Olympic Results Reflect Trajectory of Post-War Japan

by Steve McCarty

Professor in Japan

Originally published by Bismarck State College, North Dakota, in an electronic literary magazine: Webgeist, 1 (2), 13 October 1996. "Notes from the Pacific Rim" column, first installment.

Just as U.S. TV coverage of the Atlanta Olympics was weighted toward strong American teams and individuals, in Japan there was a preponderance of judo and other events where medals were expected. But it turned out to be mostly media hype as the players crumbled under such pressure, and the results were disappointing to commentators and to the public.

After the 1992 Olympics Hidenori Tomozoe, a Professor of Sports Ethics at Kagawa (National) University, predicted increasing difficulty for the Japanese team. He objects to the nationalism, commercialism and doping that subvert the ideals of the Olympic movement.

Yet the Japanese baseball team won a silver medal, humbling the U.S. team. No one could accuse the scrawny Japanese pitchers of taking steroids, but could you believe the muscles on those Cuban players? Nevertheless, the Japanese team kept evening the score, but never going ahead, and lost creditably. Obviously their knowledge of baseball was second to none, their execution steady from endless practice. This will also be the case when the Olympics let pro baseball players participate.

So then how did they lose after overcoming a 6-0 deficit? Were they afraid for their safety after the game? Did they lack the killer instinct and hunger to win because of the soft life provided to their generation by parents who remembered the hardships of the War? Did the diet of the Cuban players contain something more potent than sushi? There is no evidence, which is why this is a commentary.

Somehow the catch-up ball by the Japanese team seems to reflect the post-War trajectory of their nation. The U.S. Occupation of Japan was unprecedented in its generosity and can be looked back upon with pride or admiration. Japan was set on a trajectory that eventually led to fears of an unstoppable juggernaut of economic imperialism, Americans sweeping up around their automated factories. It was said that the value of land in the Tokyo area equaled that of the entire U.S.

Japan was expected to play a role on the world stage commensurate with its wealth, but seemed to shy away from such prominence. Other nations never found out who was in charge in Japan, and those with power did not speak English. But then the bubble of overvalued land and stocks burst, and the Japanese government has reeled ineffectually from one crisis to the next, belatedly responding without foresight. It was like a close game with Japan within reach of the lead, but now it looks as if Japan will never be number one but will fall back to the middle ranks among nations by economic as well as other measures. The population is aging and will start actually decreasing, moving from 7th most populous to about 20th in the world by the year 2050.

Only high technology could restore Japan's prominence, but Japan has fallen behind in cyberspace, and education is one of the most conservative sectors in its society. The requisite creativity and initiative, the English ability and power of self-expression, do not appear to be forthcoming. It looks to be catch-up ball at best, not the gold. The unspoken consensus in Japan may even be a sort of contentment with the number two role, the silver medal not carrying all the responsibilities expected of a world leader.

Updated on 27 October 2016

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