Last week I went to school on Saturday to watch the junior high school mid-year sports competition. All four junior high schools from the city of Iwanuma compete with each other for trophies. My school was hosting the basketball teams, so I spent six hours watching Japanese basketball and found it highly entertaining. Technically it’s the same game, but like everything imported in Japan, it’s just not quite the same.
The first game was a match up between my two junior high girls’ basketball teams, respectively called Iwa-chuu and Kita-chuu. I played basketball in junior high, albeit terribly, so I have a soft spot for my b-ball girls in general. I went to basketball practice with the girls from Kita-chuu and got to scrimmage with them, so I was a little biased in their favor and decided to silently root for them.
As it turns out, they didn’t need my secret moral support because Kita-chuu won their game 86 to 12! 86! Can you believe it? Having no expectations about basketball in Japan, this blew me away. Professional teams don’t even put up these numbers sometimes, and here are my tiny teenagers completely killing it! When I say tiny, I mean tiny. One of the best players on Kita-chuu couldn’t be more than 4’8” but it didn’t stop her from being an absolute terror on the court. The huge gap in the score was because the girls dominated on defense and managed to get almost every possession back in their court. Iwa-chuu wouldn’t even complete one pass before Kita-chuu would knock it out of their hands and drive down for a lay-up. I don’t know if they keep track of the shots on goal for junior high, but I’m pretty sure it would have been something like 150 to 25. Not only did they make that many basket attempts, their accuracy was awesome. 86 points in forty minutes, that’s more than a basket a minute.
And boy, were they fun to watch! Those girls dribbled between their legs, set up screens, drove their way into the lane, made left-handed lay-ups and even sunk a few 3-pointers! The tiny 4’8” gal nailed a 3-point shot and I couldn’t help but cry out in surprise and glee. Watching her fling her entire body weight into a ball twice the size of her head was ridiculously impressive. The Japanese generally clapped politely when their team scored, so I got a lot of sideways glances as I “oohed” and “aahed” every block and steal. Even the girls’ coaches sat quiet and expressionless, and not once did they take a timeout.
One of my favorite aspects of Japanese basketball is that the players on the bench all had fans. While they sat on the sidelines they used their fans to clap a beat while they shouted cheers for their players. They did this the entire game, and then in between periods they fanned the players and brought them water. Who needs cheerleaders when you have a bench full of people sitting around? When players exit the court, they bow. When the game is finished the players bow to each other and then go to the other team’s coach and bow to them. When they are called for fouls they nod, and never get defensive. I don’t even know if such a thing as a “challenge” exists in Japanese sports, since they are the epitome of anti-confrontational. Unfortunately my school has no bleachers, so it’s not really a spectator sport either, but when you do see it, it is the politest game of basketball imaginable.
After this exciting first hour, I spent the rest of the day watching five more games nowhere near as interesting. The boys’ basketball teams were miles behind the girls from Kita-chuu. They had lots of energy, but little skill and no direction. They wildly flung half-court length passes at every opportunity, apparently to avoid dribbling because they were bad at that too. They attempted long shots on almost every possession, which they usually missed, because they couldn’t run plays to get their guys in the post. They almost missed every lay-up they did manage to take, and ended all their games around 30 points. For being significantly taller, their accuracy was lacking.
I realized I had been spoiled by the Kita-chuu game and that they were an exception, not the rule for Japanese junior high basketball. The parents and the coaches did seem to get more involved in the boys games, cheering and screaming tips from the sidelines. After a close game in which my Iwa-chuu boys lost, many mothers were crying, as were the players. Crying?! There’s no crying in basketball! I was surprised by this display of emotion until I recalled the high value Japanese place on succeeding, coupled with the ever-lingering culture of shame. I’m thankful there aren’t more drastic repercussions, like having to fall on one’s basketball… Luckily when trophies were handed out, nothing more was said on the subject and I went home vowing to attend every game Kita-chuu plays this year! Maybe I can become their mascot, and wear a plush, cute but slightly disturbing animal suit with a very poorly translated English name… Speaking of which, I believe Andrew has a post somewhere about Japanese mascots…