|Marty Kuehnert: Born in Los Angeles in 1946. Since coming to Japan in 1967, he has put his fluent Japanese to use as a sports commentator on TV and radio, as well as lecturing on Japanese culture through the lens of sports. His publications include "Why Are Star Players Defecting" (KK Bestsellers) and "Where Are the Scholar-Athletes?" (Hayakawa Shobo).
ü|Please tell us what you've been doing recently.
I operate a small sports management and consulting company, and am a sports journalist. In addition I do a fair amount of sports commentary on TV and radio, and give public lectures. As of this April, I've been teaching International Sports Management and Sports Media as a Visiting Professor at Waseda University's School of Sports Science.
Very few Japanese universities teach sports science. As a field of study, it has only just emerged in Japan. There is simply no comparison between sports business in America and Japan. It's thousands of times bigger in the U.S. And the figures for Japanese sports businesses are often not reported accurately or at all. Japan has virtually no sports that are currently growing, making money or gaining popularity, not least because of the direct link between sport and the economy.
ü|So as a business, sport is not performing?
Its business performance is very poor. There is little real data on Japanese sport, few or no balance sheets to indicate how much money is being used, how much is coming in or going out. Much like the government and the banks, there's little or no transparency. In my book "Why Are Star Players Defecting," I explain why top players such as Ichiro, Sasaki, Matsui and Nomo, are defecting abroad. This is because of the poor sports environment. Management, umpires and trainers leave a lot to be desired. Even many fans are not educated. In Major League Baseball, the commissioner and league officials, front office personnel, the media, the mascots and even the fans in some ways are professionals. There has been a lot of talk about the "brain-drain" of Japanese scientists heading overseas, but Japan now faces the problem of a "muscle-drain."
ü|What has caused this situation in Japan?
In Japan, it's not what you know but who you know. Where do Japanese baseball commissioners come from? They're all former elites from other areas. The average starting age is about 70, and they generally have no sports experience. American commissioners usually start on the job around 50, and almost all of them have sports experience.
Which do you think is better? It comes down to cultural thing. Sports, like business, is permeated with the Japanese seniority system and an age bias. Even with baseball teams, there are a lot of cases where surplus staff from the head office are shifted into the baseball front office and then later shifted back out.
There isn't enough professionalism in Japanese sport. Japan has no schools for training umpires or trainers. Most North American major universities have four-year, even six-year Masters, athletic trainers courses; Japan has none. North America has training schools for umpires whereby the top graduates go on to become professional umpires. In Japan, someone just taps you on the shoulder, and suddenly you're an umpire. In my opinion that is like suddenly telling someone, from today you're a doctor.
ü|Is it the same in all sports?
Professionalism is lacking everywhere. It's not just baseball; sumo, too, is in big trouble at the moment. TV Asahi's Sumo Digest program which has been running for the last 30 years is going to end next month. People aren't interested any more. The popularity of sumo has declined so far that I wouldn't be surprised if even NHK decided to cut its broadcasts some day. Particularly young people have no interest at all. At a women's university I lectured at recently, I asked 500 women students how many of them were sumo fans? None. How many of them watched any of the recent sumo tournament? None. Sumo means nothing to them.
I think sumo's leaders are at fault here. They blame the problem on too little practice, on the wrestlers eating fast food instead of traditional sumo wrestler fare, on a lack of guts, but that's all rubbish. No young wrestlers are coming into the sport. You don't make any money from sumo, but you'll definitely end up with heart disease, diabetes and a shorter life span. The sumo stables don't have trainers to deal with health management. The sumo leaders have to create a better environment. The majority of sumo wrestlers at the moment have only graduated from junior high. Why aren't they made to continue their education through correspondence, or given tutors, until they're at least at a high school graduation level? Only a few wrestlers will end up with their own stables; without education, where are the rest supposed to go?
ü|In your book "Where Are the Scholar-Athletes?," you note that while there are many truly first-class athletes in other countries who are top achievers in both athletics and academics, Japan has none.
It comes back to the problem of leadership, of education. My son will be going off to an American high school next year, because I know that with his performance as a baseball player at his current junior high, if he went to a Japanese high school, all he would do is play baseball. He wouldn't be able to study. And then after 10, 15 years of just playing baseball, what would he be left with? There was a case where a Yakult Swallows player retired, couldn't keep a job as a professional coach, and committed suicide. The current system is truly dangerous. Matt Biondi (a star swimmer at three Olympics) decided to donate all 11 of his Olympic medals to a museum in Chicago and become a high school teacher of mathematics and science. Will any of Japan's current swimmers become high school teachers, doctors or lawyers? I seriously doubt it.
ü|Any final message for our readers?
I'd ask those who can help change the system to try your best to do so. It's time to get rid of honorary posts and this system of recruiting retired elites and focus instead on real ability and professionalism. I'd also like to see Japan create a more balanced education system that produces well rounded people. People have such enormous potential, but Japan's current education system creates very narrow specialists. I'd like to tell Japanese parents that they shouldn't choose a sport for their children, but instead let their kids try a range of sports and then choose the one they like the most.
The Japanese tend to favor a focus on one discipline, but I think it would be better to build more flexibility into the education system to allow wider choice. And then society needs to be changed so that when students graduate, they can survive out in the world on the strength of their abilities. Children have to be taught that if they try, they will succeed.
ü|Thank you very much.
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