団結 [Danketsu] (Unity): Student-Athletes and International Cooperation in the wake of COVID-19 in the context of Hiroshima Japan

(Originally published on April 27, 2020)

“やばいね、これは…”

Recently it has become commonplace to vocalize this thought. The phrase above can be translated from Japanese as: “Man, this is bad, huh.”

The impact of this virus has crippled the global society. It has also forced us all to step back and become introspective, disciplined, and for some social media users: comedic. All utilized as coping mechanisms to push through during our various lockdown situations.

As for myself; it’s taken an interesting turn. For the past 3 and a half years, I have run a sports development program in rural sections of Japan; including Okayama and Hiroshima. The main goal of that project is to advance international cooperation utilizing sports as a medium. As of last year, I became a Master’s student at Hiroshima University and the Defensive Coordinator of the American Football team. For any of my colleagues that have played sports with me, it is no secret that the prospect of me running a defensive is quite terrifying and indeed laughable. However, in accordance with the cultural background of university teams here in Japan, there is considerably more cooperation and coordination with student-athletes than most athletes from America experience.

Students are able to create and manage their playbooks, workouts, and practice schedules, but have looked to Danketsu and its various international connections for support. The largest of that support came from Spartan Sports Health and Wellness, where a former trainer and mentor of mine; Bill Ackerman offered his expertise in strength and conditioning to support the team.

Group of players during a March workout

At the start of the global outbreak, Hiroshima seemed virtually untouched by the virus. Speed and conditioning training continued as normal well into March. However, as of April 16th, the country declared a state of emergency, which in turn impacted Hiroshima as cases here started to increase daily. After the declaration, Hiroshima University also set measures to stop the spread and “flatten the curve.”

Consequently, the University football team’s spring season was canceled, in addition to all practices, group workouts, and the all-important film sessions. We accepted this as our fate for the next 2-3 months with the understanding that if it is required of us to continue a lockdown we will do so without complaint. But, how does a team of 47 (small, we know) stay mentally sharp and in shape while adhering to the rules set in place?

Player doing sprinting drills

Re-enter Bill Ackerman; Bill has provided our team with full access to online training that he created for his athletes back in Maryland. This has allowed our athletes to continue working out, stay fit, and reduce stress while we virtually plan our next steps for another run at the regional championship (make sure to utilize your translators for this hyperlink).

Hiroshima University athlete working out

Although a strange and confusing time, it’s comforting and inspiring to see athletes in Japan utilizing their international connections and still competing even if it is alone. As for Danketsu, and the many other projects like it that connect students virtually and through exchanges, it bestows a sense of validation during a time when physical contact and in-person exchange is impossible. We’ve also come to understand that we are lucky as a football club, we are all healthy and hoping every day this comes to a close by doing our part. Although the cliche that “we are all in this together” has been thrown around a lot recently we will continually do our part to reduce transmissions at least within our small corner of the world. We will do so through Danketsu, and that mission will hopefully do our part for the larger global society.

Although outdated; this starting mini-documentary outlines Danketsu’s start here in Japan and inspiration. If you have some time, by all means, please watch.

 

Article by;

Alvin (AJ) Koikoi J.r.

Princeton in Asia Fellowship ’18 (Danketsu Project: Growing Global Citizens)

Hiroshima University Graduate School of International Development and Cooperation ’21

https://www.linkedin.com/in/alvin-koikoi-j-r-067ab610a/

https://danketsuproject.com/

Instagram: @danketsuproject

2019 Update and Website Purpose Change

FullSizeRender-1Hello there!

It’s been quite some time since I have posted an update on Danketsu. Since my last post, Sophia Zemi has continued to foster a positive relationship with Sweet Potato Kids. Kibi Kokusai and F&M have ended the connection on good terms. Seishin and Garrison Forest have also ended their connection, players weighed down by schooling have made personal connections that will last a lifetime however the team connection has faded. Kana Okada, the star of Danketsu has taken a step back from track and field and is now competing in powerlifting competitions in Japan. Recently she rose to the top of her class in Squat and Bench Press.

Okayama University is now in the fold, with Professor Chung of the Global Studies department interested in connecting her students with an American University with the hope of tackling deep issues facing Japan and America’s history. In addition, I was recently admitted to Hiroshima University’s International Development and Cooperation graduate school where I will be studying Peacebuilding. Along with this, I have joined the Hiroshima University American football club as an assistant coach. The coaches and I are currently working to secure a connection to an American football team in America with hopes of creating a sustainable partnership for the future of the program.

The start at Hiroshima University has been quite challenging, as I am currently still working, maintaining a proper life balance has become quite difficult. However, the course work is the most interesting I have ever encountered and I feel closer to the goal of solidifying Danketsu already. The courses include; Human Resource Development for Education, Peace and Conflict Research, Microfoundations of Conflict, Game Theory, and International Security.

From this post on, this website will no longer be only updates on Danketsu, but updates ranging from current classes to interactions within the sports community in Japan. I will also use it to get closer to a topic for my dissertation. I currently have two quite distinct ideas: the power of sports in Peacebuilding, and relics of colonialism that still impact post-conflict societies. It will be comparable to a CV (Curriculum Vitae), however, this will be an active one, of which I will present to future partners of Danketsu as well as employers.

As the Japanese language tells us to say: これからよろしくお願いします!I look forward to all of your comments, questions, and working together to advocate for peace in our world.

The sole proprietor of Danketsu:

-AJ Koikoi

Pen-Paling: Tailored for us

Pen-Paling, the hyphenated word conjures up pretty specific thoughts. Generally, kids who live in a “developed” Western country and a country outside of the bubble of Western influence exchange letters for a short amount of time. Pen-paling is usually used to spark a global interest in young learners, and I can certainly attest to that facet. I remember in Elementary school writing pen-pal letters to kids in Thailand. At the time it was a great experience, I felt that I was making a good friend, and really reaching across the world and making a connection.

There’s no doubt that my pen-pal in Thailand appreciated my writing, as I did his writing, but who truly benefited more from this exchange? For myself, it offered a great chance to message a friend, for my Thai friend, it offered a good chance to practice English and make a friend. But what is the goal? If it is to create a global interest, are we not in fact deterring those that do not claim English as their first language? In speaking with students within Japan, I submitted some questions during an exchange carried out in English, and again during an exchange in their own language.

  1. Are you learning a lot about [country]’s culture?
  2. Do you understand everything?
  3. What did you learn?

During the English exchange, I found that most students didn’t really feel that they were learning about their exchange partner’s country. Although, students fluent in the English language certainly felt they were getting a lot out of the exchange. When asked about how much they understood, students generally didn’t understand everything in their letters until they were translated. Idioms and slang terms weren’t recognized until explained. The last question albeit vague, other than picking up English skills, students had nothing new to report. They simply weren’t learning anything new. This is difficult to hear being the mediator of these exchanges as the goal is for students to gain a cultural understanding of another country, through letters.

During the 2nd Language exchange (students outside of Japan, write Japanese, and students in Japan write in the exchange country’s language), I found a lot more base excitement. Upon receiving letters in Japanese, you could see large smiles creep across the faces of Japanese students. They were amazed that students in another country had a willingness to learn Japanese and communicate confidently with them. I found that students learned more about culture when they received letters in their native language. In addition, students were able to grasp concepts easily and craft better responses to their exchange partners. Student responses to the last question ranged greatly, most students felt relieved that they were not the only ones struggling to learn a language different from their own, and some were inspired by it. A few students even told me that this offered more of an insight into what it takes to be a global citizen. You often find students are not willing to make mistakes in a language, this transcends culture and is not an inherently bad thing. However, those that realize they wish to make an impact in other areas accept the importance of this.

This is not new information, in fact, it’s quite intuitive if one thinks about it for long enough. But for a long time, we have lived in a world tailored for us, with English usage being the main source of communication. However, if we can use our abilities to communicate slightly in any language, that enthusiasm will be met by our counterparts. A world in which we can use language to begin cultural outreach will spawn a world that reaches out to its neighbors with understanding. That’s Danketsu, that’s unity.

Recent Visit at Sweet Potato Kids!

Recently, after venturing back to America. Danketsu checked in on our partner organization; Sweet Potato Kids (SPK) in Randallstown, Maryland. SPK is a day camp and after-school program that: “nurtures [students] natural strengths. A child sees the world around them with wonder and awe, we believe in encouraging their natural curiosity.” The students, many of whom have studied Japanese at SPK, had a greeting for their friends in Japan.

First year wrap-up

As Danketu’s first year comes to a close, all initial goals have been met. Kibi Kokusai is connected to Franklin and Marshall, Notre Dame Seishin, to Garrison Forest and Sophia Zemi to Sweet Potato kids. The future looks bright! You can catch a brief overview of the project below!

 

 

三島さん: Mr. Mishima, A Conversation

Mishima-san’s friendship has helped me navigate Japan. Specifically the cultural, social and sports world. His advice has always been spot on, and he has certainly taken me under his wing to ensure that I’m always doing the right things, and completing my work to the best of my ability.

Mishima-san owns a bar, fairly close to where I initially lived in Japan. This bar has been a staple of Princeton in Asia Fellows in Kurashiki for the past 10 or so years. Offering a place to not only relax, but practice Japanese, and if you’re feeling adventurous making some…interesting…friends.

Mishima-san was born in Katsuyama, Japan. A very rural area and he had your run of the mill upbringing. He attended school, played baseball, until his high school graduation when he decided to get into the food service business. Starting as a “ko-hai (junior)” crêpe maker, his “senpai (senior)” was extremely tough on him. Forcing him to do everything perfectly, no bad posture, no flour on his apron, and when he would make a mistake his “Senpai” would jab an object into his side. Mishima-san always made sure blunt objects were around him during these training sessions.

Similar to all of our conversations, we discussed everything from his childhood to politically relevant topics. I started by asking what sports he and his siblings played during their childhood.

“Boys always play baseball, It’s like a right of passage in suburban and rural Japan. But within rural areas, Kendo (Japanese martial arts using bamboo swords) is also very popular. Girls usually play volleyball but are not really expected to pursue sports after high school. But we weren’t very serious, it was fun unfortunately we didn’t have the coaching necessary to be great.”

What about track and field? Were you involved with that as well?

“Everyone does track and field too, I forgot that one. During sports day in schools, the most popular event is the relay. We used to practice the baton pass so much, sometimes for 1-2 hours. Every person who has gone to Japanese schools is really good at the baton pass I think, even in the Olympics, it’s one of our strongest sports.”

There is certainly a correlation, team Japan brought home silver in the 4×100 relay, second only to team Jamaica. So, how do you think sports in Japan, specifically rural areas become better? Is more coaching necessary?

“I think the “senpai,” “ko-hai” relationship is very important. Seeing someone else work hard to make you a better athlete, while also working on themselves is powerful. It also makes us better people. But it’s important that the “senpai” is not too hard on the “ko-hai.” This can make the “ko-hai” resent the “senpai,” and the sport as well.”

So how should the “senpai” get their knowledge of this sport? Do you think all of the information required is known in Japan and by Japanese coaches?

“Of course not, when we look at the top summer Olympic sports such as track and field, basketball and soccer. Generally, the most elite teams are not Japan. Not to say we don’t do well, judo, volleyball and most recently track are doing well. I think these athletes need to go study with the elite athletes and bring back the information to Japan to coach kids to be the best that they can, then they will become great.”

Sounds pretty expensive, and time-consuming. Do you think it’s that important?

“Well studying that sport is not the end goal, it is important to experience other cultures. The best way to do that is to go to another country and study a sport and well…anything really. I believe that sports bring people together. Only through interaction and working together will we be able to see each other’s hearts. Without sports, that’s very difficult.”

What do you think is currently stopping us from this meaningful interaction?

“Selfishness. Only that”

From who?

“World leaders. From our own to Putin, Kim Jong, Trump. Everyone wants to give themselves and their “people” the best opportunity for success. But we should be working for everyone’s success.”

Do you really think sports can help a problem like this?

“I bet, if all world leaders get together and played a sport for about 2 hours, basketball or soccer, anything really, they would make more progress than has been made recently.”

Wow, that’s an amazing outlook, anything else you would like to add?

“I think your project is a good start. It may be kids just messaging each other now with workouts and tips, however, it could grow into an exchange that could change the perspective of kids and athletes everywhere. We need more projects like this in the world. How was the interview? I hope I didn’t sound like an idiot.”

We had a laugh after that and just continued our normal flow of conversation. I interviewed Mishima-san because through all of his experiences both bad and good he has consistently made his business a welcoming place for non-Japanese residents. Yes, he loves sports and recognizes the potential that sports can have in bringing the world together, but he is always striving to understand and even communicate with non-Japanese natives, and I think that above all else is admirable and always worth a conversation.

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Coach Reo

About a year ago, I was on the sideline coaching in Okayama City for Kibi Kokusai, a university located in the mountains of Takahashi, Japan, west of Okayama City.

I was approached by an older coach, who also worked within the college football association of Western Japan. He would often help Kibi Kokusai whenever a coach could not make it. I came to call him Reo-san. He was particularly fond of me and would always tell me about former players from America who had visited Japan, I did not recognize most names. Until one day he mentioned one of the greatest to ever play the game of football.

I recently reached out to Reo-san to sit down with him and ask him what he thought about our progress as a program and I wanted to know more stories about one of my favorite football players: Lester Hayes.

Reo-san played with Lester Hayes back in the early 90s. During a tour by many current and former NFL players at the time. They organized games to play the USA vs. Japan, as well as mixed squads, giving some players an opportunity to play with players that they may have seen on television, and even idolized.

“It’s so cool that you played with Lester Hayes, what was he like?” I asked.

Reo-san responded: “Lester Hayes was incredible, we all thought he looked like lightning running around out there. I tried to run a route on him. It didn’t go well for me.”

“But why did they do this, what was the end goal for these games?” I asked.

“We never asked, in fact, we don’t really know. We think it was supposed to help us develop our skills, but there weren’t many practices. Maybe to discover a good football player was their goal,” Reo-san responded.

“Do you think Danketsu does a good job of offering a path to an end goal? Or is the program more similar to the games you mentioned?”

He paused for a bit, mulling the question over. Then he answered; “These types of programs are wonderful, they teach us we’re all alike while giving us new knowledge of a sport that we have a lot of interest in. But, until we can provide that for ourselves, all sports cannot become better.”

I asked him; “What would you suggest to make it better?”

“We need to study it for ourselves. Go to large universities and experience the sports ourselves and bring back the knowledge to our players so we can teach it ourselves. I think you can help with that.”

After this part of our conversation, Reo-san asked me to help him discover an offense and a better understanding of the game at a later date. I agreed, and we continued speaking about his experience playing against and with former NFL players. He definitely appreciated the experience, but he kept reiterating how he wished he was able to learn more.

This conversation proved to be helpful and Reo-san offered a challenge that I had previously given thought to but had not yet considered. His feedback offered a path with a goal and how to achieve it.

 

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Coachable

During my time in Japan, Kana Okada has been an athlete I’ve had the honor of following on her journey. She is the epitome of the word “coachable,” something I strive to teach with the athletes I work with in Japan.

Kana was so driven in her study of the English language that she ventured to Milwaukee, Wisconsin during 2015 for a study abroad program. During this program, her love of sports was so great that she joined the basketball program at this school, as well as the track and field team. Kana, a seasoned 100m sprinter, has been running as long as she can remember. Following closely in the footsteps of her father, one of Japan’s top sprinters and throwers during his career.

I never ran track, which made the way that Kana and I created our player-coach relationship even more interesting. During her study abroad program she gravitated towards a coach that had incredible knowledge of track and field mechanics and expected the same results from Kana as her American counterparts. Kana’s 100m time was shaved by 1 second. Any athlete can understand the importance that a whole second makes, it can often be the difference between winning and losing.

During this time in America, she grew to value different coaching styles. Prior to Danketsu, Kana was stuck in a rut. In a recent interview, she stated: “Before Danketsu, going to practice was a task. Something I did because I had to, now practice is more fun. We’re not just going outside and running, we’re using the current workouts that the best athletes in universities use.”

Kana approached me and asked me to coach her, not because I ran track, but to get a different perspective on workouts. She is constantly asking me for new updates on workouts and running mechanics from our counterparts in universities in America while appreciating what a new culture can teach her.

During the aforementioned interview, I asked Kana “What drives you?”

She responded; “I want to be the best that I can be. I want to be able to communicate through not only language but sports [too]. I want to work with athletes from all over the world.”

Kana wants to go to America to study and run track. She’s waiting to hear back from several schools. We wish her the best of luck here at Danketsu.

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