. Society might consider itself well-served in asking: perhaps instead of sanctioning these poor kids’ efforts to beat each other up in the ring, we should ban men like Chisora’s trainer from being allowed to teach poor kids from deprived neighbourhoods any skills that might in any way resemble what we see on display in that video? Because it doesn’t appear to have improved their respect for themselves or others, or their wit: it’s just made them bigger and nastier. Perhaps they might be better off staying away from the boxing gym and doing their homework …?

With this sad display, boxing joins the long list of activities that Britain invented or codified, but lost out on to the rest of the world through indiscipline, inequality and poor education. Other notable activities that went this way are:

  • Naval warfare (to the Japanese and then the Americans)
  • Cricket (to Australia)
  • Rugby (to the Antipodes, but increasingly, just about anywhere)
  • Soccer (to everywhere else)
  • Statistics (to India, and then the rest of the Commonwealth, and the USA)
  • The English language (to the Commonwealth)
  • Heavy Industry (to Germany, Japan and the USA, and now China)

I guess so long as they have the Falklands, the British can still lay claim to being the masters of colonialism. It’s important to be good at something, after all! But it’s a long and sad decline that Britain has gone through since the end of the war, and boxing, though hardly likely to be the thing British society will most miss, has now sadly been outsourced to Mexico and the Ukraine. What have the British got left to lose?

Where is the floating girl when you need her?

Yesterday I visited the Studio Ghibli Museum for the first time. It’s in Mitaka, Tokyo, close to my home, and is a museum about the development of animation in Japan, through the eyes of Miyazaki Hayao and the Studio Ghibli team. For those of you who are unfamiliar with Ghibli, they are the creators of Japan’s most-loved Anime movies, including Nausica of the Valley of the Wind, My Neighbour Totoro and Kiki’s Delivery Service. Miyazaki Hayao has had huge artistic and cultural influence in Japan and was also a big influence on industry practice, and is genuinely a household name in a way that I think even Disney would admire. His movies (at least, the earlier ones) are amazing and well worth the respect the Japanese public offer them.

The Ghibli museum is set in a smallish building on the edge of Inokashira Park in Mitaka, about a 10 minute taxi ride from Kichijoji Station. The building itself is designed to resemble the classic style of the houses in many of Miyazaki’s movies, but is set slightly back from the road in amongst trees, to resemble a house in a forest. Inside it is built on three levels, with the Laputa robot on the roof, exhibition spaces on the bottom two levels and a shop and children’s play area on the third floor. The children’s play area is, of course, a Cat Bus. The building itself is small, and admission has to be booked up to a month in advance because of the limited number of people who can enter, but is itself cheap (¥1000). For the price of admission you get access to the museum and one-time admission to the movie theatre, which plays a different short film every month. Sadly only elementary school children can play in the Cat Bus (hrmph!)

The bottom level of the museum has the main exhibits, including a room containing a very brief history of animation, all expressed through Ghibli characters – this has an excellent example of strobe-lit animation using extremely cute Totoro characters, showing the basic process by which animation works. The next level contains an example of an animator’s studio, perhaps modeled on Miyazaki’s studio back in the day, which is very interesting. You walk through a room furnished as if it were a studio, with storyboards and sketches on the walls, books that Miyazaki used as sources, and examples of an animator’s workbench or the types of texts and background material he or she might draw upon – whole scrapbooks of pictures of plants, crystals, planes or animals cut from magazines and books, for example, or textbooks full of scenery from around the world. It gives an insight into how the animator develops their work from idea to final production.

The museum also contains a library of children’s books from around the world, all translated into Japanese (some of which can be purchased), and is constructed with bridges, nooks, crannies and mysteriously-placed windows designed to make it explorable for children – and certainly children were going crazy exploring the building while we were there. It also has a cafe, which I’m sure is very cute, but it was so busy we didn’t dare go near it. Finally, it has a cinema. The ticket to the cinema is a framed clipping of a couple of cells from a film reel, and can be kept as a souvenir. Our film was Chu Zumo, “Mouse Sumo,” which was a cute adaptation of an old folk tale, the story of which (in Japanese) is here.

Mouse Sumo

The basic story of this 13 minute film concerns an old couple who live on a steep mountainside. They are poor and have to work hard, and every day is spent farming on the mountainside with no break. Nothing interesting happens. One night, however, the old man goes outside to take a leak, and sees a bunch of mice sneaking off through the grass into the forest. One is carrying a firefly light, one is carrying a leaf as a penant, and the rest are wearing little sumo thongs. He follows and finds all the mice of the surrounding area gathered around a sumo ring to watch a bout between the mice of his house and the mice of a neighbouring area. These mice are bigger and white, and they wipe the floor with the mice from his house.

Horrified, he returns home and the next day he and his wife set about making the mice into great Sumo Rikishi. While she makes dango powder, he goes down the mountain to get some fish; when he returns they bake Tofu Dengaku (YUM!) and sanma dango, stitch together some better quality sumo thongs, and leave them out for the wrestlers. The mice come down to eat the food and put on the thongs, and immediately become stronger and bigger.

Soon there is another match, and of course the mice from the old man and woman’s house win in a tense battle, because of the strength they gained from the food and support of the old man and woman.

It’s cute for the simple fact that it involves mice, doing sumo, with a frog judge, and mice watching in the crowd, in a classic Japanese image of classic Japanese countryside. The old man and woman are done in classic Ghibli style: the old man’s brow is so furrowed that you cannot see his eyes, and have to read his expressions entirely in his pursed lips. They are, of course, sweet and kind and happy, as befits the classic Japanese stereotype of old people. So it’s a cute, sweet story with lots of funny moments (the frog referee, particularly, is hilarious), and a fine showcase of Ghibli’s talent and style. Screenshots can be seen here.

The movie is also an interesting allegory for common Japanese attitudes towards the state of modern Sumo. Here we have 5 small, weak mice who have to take on 5 bigger, more skilled white mice, from a foreign mountain, who always win. However, the story has us believe that if the wrestlers are supported by the locals, and given a bit of special Japanese magic (in the form of food and support) and just try a bit harder, then they will triumph. Of course, this isn’t happening in real Sumo. The big foreign mice are dominating the sport because all the local mice would rather not enter a sport full of bullies and old-fashioned training methods, which requires years of devotion and suffering for little gain. The local mice are already trying as hard as they can. What’s needed is a change in how they try, but this means changing the hidebound traditions of a near-mystical sport. It would all be so much easier if they could take a few performance-enhancing drugs and, with just a bit more support from the local old people, throw the bigger and tougher foreign mice. Sadly, that’s not how sport works. A change in organization style, structure and training – as well as recruitment practices – is needed before the local mice can beat the big foreign ones. No matter how much support the old locals give them.

The Studio Ghibli museum is smaller than expected and a little crowded, but it contains some interesting insights into the animation process and is very pretty and well laid out. It also comes with a movie that can’t be seen anywhere else. I recommend a visit to this place if you are coming to Tokyo. But remember to book ahead, or you will be disappointed!

All's Fair in Love and Boxing

Last weekend I visited Snowy Hokkaido for a rather fantastic Japanese wedding that had it all: romantic music, over the top dresses, and boxing. It was very traditional. This is a brief description of the events of that day, in case anyone out there is wondering what a Japanese wedding is like.

The wedding was for my friend Miss HighBridge, who I met at Tottori University when I was studying Japanese. She’s a native of Snowy Hokkaido, from the town of Kushiro, but after she graduated from Tottori she got a job with Nissan and ended up in nearby Obihiro. As I write this it’s -11C in Obihiro, and -4 during the day. When we arrived it was 1C, with an overnight forecast of -6, and the snow was only about 20cm deep. We flew to Obihiro airport on Saturday morning, and spent the afternoon exploring the centre of Obihiro. Miss HighBridge was right when she told us Obihiro is a nani mo nai machi, a nowhere town. So with nothing to do in town it was back to the hotel, a dip in the volcanic hot spring and off to the Hokkaido Hotel for the wedding itself.

Our invitation made it clear to us that in Hokkaido weddings are slightly different to the mainland: in the mainland guests are expected to offer goshugi, a present to the new couple, that is anywhere between 20,000 and 50,000 yen ($200 – $500, I guess) in normal circumstances. In a Hokkaido wedding, you pay an admission fee and then don’t need to pay the goshugi. This wedding’s admission fee was 13,000 yen (about $130), but we also took a present of some ornate teacups and a pot from Tokyo (Miss HighBridge is a bit of a hippy). As is typical of a Japanese wedding, friends of the couple were running the reception desk at the hotel, where you hand over your money and present, and receive a little schedule for the evening. The first hint of what was to come was at this reception desk: 8 friends were running it, and there were four queues divided alphabetically to make the process go faster. This wedding had a lot of guests.

In fact, we discovered later, there were over 300 guests, and they were all listed in the schedule. The main ballroom had been divided into 33 tables, each labeled with a country name, and we had been assigned to Costa Rica, which was the table for people form Tottori University. My friend Miss Wisteria Village was there, and a couple of other people I could not remember from the University. The table also was home to the only 3 foreigners amongst the guests – me, the Delightful Miss E (my partner) and a nice Nepalese chap who is now working as a system’s engineer at a major electronics company (poor bastard). Because we had all traveled from far away, at our table was a little envelope containing some travel money (about $50), and a hand-written note from Miss HighBridge (for the Delightful Miss E: “Miss E who is always so fashionable and beautiful, I love you!”). So really we only paid $100 each for this event. Plus the airfare. And the suit. And the present. And Miss E’s new shawl. And the hotel room. And the new inner wear to deal with the arctic weather. And the team of hirelings to walk in front of us ready to shoot polar bears.

About 70% of the guests were men. This, it turned out, was because Miss HighBridge’s fiance, in addition to being a licensed pro-boxer, was the son of a significant family whose barley/potato/vegetable farm has been around for more than a hundred years. As significant members of both the local rotary club and the local farmer’s organization, they had a lot of social connections to invite to this event, and most of them being business connections, most were men. The nearest three tables to us were all men.  What we were witnessing here was a textbook example of the maintenance of social connections through social rites – not that Miss HighBridge and her fiance were pawns in some sort of sordid family bonding exercise, of course – this is the modern era – but the age old principle of using a ceremony for a rite of passage to grease social wheels was well in evidence. Very interesting!

Once we’d all had time to gather, the wedding started. First, the MC – yes, there was an MC (there is always an MC!) – gave a brief speech to thank everyone for coming, and then the lights were dimmed, the music came on, and the bride and groom entered through the main double doors. Miss HighBridge was in a kimono (not the traditional white one, but a red and gold one) with an amazing high hairstyle (actually a wig), and her fiance in Hakama, giving a very traditional look. They walked carefully through the tables of close relations, and took their position at a high stage, while everyone applauded.

Next there were speeches (mercifully short) by the town mayor, the head of the farmer’s association, Miss HighBridge’s boss, and then the friends of the bride and groom: the fiance’s friend got so nervous that near the end of his speech he lost his lines and had to finish early; Miss HighBridge’s friend started crying and sputtering but finished her speech very proudly. It was a very sweet speech about important Miss HighBridge is to the people around her.

During all the speeches, the two tables of young men to my right were chatting loudly with each other and smoking, and completely ignoring everything that was happening on the stage. We’ll hear more from these two tables – Cambodia and Australia[1] – later.

While this was going on an army of hotel staff were filling glasses with champagne, so that a member of the local council could give the kanpai (toast) to the bride and groom, and their families. We all stood, and raised a toast. Then, the meal began. During the meal, there were various performances and crazinesses involving the bride and groom, summarized below.

  • The second dress: Somewhere during dinner, the bride and groom disappeared and returned through the main doors, Miss HighBridge now in a white dress with a 2-3m train, and her fiance in a blazing white tux (to match the dress). They returned to their high seat, just as before.
  • The pouring of the drinks: all through the meal, young people queued at Miss HighBridge’s table to pour her and her fiance’s drink for her. They would then dutifully sip the proferred booze, before subtly tipping it into a champagne bucket beside their chairs. This was a wise move; neither of them had a chance to eat, so liberal administration of beer was probably not a good idea – especially given what was to come
  • Photo ops: gangs of friends beset the couple, and demanded to have their photo taken. Team Costa Rica, being 10 people, had to burden one of the groom’s friends with 10 cameras, and he duly took one shot with each while we stood around the couple. This was the first time I ever met Miss HighBridge’s groom (Mr. Young Mountain). We exchanged a brief “how do you do” before the next team pressed me off the stage
  • The friend’s dance: in the middle of the meal, a group of 6 friends of the couple came into the room, in hip-hop/suits mixed costumes, took position on a small stage near the main doors, and performed a hip-hop dance – complete with minor attempts at break dancing – for the amusement of the couple and assembled guests. It was great. Note that this was all very staid compared to the last wedding the Delightful Miss E attended (more below)
  • Cutting the Cake: The bride and groom cut the cake and fed a little piece to each other – well, except that Miss HighBridge cut off a huge piece and nearly choked her fiance on it. I am led to believe that this is traditional, as well.
  • Lighting the booze: The bride and groom poured some alcohol into a mechanism, something like a champagne fountain, only this was a series of tubes that fluoresced as the alcohol entered them, and stayed glowing through the rest of the ceremony
  • The third dress: Somewhere before the candle service, bride and groom returned in a third dress, this time red with a train, and her fiance wore a pinstriped tux and tails with red shirt (to match the dress)
  • The Candle service: Bride and groom passed from table to table, lighting a candle in the centre of each table.

But the craziest part of the wedding was the part just before the candle service: the boxing match.

The Boxing Match

As I mentioned above, Mr. Young Mountain has a pro-boxing license, and a professional record (I think it may be only a few fights). So of course, there had to be some recognition of this in the wedding. This recognition took the form of a boxing match, between Mr. Young Mountain in his suit and some nameless friend of his, introduced simply as “the current champion,” in full boxing gear. A referee was found, Miss HighBridge was brought to the edge of the ring to watch, and the bout began. After about 30 seconds Mr. Young Mountain knocked the champion down, but it was a standing 8 count and Mr. champion was soon back into the fray. The next victory was Champion’s; he knocked Mr. Young Mountain down and it certainly looked like Mr. Young Mountain was out for the count – until Miss HighBridge stormed onto the stage with some kind of white bat, took out the referee with a single double-handed strike, and then set about the champion in a frenzy of blows. Down he went for the count, and the crowd cheered as she helped her fiance to his feet and turned him to face the crowd, victorious. Justice (apparently) had been done, and the symbolism of the couple working together to overcome all adversity had been clearly displayed.

A Tale of Two Weddings

Let us compare this show with that of another wedding from two years earlier, much smaller and in very similar style, attended by the Delightful Miss E. This wedding also featured the “friend’s dance,” only they were wearing horses heads while they performed the dance. For the main set piece performance, instead of having a boxing match, they had two short games. The first involved the groom: he was blindfolded and all the young women from the audience were lined up in front of him, along with the bride. Each kissed him on the cheek, and his challenge was to identify which of the kissers was his wife-to-be. He was successful. Then, the bride was blindfolded and all the young men in the audience similarly gathered. Her task, however, was to feel each man’s arse and determine which was her lover. To hoots and catcalls from the audience, she successfully identified her fiance.

I think it’s safe to say that the more recent ceremony was a much more serious affair.

Finales and Farts

With the boxing match out of the way, the final toast needed to be proposed. First there was a brief interlude in which the parents of the bride and groom stood in a line on the stage. The bride and groom then approached and stood solemnly in front of their parents, while Miss HighBridge read a short but very sweet speech thanking her parents for all they had done for her over her life. The tradition in Japanese family life is that the bride moves in with the groom’s family, so I guess in the past this may have been her last chance to say something important to her family. Of course in this case she’ll be visiting them regularly in the neighbouring town, so it’s not the same context at all, but it’s a very nice gesture.

Finally, there was the “banzai”. I don’t think this is a regular component of weddings in Japan, but in this one it was performed. Basically, for a banzai, everyone stands facing the stage, someone on the stage makes a brief speech, and then yells “banzai!” three times. Each time, we all yell banzai and raise our arms (you see this at political victory speeches). It’s a kind of encouragement to success, or something akin to “three cheers.”[2] 

So anyway, we had to do banzai. During the preparatory speech for this banzai, someone on table Australia farted really loudly, and someone on table Cambodia said “Akira!” in a loud and scolding voice. Everyone on the closest four tables broke down laughing, but no one at the front noticed, and we all started our banzai.

Second Stage

This marked (trumpeted, even!) the end of the ceremony, but the young friends of the bride and groom were off to second stage, where we spent another two hours carousing at a local bar and congratulating Miss HighBridge on her efforts. She can’t remember any of it, of course, and doesn’t know what it was like. She was too busy charging around lighting candles or taking out referees or pouring beer into a bucket. During this second stage I had a nice chat with the vanquished champion (a real estate agent) and a handsome young dairy farmer who explained some things about Obihiro farming life. Then it was back to the hotel, a 2am dip in the hot springs, and an exhausted sleep. And I wasn’t even the one getting married!

The next morning Miss Highbridge was up early, met us at 11am, and took us to a crazy warhorse sledge race where the Delightful Miss E won 300 yen. But that’s a story for another day …

fn1: Oh, the shame!

fn2: Banzai is also the word mothers use when bathing young children – when they say it, the child lifts his or her arms and the mother washes the armpits.

I am watching England being slowly ground into humiliation by an astounding Argentinian team On the second day of the biggest contest of the world’s most important sport. It’s a war of attrition out there but the Argentinians are proving once again that the future of sport lies in the southern hemisphere. Sadly I am neither in the south nor the east for the first two weeks of this titanic struggle: I am in scungy, embittered London for a (great!) course on mathematical modeling of disease[1]. This means I have to watch the games in the morning and will miss most, but I can at least enjoy this weekend’s.

I love watching rugby. It’s the perfect synthesis of physical contest, teamwork, bravery and skill, and it happens at a pace and intensity that other contact ball sports lack. I love also the special tactics that derive from the specialization of the players when they are forced to mix it up in a chaotic melee. It also lacks the posturing and false machismo of soccer, and the nationalism of rugby doesn’t come with the nasty violence or racism of that sport. It’s culturally a million miles away from the other British code… It’s the best side of sport.

In today’s other game in a remarkable upset, Japan stood up to France right up to the last 10 minutes, even looking like they might win at one point, until their fitness gave out and les bleus marched home. Fans all around the world were hoping for a miracle there, but it didn’t come. However, I have hopes that this time around they will be able to get some victories. In 2007 they got their first ever points in a cup; this time they can hope for victories.

And of course I am hoping for a NZ victory, but they are famous for choking at the last. Can they do it in their home country in 2011? And if they can’t should Australia annex them?


fn1: one of my fellow students is the Australian Nobel laureate Barry Marshall, who identified the cause of stomach ulcers[2]

Fn2: and thus proved that the future of science is also in the southern hemisphere

Can you rise to the challenge?

The most important sports tournament in the world starts in three weeks: The Rugby World Cup, which is being held in New Zealand, home to the best and the most under-achieving team in the world. Historically famous for choking at the crucial moment, this time around they’re serious. Very serious. So serious, in fact, that the Sydney Morning Herald reports that they’re going to invoke a nation-wide ritual of sexual abstinence, presumably hoping that they can funnel the sexual frustration of 2 million NZ men direct to the team. Do they need to kill a virgin to complete the ritual? Perhaps all that energy will be channeled through the haka.

Truly, rugby is the most infernal of games.

The Nameless One has spoken, this time through a team of oracles at the German sea-life aquarium, and the cephalopod cabal predicted a win by Japan in the Women’s Soccer World Cup. The closeness of the decision within the tentacled tribunal led some to question whether the final match might be a closely-fought event, and indeed it was; but in the end Nadeshico Japan won! Ganbare Nippon! I wanted to watch this final match but sadly it was only available on pay TV, so I missed it. But I’m happy that Japan won a well-deserved victory after beating some tough teams (Germany and Sweden!) to get there.

Incidentally, Nadeshico in Japanese is a name taken to refer to a classical Japanese vision of feminity. To say someone is “a Nadeshico” is to compliment their feminity as both beautiful and traditional. I think this is an excellent name for a women’s national soccer team. Well done Nadeshico!

Rugby league is the one that’s like American Football played backwards, not the one with the awesome haka, i.e. not the one that’s actually engaging to watch. Rugby league is also a game that’s been plagued by image problems, and is suffering from onfield and off-field violence, both by players and coaches in the professional and amateur world. There are also significant problems in children’s league, involving bullying parents, high expectations, and the (huge) problem of fielding children of vastly differing sizes against each other.

The consequence of these problems, of course, is that children try the game and hate it, so drop out; and mothers – the prime determinants of what sport children are allowed to play – send their children to the (in my opinion) vastly superior sport of Aussie Rules Football (AFL), which has been growing where league is floundering. AFL has already introduced significant changes in particularly its childrens league, has spent years trying to mellow the off-field antics of its players, and is also targeting girls. Rugby Union, soccer and AFL all understand that the key to a good adult competition is having a large pool of children from which to select talent, even though most of that pool will be second rate and of no value. This isn’t a problem for soccer in, say, the UK or Europe, because (outside of France) there is no challenge to the supremacy of “the beautiful game.” Not so in Australia, where 4 football codes are engaged in a vicious war of attrition for fans.

Rugby League’s traditional response to this has been a resounding “fuck it!” They haven’t wanted to change the way the game is played at junior level because they have been following the worn out traditional idea that you can only damage the game by changing its image, or changing its training and development practices to suit children or (heaven forbid!) women. There has not historically been any recognition that the elite level of rugby is not attractive as a participation sport for 99% of people who play it, and that you can’t get people into this by just slapping them in the face with a rugby ball and saying “smash ’em!” You need to make the game appealing to a wide base of people, and from them draw your intense and elite players.

Recently the role-playing blogging world has had a few kerfuffles about women in the game, with a common idea put forward that changing the game to encourage women’s participation would a) weaken the game and b) not work anyway. I find proposition a) particularly frustrating, because it contains so many misogynist ideas about the effect of women joining in a male activity; and I find b) frustrating because it pre-supposes there is no way girls would want to participate in a hobby that doesn’t involve ponies and pretty clothes. I have previously written about this issue in kickboxing, which (in Australia at least) is booming amongst women through a few simple representational and practical changes, which in the end benefit beginning male players as well as women. I wrote there that I think kickboxing’s approach to attracting women to the hobby presents a good model for how you can change the means of participation in the sport without changing the sport itself; you can draw in a wider range of people willing to try the game, and from amongst them you can channel people into various types of participation. I don’t see why the same can’t happen with regards to women in gaming (and, by extension, actual minorities like e.g. migrants, gays, etc.)

In today’s Sydney Morning Herald Phil Gould – who by all accounts is not the most charming of representatives for the game – has a column on reforming Rugby League to encourage participation and prevent drop out. It turns out that the macho old ideas of “just grin and bear it” haven’t been working so well for retaining young players, because enjoying the game as it is played is not a sufficient condition for remaining engaged when, for example, the people you play against are bigger and rougher. He has solicited suggestions from parents and coaches and got huge feedback, and the common feedback has been to find ways to manage the violence inherent in different sizes of children playing against each other. i.e. parents and coaches all want to get rid of the idea that the only way you can play the game is being dropped into the game-as-it-is-played-now and expected to sink or swim. There is explicit recognition amongst participants of this sport that clinging to a single definition of the way of playing the game is destroying its acceptability. But you won’t find any of these people arguing that the game in its elite form should change.

The column is long but the final part, entitled “My Awakening” is particularly interesting because it shows an example of a group of children working this stuff out naturally for themselves. There’s also a real hint of “old school” style in the way the kids house-rule the game of rugby to suit their circumstances. These are the enthusiasts who know the game and want to get it to work; anyone who falls into that group is going to be fine. The problem is that the majority of people aren’t going to fall into rugby through that group, but through the professionally practiced juniors game Gould contrasts them with. This, he sees, is the problem – those kids are suffering for the game and will put it away, because they are being forced to bend to the game, rather than the other way around. I think this is true in our hobby as well, that the majority of people will enter the game through an accepted channel (a gaming shop, or through joining an established group that shares many of the inflexible ideas I saw in the blogs about women’s participation in gaming); or they will just pick up the game books themselves and find nothing that encourages them to join, nothing that appeals to their understanding of how a game should be played or what is necessary for fun to be had. Those people might in turn move on to the “elite” gaming that many of us nerdy bloggers are used to; but we won’t be able to pick up those potential recruits if they get turned off by their first experience of the game, by the nerdy equivalent of being put up against someone bigger and rougher than them who really, in reality, wants to be playing a different game.

There’s also a few comments at the end of the article about how professionalization has ruined the enjoyment of amateur participation. I wonder if anyone at WoTC is reading it? I doubt it…

And a final note: a lot of the people talking about women in RPGs seem to be American or British, and I get the impression that they have very different stereotypes of women than Australians have. When I raise the example of sports adapting to encourage women, they seem to not understand. I think this is because American and British women are much less sporty than Aussies or Japanese women, and thus male gamers from those countries are not familiar with the idea that by changing a few details of the representation of a sport you can get women into it in droves. It seems to  be a secret that only Antipodeans (and Japanese) understand. Maybe this is because the dominant games of those Northern hemisphere cultures are so obssessively macho, yet simultaneously insecure. Or something. But – as is usual in all matters of importance in this world – I think those Northern hemisphere cultures could stand to learn a lot from the Antipodes…

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