Monday, November 12, 2012

Whether or not Team is Spelled with an I and Other Misconceptions


Right now I’m sitting on a swivel-chair in a room in Northwestern CT, USA. I’ve spent the past week refurbishing and aesthetically updating this particular room. It is my bedroom. I haven’t been - much less lived - here at my dad’s house since I don’t even remember when. But after four years at college and two years in Japan, it didn’t really feel like my room anymore. The photographs were of ex-girlfriends. The toys were mostly plastic model dinosaurs. The decorative baseball-bat was signed by some ballplayer who took steroids. My bed-sheets and down-comforter had at some point been assaulted/modified by my father’s girlfriend; the revised linen-theme one of double-digit pillows and diaphanous, baby-blue frills.

Eight of ten bed-pillows are now stored in the basement and my gaze keeps returning to the collage of new photographs I diligently festooned just this week. Most of them are from Japan. Lots of them are of the Toyooka JHS basketball team. These basketball team photos evoke a pinpoint and visceral brand of nostalgia. They summon up a series of very tangible memories. Recollections that should be recorded before they too dissolve into past-tense, freeze-frame memorabilia. These snapshots remind me of the really good stuff. The stuff we, The Toyooka Basketball Team As A Unit, said and accomplished and overcame and fucked-up and failed at. These were my boys. My students, my disciples, my professors, my best friends and my little brothers. For two years, this was my family.

We have shared water-bottles and sweat-drenched headbands and loads of beef curry. We have watched TV in total silence. We have scrubbed vats and pots and pans and plates. We have collided into each other. We have farted on each other. We have been beaten annihilated by pretty much every team we played. We have traded hardcore wedgies until we were all doubled over in agreement that this nonsense has to stop. We have weeded the school lawn. When no one was watching, we have quit weeding and launched into frenzied four-leaf-clover-finding contests. We have performed choreographed hip-hop dance routines. We have been unable to communicate. We have communicated with gestures and without words. We have argued about the physical cuteness of Japanese girls vs. all-other girls. We have stopped talking for a few days. We have started laughing and not been able to stop. We have avoided each other. We have collapsed into a single pile of writhing bodies. We have given each other haircuts. We have grilled meat and when the meat caught fire we sat there blaming each other, refusing to extinguish the conflagration. We have punched a hole in the wall. We have cursed each other’s countries and languages and cultures and friends and parents. We have raced on zip-lines while kick-punch-battling to the death. We have felt earthquakes. We have exchanged romantic counsel. We have slapped each other across the face.

I have woken up hung-over and gone directly to basketball practice in my pajamas. I have contemplated quitting this stupid job that doesn’t even pay a dime. I have made a lifelong friend. I have met sixteen boys I will never forget and five boys I’m not sure I can live without, each of them possessing a litany of insufferable, tortured, exquisite imperfections. I have revealed the most bighearted, dim-witted, inspired, flawed facets of myself. I have sat in total darkness and wept and wondered if This Is What It’s All About.

And always, after all that, we played basketball.



Pt 1: I Don’t Know What I’m Doing Here But Neither Do You

It was early August, 2010 and I was trudging through a bamboo forest, perspiring grossly. The air was like melting gelatin. It must have been at least 35oC. The walk from my house to Toyooka Junior High School was scenic and uphill and took only about three minutes. I’d just arrived to Japan and still didn’t own a car, otherwise I would have driven. It was that hot.

A few days prior, desperate to dazzle my new co-workers and employers, I’d volunteered to coach the Toyooka JHS basketball team. It had been rash proposal, motivated by a phobia of impending professional inadequacy and announced in front all the other, still very anonymous, teachers. I’d wanted to make a statement. And so now here I was, walking to my first basketball practice, suddenly aware of the fact that I was in no way qualified for this particular enterprise. Yes, I’d coached basketball at summer camps, but never an actual team. I was out-of-shape. I didn’t speak a word of Japanese. It was still summer vacation so I hadn’t met any of my students. I couldn’t differentiate male Japanese kids from female Japanese kids, much less pronounce their pitch-accented, multi-syllabic names. Even though I’d been receiving salary for the past two weeks, this was by any legitimate definition of employment: My First Day. I could not stop sweating.

The school gymnasium was a striking, recently-built structure. The exterior was cuboidal and cream-colored. The interior was flushed with natural light and consisted of two parallel basketball courts separated by a green mesh-partition that stretched from floor to ceiling, at least 12 meters high. The ceiling surface was undulant, like a succession of inverted, crestless waves. A narrow, elevated viewing-mezzanine lined three of the four walls. The eastern and western walls each featured a wide strip of windows that basically spanned the wall-space between floor and elevated viewing-mezzanine. The windows were open but the gymnasium air was stagnant and hot. Through the westward-facing windows you could see the school’s sand + gravel baseball field and beyond that an urbanized tract of Tenru River Valley. The Minami Alps loomed in the distance, their jagged peaks impaling turbid, late-summer atmosphere. At the far end of the gymnasium was an upraised stage with mammoth, blue, velvety-looking retractable curtains. Pretty much everything else was made of maple wood.

The green mesh-partition’s raison d’étre was immediately obvious. The far basketball court was for girls’ volleyball and the near court was for boys’ basketball. The two teams practiced simultaneously and the giant reticulum detained any potentially-hazardous projectile that went flying/rolling in the wrong direction.

When I entered the gymnasium the basketball team was loafing about, dribbling and chatting and looking like your typical group of dispassionate teenage boys. They saw me and went still and silent.

“Hi,” I said, in English.

Over at the adjacent court the volleyball coach ascended a foldable chair and stood there lofty and rigid. Her hair was cropped short and she wore a black, full-body, polyester track-suit with photoluminescent vertical stripes down the sides. Beneath her, on the other side of the net, the volleyball girls were strategically positioned, their small bodies uniformly flexed. They swayed rhythmically, hands clenched between knees, ready for action. A single, fragile-looking girl flanked the coach and handed her a volleyball. The coach rotated the ball once in her hands and then spiked it over the net, straight down into the crowd of girls. One girl dove after it, skidding across the floor with the cringe-inducing screech of epidermal layers being abraded. As she punched the ball, she squealed a Japanese watchword. The rest of the team, still athletically poised and already making compensatory adjustments to their formation, echoed the refrain in earsplitting harmony. The targeted girl’s touch was heavy and the ball zoomed out-of-bounds and rolled across the upraised stage. As the girl peeled herself up off the hardwood, a second ball smashed into her stomach with serious velocity. The girl collapsed and wheezed the same watchword as before and the other girls repeated it, louder this time. The coach took a third ball and spiked it in the direction of a different girl, who went flailing after it. The team shifted positions, rotating impeccably, countervailing in honor of their felled teammates. The fragile-looking girl whose task it was to provide the coach with a constant supply of ammo had no facial expression. The coach was not sweating.

I looked at the basketball team. A cluster of very short boys with their shirts tucked-in looked back at me. No one spoke. The shriek of skinned-knees echoed across the gymnasium. The volleyball coach berated in phlegmatic Japanese and her voice was chilling.

An old Japanese man came limping over to me. His hair was unkempt and balding a little on one side. He had a wide, asymmetrical smile.

“No English,” he said. “No English.”

***

I started playing basketball when I was nine yrs old and it wasn’t my idea. Competitive sports were actively discouraged at my weirdly-humanistic, alternative-education elementary school1 and my childhood predisposition to reject all New Things remains to this day an object of constant family raillery. But, at my friend’s father suggestion and sans my knowledge/permission, my mother enrolled me in the Great Barrington public youth basketball league. Initially resistant, I quickly capitulated. For the first time ever, my oversized dimensions were beneficial rather than oafish and humiliating. I liked that. So I kept playing. And by age twelve I was spending every weekend from November through March traveling across Western MA, participating in basketball tournaments.

These long-gone Saturdays and Sundays supply me with some of my fondest formative-year memories. There was the time my father chauffeured me from Manhattan to North Adams, MA in a blizzard. There was the time I broke my thumb and kept playing anyway. There was the time Sam deflected a full-court inbounds pass and it miraculously ricocheted into our basket and he just stood there in statuesque shock, hands raised straight above his head. There was the time I puked in the middle of a game. There was the time some players on the other team asked for my autograph. There were all those times Josh and I sat hunched together, untying our shoelaces and dissecting our wins and losses.

But my paramount memories are of those moments that happened, and the relationships forged, before, after and between actual basketball games. Playing in the town league introduced me to public school kids and initiated some bona-fide, lifetime friendships. Every weekend we explored the malls and Footlockers and cinemas of dilapidated industrial Western MA towns. We overswarmed indoor pools at hotels in Cape Cod.  We basically shut down every I-HOP we could find. Basketball transported me to places I would never have visited otherwise. I joined an AAU team and we trekked all over Northeast USA. I was invited to a college scouting event in Columbus, Ohio. I played pick-up games in Mexico. I spent at least three weeks every summer at basketball camps in the Bronx, where I unintentionally but inevitably befriended only black kids. Sometimes after basketball camp, my sister couldn’t even comprehend my Ebonics-laced English.

I guess what I’m saying is that while my offer to coach the Toyooka JHS team was impetuous and laced with self-doubt, its impetus was honorable. Or at least pure. As a kid, basketball had made me happy. It provided me with irreplaceable experiences and some really good friends. I thought maybe it could make Japanese kids happy too. 

***

I watched the Toyooka JHS team practice, suddenly feeling bird-brained and myopic. My subconscious reverie of bestowing these kids with some sort of meaningful/gratifying experience had been a smug delusion. They were vertically-challenged, totally incompetent non-athletes. We had zero shared life-experiences. Language was just another obstacle. And worst of all, I apparently didn’t understand Japanese basketball. The sport I thought I’d mastered long ago now apparently involved outlandish maneuvers and arcane drills. Kids were, like, slow-mo reverse hopping from the squatting-position with no ball in sight. I sat down and tried to figure out what the hell was going on.

Youth sport in Japan is, in general, a strange beast that adumbrates a few of the infinite cultural differences distinguishing The Island from The Occident. We focus on individual skill development, superior athleticism, self-assertion and loud, aggressive verbalization. They emphasize team unity, rote implementation, conformity and tacit communication. One look around and this contrast was manifest. Outside on the sand + gravel baseball field a squad of maybe twenty five kids was performing batting practice. Their bellowed call + response incantations were succinct and synchronized. All at once the batters and pitchers and fielders rotated positions, everyone sprinting to their subsequent task/loci. Over at the contiguous basketball court, the volleyball team scored a point and quickly formed two compact, concentric, contrariwise, gyratory rings; so that high fives could be exchanged coequally and as fast as possible. Then they were back at their positions, knees bent, uniformly primed for the next athletic endeavor. Everyone had their shirts tucked-way-in, elastic waistbands somewhere around belly-button level. Not a single student was even a little overweight.  

When I walked home that afternoon, the guttural hum of fat, airborne insects came from inside the bamboo forest. The sun had not moved and I felt rotten. During four uninterrupted hours of basketball practice I hadn’t commanded a drill or corrected a lay-up. I’d just sat there overwhelmed and ineffectual, flipping frantically through a Japanese-English dictionary. The kids had dawdled, dribbled clumsily and done a series of baffling lower-body exercises. The old man periodically disappearing/materializing. At the conclusion of practice, in a last-ditch effort to be somewhat relevant, I’d taught the kids a single English word: hustle.2 Then we’d formed a circle and placed our hands at the axis. “1, 2, 3,” I’d said. “Hustle!” they’d shouted.

Tomorrow’s practice was from 10am2pm. Classes started in two days. My t-shirt and my skin were basically a single, saggy substance.

Throughout the next few weeks, I familiarized myself with countless exotic proprieties of Japanese youth sport. Every school team practices for one hour in the morning and three hours in the afternoon, every weekday minus Monday. They wear corresponding, sport-specific practice jerseys. They perform queer callisthenic exercises before every practice. Every team member always executes the exact same drill, regardless of height or age or position or talent. The preliminary drills of every practice emphasize fundamentals. Underclassmen address upperclassmen as senpai, which means “elder/superior.” Whenever a school teacher enters the gymnasium or traverses an athletic field, training halts and the kids bow and greet the teacher in unison. At the end of practice, team members congregate around coaches and listen to lengthy, hushed, philosophical-sounding speeches. The kids assemble all equipment before practice and disassemble it after. They sweep the floor and sand the field. They never trash-talk. They’re never idle. They never complain. They are never late. When there’s no coach/teacher at practice, nothing changes.

Just by observing the demeanor and diurnal agendum of every other Toyooka JHS sports team, it became clear that the basketball team was severely substandard. There were only seven members, by far the fewest of any club. They were all 1st yr students.3 Most of them had never played basketball. Instead of sport-specific practice jerseys, they wore the summertime school uniform (navy blue shorts and a white t-shirt), which meant they were the most putrid-smelling kids at school on a daily basis. They were often tardy. They rarely hustled. They pouted. They argued. It was a peculiar and volatile gang of veritable misfits and each one deserves his very own mini-biography. 

The Twitchy One: Seiya’s body consisted of sharp angles and lots of bone and his big head rested on his little neck at a creepy, permanent slant. His feet were super-sized and didn’t really disengage from the ground when he ran. His haggard fingers strained to perform simple tasks like catching a basketball or tucking-in a shirt. For the first few weeks I wondered if maybe he was a mute. His dad was always up on the viewing-mezzanine at every practice. He, the dad, paced along the balcony and just sort of fumed and seethed at his son’s complete athletic ineptitude. Seiya’s father’s presence had a very immediate effect on Seiya: it made him twitch. So the program would go like this: Seiya would dribble a ball off his gargantuan shoe and this would cause his father to start taking small, shifty steps up on the balcony. Maybe he would murmur something under his breath. Then Seiya would glance up and a pass would smack him in the thigh and so Seiya would canter after the loose-ball but the loose-ball would invariably be recovered by someone else and there’s a solid chance Seiya would end up on the floor. Seiya’s pops would go totally silent and begin taking these long, aggressive strides back and forth across the entire length of one wall of the viewing-mezzanine. His hair buzzed at like 1/8 inch. Seiya would at this point stand-up vertical with his elbows tucked at his abdomen and his forearms out in front of him like an impotent dinosaur. He wouldn’t really look at anything. His eyes were open but, like, shut off. And then he’d start twitching. First in his eyelids and then his canthi and then his mouth and then his cheeks and then his flimsy little fingers. His legs didn’t twitch so bad, so he could keep running. And that’s how he’d go around for the rest of practice. Eyes shut off while different parts of his face twitched in different directions while his weird reptile arms flopped about while his legs churned while his clown feet slid all over the court while his pops was by now basically patrolling all three walls of the viewing-mezzanine. Seiya was probably the smartest boy in his grade.

The One That Definitely Needed Medication: Kota was hardly even chubby but he was fat by Japanese-kid standards. His cheeks were just sitting there waiting to be squeezed. But if you ever tried to squeeze Kota’s cheeks he would punch you right in the face. If you teased him about his awkward shooting form he would laugh and playfully shove you with two hands. If you told him to run faster because you knew he wasn’t running his fastest, he would stop running all-together and maybe go lift-up the green-mesh partition and kick a basketball out into the middle of volleyball practice. If he wanted to, he would leave school at any moment of any day. If the basketball team had had a good practice and as a reward you were all playing a shooting-game together, he would steal someone’s ball and punt it up onto the viewing-mezzanine. If he was upset, he would want to talk about Tokyo Disneyland and Japanese food and not his family. If the whole team came over to your house, Kota would vanish at some point and appear at some later point holding a handful of vegetables he’d covertly harvested from your neighbor’s crops or maybe just a bag of chips. If you taught him English during English class, he would spend the whole class dismantling small toys. If he got incidentally contacted during practice, he would sometimes take it very personally and swing at the kid who’d contacted him and if he got reprimanded for swinging at one of his teammates, he would ditch practice and go into the gymnasium hallway and start tearing down school posters and paper-announcements and student artwork. If you talked to him during English class about basketball, he would put his head down and answer all your questions and probably have all the right answers. If you mentioned girls he might be pashing on, he would smile and wave you off. If he felt unfairly criticized/persecuted he would thrash around on the floor for literally half an hour. If the team was playing a tournament game, he would spend the entire game handing everyone else water-bottles and fanning them with handheld fans and clapping and chanting with like 100% full-throated zeal. If he ever actually got into a game, he looked like a tortoise on two stumpy human legs and was a paradigm of hustle. If his parents forgot to pick him up after practice, he would walk home carrying a mid-sized tree-branch.

The Orphan Boys – Ryo and Kazuki both lived at the Toyooka Jikein which was sort of like an orphanage for kids whose parents weren’t necessarily total non-factors but definitely weren’t competent enough to coexist with a child. Ryo’s dad was in jail. Kazuki’s dad was covered in tattoos and wore leather jackets and drove cars with tinted windows and had at least three different girlfriends with three different artificial-hair-colors and the same dissolute aura.4 Ryo was as tall as my chin and Kazuki came up to my sternum. Ryo liked scoring points and quickly incorporated into his repertoire whatever offensive post-moves I taught him. Kazuki was our lockdown perimeter defender. Ryo was temperamental and when he didn’t get the ball he just sort of skulked around the court with an anarchistic, deeply exasperating brand of insouciance. Kazuki was so short that half his jump-shots got blocked. When Ryo was energized and happy he dove after loose-balls and tussled for rebounds and grinned this huge, contagious, heart-warming grin. When Kazuki had an injury he played through it. When Ryo was frustrated he would perform arbitrary acts of rebellion like fiddling with his shoelaces nonstop or sitting in a corner of the gym with his head in his arms. Kazuki never changed his demeanor in any way. Ryo liked upbraiding underclassmen. Kazuki liked trying to decode my Japanese. Ryo was smart but found school tedious so he slept through most classes. If you tried to wake him up, he would smile at you and fall back asleep. Kazuki was smart and hardly ever spoke in class but always submitted assignments on time. If you tried to make him participate in class discussions, he would mutter something that no one could hear. Ryo should have been the team’s second best player. Kazuki was the team’s second best player. Ryo was an only child and Kazuki was the unofficial guardian of his younger brother. Sometimes Ryo would babble nonstop. When Kazuki spoke, everyone listened. Ryo was magnetic and impish. Kazuki one time asked me for advice on how to approach attractive older girls. Whenever Ryo sporadically renounced the team for a few days, everyone knew he would eventually come back. Whenever Kazuki cut his hair a certain way, everyone on the team copied him. Ryo memorized my very American expressions of gamesmanship and utilized them often. Kazuki never once celebrated his steals or points or test-scores. Ryo could wreck a practice all by himself. Kazuki was team vice-captain. Ryo and Kazuki both hated using their left-hands. After practice they would walk uphill to the Jikein with all the other orphans. They hardly ever spoke each other. 

The One That Was Funny But In A Weird Way – Takumi’s body was forever compensating for his fragile legs. On defense he would bend with his waist instead of his knees. His hands were always out in front of him, warding off all those near-to-the-ground objects that could potentially cause him to get tangled-up in himself. His shins were as big as my wrists. He didn’t wear ankle braces because his family couldn’t afford shit like that. His hair was scraggly and whenever he tweaked a knee or sprained a toe, he would brush his bangs to the side and grimace dramatically. His dribble was high and undisciplined. His behind-the-back passes were feeble and inaccurate. Without any concept of American street-ball, he played basketball like he’d been raised in Rucker Park; shimmying and high-stepping until his legs couldn’t support it anymore. He was forever adjusting his shooting-motion. When the team had to run wind-sprints, he would try to dicker down the number of reps. He limped often and noticeably. He was an attentive student and player, except for when he found something funny. Then it was over. He would start sneering and then tittering and then chortling and then cracking-up. He was that kid who couldn’t stop laughing at all the wrong times. He would cover his mouth and try really f’ing hard to stop, but he just couldn’t. And that would make everyone else laugh and that would make Takumi laugh so hard that he eventually just had to excuse himself from the scene. He was perceptive. He knew when situations/people were being absurd and he laughed at them but not in a cruel way. The teachers insisted his heart was not a Japanese heart, that he noticed stuff and exploited circumstances in a way that was intensely non-native. Sometimes I agreed. But then sometimes Takumi would clasp his hands together with his index fingers protruding, like how a 6yr old kid would construct himself a make-believe, double-barreled pistol. Then he would run around jamming his index fingers into other players’ asses, performing a disturbing and profoundly Japanese act of mischief known as a kancho .5  Whenever he was reprimanded for being a weirdo pervert, Takumi would stand still with his hands flat against his leg-peripheries and he would try not to smile. When players or students didn’t understand my Japanese or my comportment, he explained to them that I was different because I came from another country and it was unfair to hold me to Japanese standards. And then he would laugh at me. Takumi wanted to be a writer.  

The Captain – If Takuya had started playing basketball when he was nine years old, he probably could have gotten a Division I USA college scholarship. He was the tallest kid on the team but also the most graceful. His hair was short and spiky and when he didn’t understand my Japanese he would squeeze his eyebrows together and shrug and smile with just his mouth. Everyone did what Takuya told them to do but Takuya hated telling people what to do. He’d played basketball for one year already, traveling to a neighboring town to participate in its elementary school league. He was team captain. He was an engaged, cheerful student and totally unabashed when it came to shouting out erroneous answers to simple English-grammar questions. He understood my stilted, deficient Japanese better than any other kid in school and would often act as my classroom translator; converting my Japanese into actual Japanese. He taught me the Japanese words for: fart, burp, booger, shit, penis and man-whore, even though the boorishness of my vocab-requests visibly pained him. I taught him how to trash-talk in Ebonics-laced English but he couldn’t do it with a straight face. During team scrimmages I would guard him and he would guard me. His mother was the OCD, way-too-invested soccer-mom archetype and after every practice she would come up to me and launch into these gushing orations about god-knows-what. His dad always just stood behind her and was very still. Takuya passed too often and shot too seldom. He had seen 80’s NBA video footage and knew Magic Johnson better than Michael Jordan. When I told him he had to improve his outside-shot, he worked on his 3’s relentlessly and within a month was shooting 40%. He could go left or right no problem. During scrimmages I would pinch him and push him and poke him and trip him and he only ever retaliated by flashing a craven grin and saying, “ouch.” He was the Toyooka Junior High School Student Body Vice-President. It sounded like his nostrils were the source of his voice. When he got seriously injured during a game he would slink off without drawing any attention to himself. On the rare occasion he and I got to play on the same team in practice, we would both get all keyed-up and start tossing each other half-court alley-oops. He supervised stuff like team-meetings and equipment-prep for tournaments and he took it all very seriously. He always had a crush on the same girl and not even his best friends knew who she was. Takuya wore two knee-braces. Everyone liked him.

The Idiot – Sunao was, according to all recorded data, the dumbest kid at TJHS. His body was a stretched mass of lumps and cambers. His cheeks were like droplets of flesh. His sizeable forehead was a perfect curve. His calves looked like they were storing walnuts. His lips were droopy and forever covered in a layer of saliva. His eyebrows were thick and mutable. His ass was fat. When Sunao had to take a dump during practice it was a five-step, very public event. First certain pockets of gymnasium air would go so fetid that kids randomly stopped mid-dribble and keeled over and shielded their faces. Then Sunao started running funny with his fat ass somehow up higher. At this point the game/drill basically stopped because everywhere smelled so rancid. Takumi was giggling like a madman. Then Sunao would approach you and try to stand still in a formal posture of deference but he couldn’t do it because he couldn’t stop shifting his weight, back and forth and back and forth. He licked his lips and his eyelids started slamming open-and-shut. Then he’d ask if he could go to the bathroom, please, and as he was asking you this he would reach both arms behind himself and keep his hands back there at ass-level. You were grinning because you’re a fucking child. Yes, of course he can go to the bathroom, you’d say. So off he went, walking on his tippy-toes, knees ossified, legs slanted at like 45o behind the vertical plane of his upper-body, hands rammed into the centrepoint of his fat, weirdly-cocked ass. Like a puppet with only one string and the string connects to his anus and he, the puppet, has to hold it, the string, in place. By now Takumi was on the floor, clutching his stomach. Everyone else was grinning/giggling, except maybe Kota; who had probably deserted the premises. So this would happen a few times per week and Sunao was always really embarrassed by the whole thing. He was embarrassed about lots of things, actually. He couldn’t control his corporeal locomotion and often crashed into large solid objects. He didn’t understand school. He had a bristly, burgeoning, pubescent mustache. Verbalizing thoughts was a chore. He got zeros on every math test. The girl Sunao liked didn’t like him back. And he was uber-conscious of these myriad personal flaws because his parents often enumerated them to anyone who would listen. When his mother attended practice, she always brought Sunao’s infant twin-sisters. The two toddlers would spend the whole practice crawling haphazard across the gym-floor until Sunao abandoned whatever he was doing and scooped them up and carried them to safety. He was kind and generous and apprehensive. He would sometimes unleash these bursts of feral energy that sent his body hurtling all over the place. He was a legitimately terrible basketball player at first. He got teased and took it well and was able to laugh at himself. He was strong and physically dense and an accidental menace. He left opponents/teammates crumpled on the floor and then he tripped over them. He hustled daily and only rarely muttered a sharp, indecipherable rejoinder. He was eager to partake in any and every social gathering. When he didn’t hustle back on defense, it wasn’t because he didn’t want to; it was because he didn’t understand.

The Coach 6 – Sekijima Sensei was a 27yr old Social Studies teacher who had played university basketball. She was stocky with a squished, mannish face and black hair chopped into sharp angles. She usually wore grey sweatpants and a black t-shirt with the word BENCHWARMER stenciled across it.7 She was reserved and docile, habitually pouring tea for every other teacher in the break-room. She spoke zero conversational English but was well-versed in English-language, basketball-particular vocabulary.8 She wouldn’t correct my Japanese because it was malapropos for a woman to do such things. When I used gestures to communicate certain semi-complex defensive/offensive concepts, she understood exactly what I meant. She avoided eye contact. She encouraged me daily to make a speech at the end of practice, even when my speeches consisted of me just listing whatever non-germane Japanese language imperatives I could summon. She was born twenty minutes from Toyooka and had lived in her parents’ house every day minus college. She was always patient with me and usually patient with the team. When she wanted to, she could get stern and scary. The first time I had an actual conversation with Sekijima she was a besotted mess. It was at a teachers’ drinking-party and her face was flushed and her speech was slurred and she was asking me how I felt about marrying a Japanese girl sometime in the very near future. For a long time I was awkward and tense around her, fearing the next round of slovenly romantic overtures. She was the only female basketball head-coach in Nagano prefecture. Sometimes she just didn’t comprehend 13yr old boys and so she would look at me resigned and bewildered and desperate for some sense of solidarity.

In summary, the Toyooka JHS Basketball Team9 was a gang of oddballs, bastards and scoundrels shepherded by an unmarried woman.10 And the team’s eccentricity was something of a running-joke at school. Students raised their eyebrows and recommended that I coach another sport, any other sport. English teachers asked me often if I was, like, emotionally okay. But, whether real or imagined, there was always a subtext to their compassion. They pitied me but they thought it made perfect sense. Of course he’s coaching the basketball team. He’s a foreigner. He’s another freak.

And for a long time our practices resembled a three hour, certifiable freak-show. Here’s a timeline of one totally average after-school basketball practice.

4:26pm: The kids arrive one-at-a-time, all of them late. They sit on the floor and tie their shoelaces and chit-chat and ignore me. I shoot baskets by myself and eventually, after like five minutes of glacial shoe-tying, plead that the kids start warming-up already. Over at the volleyball court the volleyball team has finished stretching and is working on their overhand and underhand serves. The volleyball coach and Sekijima are both still in the teachers’ office.

4:35pm: Warm-ups commence. The kids scatter along the baseline and take turns performing a series of bizarre lower-body exercises. Theatric stuff like slow-mo backwards hopping, slow-mo stylized leg-swivels, slow-mo diagonal slide-striding, and other impenetrable, yoga-reminiscent movements. With each completed slow-mo maneuver – each stride or hop or swivel – the kids emit a synchronal, soprano humph! I watch them for a minute and then do some quick, USA style warm-ups.

4:45pm: The team forms a seated circle at center-court. Every kid assumes a more or less identical personal stretch-posture. Starting with Takuya, a solitary voice counts from one to four. The rest of the team responds to this voice by counting from five to eight in unison. Then everyone shifts to the ensuing stretch-posture. This straightforward procedure takes a lot longer than it should because being the solo 1-4 voice is a rotating responsibility and the kids keep forgetting/disputing whose turn it is and quarrelling about it and pointing fingers and eventually they abandon stretching altogether. I have finished USA warming-up and USA stretching and I’m shooting by myself again. I stop shooting and yell at the team in English. I say just fucking stretch already you little shit-brains. They look at my quizzically. Takuya assumes the next stretch-posture and starts from the beginning; ichi, ni, san, shi.

5:00pm: I attempt to explain a new drill to the team. It goes: sprint the length of the court and catch a long pass delivered by me and use a jump-stop to gain balance and then shoot a short jump-shot. The kids don’t understand so I demonstrate how it works, all by myself. From one baseline I toss the ball high and far. I sprint like crazy and try to catch the ball before it bounces at the other end of the court but it’s physically impossible. I don’t get there in time. There is no jump-stop and there is no jump-shot. Instead what happens is I end up chasing a bouncing basketball from one end of the court to the other. I do this a few times, convinced I can get it. The kids are bewildered and Takumi is laughing. I start sweating.

5:07pm: I notice Seiya’s father up on the viewing mezzanine. His hands clutch the balcony railing and his neck rests on his hands. His elbows are tucked at his abdomen. His head is suspended out in space, unblinking.

5:15pm: The kids do a Japanese drill which appears to consist of them playing fast-break offense without any defense. They get the rebound, advance the ball the length of the court and take a shot at the opposite basket; within eight seconds and without any dribbles. It’s a fast-paced, practical passing drill. Thank god there’s no defense because the passes are lackadaisical and the court-spacing is ill-conceived. Seiya shuffles around and struggles to catch chest-passes. Sunao never makes a shot. Takumi keeps behind-the-back-passing the ball out-of-bounds. I deactivate the automatic 8-second buzzer that the kids had triggered.

5:25pm: I teach them a boxing-out drill so we can get defensive rebounds even though they are all so damn short. My explanation is gesture-dependent but the kids grasp it quickly. They like to push each other and Kota likes it when I use him as my test-dummy. The drill ends when Sunao elbows Seiya in the mouth and sends him scurrying to the outdoor water fountain with his face all bloody. His pops stays up there on the viewing mezzanine.

5:30pm: We start an offense/defense 1v1 drill. It’s a good USA drill that hones change-of-direction dribbling and rapid directional shifts on defense. Ryo tires immediately and quits playing defense. He just jogs next to Kazuki as Kazuki zigzags across the court. When they finish that round, Kazuki asks Takumi to switch partners and Takumi complies. Now Kazuki and Takuya hustle and make each other better while Takumi shimmies and shakes and Ryo just strolls alongside him, occasionally stopping to fiddle with his shoelaces. I partner with Kota because there’s an odd number and he doesn’t have a practice-buddy. Kota refuses to dribble on offense and saunters on defense and I’m not even mad.

5:42pm: During a three minute water break, I go to the restroom. When I re-enter the gymnasium, Kota is tossing the basketballs, all of them, through the sliding outdoor-doors and straight into the school’s massive compost pile. The rest of the team is just watching him. Up on the viewing-mezzanine Seiya’s father has commenced the whole pacing routine.

5:50pm: The team forms a single-file line at one basket and we practice one-handed form-shooting. Kazuki can’t get the ball over the front-rim. Takumi uses both hands. Sunao’s shot almost shatters the backboard. Seiya misses and looks up at his father and then misses again. Kota is down at the other basket, trying to hit the undulant gymnasium ceiling with a volleyball he pinched when I wasn’t looking. Ryo is concentrating and improving. Takuya is bored and punctilious at the same time.

5:57pm: The volleyball coach enters the gymnasium. The basketball team doesn’t notice until way late and then they attempt to greet her in unison but fail. It’s more like a smattering of conflicting Japanese phrases muttered in quick succession. They bow inelegantly and repeatedly and without coordination. The volleyball girls drop what they’re doing and form a tight semi-circle around their coach. They greet her and genuflect in harmony. The volleyball coach speaks some concise, critical-sounding words and the girls clap once and return to athletic action. While I watch this unfold, Takumi sneaks up behind me and administers a nasty kancho. I go to the ground and feel violated. The team giggles. Kota chucks a ball at me.

6:00pm: We practice left-handed lay-ups. I’ve taught the kids a gawky skip-dance that will help their muscles differentiate between left and right handed lay-ups. When a player bungles a lay-up, the gawky skip-dance is his punishment. Over at the adjacent court the volleyball team gets reprimanded for watching the basketball team dance. The dancing is nonstop because, other than Takuya, no one can shoot a proper left-handed lay-up. Every time I look up at the viewing-mezzanine, Seiya’s father is somewhere else, in that same position with his neck resting on the railing.

6:10pm: I teach the team a defensive-shell drill. It’s essentially a 4v4 exercise that introduces the basic concepts of man-to-man team defense. Whenever the offense makes a pass, each individual defender must shift his position accordingly. Verbal communication is vital. I explain the various defensive obligations via lots of shouted English words and violent gesticulating. At first it’s pandemonium. Defensive players chase the ball and then stop and change directions and then just give-up. No one verbally communicates because no one understands. Finally I pause practice and make everyone freeze-in-place. Then I walk Takuya through every single position, making exaggerated, categorical transitions from Help to Deny to Ball defense. Takuya comprehends the basics and instructs the rest of the team. They enjoy the challenge and work hard. I feel a sense of real accomplishment and decide we can address the whole verbal communication thing later. Then I spot Sunao. He’s on defense, just pointing at indiscriminate offensive players, jogging between two points and staring off into the cosmos. I grab his shoulders and shake him hard. He winces and I feel evil.

6:30pm: Sekijima enters the gymnasium and the volleyball team greets her flawlessly. The basketball team is still in shambles, everyone competing to explain Weak-side Help Defense to Sunao. Sekijima looks at me and smiles a sheepish smile that makes me think she could have come to practice a long time ago, but she didn’t really want to. The basketball team finally bows to her. I realize that Kota is missing.

6:45pm: The team runs wind-sprints and everyone runs hard. I become so excited/proud/invested that I run the last sprint with them.

6:52pm: Sekijima talks to the team for a few minutes and I don’t understand anything she says. Takumi is giggling. Kota has returned. Takuya and Kazuki are solemn. Ryo has already removed his shoes. Seiya is looking up at the balcony but his father is gone. Sunao’s rapid-eyelid-movement is a spectacle. Sekijima finishes speaking and signals that it’s my turn. I say, in Japanese: talk, fast, run, think, practice, run, speak, work hard and finish off with an emphatic, English-language “hustle!” The team shouts, “Hustle!”

7:00pm: We finish tidying-up the gymnasium. The basketballs have been retrieved from the compost pile. Shoes returned to their respective cubbies. Scoreboard unplugged and stowed in some dark place. Seiya’s father nowhere to be seen. The team changes into their formal school uniforms. We all slip into our outdoor shoes and exit the gymnasium. The basketball team falls into a single, semi-straight line. Sekijima Sensei and I stand still. The entire team thanks us for a good day of practice. They are finally in unison.


For the first few months, the TJHSBT was consistently exhausting and rarely rewarding and I was not a good coach. I never attended morning practice. Sometimes I would skip afternoon practices without notifying anyone. The team exasperated me and I cursed them to-their-faces in English and Spanish. If I spotted TJHSBT members in public, I would hide in my car/hotfoot it to some other location ASAP. Sometimes after an especially taxing practice, I’d come home and fix myself a whiskey and consider quitting.

***

The fact that the basketball team was the most disorganized, least skilled athletic club at Toyooka JHS wasn’t really that surprising. Basketball is not a popular team sport in Japan. Baseball is the traditional favorite and soccer is on the rise. Hardly anyone knows anything about basketball. And that sort of makes sense. Japanese people are the shortest in the world. They don’t watch basketball. They don’t play basketball. Their bodies weren’t made for basketball. My hypothesis went like this: while the TJHSBT was certainly aberrant in terms of character, it probably wasn’t any less basketball talented/capable than every other team in the county. Then, sometime in November 2010, we had our first tournament.

The majority of JHS basketball tournaments in Shimoina-gun11 were hosted by Toyooka JHS because our gymnasium was modern and sterile and well-lit. This was a good thing because for a long time I had no idea how to navigate the winding, one-lane roads that connected all those municipalities that dotted the banks of the Tenru River. I never would have made it to any other school by 0900h on a Saturday morning.

The day before the tournament we spent the last hour of practice preparing the gymnasium. Large cylinders of green rubber protective-hide were unfurled along the sidelines. Foldable chairs set in precise, identical rows on each side of each court. Foldable scorers’ tables at mid-court. Colorful banners with apothegms of encouragement hung from the viewing-mezzanine. Extension cords connected to digital shot-clocks. All windows closed and locked. Takuya in total control. It was late November and the sky was cold and gray until 4:30pm. Then the sun dropped behind the Minami Alps and everything went pitch-black and frigid.

I arrived just before our first game on Saturday morning. The sand + gravel field had been converted into a parking-lot and was full of cars and minivans. Parents and toddlers tramped toward the gym, many of them carrying large bundles of unidentifiable, comfy-looking material. Outside the gymnasium teams congregated in small, self-contained circles. They ate bento-boxes and rough-housed and laughed. They embodied the whole spectrum of human teenage physical growth and their jerseys were gaudy. For the first time in four months, the basketball ambiance of Japan resembled that of USA youth basketball. I felt nervous and optimistic and my collared shirt was tucked into my chino pants. I was ready to coach a team and win a game.

When I entered the gymnasium the buzz of lots of frenetic action in a confined space was overwhelming. Two games were occurring simultaneously and there was no green-mesh partition dividing them. Occasionally a ball or a player from one game would leap/roll/dive into the other game. Referee whistles blared and no one knew which ref from which game had called what foul. Players from those teams not-currently-playing manned the clocks and scorebooks and often sounded buzzers for no good reason. Parents were crammed into the viewing-mezzanine and they vociferated and protested just like youth-sport parents do everywhere. They wore hats and mittens and scarves and many had cocooned themselves + their toddlers in multiple layers of quilt.12 Sekijima was refereeing a game and did not notice me. The other coaches were all wearing shabby athletic apparel. I was the only person in a button-down shirt and I was suddenly very cold.

When the opening games finished, the four teams playing in the two subsequent contests took the floor and warmed-up. This was the first time I’d seen our official game jerseys. They were navy blue with orange trimming and way beyond oversized. Kazuki’s shorts went to his ankles. Seiya’s jersey kept slipping off his avian shoulders. We were easily the shortest team at the tournament.

Our seven members formed two lines and practiced lay-ups, misfiring spectacularly. When Sunao botched a left-handed lay-up he looked at me, wondering if he had to perform the gawky skip-dance. I shook my head negative and then glanced over at our opponents. There were over twenty members on the Iida Higashii basketball team and the shortest player was about as tall as Takuya. They moved through multiple warm-up drills in rapid succession: slashing and passing and defending and shouting and shooting with tenacity and purpose. Sekijima approached me.

“Higashii all child second-year,” she said. “No win.”

Before tip-off the TJHSBT converged at our bench and formed a compact circle. Sekijima said some stuff that I assume was motivational and then we all put our hands in. “1, 2 3” Takuya said. “Hustle!” the team shouted.

The starting five of each squad stood on opposite sides of mid-court. The ref blew his whistle and the two teams bowed to each other. Then they bowed to the scorers table. Then the coaches bowed to each other. I stood behind Sekijima and curtsied indiscriminately.  

Three minutes after tip-off we were down 16-0. Iida Higashii was applying aggressive, swarming full-court pressure and if we completed two consecutive passes it was a legitimate triumph. The I.H. coach was gaunt with his hair slicked back. His pants were tight and pulled up high. In his right hand he held a battery-powered megaphone and every few seconds he would shove his lips into the mouthpiece and unleash a stream of strident, prickly Japanese. His players dove after loose-balls and trapped in the corners and drained 3-pointers and rebounded their own misses. At halftime it was 67-1. Takuya’s one made free-throw like an act of magic.

During the five minute intermission Ryo, Takumi, Takuya, Kazuki and Sunao sat on the bench and panted and gulped down all the water that Kota provided. In the first half I.H. had not made any substitutions and neither had we. I assumed things would change in the second half. The game wasn’t even close to competitive. It was time for the scrubs.

But when the third quarter commenced, I.H. trotted out its same five. They went right back into their patented, sadistic full-court press and their oily coach started up again with the megaphone. After yet another triple-team manhandling of Kazuki, I started to get pissed. Like I mean what the fuck was this guy thinking? His team wasn’t being challenged and they weren’t improving. They were exponentially more talented and more physical. In terms of, like, hormones and their effect on the human body, it was literally Boys vs. Men. When I.H. wanted the ball, they took it. When they had the ball, they scored. And they had to play more games that same afternoon! Shouldn’t the greasy bastard rest his starters? Shouldn’t the I.H. first-years get some playing time? I mean it was a fucking youth-league after all. But instead the greasy loon just kept on chirping into his goddamn megaphone, presumably demanding that his superstars steal the ball faster and score better. And the I.H. players always responded. It got to the point where they were basically mugging us before we could even inbound the ball. They’d steal, they’d score, they’d steal, they’d score they’d steal, they’d score etc. etc. etc. The whole thing struck me as baffling and totally immoral and after Takuya was shoved to the ground again and no foul was called again, I erupted. I jumped up out of my foldable chair and went straight for the referee and shadowed him for a good ten meters, jogging along the sideline, hands in chino pockets, shouting English, repeating the words blind and foul and ridiculous. The ref, who was really just a coach of some other currently-in-between-games Shimoina-gun JHS team, halted and spun and sounded his whistle. Players froze. Lots of parental-noise evaporated. The viewing-mezzanine watched me. The ref signaled towards the bench and snapped some Japanese at Sekijima.

“Down,” she said, guiding me gently back to where Seiya and Kota were seated.

“No talk,” she said. “Bad.”

I sat down and glared at the goddamned loon coach with his nasty hair and his stupid megaphone. That megaphone was totally ludicrous. I hated that megaphone and I hated my chino pants.

Even when it was 89-1 the Toyooka team didn’t grumble or slouch. They just kept on retrieving the ball after every converted Higashii shot and immediately throwing an inbounds pass that was intercepted. On the bench Kota and Seiya were swaddled together underneath maybe three fleece blankets. They clapped and chanted a rehearsed laudation that roughly translates to one point in, one point in; let’s just get one point in.

Eventually someone, probably Takuya, made a basket. By then I’d stopped watching. The TJHSBT mothers had bought me 20oz of refrigerated green tea and I remember sitting there and drinking the tea and wondering why it didn’t contain more sugar.

With two seconds left in the game, Sunao received an inbounds pass alongside our bench. He took three dribbles and then the final buzzer sounded. Undeterred, Sunao took two more wild dribbles. I.H. players headed back to their bench and parents applauded both teams. Takuya, Ryo, Kazuki and Takumi came toward Sekijima, looking totally vacant. Sunao was almost at half-court by now and still totally immersed in the task-at-hand. He finally picked-up his dribble and took three blustering, very illegal strides and then wound-up, cocking the ball up behind him, baseball style. He was attempting to sink a buzzer-beater at least four seconds after the buzzer had gone off. And then as he released the ball he emitted this slow, falsetto, horribly sexual groan. I.H. players turned and stared. Parents ceased clapping. The shot made a listless, protracted arc and then dropped to the court, landing with a miserable plunk approximately 6 meters from Sunao. Somewhere around the free-throw line, not even halfway to the targeted basket. Sunao watched the ball bounce a few times and then he shuffled back to our bench, chin at chest. Sekijima covered her face. Takumi was giggling and he was already making the other five TJHSBT members giggle and then he looked at me and made me giggle. Behind her hand, Sekijima was giggling.

Sunao looked at us and smiled.

“Urusai,”13 he said.

Final score: Iida Higashii 118 Toyooka 5.




PT II: Moral Education, Disaster, Junk Food and Other Mostly Chronological Episodes (titled)


humiliation is that thing that transforms a hobby into a mission

That first game was the last time I confronted a referee in Japan. As the TJHSBT played more unofficial practice games and lost more official tournament games by triple-digits, it became increasingly obvious that both the written and unwritten maxims of youth basketball had been distorted by the ethos of Japan. This was a cutthroat sport of hierarchy, submission and random expressions of etiquette. The defense was perilously physical and the offense was rapacious. No player ever drew a charge or impugned a call or rejoiced a made basket. The coaches were merciless towards the kids and cordial to each other. Every team in Shimoina-gun tranquilly bulldozed and subjugated the TJHSBT and then Sekijima bowed and thanked them. I just sat there on the bench and kept my mouth shut and stewed in a vortex of self-righteous rage and incredulity. It all seemed wrong. The refs were incompetent but still also sacrosanct. The kids were learning to be either ruthless + obdurate or pathetic + resigned. It was deflating on a spiritual level. And so eventually the edification of TJHSBT became my life animus. I would teach these boys proper, decent basketball. I would save them.

Because Sekijima worked late most days, I frequently coached the first two hours of practice alone. For these two hours I had the freedom to implement my own training schedule and promulgate my own doctrine of True Basketball. I made the kids wrestle for loose balls and encouraged physical altercation up-to-a-point. I joined 4v4 scrimmages and harangued Takuya, imploring that he shove me back or at least exhibit some brand of ire/indignation. I made them run wind-sprints when they didn’t verbally communicate on defense. I made them do pushups when they didn’t box-out. I told them that it wasn’t about winning/losing, it was about something bigger. Basketball was a metaphor for life, I said. It’s a messy game of conflicting forces and the only thing you yourself can control is how hard you grind. Whether or not you hustle is a choice. And what you choose reveals what kind of man you are.

As I devoted more time and energy to the team, Toyooka JHS as an institution began sending some profound gratitude my way. Teachers told me they’d believed I would quit the team after a few months and that they were impressed. That they’d never seen a foreign English teacher sit on the sidelines during an official tournament game. That it was an eye-opening experience for the boys. The TJHSBT mothers bought me loads of green tea and gave me gift certificates to local supermarkets and invited me to basketball-team-exclusive events. Sekijima drove me to away games. The kids complained about my practice schedule14 but also implored that I attend morning practices too. I began feeling less like a sideshow and more like a contributing member of something substantial. I began to feel like a mentor.


the origins of believing you have a cause

Back when I started playing basketball it was just a diversion. A game with bouncy balls and flamboyant sneakers and lots of running around with my hip public-school friends. But the coach of my 13-14yrs old all-star team changed all that.

His name was Tim Ryan and he was a husky, hirsute man with bright red hair and fat, carroty freckles. He worked at a paper-mill during the day and came straight from there to practice, every Wednesday night. Unlike my previous childhood coaches who were rhapsodic and uncomplicated, Tim Ryan was stringent and voluble and moralizing. He had high expectations and if we didn’t meet them he took it as an affront on his own leadership abilities/character. His skin would go scarlet and his eyes would simultaneously bulge + telescope and he would scream and spit and stomp. He would collar you and shove you to the bench. He stuttered. Before games he paced the lawn outside whatever gym we were at, chain-smoking Marlboros. After a victory he would sling an arm over my shoulder and thank me. After losses he sometimes cried. He possessed a reservoir of motivational coaching argots that were actually more like big-life-lessons. Sapient stuff like it’s okay to be nervous, it means you care and it’s not just what you do, it’s who you are and inspiriting, masculine stuff like grab your hardhats and your lunch-pales, it’s time to go to work.

For Tim Ryan, youth basketball was not a recreational activity. It was a vehicle for molding men and he took it seriously. When I disappointed Tim Ryan it legitimately hurt my head; not because I was intimidated/afraid, but because I knew how much he cared. Not about victories or defeats or other one-dimensional expressions of success/failure. He didn’t need to win tournaments. He just needed to know that we, his players, were totally invested in improving every single day, both individually and as a unit. He wanted us to care about something and then work for it. He wanted us to become adults.

And it worked. Basketball will always be fun, but at a critical stage in my personal maturation, it was also more than that. When I was thirteen + fourteen, a pudgy, volatile, middle-aged man forced me to scrutinize my own effort and willpower. Tim Ryan taught me to evaluate myself honestly and fix the shit I didn’t like. He taught me what it feels like to have a purpose, however insignificant.

One photo still currently hanging in my aesthetically-updated bedroom depicts Tim Ryan and me sitting on the bleachers immediately following my last game under his tutelage. Age 14, hair cropped short and jersey pulled up over forehead, I’m just sitting there bawling. Tim Ryan’s face is lobster-red and he’s crying too. His arm is wrapped around my skull and he’s consoling me, offering a barrage of really valuable life advice for one last time. I was going to high school the next year. Youth-basketball was over. It’s this maudlin but very true moment that my mother captured surreptitiously. A boy and a man wallowing in, like, some sort of mutually-affirming relationship. Recognizing that sometimes the trivial shit isn’t actually that trivial.


the day after a historically bad day

March 11, 2011 was a Friday. When the earthquake hit it was early afternoon and I was in the gymnasium, supervising a school-wide, inter-class sports festival. Then the emergency alarm went off and everyone sprinted out to the sand + gravel baseball field and the students were counted off, catalogued and sent home. I contributed nothing and for once no one cared that I was tall and foreign because all of a sudden I didn’t matter and sports festivals didn’t matter and English didn’t matter and school didn’t matter. I watched on TV in the teachers’ office as the tsunami eradicated coastal northeast Japan. Some teachers attempted to contact relatives and others just sat there, transfixed and eerily sedate. Occasionally they urged on drowning compatriots or jogged to a phone and confirmed that another Toyooka student had arrived home safely. I didn’t speak because I had nothing to say. Around 5pm the TJHS principal sent me home, probably convinced that it would provide a measure of relief or comfort or something else vaguely soothing. But instead I just sat alone in my living room, watching TV. Nuclear reactors billowed smoke and Japanese newscasters rattled off a list of Japanese-words-I-didn’t-know. An English teacher had warned me that Nagano was an earthquake hotbed, so I prepped a bag of emergency provisions. I e-mailed family members. I watched more TV. I remember very little from that evening. At some point I fell asleep. At some point a magnitude seven earthquake with its epicenter just north woke me up. I didn’t really fall back asleep after that. Sometime post 0800h on Saturday, March 12, my mobile phone rang. It was Sekijima. The basketball party had already started and I wasn’t there and she was worried.

The Japanese academic year goes from April to March. Every mid-June, current 3rd yr students discontinue extracurricular activities and concentrate all mental energy on the life-determinative High School Entrance Exam.15 So then August through March the brass-band and the baseball team and the art-club and the soft-tennis-team16 and so on are comprised of only 1st and 2nd year students. While the TJHSBT had zero 2nd year members, apparently there existed current 3rd yr students who had played club basketball and were obligatorily retired just a few weeks prior to my Japan arrival. In honor of these students, the TJHSBT was hosting an annual, springtime celebratory event – one last pre-graduation occasion for 3rd yr ex-members to be A Part Of The Team. From 0800h – 1200h the kids would scrimmage each other and then scrimmage the coaches and then scrimmage the parents. Then we would all go to a local park/public building and eat together. The event’s explicitly sentimental objective was to thank 3rd years for being good leaders and teammates and overall consummate senpai.

The TJHSBT mothers had notified me sometime in February that this big-deal Saturday fete was on the horizon and so I’d spent the past few weeks envisaging all the ways I’d break Seiya’s father’s ankles with my crossover. But then the whole earthquake + tsunami combo happened and rendered the festivities immaterial. Tremors were still detonating every hour and my bathtub was filled with an emergency water reserve. I’d completely forgotten that the event had even ever existed.

As I drove to school I passed the outdoor sand + gravel tennis courts where the soft-tennis team was already practicing. I parked my car in the teachers’ parking lot and the baseball team was already out on the sand + gravel field, performing their very own, sport-specific callisthenic ballet. They greeted me and bowed in unison.

Inside the gymnasium the green-mesh partition was withdrawn and the TJHSBT was dispersed across two courts. The gym was lambent with gentle, springtime radiance that cascaded in through the eastward-facing windows and clung to all the maple wood. The team bowed and roared a jumbled salutation. Ryo came over to me, handling two balls at the same time. He gave me one.

“Jishin,” he said.

“What’s that mean?” I said in Japanese.

Ryo placed his basketball on the floor, trapping it with a foot. He lifted both arms up into 90o degree angles that framed his head and he agitated his fists and rolled his eyeballs backwards.

“Earthquake,” I said.

Ryo nodded.

“Are you okay?” I asked.

Ryo looked at me and smiled his huge, heart-warming smile.

“You’re late,” he said. “Let’s play.”

There were maybe six 3rd year students and even though I’d taught them all in class, I knew none of their names. The physical and psychological difference between the 1st and 3rd yrs was something of a chasm and served as an inadvertent justification of why exactly middle-school/JHS lasts only three years. The 3rd yrs were self-conscious and captious and tall and strapping by teenage standards. They loitered on defense and attempted acrobatic trick-shots on offense. They grabbed rebounds without boxing-out or even jumping. They taunted each other nonstop. They were fifteen year old boys and acted like it. And still they weren’t very skilled basketball players.

Sekijima and I officiated the preliminary game –1st yrs vs. 3rd yrs – jogging the length of the court and whistling only the most egregious infractions. We instructed the 1st yrs to play fundamentally-sound basketball even though their opponents weren’t and we laughed when Sunao chopped-down a pair of 3rd years in one plunge. Along the sidelines fathers laced up raggedy sneakers. Up on the viewing-mezzanine mothers bustled about, searching out the ideal vista for action shots.

The second game was students vs. coaches. Sekijima had invited three of her high school teammates and together we crushed the 1st+3rd yr composite team. The 1st yrs attempted to play good defense and the 3rd yrs did not. At a certain point I quit trying to impress the parents because I wasn’t really in the mood for commendable stuff like prudence and leadership. I just wanted to throw alley-oops to myself off the backboard. So I did. And the 3rd yrs cheered. And Sekijima’s girlfriends cheered. And it was fun.

Then it was the 1st+3rd yrs vs. the parents. Seiya’s dad was all over the place and he was vigorous and sinewy and almost as parlous as Sunao. Parent-teammates passed him the ball and the kids steered clear.  

Then it was it was 1st yrs + coaches vs. 3rd yrs + parents. Sekijima and I communicated loudly, demanding that our boys play alert and intelligent team defense. They shifted positions fluidly and apologized after every mental lapse. On offense neither Sekijima nor I took a shot. Seiya’s dad had this severe countenance that was a real downer and so I defended him with 100% intensity and he stumbled over himself and proved to be a reckless, ignorant basketball player. Sekijima and I exchanged one clandestine high-five this one time, when Seiya’s dad took an especially histrionic tumble.

Then it was coaches vs. parents and that was fun.

Then it was 3rd yrs + coaches vs. 1st yrs + parents and that was fun too because I bantered with the 3rd yrs and got to know them on a personal level and I even learned some names.

Around noon the games finished and we cleaned-up and shut-down the gymnasium. The TJHSBT mothers were nowhere to be seen. Sekijima informed me that everyone would reconvene for Japanese curry at the Toyooka Kyoikuinkai (Board of Education) building in about twenty minutes and she used a pencil to draw me an indistinct, threadbare napkin-map. I went home and showered and changed clothes and got dressed and washed the dishes from last night. I did not turn on the TV or check my e-mail.

I knew that I didn’t know where/what the Toyooka Kyoikuinkai was, but I drove there anyway, gripping napkin-map into steering wheel. I passed by that building where I had my adult English conversation class and I passed by the town hall and I passed by that colorful public cafeteria-type building. I didn’t spot Sekijima’s black station-wagon and I didn’t recognize any person directly related to the TJHSBT. So I went home.

There I collapsed into my living room chair and activated the TV. A female newscaster spoke a lot of Japanese and wore tons of eyeliner and looked hollow. I got up and walked around my house and noticed that the bathtub water already had a ton of grime floating in it. I confirmed that there were at least two bottles of back-up whisky in the pantry. I went out to my car and checked how much gas was left. I sat down and watched more TV. Someone knocked on my door.

Takuya’s mother was garrulous and way-too-apologetic as she drove me to the beef-curry indoor picnic. It was in that building where I had my adult English conversation class, except it was second-floor.

The whole upstairs of the discolored brick building was one big community hall. A stage with lots of open space and big windows. The chairs were plastic and the floor looked plastic. In the center of the room, long collapsible tables had been set in the shape of a right-angled horseshoe. At the head was a banquet of Japanese beef curry divided into three separate cisterns. There was also: soda, karaage, tsukemono, awayuki and rice. The TJHSBT mothers had been cooking for the past few hours and continued fussing about like original matriarchs. I didn’t know where to sit or what to do so Sekijima sat me between Takuya’s parents. The boys settled into seats, mostly segregated by age. Ryo was the only 1st yr sitting with 3rd yrs, next to some other kids from the Jikein. Takuya’s mother held up a paper cup of soda and made a toast. Then Sekijima made a toast and then every single 1st yr made a toast. Sekijima thanked the parents and the 1st yrs panegyrized all 3rd yrs by name. Then Takuya’s mother asked if I wanted to make a toast and I said no way. Takuya’s father smiled at me. The pre-served curry was by now coagulated and severely unappetizing. 

The boys each ate at least three servings of curry-rice. Takuya’s mother spoke mostly about basketball and only once mentioned the earthquake and only in reference to my own personal well-being and whether or not I had been able to contact my mother because she, Takuya’s mother, was certain that she, my mother, was worried in a way I would probably never comprehend.

When everyone had finished eating, the TJHSBT mothers schlepped the dishes downstairs to the community-center kitchen. I helped the kids fold tables and stack chairs. Then, even with the room completely void of any object that would signal a concrete motive for us being there, everyone just sort of stayed. The parents stood in small groups and chatted. Sekijima floated between parental conversation orbs. The boys sprawled across the floor and commenced a series of arm-wrestling matches that appeared to constitute some sort of spontaneous tournament. They invited me to join and so I did and I won and they said it wasn’t fair. Then I taught the kids the hand-slapping game. You know, that semi-flirtatious time-killer when one person puts his upturned hands beneath another person’s down-turned hands and then the lower-hands attempt to slap the upper-hands before the upper-hands can get away. It’s a violent but not vicious amusement and the boys loved it and we played for a good 30min. Then everyone migrated downstairs and formed a sort of dish-washing assembly line. The leftovers were divvied up and stored in flimsy, transparent Tupperware. The atmosphere was lighthearted and diligent and only once did Ryo get reprimanded for smearing curry on Sunao’s neck.

Afterwards the Jikein kids walked home and everyone else carpooled with someone’s parents. It was another good spring day. As I set off on foot, Takuya’s mother detained me. She was holding a plastic bag filled with enough leftovers to last a really long time. At least six meals of curry-rice. She handed me the bag and spoke some rapid, passionate Japanese that I did not understand. Then she steered me into her mini-van and drove me home and when I exited the car she gave me a slip of paper with a phone number, presumably hers, jotted on it. Takuya waved goodbye from the way backseat.

That night I watched TV and spoke to my mother on the phone.

The next week Toyooka 3rd yrs graduated and pretty soon after that I forgot all the names I had learned that morning after the tsunami.

how kids deal with the reality of not being the only little oddballs anymore

When school re-commenced in April the TJHSBT was altered. A whole new crop of 1st yrs had arrived and they were small, frisky children deeply affected by that traumatic relegation from: Elementary School Big Cheese à JHS Bitch. Meanwhile Takuya, Kazuki, Takumi, Ryo and Sunao were all of a sudden 2nd yrs and certified senpai. Takuya and Kazuki assumed the role with an earnest sense of obligation. Takumi discovered a new facial expression that captured something like lassitude. Ryo and Kota really enjoyed having a fixed type of authority, although their despotic expressions were dramatically different.17 Seiya seemed preoccupied/borderline dejected. I’m not sure Sunao even noticed that things had changed.

The nine new members of TJHSBT were mostly dim-witted and always enthusiastic and totally green when it came to basketball.

Torao was petite and nerdy and sometimes it seemed like the ball dragged him across the court.

Naoki was like a string-bean with actual strings for limbs and a large, catawampus cranium.

Fumitoshi was lilliputian, dainty and when he smiled all you could see were braces.

Kouki was Kazuki’s younger brother and he was so small and so quick that I christened him The Cockroach.18 He had the personality of a featherweight boxer with a serious inferiority complex and he tended to walk away whenever you tried to impart any tidbit of basketball knowledge.

Takashi was half Chinese and it was a burden he abided with negligible grace.19

Masato was probably autistic and had already perfected that sexy flip-of-the-forelock maneuver that I’d always assumed to be a trick you could only learn in California.

Kenji was a physical nightmare. It was like his appendages could only move a few inches per second, suggestive of a TV character in erratic fast-forward. Sekijima and I called him The Alien.

Ui was legitimately fat and only played basketball because some distant relative had told him that it would improve his rugby footwork.20

Shigeki was tall and temperamental. He hated doing pre-practice callisthenic exercises and turned every slow-mo backwards hop into a sardonic performance.21 Plus he was Kota’s brother, which elucidated nil about either one of them.

When the 1st yr members of each club activity were announced, co-teachers wondered aloud how the hell TJHSBT had once again attracted a gang of weirdoes. Before the inaugural 1st+2nd yr practice, 1st yr parents apologized to Sekijima and me in advance. But the 2nd yrs ensured that the makeover went smoothly. It was as if their primary duty, as senpai, was to prohibit the 1st yrs from challenging/altering the previously established team dynamic. I.e. our roles were already defined, thank-you-very-much. Sekijima was the stern, maternal coach. I was the didactic, hyperactive, verbally ludicrous22 outsider. Takuya was the star. Kazuki was the deputy. Ryo was the seductive scamp. Takumi and Sunao were mismatched jesters. You either came along for the ride or you got lost.


this is professional basketball and this is a USA rap music video

At some point it occurred to me that maybe the TJHSBT had such difficulty grasping offensive/defensive schemes because they’d never actually seen a proper basketball game. Sure, our opponents stylishly pulverized us on the regular, but that was way too immediate and depressing. And yes, some of the boys had glimpsed vintage MJ highlights23 and were familiar with the names Shaq and Kobe and Lebron, but no one, not even Takuya, had ever seen a televised NBA game in its entirety. They’d never witnessed smart, fluid, gung-ho basketball. They’d never just watched.

And without any tangible model, there was a certain mind-body disconnect evident in the TJHSBT version of basketball. The team could comprehend tactics and concepts, as long as those T&C were realized via small-scale, self-contained exercises. But once these small-scale, self-contained T&C became constantly-evolving elements of an actual basketball game, things went downhill fast. We reverted to stupid, selfish basketball; five bodies robotically executing five unrelated exercises at once. It was like the boys didn’t understand that specific physical skills and basketball knowledge could combine for a larger purpose. So I invited them over for an NBA viewing-party.24

The game was a primetime playoff contest between Oklahoma City and Memphis and it had a Friday night 2000h USA EST tip-off, which meant 9am Saturday morning in Toyooka. Masato showed-up at 0800h because he was probably autistic and definitely confused. I was in the shower and he came in and removed his shoes and waited for me in the kitchen. After I scurried into my room and slipped into some sweatpants, Masato and I went shopping. We purchased all sorts of carb-loaded Japanese snacks and a variety of colorful sodas that totaled something like $200. Back at the house, Masato was meticulous and indulgent and OCD when it came to embellishing/symmetrically arranging the platters of junk food. Everyone else arrived at 9am. Their systematically filed shoes filled up my entrance vestibule and spilled outside, like an overgrown carpet.

The game was competitive and the 2nd yrs were rapt. Every few minutes Kouki/Torao demanded that the other 1st yrs please stop rough-housing. Some kids made unintentionally racist remarks. Sekijima called and said she was really sorry but she couldn’t make it. Ui devoured an entire bag of something crunchy. During commercials I dispensed paper-cups of carbonated rainbow beverages and Ryo recreated a parade of gratuitous self-celebrations that he’d just learned. Everyone laughed. Kota disappeared. Takumi discovered an indoor potted plant and tried to lift it over his head like a barbell, but he was too weak. Sunao did it easily so Takumi tackled him. Everyone piled on.

At halftime the kids watched Japanese anime Youtube clips until I couldn’t take it anymore and so I played the ‘Crank That’ video by Soulja Boy Tell Em. It’s this fatuous rap song from 2007 that spawned a very silly song-specific choreographed dance that was probably replicated at every bar/bat mitzvah that year. I learned it, the dance, from Harlem PS 76 4th graders whom I was tutoring at the time.25 Anyway, it’s a sublimely asinine song + dance and not only does its music video feature a toothless man in a superman costume, but there’s also an official concomitant instructional dance video. Like, Soulja Boy himself walks you through every single step.26 And so after Toothless Superman got the TJHSBT enthused, we cleared my living room and stood there performing a slow-mo-yogic-type rap-dance. Ryo and Takuya got it first. Then Takashi and Takumi. Sunao contacted every single wall and was thoroughly arrhythmic. Kazuki sat on the floor, munching whatever snack the 1st yrs proffered him. Then I put the volume on max and opened all my windows and everyone went out onto the street and we distributed ourselves so that we had enough space and we danced the Crank That dance over and over and over.

Kota emerged from somewhere, carrying sweet potatoes. My next door neighbor irrigated her rice-patty and avoided us.


that moment when kids realize basketball is just a palliative and it can’t cure all your big personal issues

A: Sometime late summer 2011 Kota unleashed his paramount, final and very theatrical paroxysm. It was towards the end of practice and Sekijima had divided the team into two groups; I was introducing new offensive post-moves at one basket and she was teaching perimeter off-the-ball spacing/motion down at the other. In typical Japanese fashion, the two factions intermittently rotated. Kota had quit the drill and was amusing himself with the electronic timepiece’s colorful control pad. Pretty quickly he figured out how to modify the countdown, so that the buzzer sounded every few seconds instead of every few minutes. This noticeably discombobulated the perimeter players and eventually Sekjima reached her chaos-limit and admonished Kota with complex Japanese phraseology that I didn’t understand. But whatever she said was apparently pretty offensive, because Kota stood-up and hurled the clock at Sekijima and smashed his hand through a sliding non-maple-wood door and sprinted out into the gymnasium hallway and began demolishing stuff and howling like a genuine rape victim. Sekijima went out after him but that only made things worse. Other teachers came running and instead of physically intervening they just sort of stayed back and attempted to verbally mollify Kota, which was totally futile. He shredded posters and unhinged doors and ferally calcitrated at objects that were way out of leg-reach. His pudgy face was flushed and he was crying nonstop. When the baseball coach touched Kota’s shoulder, it sent Kota into a literal tailspin. He flopped onto the floor and launched his entire body into violent revolution, suggestive of an unhinged propeller. The other TJHSBT members watched Kota froth and circumvolve from inside the gymnasium, Takumi peaking through the freshly perforated hole-in-the-door.

Eventually Kota’s revolutions slowed and he just sort of puttered itinerantly across the floor, whimpering. Eventually the audience of teachers dispersed. Eventually Sekijima resumed practice. Eventually it was just me and Kota in the hallway. So I sat down.

Kota turned over so that he was prostrate with his head cocked to the side. He looked at me and then shut his eyes. We stayed like that for a while, a few feet apart, silent. Practice finished and the team entered the hallway and changed into formal school uniforms and followed Sekjima outside and executed the daily valediction. The old man who was balding on one side walked by and smiled. Kota lay there like a wasted, benumbed lump.

“What are you doing this weekend?” I said in Japanese.

“Play.”

“With whom?”

“Friends.”

“All my friends are in America.”

“…”

“Can I play together with you and your friends?”

Kota opened his eyes. “No.”

“I’m going to Tokyo this weekend,” I said.

“I’ve been to Tokyo twice.”

“Is it fun?”

Disneyland is fun. Tokyo restaurants are good.”

“What should I do in Tokyo? What should I eat?”

Kota smiled. “You speak bad Japanese,” he said.

And so we sat there for maybe an hour and Kota talked to me about his favorite Tokyo yaki-tori restaurants and explained that it was something about the polka-dots that made him just absolutely loathe Minnie Mouse. I comprehended about half of what he said and it didn’t seem to bother him. When his eyes were open and he noticed me looking baffled he would rephrase sentences using really simple grammar. He mostly kept his eyes closed. Eventually we exited the gymnasium. Kota quit the TJHSBT the following morning.


B: I was sitting at my desk in the teachers’ office when Sekijima told me that Seiya was no longer on the team. I asked if she had discharged him and she said of course not. I asked if Seiya’s father knew about this and she smiled. I asked if I could speak with Seiya and she said yes, please. I sat on the 2nd floor hallway floor and Seiya slumped next to me and I requested that he please explain his decision. Seiya said he liked basketball but it wasn’t fun anymore. He said he wasn’t friends with the other kids on the team and I knew that was true. He said that Sekijima wasn’t a good coach but he couldn’t explain why. He said that it wasn’t my fault.

Seiya’s father stopped coming to practice and Seiya aced his next English exam and befriended this one equally eggheaded kid and they hung-out constantly and giggled about cryptic stuff and Seiya finally seemed happy.


the small things that, when viewed retrospectively, probably signaled some sort of progress

·         That the 2nd yrs could do the jump-stop drill no problem.
·         That when I participated in scrimmages, at some point it got fun. 
·         That when the volleyball coach entered the gym, the team greeted her in unison.
·         That Takuya and I invented a private, very complex hand-shake.
·         That the boys differentiated between my practice schedule and Sekijima’s practice schedule and preferred one/the other, depending on their mood that day.
·         That we played Iida Higashii in a practice game and I hardly even noticed the megaphone coach.
·         That the kids liked those drills that required they dive for loose balls.
·         That the idea of sugar in green tea became repulsive.
·         That I could make a Japanese-language post-practice speech and be confidant that the team understood at least most of my really didactic coach-speak.
·         That the boys started asking me about girls.
·         That Kazuki realized he could release shots-off-the-backboard way quicker than normal jump-shots and evolved overnight into a goddamn mid-range assassin.
·         That every 2nd yr could understand my Japanese way better than anyone else in the world.
·         That I started stretching with the team so I could keep track of the 1-4 voice rotation.
·         That I enjoyed running into Takumi and his mother at the supermarket.
·         That I could single-out TJHSBT members during class and request that they please help me explain/organize an English exercise and they always did, even Kazuki.
·         That one time when I was guarding Takuya I deflected the ball and it slammed into his testes and he slumped over and I said ‘ball on ball contact’ in English and he grimaced and said ‘American joke’ in English and we laughed.
·         That on Ryo’s good days he’d argue with Takuya over who got to guard me. 
·         That one day I realized Sunao’s body had developed into a basketball-capable body and he could make most of his left-handed lay-ups.
·         That I happily attended every single after-school practice and even contemplated waking up earlier and going to morning practices too.
·         That we could run three different out-of-bounds plays.
·         That when some 1st yrs got busted buying soda after school and the whole team had to weed the school lawn as punishment, I voluntarily weeded it with them.
·         That Takumi asked me about every country I’d ever visited.
·         That when Ryo was pouting I could tell from his facial expression whether or not he wanted me to go talk to him.
·         That Takuya began saying he and I were basically the same person.
·         That Kazuki would come over to me unsolicited whenever there was an in-game pause because he knew I wanted to talk.
·         That I stopped stretching with the team because the rotating 1-4 voice was no longer an issue.
·         That Sekijima started coming to practice on-time.
·         That at the school fair when each club team decorates a room with loads of club-relevant paraphernalia, the TJHSBT made a biographical poster of me and on it they claimed that I was 50% Michael Jordan and 50% Johnny Depp.
·         That this poster made me feel really good for a really long time.


and just like that you have a new friend

In December 2011 my snowboard bindings broke. It was more of a small-scale screw-related malfunction, but because my equipment was USA-manufactured, replacement screws were pretty much out of the question. When I mentioned this in passing to Sekijima, she told me not to worry; she was on solid-social-terms with the local snowboard repairman and she would take me to him ASAP.

The snowboard shop was this grungy, poorly-lit single-room that occupied half of one miniscule bungalow on a small street in the penumbra of Iida City. The other half of the bungalow was a women’s hair salon that blared J-pop and stroboscopic florescent lights and had zero clients at 2000h but did have four middle-aged, fiercely-coiffed female employees who just stood at the window watching me lug my board up the bungalow stairs. It was snowing but not enough to stick. I was eager to get my snowboard fixed but also fearful that maybe this was the chance Sekijima had been waiting for all along, i.e. maybe she’d been biding her time and now that we were alone here and the lighting was crepuscular and she had this exclusive technician contact, I would owe her in some uncomfortable, unstated and very indissoluble sense.

In my defense, this bigheaded brand of paranoia was not unfounded. Japanese teachers exist in an intensely hermetic environment and it has romantic consequences. Teachers are at school every weekday for approx. 14hrs. They’re homeroom teachers and subject teachers and student advisors and club-team coaches and resident shrinks. They don’t just inhabit the role of educator, but also that of surrogate parent. They are well-versed on the personal business of every kid and every kid’s family. Student home-visits are a biannual sine qua non. Uninvited weekend stewardship is definitely not off-limits. Being a Japanese JHS teacher is a full-time duty with heavy moral implications and as a result student-teacher relationships are weirdly intimate. The Kids are more like Our Kids. And while I’d hazard that this contract is probably healthy for students, there’s also another, more sinister, corollary: Japanese teachers don’t have a personal life. They can’t take weekends off and they work every day of summer vacation. They don’t travel and they don’t meet people. They can’t go on dates. So instead, Japanese teachers, as a breed, have, over time, developed their very own, totally bizarre (and vaguely slimy) mating ritual.

In Japan teachers are forced to transfer schools every 4-5yrs. They have no control over where (within a given prefecture) they are transferred and there’s no way to decline reassignment. So every year a few teachers are deported to another school and subsequently replaced by an equal number of brand new teachers. Which basically means: these brand new teachers have a First Day too.27 And on this first day they line-up and introduce themselves one-by-one. They are gracious and visibly terrified. They laugh-too-loud. And then that first night there’s an official welcome party where everyone imbibes heavily and the new teachers sit at the foremost table and answer every query that any already-contracted teacher might have. Initially this rite functions as a tame introductory ice-breaker. But as the liquor takes hold, the questions become laden with sexual subtext. Which is to say; adults start messily probing the very personal data of other adults under the pretext of helping any/all previously-contracted teachers-who-happen-to-be-single. Like everyone is all of a sudden the world’s least subtle and most charitable matchmaker. And the Single-Teachers are totally complicit in the whole thing. Partially maybe because there’s a sadistic universal buzz that comes from mining the dark secrets of someone anonymous, but also because these Single-Teachers are legitimately searching for a partner. Not a casual dalliance or an amorous liaison. Japanese teachers don’t have time for that shit. This is about husbands/wives/forever.

And so it was logical to at least suspect that Sekijima’s little act of benevolence had portentous undertones. Toyooka JHS teachers hardly ever engaged in 1-on-1 cross-gender reunions that were in-no-way professionally-relevant. The connotations were too severe.

I spent under-10min total there in the snowboard shop, chatting with the repairman and agonizing that maybe I’d plunged head-first into the black-hole of the rest-of-my-life. Visions of a Japanese-style wedding ceremony. 14hr work days and an unhappy, linguistically hopeless marriage. Vertically-challenged offspring with fiercely-coiffed hair. That unbearable erotic tension that permeates the Teachers Office every April and May.

The repairman fashioned a makeshift rubber pseudo-screw in a matter of seconds and grinned when he was finished. Sekijima perused modish snow apparel and shouted-out that maybe if I pretended I hadn’t yet had my snowboard mended, then that way I could dodge the 2-man snowboarding date my school principal had been demanding for the past few weeks. The repairman refused any recompense and he bounced around lazily like snowboarders everywhere do. I shoved my board into the trunk of Sekijima’s black station wagon and the hair-salon foursome stared, eyes wide, covering their mouths with their hands.28

Afterward we had dinner, just Sekijima and I, at an Italian restaurant. It was an intimate, candle-lit bistro and an ex-Toyooka JHS student, a girl who’d graduated immediately post-tsunami, was our waitress and that was only slightly awkward. After a few minutes of small-talk, Sekijima started asking me questions about the other teachers. Trivial, subjective stuff like who was the worst English teacher and which old male science teacher did I find the creepiest. And so we spent the next few hours just gossiping and carping and it was the first opportunity I’d had in like over 1yr to be brutally candid and slightly offensive and very judgmental. Sekijima revealed which teachers were having illicit inter-office affairs and I was appalled and thrilled and begged for more. She told me about her ex and I reassured her that he was like such a total asshole. I confessed that I sort of had a crush on the volleyball coach and Sekijima told me she could hook me up. We returned to the salad bar at least three times. We bombarded each other with olive-pits. I learned the waitress’ name and she asked Sekijima if we, Sekijima and I, were an item and Sekijima said no way.


big things in your head are small things in Japan

Japanese youth basketball tournaments follow the double-elimination structure. Every team is guaranteed two Saturday games; if you win one, you get to play on Sunday. By late 2011, Sekijima and I had been privately daydreaming about what it would be like to play a Sunday game. We knew our boys were vastly improved and that there were two teams in Shimoina-gun that we could definitely compete with and possibly beat. But tournament match-ups were determined by a coach-exclusive lottery-type selection process and Sekijima had a well-chronicled and very dispiriting history of drawing the stiffest competition. Then we got Shimojo.

Shimojo is a miniscule backcountry mountain town about 45min south of Toyooka. Due to the unique income tax-discount it offers young parents, it is literally the only township in Japan with an annually increasing birthrate. But these much-celebrated offspring29 were, in terms of genetic endowment, second-rate. And although Shimojo would have easily defeated us back when I’d first arrived, their current 2nd yrs were no faster/taller/better than ours. On Friday evening, after once again converting the Toyooka gymnasium into a comprehensively-bedecked tournament host site, Sekijima disclosed in private that, for the first time ever, she was optimistic. I could hardly sleep that night, imagining all the noteworthy and very illuminative counsel I would dispense in my pre-game speech. This was our chance. The TJHSBT had been working hard and legitimately improving. One single win would validate everything. The boys would understand: they’d earned it and now they were men. We would commemorate our manly accomplishment with a Soulja Boy dance.

On Saturday morning I arrived to the gym in time for the opening ceremony. The teams sat in compact rows and each coach stood on stage and gave a brief speech promoting sportsmanship or honor or something else equally hackneyed/significant. Shimojo’s uniforms were black with white trimming and they did not have a single player taller than Takuya. During pre-game warm-ups the Shimojo parents vociferated loudly and their team manager, a rotund boy with piercing eyes, asked me repeatedly to please indulge him in a game of rock-paper-scissors. None of the other tournament teams watched our game because no one wants to observe two wretched teams duke it out. I stood under our basket as we warmed-up, slapping backs and hollering a blitz of last-minute exhortations. The TJHSBT didn’t seem especially animated or nervous. Sunao sprinted between lay-up lines and avoided eye-contact. I pulled Takuya and Kazuki aside and gave them a privileged pep-talk and they nodded impassively. My gray cotton t-shirt was already growing armpit perspiration-stains, so I went back to the TJHSBT bench and downed an entire refrigerated green-tea. Takuya’s mother materialized with a replacement bottle and said that she was ready for a good game and I said yes yes yes because I couldn’t articulate anything more insightful/professional.

My overwrought pre-game speech went something like: this is what we’ve been waiting for, this is who we are and I knew right away that these were some pretty inadequate last-words.

In the first half the TJHSBT applied full court man-to-man ball pressure and Kazuki was like a leopard or some other nimble + stealthy thing that pilfers personal property whenever it wants. Takuya and Sunao executed a few flawless pick-&-rolls. Ryo dominated the post. Takumi recognized the open-man before he was even open. Sekijima and I sat on our foldable chairs and maintained a relatively stable emotional equilibrium. At halftime we were up by eight.

We scored the first six points of the second half and Shimojo’s body language went discouraged and deferential. Sunao played inspired help-defense and when I demanded that everyone communicate better, they did. And so then as we ran-up the score I sat there on the bench and felt supreme, my brain overflowing with clichéd, self-important coaching argots. The boys had learned so much and were giving it 100% and it was all because of me. They were my pupils and I was their mentor. I’d taught them how to persevere and now they knew how to succeed. I was their very own Tim Ryan.

Once we were ahead by over 20 points with only a few minutes remaining, I suggested to Sekijima that we insert a few 1st yr students into the game. Have mercy, allocate equal playing time, preserve the starters etc. She shook her head emphatically.

“That would be an insult,” she said. “If we put 1st yrs in, we insult Shimojo.”

I sat down and I didn’t care that somehow we’d become the tormenters. I didn’t consider that maybe, according to Japanese decorum, we’d never actually been victims. None of that mattered. Winning felt so good. There was an actual chemical reaction going down; dopamine receptors on overload, my flesh undergoing an intense, climax-reminiscent tingle. The corporeal ecstasy of personal triumph and validation.

The final score was: TJHSBT 67 Shimojo 45. After the teams exchanged a formal obeisance, I sprinted out onto the court and attempted to chest-bump Ryo. He shook his head negative and signaled to where the Shimojo parents were standing on the viewing-mezzanine. I leapt onto Sunao’s shoulders and he sidestepped me. I commenced the Takuya-exclusive hand-shake and Takuya looked at me and frowned.

“Don’t do that,” he said. “People are watching.”

“We won! We won! You guys hustled and you won!”

“We have to clean-up the bench. The next game starts soon.”

And so directly following TJHSBT’s first victory, the team diligently collected their water-bottles and handheld-fans and warm-up jerseys. Then they scattered throughout the gymnasium, assuming the respective duties/billets assigned to those players-not-currently-playing. The 1st yrs swept the floor. Ryo readied the shot-clock. Takuya and Takumi manned the scoreboard. Sunao and Kazuki entered names into the scorebook. Sekijima changed into her referee uniform. The subsequent games commenced. And so I just roamed the gymnasium, searching for someone with whom I could relish the moment.

Eventually I found Takashi. He was seated on a singular foldable chair in the corner of the gym and he was gripping the wooden handle of a jumbo dust-mop and his charge was to drag it in horizontal streaks across the court during any game stoppage. I sat next to him on the floor and tried to speak to him but he didn’t reply because he was totally concentrated on the task at hand. Sitting there I suddenly felt ignorant and infantilized. Like all along I’d been envisioning myself as some sort of prominent life-guru, when really I was just another vainglorious dogmatist. I was the idiot who had tried to impose USA morality on these kids just because I didn’t understand Japanese morality. I’d invented signposts of noble maturation and imagined the TJHSBT checking them off, one-by-one. I’d surmounted exploits that didn’t exist. I’d inhabited a highfalutin role that no one else recognized. The truth was damning. I was not an ethical instructor and these boys weren’t my catechumen. I hadn’t inculcated them and I couldn’t enlighten them. We’d won a game. But it was just a basketball game. And I was just a basketball coach.

I took a piece of gum out of my pocket and started chewing.

“Foreigner,” Takashi said without looking at me. “You can’t do that in the gymnasium.”



Pt III: And Then We Just Stopped Caring

When Takuya broke his nose, he consummately broke it. None of those enfeebling qualifiers like hairline or fissure or fracture applied. It was smashed and disfigured and his face required professionally-administered realignment.  

We were in the middle of a 4hr three-team practice tournament and I didn’t notice Takuya abscond mid-action. After a few minutes of disjointed, ugly basketball, Sekijima wondered aloud why the TJHSBT had only four operational players. Then we spotted a spoor of blood leading out the gymnasium and into the boys’ bathroom.

Takuya’s mother conveyed him to the Toyooka Medical Center,30 but only after hysterically rattling off a checklist of worst-case proboscis-related scenarios. Takuya stood next to her and veiled his face with his hand and blood disembogued all over his uniform. Sekijima and I attempted to console Takuya’s mother, but at a certain point we had to remind her that probably the best thing to do right now at this particular juncture would be to get Takuya to the hospital.

Takuya returned approx. 1hr later, his nose trussed with medical tape, gauze and a band of pliant plaster. The TJHSBT was in the midst of another practice game, but the normally gallant Takuya declined to join his teammates on the bench. Instead he lingered out in the hallway, occasionally obtruding his upper body into gymnasium airspace and then ducking back out-of-sight. I ditched the practice game and went to check on him.

Takuya saw me coming and retreated with his face buried behind his forearm. I nabbed him by the elbow and asked to see the damage and he brayed nervously. His mother was with him and she grumbled that he wasn’t letting her inspect it either.  

“What if it is never straight again,” Takuya said. “I will be ugly forever.” His voice was shrill and congested and his eyes were desperate.

“I’ve broken my nose,” I said. “It’s okay.”

I displayed my own declinate beak and Takuya prodded it with his index finger and crooked his body and twisted his neck, scrutinizing my face from every angle.

“Mine’s worse,” he said.

“Let’s see.”

Takuya ordered his mother to avert her eyes and he displayed his muzzle for just a moment. It looked like a comprehensively-bandaged nose. He masked it again with his hand.

“Girls like guys with injuries,” I said.

“Really?”

“Sure. Some girls think scars and broken noses are sexy.”

“I don’t want those girls to like me,” Takuya confided sotto voce so his mother couldn’t hear.

***

The transition from middle to high school was a complicated one for me. Antagonistic forces + philosophical differences + oedipal undercurrents were involved. My mom wanted me to continue on with weirdly-humanistic, alternative education and my pops wanted me to attend a private NE USA boarding high school. But, in what might have been my primary expression of autonomy-when-it-comes-to-big-life-decisions, I chose the regional public HS. My motives were neither multifarious nor honorable. I wanted to stick with my public school friends and that was it. A collection of us had played basketball together for 5yrs. We were athletic and attached-at-the-hip and we shared a tacit confidence that sometime in the next 4yrs we would be crowned Division II Western MA HS basketball champs. We’d grown-up together, in the metaphysical sense. I wanted to see how far we could go.

According to the prattle-prone network of local basketball mothers, Tim Ryan quit the 7th+8th grade coaching gig that same year and became Assistant HS Coach because he felt a transcendent connection to me and the other boys in my grade. I believed it. He had figuratively pushed the right metaphorical buttons and now, in a non-creepy way, we belonged to him. That mawkish episode he and I shared on the bleachers had merely been a preface.

Tim Ryan was present at the inaugural freshman yr tryout and his face was flush and his body hair was apricot tinged. There was jejune anticipation in the gymnasium.

But high school basketball was physically grueling and took a toll on your social life. Ross didn’t come to the second tryout. Neither did Ethan. Jonah transferred schools and started playing cello in Manhattan every weekend. Sam quit after one week and pretty soon after that got busted for possessing + distributing + inhaling drugs on school property and so he scrammed via the principal’s window and was briefly a legally Missing Person before being detained and banished to West Coast USA for a six-month rehabilitative troubled-youth program. Josh and I both made varsity as freshmen.

Then the dog I’d grown up with died.

Then the uncle who’d pretty much raised me died.

Then I dislocated my shoulder.

Then I dislocated it four more times, including once when I was sleeping. The Emergency Room doctors took turns cranking my arm like goddamn medieval yeomen dealing with a drawbridge.

Then many of my ex- teammates made other friends.

Then I couldn’t play basketball and I had nothing to do so I was nameless and extraneous and your stereotypical Sad Teenager.

Then I got shoulder surgery and wobbled around the public HS hallways in a sling for three months.

Then I spent my sophomore year doing physical therapy and acting in Shakespeare Theatre Festivals and watching basketball practice lamely from the sidelines.

Then I joined the Jazz Band because even though I was a terrible alto-saxophonist, at least it was something to do.31

Then my junior yr both Josh and I were appointed team captains before the first tryout. I expected it to be a substantial responsibility; one that would cultivate me into a legitimate leader. And I was sure that Tim Ryan would help me do it.

But he didn’t. By this time I was a 17yr old and his hysterics no longer seemed appropriate. The tribulations that defined my narcissistic little world for the past two years had changed me. I was cynical. Tim Ryan continued bloviating, but it all seemed irrelevant. Life was no longer linear. It wasn’t about happy, absolute stuff like wanting something and taking it. There was also ostracization and accidents and injury and shame and experimentation and death. These were real things that Tim Ryan didn’t acknowledge. His speeches were always exalted first-person; a man addressing children. But I was ready for some type of dialogue.

So in a matter of days Tim Ryan mutated into an irksome caricature of The Coach. Just another bombastic, peremptory, ursine guy. Aggressive and masculine and totally clueless.  I had “grown-up” and he’d become a cartoon. That’s how I remember Tim Ryan. And that’s what’s so great about the photograph that still hangs in my aesthetically-updated bedroom in northwestern CT.  

***

Rural Japan is an especially old-school, male-dominated subculture existing within what is already a gender-bifurcated society. Rural Japanese women serve tea in the office and speak courteously at the supermarket and stay home with the kids. They wait for the chance to be wives and then they are obedient wives. And while they do that, rural Japanese men do whatever they want. They can be septuagenarian and single and salacious and openly involved with prostitutes. Boyfriends can lie. Husbands can cheat. And still, the rural wife is expected to be a good wife/at minimum suppress her human urges. That’s life. For a long time I coexisted with this not-so-implicit discrimination by disassociating. Like, I mean, who the hell was I to comment or care.

In March 2012 a new school year started. TJHSBT members advanced another grade and four new 1st yrs joined the team. I hardly remember their names because I made zero effort to learn their names. I was moving back to USA in five months; I didn’t have the energy to start all over with a new consignment of superb/unbalanced adolescents. There were two tall ones. There was one small one. And there was Seiya’s brother, Yuya.  

In typically biblical fashion, Yuya was everything his brother was not. He was a gifted basketball player. His body was compact and his movements were synergetic. His hair was buzzed at 1/8in. everywhere minus the front, where a rectilinear lapel of 4in. bangs basically stuck to his forehead and obstructed his vision. He played in official games and held his own against opposing 3rd yrs. He commanded admiration without trying. Even Ryo respected him.

The advent of Yuya had an inevitable consequence: Seiya’s dad reappeared up on the viewing-mezzanine. Except now because this second son was a proficient player and valuable TJHSBT member, his whole persona metamorphosed. Instead of bristling and promenading all day on the balcony, he picked one spot and stayed there. Occasionally he would spit contemptuous-sounding instructions down from above. He sometimes kibitzed Takuya and Kazuki in private. Instead of just observing practice, he supervised it. Sekijima and I ceased conducting our coach-exclusive conferences on the near sideline because we suspected him of eavesdropping. And then, at the 1st yr parents welcome summit, Seiya’s dad fomented a mutiny.

Sometime post 1900h, the TJHSBT parents and coaches convened in an upstairs classroom, all of us cramming into student desks. It was wet and dark outside and the kerosene heater was deactivated. Many mothers had brought their own blankets. Sekijima commenced the meeting with a benign introduction and then she outlined a few scheduling fundamentals. As soon as the floor was open to parental queries, Seiya’s dad stood up and strolled to the blackboard. His eyes were beady and aimed at the floor. He kept running his right hand through his minimal head-hair, basically excoriating his scalp. His Japanese was combative and the pervading-classroom-energy morphed in-a-second from celebratory to nervous. Although my Japanese language aptitude had improved in the past 1 ½ yrs, I had no idea what he was saying. It sounded bad.

Pretty soon Seiya’s pops was cruising the classroom, invading the personal space of fathers and jabbing his hand toward quilt-swathed mothers. Some sort of vote ensued. Six mothers, all of them 1st/2nd yr parents, raised their hands. A definite minority. Seiya’s father snapped some Japanese and tramped back to his desk but refused to sit in it. Sekijima asked that I introduce myself to the 1st yr parents and so I did, but it didn’t really seem like they were listening. Once the assembly was adjourned, Sekijima whisked me to the only nonpublic location readily accessible: the 2nd floor boys’ bathroom.

The stall doors were sleet-colored and the floor was white-tiled and the air was thick with that suffocating stench of chemical urinal deodorizers soaked in human piss. Sekijima hunched over like a savage, disgraced thing.

“He tried to get me fired. He wants to be the coach. He said I ruined basketball for Seiya,” Sekijima said.

“He’s an asshole,” I said. “He doesn’t understand basketball. He scares the team. He ruined basketball for Seiya.”

Sekijima started crying and her caterwaul was violent and very unattractive. I put a hand on her shoulder and felt sick.

The next day I arranged a private conference with Ichiba Sensei. She was a highly-regarded Toyooka J HS administrator, a co-English teacher and a dear friend. We sat in the teachers’ break-room and drank tea that she served and I told her that the TJHSBT was in disarray. She, of course, knew all about it. I told her that Sekijima was a damn good basketball coach and a solid role model. Ichiba was well-aware. I told her that Seiya’s dad was basketball-oblivious and he intimidated the kids. Ichiba nodded and confessed that Seiya’s dad had been composing weekly censorious letters to the Toyooka Board of Education for the past few months, denouncing Sekijima. And so then the two of us, Ichiba and I, just groused about what a sexist jerk Seiya’s dad was and how much his daily presence was demoralizing Sekijima and the TJHSBT as a unit. At some point during the conversation, I realized that Seiya’s father blamed Sekijima for Seiya’s athletic incompetence. I.e. it was the woman’s fault that his maladroit oldest son wasn’t a superstar. It was your classic case of Misguided Dad living vicariously through his offspring, except with more chauvinist leeway. This was all about Seiya’s dad and this was rural Japan so no one could stop him. And the tragic paradox is, Seiya himself was doing just fine as a smart kid. He was top-of-the-class and had entered the Nagano-prefecture English speech competition. Every lunch break he came to my desk and refined his English pronunciation and perfected his written composition. He was excited and anxious and on the verge of overcoming his crippling glossophobia. But Seiya’s father knew nothing about all that. Or maybe he just didn’t care. Yuya was his brand-new toy; a fresh conduit for achieving some wayward figment of personal glory. Nothing else mattered.  

The day after my conversation with Ichiba Sensei, Toyooka JHS announced that there would be a new chief basketball coach. His name was Karasawa Sensei and he had never played basketball before. He was an accomplished soccer instructor and should have coached the Toyooka JHS soccer team, but instead was designated head basketball coach. He was kind and enthusiastic and he moved in kinetic bursts, like soccer players do.

When I asked Ichiba why Karasawa had been named coach, she scowled.

“Because at least Seiya’s dad will stop demanding that the basketball team has a Japanese man as its leader.”

“But Sekijima and I can still coach,” I said.

“Of course. You two have to teach Karasawa Sensei now too.”


***

Mid-June, 2012 – less than two months until I would leave Japan for good. Sakura-blossoms come and gone. The last lamina of snow on the tallest peaks of the Minami Alps melted. Sunrise sometime around 0400h. That time of year when 1st yr students are finally acclimated and a little less gauche in the hallways. When 2nd yrs realize they’re no longer subordinates but they also aren’t role models so they retrogress into rambunctious little assholes. When 3rd yrs quit viewing the HS entrance exam as an amorphous future burden and commence the ominous countdown to a specific date.

There’s one annual Mid-June weekend when, all across Shimoina-gun, current 3rd yrs participate in their final extracurricular club function. The brass bands have a concert competition in Iida. The art-clubs hold exhibitions at their respective schools. The sports teams have inter-school tournaments. Per normal, Toyooka Junior HS hosted the final basketball tournament for current Shimoina-gun 3rd yrs.

On the preceding Friday Toyooka JHS held a farewell ceremony for 3rd yr club members. After lunch, all 1st + 2nd + non-club-participating 3rd yr students changed into their formal garb and filed into the gymnasium. On the uplifted stage, club-participating 3rd yr students were divided by club-membership and clad in official uniforms/outfits. They stood in vertical lines and stared forward with unwavering circumoral firmness. Everyone else, teachers included, sat on the gymnasium floor. One-by-one, the clubs made a brief presentation: the club captain would go to front-and-center stage and make a succinct, inspirational speech and then the other club-members would join him/her and they’d all fashion a counterbalanced, horizontal row across the stage and take a bow. The seated audience would erupt into a 15second ovation that somehow just stopped all-at-once, sans any of those lingering, stray claps that usually indicate a few clowns in the audience are locked in a not-so-subtle cross-auditorium ego battle to see who can be the last one making noise. The club at this point would perform a team-specific motivational enactment. Some sort of chant or cheer or song. The baseball team formed an appressed circle and tossed their caps in the air. The volleyball team locked hands and belted a fast-forward rendition of the TJHS school-song. The ping-pong team had only two 3rd yr members and their uniforms were garish and they executed a rousing Japanese-language colloquy. When it was the basketball teams’ turn, Takuya made a sharply enunciated promise that this he would represent the school and his classmates and his family with pride and humility. Kazuki, Takumi, Ryo and Sunao gathered around Takuya and all five boys placed their hands at the axis. “1,2,3,” Takuya shouted. “Hustle!” the five boys yelled in unison.

The next morning the Toyooka JHS gymnasium was at maximum capacity. Up on the viewing-mezzanine, serried basketball parents chittered. Non-club-enrolled Toyooka students peaked out between adult legs. The Toyooka JHS Principal + Vice-Principal sat behind a foldable table on the uplifted stage. Elaborately embellished gonfalons hung from every maple-wood crossbeam and 1st yr team members lugged flagstaffs toting school-colored bannerols. The TJHSBT warmed-up, practicing that 1v1 offense/defense drill that I’d taught them. Kazuki and Takuya harassed each other. Ryo defended Takumi and they were both 100% engaged. Sunao blinked nonstop. Kazuki’s father waved to me from the viewing-mezzanine and the pallid woman next to him sneered.

Sekijima and I sat on the bench of foldable chairs. I punched her shoulder and admitted that I was anxious. Sekijima shrugged. Karasawa Sensei arrived late and his breath reeked of cheap Japanese whiskey. The three of us gulped our chilled green tea 20oz bottles and no one spoke. Sekijima had once again drawn Iida Higashii. The megaphone coach was at his bench, sitting still and gazing forward, the battery-powered bullhorn resting on his thighs.

At some point during warm-ups I called Takuya over and reminded him that the kid he would be guarding was left-handed, so he, Takuya, should let the kid go right. Takuya nodded. His nose was crooked. The iris of his right eye was bloodshot and vitrified and his eyelid drooped.

“What’s wrong with your eye?” I asked.

“I have a disease.”

“Since when?”

“This morning.”

“Does it hurt?”

“I’m fine,” Takuya said.

He rejoined warm-ups and I returned to the bench.

Sekijima and I had been strategizing a game-plan for almost a month – scouting games + reviewing videotape – and we’d determined that while Iida Higashii was still much taller than the TJHSBT, their guards were feckless and frail. We would get out-rebounded, but our guard combo of Kazuki + Takuya could hector their guards. We were stronger, faster and smarter on the perimeter. So every practice for the past few weeks the TJHSBT had implemented and honed a full-court, man-to-man press. That way, ideally, Sunao, Ryo and Takumi could spend the first ten seconds of every defensive possession passively guarding the frontcourt32 while Takuya and Kazuki inflicted backcourt mayhem. We’d also brainwashed all five players to crash the defensive boards and everyone minus Sunao to hustle back on defense after any missed shot.33 We’d implemented an offensive scheme that emphasized Takuya’s penetration skills, Sunao’s screens and Ryo’s 1v1 post moves. Sekijima and I were not confident, but there was nothing more we could do. 

The five TJHSBT starters lined up at mid-court, facing the five I.H. starters. The kids performed their bows and then we, the coaches, performed ours.

Kazuki and Takuya were ferocious. They crowded whoever was dribbling the ball and intelligently + spontaneously double-teamed any I.H. guard that imprudently gave-up his dribble. They stole passes and picked-pockets and converted lay-ups. Ryo snatched rebounds and covertly/illegally shoved the kid he was defending and then made a couple long-range jumpers, keeping his right hand extended in the air long after ball went through basket; performing a cocky but restrained self-exultation that numerous NBA viewing parties had taught him. Takumi screamed at his teammates, demanding that everyone communicate their defensive shifts.

But the game’s frenetic pace and implied significance were too much for Sunao. He was a total phrenic + physical disaster, reminiscent of the 1st yr version of himself. He fumbled passes and felled allies and slammed an uncontested right-handed lay-up off the backboard. He stranded his teammates in some way on every possession and didn’t seem to notice, blinking madly and jogging desultory patterns across the court. Midway through the first-half, Sekijma turned and looked at me and I knew what she was thinking: he has to come out.

When we substituted Kouki for Sunao, Sekijima and I fretted about how it would affect our defensive assignments and rebounding. We wanted to keep Takuya and Kazuki on the I.H. guards, but Kouki was way too undersized to defend an opposing forward. We were discussing which of the two – defensive backcourt pressure vs. rebounds – we should sacrifice, when the buzzer sounded and Sunao came out.

As Sunao waddled past the bench, Sekijima grabbed his jersey. He spun and faced her and his visage was horror-show. Rictus stretched wide. Nostrils flared and secreting something opaque. Eyelids gone spasmodic. Wetness accumulating in the corners of his eyes and mouth. Sekijima released her grip and went quiet. Sunao stood there and his shoulders convulsed. He covered his face and whirled a chaotic 360degree revolution and then wilted. I caught him and slid over one seat, so he could sit between Sekijima and me. I slung my left arm around Sunao’s shoulder and said nothing. He was a broken boy. This was bigger than basketball.

Just to restate the facts: Sunao was a supremely ungifted child. Every single day he abided social blackballing and familial scorn and his own intellectual incompetence. And still he never complained or emoted or pitied himself. This brand of benighted complaisance was weirdly endearing and I’d always just assumed Sunao didn’t even notice. That the universe’s bloodthirsty nature was beyond his comprehension. But sitting there next to him I knew I’d been wrong. Sunao understood it all. He knew he was dumb and clumsy and well on his way to being a pariah. He hated it. But over the past two years he’d developed a concrete coping-mechanism. Basketball was his Saving Grace; literally the only thing he was any good at. And now here, in the biggest game of his life, he was imploding in a very public fashion. Sunao knew it. And at that moment he loathed himself.

Sunao deflated, chin to tummy, and he wept. Sekijima and I made eye-contact over his slumped mass, sharing a look of heartbreak. We’d both been waiting to lambaste Sunao for his barrage of mental + physical gaffes, but his basketball transgressions were suddenly irrelevant. I ruffled Sunao’s sweat-drenched hair and he sobbed like a big hot mess.

Even with Kouki’s height disadvantage, our defense remained smothering. The TJHSBT had never played this well and after a few minutes Sekijima and I forgot Sunao. We were so proud and ebullient and invested that we lost all semblance of professionalism. We sprinted along the sidelines, squawking a barrage of incoherent encouragements and we grabbed each other and we couldn’t watch. And then for a few minutes I sublimated; inhabiting that realm of true, unadulterated elation that is more Hollywood plot-device than a reality of adulthood. Nothing else mattered. Karasawa Sensei sat on the bench, gulping green-tea and grinning like someone who was just happy to be there. With six minutes left in the first half TJHSBT was up: 18-8. On the bench, Sunao sat upright and clapped.

Eventually the TJHSBT fatigued. I.H. had at least ten quality members and the megaphone coach substituted them liberally, keeping his players fresh. The TJHSBT had only six kids talented enough to play in a game this intense and they were tired. Takuya and Kazuki continued pursuing the ball and trapping in the corners, but their legs moved slower, i.e. filled with cement. Ryo’s jump-shots started clanging off the front rim, Takumi’s instructions became indecipherable and tautological,34 and then Takuya sprained his finger. I don’t know when it happened; I just remember that he stopped using his right hand. When I beckoned him over and asked what the hell was going on, why was he lofting left-handed passes, Takuya displayed a mangled, indigo-blotched digit. I asked if he wanted to come out and ice it and he said no way.

During any break-in-the-action, Takuya cupped his right hand with his left hand and grimaced and refused to look at either Sekijima or me. The halftime score was: Iida Higashii 30 TJHSBT 20.

Takuya, Kazuki, Ryo, Takumi and Kouki collapsed onto the bench and chuffed. Their faces were blanched and their uniforms were soaked. Ryo threw a towel over his own head and it fluttered nonstop from a stream of exhales-originating-from-the-gut. Takuya iced his finger and Sunao provided everyone with water. Sekijima and I exhorted a series of hackneyed coaching slogans and then just stopped talking because it was obvious that the TJHSBT needed a few minutes of mental respite. I went and stood by myself at the scorer’s table and the Toyooka JHS Principal slid off his foldable chair and crawled on-all-fours across the stage and tapped my shoulder.

“This is amazing,” he said.

“We can still win. We have to win.”

“No, you don’t. We are all watching this. You don’t have to win.”

He shook my hand.

I can’t recall hardly any specifics from the second half. Sunao played marginally better. I.H. claimed tons of offensive rebounds. Ryo shoved the kid he was guarding really hard and the refs saw it. Takuya started shooting left-handed jump-shots. The buzzer sounded, final score: Iida Higashii 50 TJHSBT 30.

We cleaned-up our bench in dismal silence. I was physically and emotionally spent and borderline disconsolate. My head throbbed and I had this sudden urge to head straight out to the sand + gravel baseball field, go supine, gaze into outer space and smoke a cigarette. I looked up on the viewing balcony and spotted Takuya’s mom. Her head was pressed into her arms and her arms were crossed on the balcony and she was still. The other TJHSBT parents applauded and shouted. Once we finished preparing the bench for the subsequent game, the boys went over and stood directly under their parents/orphanage agents and launched into an enthusiastic, reciprocal ovation. And so we just stood like that for at least two minutes, adults clapping for kids and kids clapping for adults and coaches clapping for everyone involved. Then Takuya put his battered, tumid hand into my hand and led me out of the gymnasium. His right eye leaked something contagious. Up on the balcony his mother stayed stuck in the universal posture of grief.

***

That evening there was a school-sponsored soiree for all Toyooka JHS club coaches/instructors.35 At 1800h a total of approx. twenty teachers convened at Toyooka JHS and a rented mini-bus chauffeured us to a nearby Chinese restaurant. As I entered the upstairs dining-room-reserved-for-special-events, Ichiba Sensei pulled me aside. She told me that she’d heard the TJHSBT had played a great game today and since I was leaving for USA soon and this would be my last official gathering of Toyooka JHS club-instructors, would I be interested in giving the night’s keynote speech. I cringed but she was adamant so I consented. Disappointing Ichiba Sensei was just not an option.36

The dining room was a traditional tatami-mat Japanese style room with only one window that was shut and looked out onto a series of telephonic cables and beyond that a small-scale train-yard. The cramped space was pungent from an odd combo of oriental spices + negligible airflow. There were two low-to-the-ground circular wooden tables and the teachers divided themselves more-or-less evenly between them and sat on the floor. An assortment of tureens filled with steaming Chinese goop was already set out, along with multiple large beer jugs per table. Ichiba Sensei had written in Japanese calligraphy the final scores of each TJHS club match from earlier that day on a large scroll and it was displayed on the wall. Teachers pointed at the scores and prated back and forth.

Once everyone was seated, beer was deposited into every glass. I chatted with Karasawa Sensei, rehashing minutiae from the I.H. game. Pretty soon nerves took hold and my diaphoresis triggered and my armpits became something like a bayou. I’d spent two years eschewing every public speaking opportunity and now here I was assigned the headlining speech on a night when I was a dejected, emotional wreck.

I leaned over and asked Sekijima for some Japanese vocab and then I jotted the words down on a sheet of notepaper I had in my back-pocket. Ichiba Sensei stood-up and eulogized the efforts of all teachers and then announced that I would be delivering the formal toast. The other teachers stood-up and so did I. Everyone with their glasses raised.

I must have blathered for like 5 minutes straight. Disjointed, circuitous verbiage that touched on everything from the moral merit of playing sports to how legitimately miserable I’d felt that afternoon. It was a self-involved rant and wholly unimpressive in terms of Japanese language faculty. There was zero conceptual cohesion and I forgot what I’d said as soon as I spoke it. But I do remember holding up a glass of beer and seeing the other teachers watch me. Sekijima was stoic and her gaze was unwavering. Ichiba Sensei’s head tilted at an angle that transmitted profound cogitation. Karasawa Sensei was “beaming.” The half-bald man tossed a fat, aggressive thumbs-up. The squat principal, the effervescent vice-principal, the music teacher I hardly knew but there’s a good chance he was a closeted homosexual, the adulterous baseball coach, the volleyball coach I sometimes flirted with, the industrial arts teacher whose advances the volleyball coach had rejected, the acne-afflicted social studies teacher, the neurotic English teacher and so on and so on. They were all looking at me. And not with that courteous, acquiescent Japanese expression that every Japanese citizen perfects by age 15. They were looking at me in that totally genuine way that you can feel better than you can describe. Like when a girl looks at you and all of a sudden you’re absolutely positive she’s in love with you. Except different. This was sans libido and sans emotional projection and sans rose-tinted lenses. It was simple, honest appreciation. The kind of look that when you receive it, it deconstructs your very being because you know there’s no way you deserve it. And 20ppl are like simultaneously inundating you with it. That same look. So you just quit speeching and you say thank you, thank you, thank you and you take a mouthful of beer even though antecedental alcohol consumption is totally inappropriate and contradicts a litany of Japanese social mores but you can’t stop drinking because it’s so fucking obvious that there’s some sort of love permeating the room and it feels so good and also there’s a solid likelihood that you’ll never being on the receiving end of whatever this is, ever again.

And so then, because you started imbibing mid-speech, all the other teachers forgo the requisite, formal, Japan-revered “kan-pie” clinking of glasses and everyone just starts downing alcohol from the standing position. Chortling and spilling liquid all over themselves.

***

The Sunday before I permanently vacated Toyooka, the TJHSBT threw a going-away party for Yours Truly. The day’s agenda followed the same basic format as the annual farewell bash for 3rd yr members – a morning of basketball and an afternoon of food.  

I woke up sometime post 0730h and didn’t really feel like attending my own party. There was a ton of other shit to do. Final Arrangements and Ultimate Goodbyes and innumerable small tasks that needed to be checked-off but also provided me with a measure of disengagement, an excuse to mentally dodge the tear-jerking reality that in a couple of days I was really, forever leaving. I’d spent the past few weeks stripping my house of all those ornaments and flourishes that had made it definitively mine throughout the preceding two years. The flat-screen TV + the porcelain canine figurine that resided on my patio had been sold. My clothes were stashed in cardboard boxes and the boxes were stacked in my entrance vestibule. Strewn around the boxes were at least six trash bags full of god-knows-what. There were still thank-you letters to compose. Gifts to purchase and bestow. A valediction speech to prepare. A car to abrogate. Japanese pension-exemptions to fill-out. Etc etc. etc. And the Toyooka municipal trash-disposal center was only open on Sundays from 0800h – 1200h, so today was my last chance to legally dispose of the myriad junk I’d accumulated.

In a topmost cardboard box I unearthed some clothing that could pass for basketball apparel. Chugging coffee from a thermos, I drove to school and pulled into the teachers’ parking lot. It was summer-vacation, almost two years to-the-day from that intrepid, sultry trek to my inaugural TJHSBT practice. I exited my miniature-sized car and the baseball team hollered hello from the sand + gravel field. I remember taking a moment and just, like, absorbing the occasion. I’d been doing a lot of that recently. Trying to force my brain to operate in slow-motion, to register more data than normal. I wanted to rediscover all those particulars you’re acutely aware of when you first arrive at a new place, but then over time totally disregard. The baseball teams’ uniforms were alabaster and their voices cracked from puberty. 1st yr baseball team members banged large drums in third-base foul-territory. The sun was not so much shining as suffusing. There were exotic birdcalls that I’d never heard. One especially puny baseball boy ran towards me and the knee-area of his pants was stained with dirt and shredded from amateurish base-running technique. The adulterous baseball coach waggled his head in this nonchalantly masculine way that made me resent him.

From 0800h – 1130h the TJHSBT played a series of intramural scrimmage games. Coaches vs. players, players vs. parents, players + parents vs. players + coaches. Unlike the day-after-the-tsunami, it was an unadulterated celebration. Sekijima and I dispensed zero basketball advice and oftentimes, mid-scrimmage, we would just toss the ball back-and-forth, a la Monkey-in-the-Middle. I blocked shots and goaded whomever. Seiya’s dad was surely present, although I don’t remember him being there. After a few hours, Takuya inspected the printed-out program and discovered that the team arrangements had somehow worked out so that I would not get to play alongside 3rd yr TJHSBT members. He lifted the paper over his head and went straight to Sekijima, demanding changes: we had to be on the same team, one last time. So then Takuya, Kazuki, Ryo, Takumi, Sunao and I played the final game together. We made unnecessary passes and attempted preposterous basketball stunts, showboating nonstop. We sabotaged each other and committed a blitz of basketball violations and sniggered like idiots. TJHSBT mothers scurried about, snapping digital cameras.

Afterward, the boys tidied-up the gymnasium with typical resolve. I drove home, loaded my car with meticulously-partitioned waste, sped to the Toyooka trash-disposal site and dumped everything; enumerating discarded goods on an official document and then signing my name. The Toyooka waste-manager acknowledged that this would be our last Sunday morning dialogue and for ten seconds we stood approx.1meter apart, waving awkwardly at each other. I drove home, showered, changed, and walked to Hayashi Koen. It wasn’t yet noon.

Hayashi Koen is a public park situated directly behind and maybe 70 meters above Toyooka JHS. The westward facing perimeter of the park sloped down to the school gymnasium at 30degrees and the slanted landscape was an orchard of Japanese plum trees. The park consisted of: a water-fountain, a swing-set, two parallel zip-lines, three sakura trees, a unisex outhouse, a single wood-stained gazebo and a slide that, instead of being a continuous smooth surface, was comprised of thousands of small, rotaryrotatory metallic cylinders that basically propelled you forward/downward once you gained minimal momentum and they got spinning. All of this faced west and it was a breathtaking view. Tenryu River almost in reach. The Minami Alps at your eye-level. Toyooka JHS like something you could stomp.

On the asphalt floor of the gazebo, the TJHSBT mothers had assembled six gas-operated Japanese-style grills. Seated around each flat-iron cooking appliance37 was some combination of TJHSBT parents + coaches + members. Each person-cluster had its own tray of raw meat and raw vegetables. No one had started cooking.

I removed my shoes and found space at a grill encircled by 2nd and 3rd yrs. Takuya’s mother made a brief, grateful statement and then everyone tossed food on fire. Sodas and dipping sauce circulated and the boys laughed and engaged in small-scale food-fights. I was wearing a cowboy hat and Takumi stole it and then passed it around. Over at a secluded grill, Seiya’s dad and Kazuki’s dad got drunk off convenience store pseudo-beer. Oil splattered, kids yelped and no one at my grill was vigilant so pretty much everything got charred. 3rd yrs ordered 2nd yrs around. A conflagration erupted and Sekijma eventually extinguished it. The boys ate like teenage boys. We played the hand-slap game and we arm-wrestled. When everyone had finished eating, the TJHSBT members abandoned the gazebo and commenced a frenzied frolicking session, beseeching that I join them.

First we tested how much weight/how many people each individual swing could support. Then we chased each other down the slide, Sunao at one point taking a nasty, theatrical spill. Then we formed teams of 2-man chicken-fight-reminiscent human pyramids and sped down the zip-lines, swiping at each other until the finish-line. Then Takashi asked me how much I weighed in kilograms and when I told him the number he frowned. Then Ryo filled an empty 1liter plastic bottle with water from the fountain and dumped it on Sunao. Then Sunao procured his own bottle and so did pretty much all the 2nd + 3rd yrs and they all launched an all-out water-war. Screaming and dousing anything-in-sight and then slipping on mud and tumbling down into the plum tree orchard. The 1st yrs stood back and observed the scene and seemed genuinely afraid. Sekijima and I occasionally reminded the boys to quit sousing Takashi just because he was Chinese.

The sky was an expansive cloud stratum and underneath it the TJHSBT mothers trashed loads of paper plates and disposable chopsticks while the fathers drank pseudo-beer. The boys were still wearing basketball clothes/informal school uniforms and their formerly white, currently wet shirts clung to their insubstantial teenage frames. Once the gazebo was neatened, Takuya’s mother called everyone back and told me it was time for my final speech. The boys came quickly and divided themselves into two seated, thoroughly saturated sections; 3rd yrs vs. everyone else. I stood up and Takumi handed me my cowboy had and I put it on. I wasn’t nervous and I didn’t have any notepaper with Japanese vocab so I spoke for a few minutes and everyone was quiet and Takuya’s mother sobbed. Once I finished, everyone stood up.

“You have to come to the grass now,” Sekijima said.

“Why?”

“Japanese tradition.”

In the lawn space directly posterior to the swing-set, TJHSBT members congregated around me, snorting and whispering back and forth. I stood erect and had no idea what was happening so I adjusted my cowboy hat. The boys kept enclosing until they were pressing into me and stabbing my stomach with their fingernails. Then Sekijima shouted “now” and all of a sudden I was horizontal and airborne, seized and scooped-up and hoisted and supported by an army of small hands and scrawny limbs. The 3rd yrs surrounded me, all five of them bearing me with both hands. Sekijima hooted and looked very happy. Takashi shouted out my weight, in kilograms.

I remember just sort of drifting sideways and pulsing skyward, lots of teenage tentacles digging into my back and neck and love-handles and hamstrings. The cowboy hat had been dislodged and was impeding my eyesight so I tossed it aside.

“1,2,3,” Takuya shouted.

And then they, everyone, the TJHSBT, flung me into the air. I was suspended for a millisecond and then came hurtling down. The kids tried to net me with their arms but couldn’t so instead I landed on mud. The boys shoveled me up again and tossed me in the air thrice more and caught me each time. Everyone was howling inscrutable Japanese exultations. Sekijima had recouped the cowboy hat and was wearing it and cachinnating like she didn’t give a shit at that moment about being a rural Japanese female.

Afterward I offered to clean up but Takuya’s mother wouldn’t allow it. She shooed me away from the gazebo and the parents started parceling out leftovers + unopened beer cans. I wandered over to the zip-line starting-point, where a group of TJHSBT members had assembled around a putrefied tree-stump. It was mostly Jikein kids + Sunao. The Jikein kids were barking at Sunao so he leered at them and then stomped on the tree-stump. An ant colony spilled out and Kouki screeched. Kenji picked-up a branch and clouted the stump like a troglodyte. Everyone scattered. I found myself walking with Ryo.

“Have you ever been past those trees?” he asked, signaling westward.

“No. What’s there?”

“It’s nice.”

Ryo jogged ahead, ducked under some branches and summoned me onward. We were maybe 30meters south of the gazebo, between two conifers that bordered two sakura trees. I followed Ryo through the bramble and onto an outcrop that had been fashioned into an agrestal viewing-veranda. The ground was natural stone and a rotting wood fence prevented you from dropping straight down onto the public land just south of TJHS. Past that was the Tenru River Valley. I realized that I could identify most of the suburban shop signs from here and I knew all the names of all the towns in sight. The view was majestic and so I approached the fence and it occurred to me that I would probably never again in my life live somewhere so jaw-dropping, in terms of topographical grandeur. I could see one mountain range and I could feel myself standing on the other. The centroidally-located Tenru Tiver had white rapids and a flotilla of rafting tour-boats looked like ink-splatters. They drifted southward and were, one-by-one, consumed by the haze of the horizon.

“You are lucky to live here,” I said to Ryo.

“It’s a good view.”

He climbed onto the first railing of the fence, held himself tall and regal and looked around, north to south, his gaze following the current of Tenru River.

“You know you’re smart, right?” I said.

“Yes.”

I looked at the Minami Alps and screamed at them. There was no echo.

“You have to take school seriously, even if it’s boring,” I said.

“Why did you yell just now?” Ryo asked.

“Do it. It’s fun.”

Ryo glanced at me and smiled his contagious, heartwarming smile and then he shook his head like he didn’t know what the hell to do with me.

“It’s time to go,” he said.

I followed Ryo back to the stained-wood gazebo where the TJHSBT parents were waiting. They presented me with goodbye gifts and I we exchanged electronic contact information. Seiya’s dad was wasted and teetering stupidly and I had this impulse to give him my cowboy hat. Takuya’s mother kept trying to touch me. I hugged Sekijima and then walked home. There may/may not have been an insect drone originating from the bamboo forest. My next-door neighbor was pruning her peach-trees. I went inside my house and downed a leftover convenience store pseudo-beer and realized that because I’d purged my house of trash-bags, there was nowhere to put the empty can.

***

By Wednesday of that week, July 25th 2012, the interior of my house resembled an airbrushed foldout from a Japanese modular-home advertising booklet. Low ceilings and lots of empty space bounded by some very clean surfaces. The only personal articles remaining were: a backpack filled with enough clothes to last a few weeks and my laptop computer. The laptop PC sat on a small hard-polymer table at the centrepoint of my living room. It was late morning and I was in the middle of conveying everything-in-the-fridge out to my compost bin when I heard muffled laughter and something crash into my front door. I opened it and the TJHSBT came flooding in, not everyone, but a solid majority. All 3rd yrs were present.

I hadn’t invited them over and had made no preparations and the house was void of entertainment stuff, so I just led them into my living-room and we all sat on the floor. Initially the boys made some minimal effort to incorporate me into their repartee but pretty soon they gave-up and just gibbered about girls and games and anime characters and teachers and who was going to the Toyooka Town Festival that night and at what time. I went to my bedroom and recouped my camera from the bottom of my backpack and sprawled across the living-room tatami-mat floor and took tons of photos. Some boys struck brazen poses and others shirked. Takuya asked for the camera, snapped some shots, and then passed it around. Kouki activated my laptop PC without asking permission and the kids gathered around it, enjoining a list of must-see Youtube videos. They’d been watching an 80s Japanese cartoon featuring a peeping-tom 5yr old protagonist for approx. 2hrs when it occurred to me that it was past Japanese lunchtime and maybe they were hungry.

Before departing, I told Takukya and Kazuki that if my house underwent serious structural damage in the next twenty minutes, I’d be in lots of trouble and so would they. At the nearest convenience store I loaded up on a variety of fried foods and carbo-snacks and 2liter bottles of bizarre Japanese soft drinks like Watermelon Pepsi.

Kazuki divvied up the provisions, taking requests but also giving upperclassmen first-dibs. The TJHSBT members devoured everything in minutes, then Ryo + Takumi collected all litter. A sort of post-feast stupor settled, the kids lounging and watching my laptop PC and occasionally belching. We stayed like that for a long time. Gloaming descended in slow-mo and down in Tenru Valley the first fireworks of the Toyooka Town Festival detonated. No one moved. And so just sitting there in my denuded living-room, hemmed-in by adolescent boys, I experienced this lame and totally authentic sensation that, for lack of a better word, I’ll just identify as at peace. It was like everyone in the living-room had simultaneously self-actualized or something. Like we were all secure and content. And what inspired this bathetic perspicacity was not so much emotional pleasure derived from TJHSBT having come to bid me farewell; that was standard protocol in Japan – your basic good manners. What was so weirdly affecting was the banality of the whole thing, the fact that this was an utterly anti-climactic scene. The kids were basically just hanging-out in my living-room. They hardly spoke and when they did they made no effort to include me. Kouki was napping. Takuya was taking pictures of himself. Kazuki manned the laptop controls. Sunao had crumbs of fried chicken on his cheek. Everyone was in a state of total comfort. And I guess what I’m saying is that, if you think about it, being at peace is one of the most elusive conditions of human life. And but still, somehow, this odd collection of people at this particular moment in this foreclosed room had achieved it. No one wanted to be anywhere else.

I’d hazard that this is the true value of basketball or team sports in general or really any endeavor that unifies a collection of individuals. These things, at their apotheosis, allow us to be truly comfortable in the presence of others. And that’s really fucking hard. The natural/uncomplicated way to subsist in our muddled, unsympathetic world is the pre-Copernican way. I.e. you yourself are the epicenter and if you don’t like something you either alter it, escape it, or, at minimum, redefine of it. But that’s not really peaceful. It’s more a method of survival. A way to affirm that, at some basic level, you’re in control. It’s totally fine and maybe even an essential characteristic of human nature, but it’s also easy. An evolutionary safe-mode. What’s not so natural/easy is real co-habitation: the appreciation that while you can’t ultimately govern anything, you can abide the shit-show alongside someone else. Someone with whom you can be yourself and someone who can be him/herself around you. And then maybe, hopefully, that bond will give you both a better chance. I mean isn’t that the basis of big-time historical institutions like marriage and family? These institutions aren’t easy and they aren’t always fun but the benefits transcend anything you could accomplish as a one-man-show. The problem is that forming these relationships is damn hard and damn scary and probably, in terms of rudimentary survival-instincts, totally unnatural. Which is why common endeavors are so vital.38 They give us an excuse to consolidate. Consider a basketball team. It’s an assemblage comprised of numerous individuals with different perspectives and distinct histories and potentially adverse personalities. This group of individuals is not connected by any tangible thing like bloodline or any intangible thing like romantic love. They just end up on the same team. But they are a team and so they have the same goal. And this goal supersedes any quirk or defect or desire or complication that any individual team member might possess. Not that these elemental differences are immaterial; they’re just not ultimate. So a good basketball team figures out how to assimilate distinct egos and amalgamate oppositional forces so that the unit can accomplish something the individual never could. And isn’t that pretty much the most pregnant metaphor for human existence? Sum greater than parts, all > one, and so on. Which is to say: we homosapiens are most competent and most capable when we appreciate our differences but still work together anyway to achieve a greater ambition, some thing that goes beyond the first-person. In writing this probably comes off as a really boring, platitudinous tirade. But it’s real. Having a common objective, regardless of how inane, forces individuals to forget language limitations and cultural/personal preconceptions and defense-mechanisms and self-interest and all those petty little things that help us survive on a daily basis but also block us from being at peace. It’s totally unnatural to share your true self and to accept other ppl’s true selves. We instinctively renounce all this because it’s exhausting and frustrating and potentially dangerous. But, whether you’re in-love or a prodigal-son or just a member of The Team, sometimes it just happens. Sometimes you end up sitting in a living-room full of kids with whom you have nothing in common but by now you’re familiar with all their idiosyncrasies and deficiencies and they also know yours. You can’t quite remember when it happened, what was the tipping-point, or how all those transitory emotions like fear and anger and jealousy and love and pride were over time expressed and reciprocated and regurgitated and re-digested so many times that eventually they just stopped having any weight. But the sense of unconditional kinship is so total that everyone, this specific group of individuals assembled in this specific-living room on this specific day, experiences true peace.

And that’s what Tim Ryan never understood. He was a sincere, moral man and he cared about the traveling all-star basketball team and he adored me. But, for Tim Ryan, basketball was always a means of communicating something about himself. A magic mechanism that transmogrified him into The Mentor he always wanted to be. Which is all right and good. There’s no doubt that Tim Ryan was a positive influence in my life. But his role was fleeting. He didn’t adapt along with his players. He didn’t accept that we had changed and our evolution required that he change. He was like an honorable version of Seiya’s dad. He had a good heart, but in a weird way it was always about him. And that’s too bad. Because once you forfeit the magnitude of self and commit to a common goal, it stops being about wins/losses/excellence/enlightenment or any other supposedly virtuous endgame. It becomes about the fact that sometimes it’s actually possible to combat human nature and be totally and truly comfortable with someone other than yourself. This is a subtle and unsexy achievement and maybe no outsider will ever know that it happened. But it’s still a miracle and it means something.

Around 1800h the TJHSBT-members-with-parents departed and walked straight to the Toyooka Town Festival. The Jikein boys lingered for another 45min, Kazuki and Ryo making sure that they had enough time to walk uphill and be at the residence by 7pm curfew. My house went calm and empty. Incandescent fireworks sparked-off and I watched them from the bench on my patio.

***

A few hours later I drove to the convenience store parking-lot that was adjacent to the candy-factory where the Toyooka Town Festival was winding-down. I went into the convenience store and found a trio of female 2nd yr students who were checking-out a basketful of hand-held fireworks. They didn’t have quite enough cash so I paid for everything. They squealed and ran off, swinging a plastic bag of combustible booty.

I was inspecting the prepared foods when Takuya punched my back. He was with a collection of 3rd yr male students and they crowded around me, looking slapdash without their school uniforms.

“Come to the festival. You can eat squid balls there,” Takuya said.

I bought 50dollars of fireworks and we went outside. Maybe eight boys climbed into my miniature car and directed me to a secret parking-lot that still, even at this hour, had free space. I locked my doors and looked around. Sunao, Takuya and Takumi were joined by maybe 10 other TJHS students. I knew all their names and what club-teams they belonged to and which girls they liked. Takuya had a bicycle and he offered it to me.

“Ride to the festival,” he said.

Takumi lighted a fat, elongated sparkler and brandished it at pelvis-level and cracked-up. The other boys imitated him, the flickering lights illuminating their naughty, ecstatic eyes. I mounted Takuya’s bike and peddled off at a quick clip. A herd of teenagers sprinted after me, gripping sparklers and whooping and hollering.

“He is going to New York tomorrow!” Takuya shouted.

“He’s not Jake Sensei anymore!” Takumi screamed.

“Jake. Jake. Jake. He’s just Jake.”

They chased me with their ersatz, ignited cocks.






FOOTNOTES

1)      We could knit socks and scarves and fashion stuffed-animals. We could carve model boats and miniature boxes. We could dance to phonetic sounds. We could draw with colored pencils and block crayons. We could sing exaltations to Mother Earth and play three different types of recorder. We could not, however, participate in competitive sporting events. At least not until the sixth grade. Apparently 12yrs is that pivotal age when kids can suddenly cope with such things as Winning and Losing. Or something.

2)      To elucidate the meaning of the word “hustle,” I threw a basketball on the floor twice. The first time I chased it down and dove onto it. “Hustle!” I said. The second time I watched the ball roll for a while and then jogged after it. “Not hustle,” I said.

3)      A JHS in Japan lasts three years. 3rd year students can only participate in extracurricular activities for the first three months of the academic year (which starts in April). After that they spend pretty much all their free-time preparing for the high-school entrance exam. So usually that means, from June on, school clubs consist of only 1st and 2nd year students. But there were no 2nd yr students on the Toyooka JHS basketball team. At least not by the time I arrived. I later learned that there had been one 2nd year member, but he was now three hours north, in a juvenile corrections facility.

4)      According to Japanese people, these are telltale signs of Yakuza. I was initially dubious but so many people said it that I guess, whatever, it’s true. All I know is that my uncle has tinted windows and a leather jacket. Uncle George. That’s what I know.

5)      A “kancho” means an enema. It’s a very common prank pulled by young elementary school kids in Japan. Pretty much everyone stops doing it by age twelve. But it’s always out there. Waiting to strike.

6)      The old, balding man who had greeted me at the first basketball practice was not in fact the head coach. He was the school PE teacher and basketball team “Second Coach,” which meant he pretty much only attended practice when the head coach couldn’t. His name was Shimodaira Sensei. He was jovial and often snuck up behind me in the teacher’s office for a surprise tickle-attack. Once I started coaching, he stopped coming to practice altogether.

7)      This is apparently the brand name of a Minneapolis-based athletic-apparel company. Due to its problematic appellation, BENCHWARMERS popularity in the USA is negligible. Presumably its ideal market is any place that doesn’t understand English but thinks English words are cool. So a.k.a. places like Japan. Where you’ll see tons of athletes wearing shirts that basically state that the person wearing said shirt is so unskilled at his/her sport that he/she rides the pine all day.

8)      Most basketball terminology doesn’t have a Japanese counterpart, so instead of inventing new words they just use English b-ball jargon. Also, there exists an entire Japanese alphabet utilized strictly for originally foreign vocabulary that has been adopted by the Japanese language. For example pao is Portuguese for bread. Because Japan always used rice as its primary carbohydrate, bread never had its own word until the Portuguese brought it over in the 16th century. Japan had never seen bread before, didn’t know what to call it, heard the Portuguese word and adopted it, or at least the closest phonetic Japanese equivalent, which is パン or pan. So for example: Basketball = Ba-su-ke-to-bo-ru = バスケットボール. Rebound = Ri-ba-un-do =リバウンド. Fast break = Fa-su-to-bu-re-ku =ファーストブレーク and so on. Again, the Japanese alphabet employed above signals to any Japanese reader that these specific words are non-native in origin.

9)      Henceforth referred to as TJHSBT

10)  Marriage is still very much a big deal in Japan, especially in rural areas like Toyooka and especially for women. A woman should most definitely be married by the age of 30yrs. A single 27 year old woman is a charity project for all the other teachers – someone who must be helped. A single 33yr old woman is a lost cause. An unmarried 40yr woman is a dud and an outcast.

11)  This was the name of the southernmost region of Nagano Prefecture. Gun would roughly translate to “county.”

12)  Japan has this weird cultural thing of, like, submitting to the elements. Offices compete to see who can use the least amount of air-conditioning. High school girls wear mini-skirts in February because that’s the school uniform. Gymnasiums either don’t have heaters or just don’t use heaters. You can complain about it being hot or cold or rainy or whatever. You can bring your own fans or your own blankets. But you don’t fix it. You submit to it. Because things like weather and death can’t be helped, or something.

13)   Urusai translates to noisy or annoying, but often connotes something more like “shut the hell up.” 

14)  They called it the practice “menu.”

15)  In Japan, education is mandatory only through junior high school. For those kids who want to go to high school, and most do, there is a prefecture wide, standardized test. The students who score well on this test go to good public high schools. Students who score poorly go to bad public high schools. Students who score terribly try to find a job. This one test is probably a bigger deal than the SAT. It very literally determines whether or not you have a future. And you can only take it twice.

16)  Exactly what it sounds like. Tennis, but with a soft ball. Not a softball. A soft ball. Like squishy.

17)  Ryo tended to physically bombard the 1st yrs; yanking them to their correct positions and slapping their hands away and sometimes shoving them for no good reason. Kota would just whine. He would sit down and start signaling stuff but then get exasperated from all the effort and shut his eyes and just sort moan instructions while saliva collected in the corners of his mouth.

18)  It’s better in Japanese, I swear. The word for cockroach is goukiburi and so but then I substituted the word Goki with its almost homonym Kouki which was, you know, Kouki’s name! Get it? Goukiburi! Koukiburi! Goddamn, I’m good.

19)  Mixed racial decent is a very negative thing in Japan. This obsession with genealogical purity boarders on malicious, especially when it comes to blood-amalgamation with other East Asians. When Takashi acted strange, which was not uncommon because he was just a strange kid, teachers blamed his bloodline. Teammates often teased him. Takashi pretended he couldn’t speak Chinese, even though his parents did not speak Japanese at home. Of course this all has to do with some jumble of historical conflict/genocide/mass-rape/cultural indoctrination/contested national borders that I hardly comprehend, but still, it’d be nice if East-Asians would allow their little yellow mulattos to play basketball in peace. My own personal opinion is that the weight of being non-pure manifested itself weirdly in Takashi. He would aggressively volunteer himself for tasks that did not require volunteers. He sometimes venomously slandered me for being foreign. He often proclaimed his love of Japanese cuisine. He was also actually pretty good at basketball. I never asked him if he’d learned his moves during those 8 childhood yrs he spent in China.

20)  In Japan rugby is bigger than American football. Two male family members of mine grew up playing rugby and were even awarded university scholarships for it. One of them currently constructs important government buildings, I think. The other volunteered for the police force immediately following the tsunami and is presumably still saving the world. So I guess what I’m saying is that maybe rugby is a good thing?

21)  This attitude struck me as very American and I never once punished Shigeki for it. I mean seriously, who the fuck hops backwards in slow-motion? That’s just silly.

22)  One of my most recurrent Japanese language errors was to confuse get married and fight e.g. Kazuki you must marry Takuya if you want the ball.  

23)   And they tragically emulated his double-pump reverse lay-up daily.

24)  I’d purchased a special NBA sponsored internet deal that allowed me to watch any game live or recorded on my laptop. My laptop was connected to my huge TV. And this way I never had to watch any torturous Japanese TV because I could just watch USA movies/sports/tv anytime I wanted, usually for free. Thanks, science.

25)  In just a few years both the song and dance have already become something of a pop-culture gag, just another victim of our ever-more-meta+mocking USA culture.

26)  He, Soulja Boy Tell Em, really seems like a decent guy. He taught me his dance five yrs ago. And when I forgot it, he taught it to me again. And the second time he was just as patient and precise as the first time. Good guy, that Soulja Boy.

27)  It means lots of other stuff too. It means schools have to forge school identities sans stalwart teachers. It means that all the teachers in a prefecture know each other at least by face/name twice-removed. It means that when your best friend who is also an English teacher (and you both love teaching class + getting drunk together) is sent to another school, you just have to shut up and deal with it. It means that things change every year. It means that Japanese kids, at a very young age because this starts in elementary school, get well-acquainted with the biblical catchphrase: This Too Shall Pass.

28)  Japanese women cover their mouths when they smile/laugh. It’s this humiliating custom that’s supposedly a sign of deference/respect. I.e. no one wants to see a woman be 100% emotional because emotional women are totally annoying. It’s one of my least favorite Japanese cultural institutions. I mean seriously WTF; few things in life are better than a cute girl guffawing.

29)  Shimojo young-parents, i.e. married opposite-gender couples under the age of 25, and their children were featured on multiple national news TV programs as a model for Japan’s future, e.g. here in Shimojo we love having five kids and you should too! This weird cultural pro-procreation stance is necessary because Japan’s economy has been weak for over a decade and almost the entire country is counteracting this by, you know, getting abortions (contraception is not that popular and neither is unwed promiscuity. Marital infidelity isn’t a big deal though. The whole Japanese sexual tenet hints at something dark, although I’m not sure what exactly).

30)  Which was basically a drug dungeon-reminiscent single room with loads of makeshift cots and unused intravenous therapy devices that nurses would just roll around for no apparent reason.

31)  There is like zero bitterness/regret as I write this. These two shitty years were totally worth it. I got into Shakespeare and reading and drawing and it changed my blah blah blah you’ve definitely heard this before. And also, I’m infinitely aware of the fact that even labeling these two years “shitty” reveals a serious lack of, like, perspective on my part. Dead dogs don’t matter. They eat dog road-kill in Vietnam. Because otherwise families wouldn’t get enough protein.

32)  Ryo could preserve his energy for rebounding + offense, Sunao could think less, Takumi’s legs could rest more.

33)  Due to our height disadvantage there was little chance of anyone other than Sunao and his turbulent physicality getting an offensive rebound. It was more important that we prevent any fast-break opportunity.

34)  There was this one time when Takumi attempted to communicate a defensive switch but instead of just saying “switch,” he wheezed the Japanese equivalent of “excuse me could you please change defenders with me please.” By the time Ryo heard the whole thing, the I.E. player had scored.

35)  This is a trademark of employment in Japan. You have official parties to commemorate any and every substantial event. New teachers coming to school. Teachers being transferred to another school. Successfully completed school festivals. Successfully completed demonstration lessons etc etc etc. If there is an authorized school function, that function will be solemnized with a party. At these parties people make toasts and everyone drinks a lot. It’s not part of the job, but really, it is. A few times annually is pretty fun. But once you start having to go multiple times per month, it’s exhausting. There’s a Japanese word for “flattery” that doesn’t quite translate to English because “flattery” implies at least some element of sincerity, albeit hyperbolic. Oseji is much more formal. Like forced flattery for the sake of propriety. Anyway, at these parties, oseji pervades. It’s only fun in small doses.

36)  For two years Ichiba Sensei was my emotional rock. She’s just one of those special people you don’t encounter that often in life. Intelligent, considerate, perspicacious, generous, open-minded and a salvo of other accolades. When I didn’t understand Japanese cultural codes, she explained them sans judgment. When I didn’t understand a Japanese word, I asked her. When she didn’t understand an English word, she asked me. When other teachers had unfortunate conflicts with special-ed students, Ichiba and I hatched a solution and implemented it together. When I came to work hungover she laughed. She invited me to her daughter’s musical recitals. She brought me apples from her home orchard and taught me how to cook Japanese cod. She understood my lame USA jokes. She explained arcane Japanese rituals. She helped me plan lessons and trusted me to teach her classes alone. She listened to me complain about other teachers and she complained too but somehow always managed to maintain total professionalism. At one point I described Ichiba to a friend as: my mother + my sister + my best friend + my girlfriend. I was too ashamed to ever say this to Ichiba’s face. But then, on my last night in Toyooka, Ichiba got inebriated and, unsolicited, confessed that I was like her: son, best friend and boyfriend all in one. I flipped my shit and said OMG I’ve been thinking that for so long and we hugged for like twenty straight seconds. Other teachers stared. We didn’t care at all.

37)  Unlike USA style grills which have a latticed and very literally “grilled” cooking surface, Japanese “yaki-niku” grills resemble flat-top diner-type rectangular grills with a total surface area of approx. 1800cm2.  Without doing any research, I’d propose that this drastic stylistic disparity results from a difference in meat cuts. E.g. whereas in USA our burgers and ribs and rib-eyes are dense slabs of bone and protein, Japanese meat is pre-sliced into thin, almost translucent pieces. So then you just toss these bite-size portions onto the grill and in 2min they’re ready to be eaten. Take it straight off grill, dip it in Japanese BBQ sauce and enjoy. I would never claim that one method (either USA or Japanese) of grilling is “superior” to the other, but it’s easy to argue that the procedural discrepancy has something to do with cultural differences/dining habits. Most obviously, Japanese ppl eat with chopsticks, so the prospect of like gripping a burger and shoving it into mouth-hole is just out of the question. Same with taking a serrated-blade to a hunk of T-bone. The whole chopsticks vs. knife + fork argument presumably has some sort of tangible historical genesis, but I can’t be bothered to investigate it. What I do empirically know is that food consumption via chopsticks provides for a markedly more elegant dining experience. I.e. you take the small bite with the fine sticks and place it gently in your mouth. In Japan you’ll never find yourself at a restaurant, totally distracted by some fat guy nearby who’s basically smearing saturated, undercooked flesh all over his face. Not to say unsightly ingestion is necessarily a bad thing. It’s just very American. And delicious. There’s nothing like a slab of USA ribs.

38)  Yes, even religious ones. 






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