Less than a minute left to go at the end of the 4th quarter of the game, and the team is losing by 20 points. It’s the sudden death game of spring basketball tournament, and the mothers of the losing high school’s seniors cheer on frantically, but they realize that this is going to be the last time they will watch their sons play at competitive basketball game. I am cheering for my team at the top of my lung. My son belonged to his junior high school basketball club the entire term, which is from the first month of 7th grade until the end of spring of their 9th grade. He hoped to join the basketball club when he entered high school, but unfortunately his music academy high school did not have a basketball team. Although I no longer could watch my son play in official basketball games, I chose to go to his junior high basketball buddies’ games as much as I could, because, to me, they are like my adopted sons.
From my observation, I think one of the rights of passage in Japan for the past 50 years have been junior high and high school sports club. For a mother, it comes as a shock when their first child joins school sports club and find out they practice 6 to 7 days a week for over two years since they join the club until the day they “retire” at the end of the spring tournament. After that, their children start studying for high school or college entrance exams in earnest. The students often will have early morning practice during the weekdays, which means their mothers need to get up at 4:30 in the morning to pack lunch, prepare a quart or more of barley tea or sports drinks on hot summer days. For a little over 2 years during junior high school, and if the child decides to continue on with the sports, in high school, for additional 2 years, on weekends, rather than going on an overnight family trip with their child, mothers will attend games held at different schools in the school district league. Injuries are not uncommon, especially with vigorous contact sports like basketball. Bloody noses, sprained ankles, fractured bones happen. Depending on the coach, the experience for both the child and mother are so starkly different. Basketball is a popular sport, especially among boys, so most schools have between 10 to 25 club members, as there are no tryouts. Anybody will be welcomed into the team. No matter if they have athletic ability or not, they had just better work very, very hard once they join the team. With basketball, only five will be the starting team members. High percentage of team members may play only in a few games, but they are expected to come to all the practice and games on time, and cheer for the team during the games. The team members develop very special bond during these years. The coach is a dictator, and children learn to obey the dictator. If the coach is a good one, then the child will have glorious teenage years. If the coach is a bad one, teenage years is likely to be worse. Whichever way, belonging to school sports club, especially team sports, will give them huge advantage when they enter job market. With culture of a following order of their superior and working very hard in tough schedule, day in and day out, playing their role, working within a team, never quitting, even when things get tough, are just the characteristics Japanese employers want.
And those characteristics that are of prime importance to the mothers of children who choose team sports for their teenage school years too. All these hard work children, mothers, and coaches put in, for the children and mothers, it all ends at the game they lose in the spring of senior year. This year, there are 56 high schools just in the city of Yokohama in Kanagawa prefecture alone. This means to get to the nationals level; a team needs to win over seven straight weeks in a row unless they are seeded. With pressure to study for mid-term, senior trip, and to start studying for college entrance exam, indeed only teams with excellent guidance from their coaches and clear reasons to win will make it past after three weeks.
When a team realize that they are going to lose their spring tournament game, just about all seniors begin to cry. You must understand. These are young men who have not cried in front of their mothers for probably a dozen years or more.Â After the game, the team will line up and taking a bow in front of their supporters who came and cheered for their game, seniors in tears. Some player will run up to their mother in front of their coach, teammates, girlfriends and other teams, they break down and say, I am sorry, I lost. I am so sorry. For some, words do not come out. Mothers are already crying. They will comfort their sons saying; you did your best. You did well. Watching it filled me with admiration toward both the players and their mothers. How strong, how kind and loving these mothers must have been to have their sons act this way at the end of their journey, their rights of passage. It is bitter sweet. The sons gave their teenage years dedicating themselves to the sports they chose. They ran a total of 400 miles or more over two years, in un-air conditioned gyms and blistering sun in summers and freezing cold in winters, as they trained for hours and hours each week. They stuck through it all to the end. Mothers are sad for their sons’ loss, but at the same time, they are so, very proud.
As a girl, I so wanted to have this experience of a junior high sports club, because I loved sports, and I wanted to join a volleyball club when I became a 7th grader. I heard about gruesome practice, but it seemed exciting, and I was determined to make it through. But it was not meant to be for me. My mother re-married an American, and just before my junior high school years started, we moved to Europe, then to the United States. I was so disappointed. With hope, I played volleyball and tennis for varsity teams in junior high school, then in high school until I had a back operation in my junior year, but they never fulfilled me. When I came back to Japan as an adult, and when my first son attended junior high school in Japan, I had all but forgotten about my adolescence dream. I did not think much of it when my oldest one quit his junior high sports club. My second son loved junior high soccer club. With my third son who is a talented athlete as well as being a spark igniting player that made him fun to watch, my husband and I thoroughly enjoyed his basketball life in junior high school. As his teammates and practice buddies from his school and neighboring junior high school came over to our house often, they became dear to us, and we became friends with many of their parents.
In the past three weeks, I had witnessed three teams with the boys I had known go through this last ritual of the last game. Some may have been more gifted than the others, but it seems whether they became a starting player or not largely depended on their will to play and the ability of their coaches. Whether they played in the last game or not, they are all beautiful in their efforts in doing the best they can. Some have grown enormously from conquering uncontrollable events that happened to them through playing basketball.
I would like to recognize people who has given me so much joy and happiness for the past seven years. Kaito, you are my inspiration. Yuuma, you have realized your potential. Ryunosuke, Keisuke, Abecchi, Yuuki, Riku, Yusuke, Wataru, Tama, you’ve worked so hard and become so strong. Your time will come again. Shugo, you made it to the next level. Kanta, Kenzo, Shinji, I am deeply thankful to you for giving me so much joy and happiness. I am so proud of you all! But I must not forget the parents of those children who became dear friends to me, and the coaches and basketball association and school system that continues to enable this right of passage. It is not a perfect system, but our family had received great benefit from it. A sincere thank you to all.