This edition of Japanology Plus begins with a statement that may seem a bit surprising: “Sports for children are currently booming.” Was there a time, you may wonder, when sporting activities weren’t very popular among children?
But in Japan, of course, as in many other parts of the world, for years children have been spending huge chunks of their childhood gazing at screens. These days people of all ages are powerfully drawn to the mediated reality delivered by computers and smartphones. (But don’t go away just yet!)
So it’s entirely understandable that concerned parents would want to wean their children off the screens and get them moving in the real world. That might at least make the children better equipped to cope with the very real risks and dangers they encounter in any online looking-glass environment.
Up where she belongs. We learn that young children accept the challenge of activities that older children learn to fear.
Whether it’s gymnastics, swimming, golf or hip-hop dancing, Japanese children who engage in some form of sporting activity generally do so because they like it. That may seem obvious, but things weren’t always so simple. For a long time, sports in Japan were closely associated with discipline and respect. Whether or not children actually enjoyed traditional “physical education,” improving their fitness was valued principally as a means to build character.
That approach reflected certain features of the hands-on contact sports for which Japan is so famous, including sumo, judo and karate, with the desired outputs of these traditional activities including respect for others and mental fortitude.
Returning to the “booming” question, however, it’s certainly not the case that sporting activities were ever actually rare among the younger generation in Japan. Previously on Japanology Plus we have featured sports ranging from long-distance running to school field days. Perennial spectator favorites include baseball, marathons and soccer, and some of the most widely watched events in Japan feature participants who are high-school or university students.
Yet while powers of endurance, teamwork and respect continue to be admired in Japan, in recent years something has definitely changed. In the second half of the 20th century, a new emphasis on feeling good and having fun emerged as young Japanese with more free time took up activities such as skiing and surfing. Why endure sports, they thought, when you can actually enjoy them?
The nickname of Japan’s national soccer team illuminates this change in thinking. While “Samurai Blue” hints at traditional martial arts values, it also conjures up an image of swashbuckling flair. And in fact, successful soccer pretty much demands resourceful individuality.
These shifting cultural values have ramifications in the Japanese job market, where being a loyal corporate warrior is no longer sufficient. Expert guest Masayuki Tamaki notes that in the modern world, employees often find themselves in project teams where everyone is expected to be a self-starter.
This focus on independent thinking and resourcefulness can be seen in the transition from a “PE mindset” to a “sports mindset.” Rather than sports being entirely performance based and pushed for their physical benefits, parents are starting to appreciate sports for the mental benefits they offer children as well. Tamaki notes that this emerging sports mindset emphasizes being flexible, trusting one’s instincts, and taking initiative in order to be successful. Through sports, Japanese children are learning valuable skills that can be used both on and off the playing field, from kindergarten all the way to adulthood.