In Japan love means always having to say you're sorry. "So
sorry," says the bus conductor over the P.A. system, "but we are
arriving at Nagano Station." Citizens who feel the slightest
sniffle wear surgical masks for days on end so as not to spread
their colds. The device that switches off the ringer on a
Japanese cell phone is called the "manners button," and its LCD
icon is a heart. In Japan the collective manners button is
engaged as in no other nation on Earth.
So it was only appropriate that the 18th Olympic Winter Games,
from which we all might learn a thing or two, opened in Nagano
last Saturday when a cauldron was lit by Japanese figure skater
Midori Ito, a woman who apologized to her nation after winning
the silver medal at Albertville in 1992. (She had been the
prohibitive favorite for gold.) The events themselves commenced
in earnest eight hours later with ushers bowing deeply to ticket
holders in the Big Hat arena, where the Japanese men's hockey
team overcame its best cultural instincts in a thrilling 3-1
loss to Germany.
"The players on this team are so polite," says Dave King, the
former Calgary Flames coach and current Montreal Canadiens
assistant who is serving as general manager of the Japanese
squad. "And that is such a beautiful part of their culture. But,
as we've told them, it's something that you can't take with you
onto the ice in hockey."
Pity. Some customs are so becoming, they hardly seem worth
suspending simply for the sake of sports. When King first saw
the Japanese play, he learned that the team was divided into
groups called kohai (kids) and senpai (veterans). Whenever
possible, the kohai would pass to the senpai out of deference to
their elders, so that any opposing goalie facing a two-on-one
breakaway could easily suss out who would shoot.
February 16, 1998
Japanese hockey players are reluctant to uncork slap shots in
practice, lest they show up their own keeper. And while a hat
trick in the six-team Japanese professional league occasions the
halting of play so that a comely lady might present a bouquet of
flowers to the goal scorer, few players want to score
prolifically, for fear of singling themselves out from the
group. "The biggest cultural issue to overcome was the national
team's inferiority complex," says King. "The players didn't
think of themselves as equal to their international opponents."
Of course, there's another name for an inferiority complex.
"Humility," as King calls it, is a paramount quality in Japanese
life, but humble is almost an epithet in big-time modern sports.
However you describe the Japanese team's RICE ROCKET ATTACK (as
one bilingual Big Hat banner put it), this much is certain:
"These players always give superlative effort," King said after
Saturday's game, in which Japan stayed tied with Germany through
Superlative effort was on display everywhere last week in
Nagano, a host city that is largely succeeding against tall
odds. Outside the 1,400-year-old Zenkoji Temple, a souvenir
stand sold replica religious relics beneath a handwritten run-on
sign: THIS IS DURMA (ONE OF BUDDHIST SAINTS) BELIEVED TO BRING
ABOUT HAPPINESS BECAUSE IT WILL CERTAINLY GET UP ONCE IT FALLS
That Chumbawamba attitude pervades these Olympics. They get
knocked down--by the specter of the U.S. bombing Iraq; by
homemade mortar shells fired on Narita Airport near Tokyo on
Feb. 2, as athletes were arriving; by a lack of snow or a lack
of Stateside interest or a lack of regard for the Winter
Olympics in general--but they get up again, and you're never
gonna keep 'em down. Asked how he was coping with the pressure
of competing, U.S. snowboarder Todd Richards told a press
conference packed full of fat sportswriters: "I'm imagining you
The dude's rude, but measured against the Japanese, who isn't?
Consider the high-ranking Canadian Olympic official who
addressed his nation's athletes at a reception last Friday
night. The official felt moved that evening to praise "l'ideal
Canadien"--the Canadian ideal--on display before him. Trouble
is, the non-Francophone functionary kept saying a near-homonym,
"l'idiot Canadien." He was praising the Canadian idiot standing
in front of him.
Several French-Canadians were said to be offended. But let's be
honest: It can be exceedingly difficult to tell the difference
between Olympic ideaux and Olympic idiots, particularly on Team
Canada, where the two qualities were conjoined in a single
athlete. At a pre-Olympic press gathering, Paul Savage, an
alternate Canadian curler, was identifiable by the maple leaf
tattooed on his forehead (temporarily, as it turns out). "That's
nothing," said the ignoble Savage, dropping his drawers to
reveal the Olympic rings and a curling stone permanently
tattooed on his rear end. The ensuing photograph ran on the
front page of The Toronto Sun, whose crack staff wrote this
headline for a column in the same day's sports section: LAND OF
THE RISING MOON.
Asswise, these have already been the best Olympics ever, what
with the 35 sumo wrestlers who stole the show at the opening
ceremonies. The U.S. delegation was led into the stadium by the
440-pound Musashimaru. Knowing that he'd be clad only in a
kesho-mawashi, the ceremonial washcloth that passes for a sumo
suit, this Hawaiian expatriate had fretted on the eve of the
event that "everybody will be looking at my ass." He needn't
have worried, for all eyes were on Akebono, the 516-pound sumo
superstar from Hawaii, who performed the traditional dohyo-iri
ring-entry ceremony, in which the wrestler solemnly stomps out
evil spirits. Soon, choirs on five continents were singing a
heart-soaring Ode to Joy, and spirits of another kind began
flowing. The Games had successfully begun, there would be no
call for hara-kiri, and the Japanese turned to another favorite
pastime: drinking like Harry Caray.
And why not have the time of your life? Even Akebono referred to
his part in the ceremony as "10 minutes of cold, a lifetime of
memory," and if a man who is larger than most Japanese cars can
be self-effacing, who among us cannot?
Which might explain why Nagano police put out an informal APB
for the car owner who left his dome light on, so he might not
run down his battery. Passengers on the bullet train apologize
when you clock them on the noggin with a suitcase. The karate
black belt who runs a Nagano sashimi joint soberly leads you out
back after dinner and breaks 15 stacked roofing tiles in half
with one shot of his open palm. It's an oddly endearing courtesy
extended from a Japanese host to his gaijin guest, and it
promises to be repeated over and over during the '98 Olympics.
One is tempted to call these people and these Games
old-fashioned, but they're not. Nothing is more new-fashioned
than this fortnight of iris-scan and finger-key security and of
laser beams bounced off clouds to forecast the weather, lest
meteorologists lose face when an event is postponed due to
unforeseen forces. So Japanese weathermen are off the hook for
the postponement of the men's downhill on Sunday, having
predicted the dire weather that came to pass.
The Osaka-based apparel manufacturer Descente outfitted every
member of the Swiss team with a butane-fueled jacket that gives
its wearer three hours of blast-furnace heat for every cartridge
of gas that is stored in a side pocket. The coat also has an
exhaust port in back that gives new meaning to the phrase
smoking jacket, and all of these $750 beauties that were shipped
to Tokyo sold out their first day in stores.
But then you expect high technology and high consumption from
the Japanese. "I think the world has recognized Japan as a great
economic power," Yoshiya Yamazaki, deputy chief of the Japanese
delegation, noted before the Games began. "But I seldom hear the
impression of Japan as 'a wonderful country.'"
The Olympics may change that. On Saturday a placard prominently
displayed in a building that houses 10,000 members of the
international press corps bore the hand-scrawled words FOUND
ARTICLE. Taped to that sign was a 50-yen piece discovered by
Japanese cleaning personnel. The coin--bless the heart of
whoever turned it in--is worth 40 cents. And all that anyone who
passed it could think to say was, yes, "What a wonderful
Japanese players won't uncork slap shots in practice, lest they
show up their keeper.
These Games get knocked down, but they get up again, and you're
never going to keep 'em down.