Welcome to our new correspondent from Japan. Neil has started a campaign which will benefit children and people of all ages. He lives in Tottori in south-west Japan, on the Japan Sea coast. (See the end of the article, for more details on Neil. )
Why no sliding tackles?
By Neil Smith
I have two simple questions for anyone who has watched Japanese rugby or soccer teams.
~ How often do you see a player passing the ball out of the tackle in rugby?
~ How often do you see a proper sliding tackle in soccer?
The answer for both questions: not very often.
The reason is not the coaching or the lack of commitment and skill of the Japanese players. They are totally dedicated to their sport.
The legacy of “hard-packed, coarse dirt”
It goes way back to the environment in which Japanese babies and young children play and develop motor skills.
Well over 90% of parks, grounds at kindergartens (photo on the left) and play schools, and playing fields at primary, intermediate, and high school schools are covered not by grass but by a hard-packed, coarse dirt.
Children growing up on this type of surface, learn very soon that falling over results in cuts and grazes, and usually bleeding.
A natural defense mechanism kicks in and children start walking and running at a pace at which they will not fall over. “Safety first” becomes an engrained instinct at the age at which children should be
~ pushing their limits
~ testing their physical boundaries
~ developing their skills
~ falling and getting up and then falling again.
This safety first instinct becomes part of their makeup and cannot be eliminated even through extensive and repetitive drills that are integral to sport in Japan.
Overcome the handicaps to become world class?
A good argument could be made that a regime in which 11~12 year-old children pick one sport and train 2~4 hours a day for well in excess of 300 days a year right through intermediate and high school and university (yes, that is the reality of sport at the lower levels in Japan) is the only way to overcome these in-built handicaps.
In theory, this would enable Japanese sportsmen and women to compete to a reasonable level on the world stage.
I say “reasonable” because I would argue that, given the population of the country and the money and effort poured into sport here, there is a very low number of genuinely world-class Japanese sportsmen.
Back to grass
The reasons given for not having grass playing fields or sports grounds are many and varied, my favourite being “Japan has four seasons so it is impossible to have green grass all year-round” (this from a high-school headmaster), but ultimately it is a matter of cost.
Japan has by far the lowest education budget as a ratio of GDP in OPEC, so I can see why it is difficult to find the funds required.
However, I cannot understand a reluctance to make providing a proper environment in which to raise children, an absolute priority.
I am not sure how it happened, but I now run an NPO (non-profit organization) that is dedicated to promoting the conversion of these grounds from dirt to grass.
Persuading the bureaucrats to commit to grass
Our biggest battle is changing the mindset of the bureaucrats who allocate the budgets. It makes sense when you consider that they all grew up “playing” on dirt but had not suffered any ill effects.
They struggle to see why we should go to all the effort and cost of converting grounds and playing fields to grass, especially when to them “turf” is highly expensive and difficult to maintain.
I can sense the confusion in many people’s minds. Playground and playing field grass is not difficult to grow or maintain – toss some fertilizer on it, water it when it doesn’t rain, and mow it once a week. As they say, it is not rocket science.
The problem in Japan is that when you propose converting the grounds to grass at a play school or primary school in even the smallest rural village, local bureaucrats imagine turf of the standard seen in Eden Park or Twickenham.
Anything less than that is not deemed as acceptable, by the bureaucrats, that is. The kids who will play on it don’t care what type of grass is used, what type of fertilizer or how often it is spread, or what winter grass is sown in the autumn.
“Turf” (shibafu in Japanese) implies high quality and anything below that quality is referred to by a more demeaning term loosely translated as “field”. They do not realize that we refer to the school ground as a playing field with no implication of poor quality.
Marketing grass playing fields
My NPO’s primary challenge is to change this perception of turf, from one in which only the top quality is accepted to one in which there is a wide range of quality in the grass covering.
These can be a field mown once a week, without any major maintenance, done through local parks, kindergartens, school grounds, local sports fields, leading up to the turf in major stadia for the use of professional teams.
Our signature method, now trademarked, comprises planting seedlings of a fast-growing grass type (Tifton, of the Bermuda family) at 50cm intervals and providing sufficient irrigation and fertilizer, then mowing once a week during the summer months.
Here is the kindergarten shown earlier after planting and three months later at the kindergarten sports day. This is the environment kids deserve to have as a standard.
If it costs money, then spend the money. Taxes spent on a proper environment for the children are taxes well spent.
It is a matter of priorities.
(I live in Tottori, in south-western Japan, and am a free-lance translator specializing in reports on the Japanese economy. The NPO is Green Sports Tottori, which has several advisory contracts with local and state governments to provide specialist advice in the conversion of grounds to grass and the subsequent maintenance of the turf. Neil Smith)