As I wrote in my previous blog entry, rugby has been an enormous part of my life for the past 6 years. Since high school, I have trained and played almost religiously, and with Japan’s growing notoriety as a great Rugby nation, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity of playing the game I love overseas. I was excited to compare my skills and knowledge of the game with my Japanese counterparts, perhaps improve my game, and keep fit for when I return to my team at home. These original goals were personal, and rugby oriented. While the CIP portion of the program is meant to help better immerse students in the language and culture of Japan and the student’s immediate community, I initially didn’t look at this opportunity past the point of staying fit and getting a few more games under my belt. After more than 3 months practicing and playing with the “Kyoto Freeks” (yes, it is misspelled on purpose…or perhaps not?), however, I have realized that my CIP experience has yielded some valuable experiences.
Kyoto Freeks is a men’s rugby club comprised of mostly men in their 30’s. There are a few younger, and quite a few older, but all are working adult men. My friend Garrett (also from Amherst, studying in the Nichibun program) and I were the youngest members of the team. Most of the players on the team have extensive rugby experience, and while Japanese ruggers aren’t known for their size, I could definitely tell that many of the guys had been playing since middle school.
The first few weeks of practice consisted of joint sessions of the Freeks and the Doshisha High School Rugby Football Club at the high school grounds. Perhaps the first thing I noticed was the absolutely horrid condition of the field. The last time I played rugby was on the lush, soft, green fields of Massachusetts, offering a gentle cushion when being slammed into the ground by the opposition. But here, at my first practice, I looked upon a rectangular patch of sand. Not dirt. Dirt would suggest that there might have once been grass here, or that grass could foreseeably grow again in the future. Underneath the top layer of coarse sand was hard, unyielding, packed earth. I heard from a team member early on that the only other foreign player on the team was out for the season because he had snapped his collarbone simply falling over on the concrete-like pitch. To my surprise, these kinds of fields are the norm in Japan. The only fields with grass are larger stadiums style grounds that a reserved year round for match days. None of the Freeks or the high school players complained as we took the field, and I resigned to accept it just as they did. But I came to realize that the field was the last thing these players were concerned about. I’m convinced that if practice was held in a parking lot, they wouldn’t offer a single word of complaint. This was the first glimpse I got at the amazing work ethic of Japanese players, and as I would come to recognize, the no-nonsense work ethic that permeates all of Japanese society.
Something else that caught my attention was the unexpectedly clean standard of play I saw and experienced. Rugby is known worldwide as a rough man’s sport, full of hard hits that sometimes escalate into fights. But what I saw here was a calm that is rare in the states. There were moments where I thought a temper might rise to a boiling point, but the game always continued on without incident. It was refreshing to see the REAL “gentleman’s game” played as it should be. The referees were extremely professional as well, and all the players on both teams offered the referees the respect they were due. The discipline of Japanese players is second to none!
Although it was difficult to notice at first, I gradually became aware of clear senpai-kouhai relationships within the team. Unlike on many American teams, where the better players receive greater voice and respect, the kouhai on the team were quick to carry bags, shag balls, prepare the field, clean up trash, and poor beer for their senpai during nomikai. It was difficult for me to find a place within these dynamics. As a guest and a (large) foreigner, I was deferred to with much respect by all the members of the team, despite my efforts to lower myself appropriately. Most players originally thought that my age was closer to 31, not 21, which further complicated things. Many players had trouble with their interactions with me. The language barrier was of course a powerful issue, but I think there was more to it. I have a hunch that part of the reason I was shown such unyielding respect was because my host father, a 60 year old senpai of the club and former Doshisha rugger, introduced me. 3 of the more influential players on the team were also very close friends with my host father’s daughter and son, which made their giri to my host father even greater. As such, perhaps they felt a need to give me particular attention. Yet, I think it more likely that the kindness and respect I was shown was reflective upon my gaijin status, as removed from their uchi group, thus requiring me to be deferred to with greater emotional/social distance. In the end, I decided to continue using humble language and conduct with all the Freeks members.
By the end, my team mates became more comfortable with using Japanese with me, rather than attempting to communicate in hand gestures and broken English. Though I sometimes had to ask them to use less kansaiben, many players started to joke with me and I really started to feel like part of the team, especially after games with all the typical hugging and high-fiving. My Japanese got a good amount of practice as well. Through exchanging emails with the team captain, communicating with players on the field, and even doing a couple of one night homestays with my captain’s parents the night before some early morning games in Nara, I got to use Japanese more and see more of Japanese family life.
It was a shame to have so little time with the Kyoto Freeks. Just as I felt I was becoming a real member, my time has run out. I hope to return to Japan on the JET program, and perhaps I will be able to pick up where I left off with my new teammates, or at the very least stay in contact with them and visit.