Thursday, July 10, 2014

Sports & Spirituality in Japan

When in Japan, one must take photos with this gesture.
It is NOT a salute to USC.
As a frequent traveler, let me offer one piece of advice to any individual or family who is preparing for a summer vacation: go to an "away game." Please know however, I offer this recommendation in the context of sports and spirituality.

Vacation ought to be a time away from the obligations of work, the demands of our domestic duties. For many it's also a break from eating healthy, exercising and more and more, our religious practices. I would like, however, to suggest otherwise. Sitting in Tokyo's Narita Airport waiting to board Air Nippon Airlines for San Francisco, I can't help but think of the two great highlights from this summer sojourn. Again, they pertain to both sports and spirituality.

This was my first visit to Asia and more specifically to Japan. I arrived in Osaka, traveled to Kyoto—Japan's ancient capital and concluded the trip in its modern day capital Tokyo (both words include "kyo" the word for capital and "to" means town). 

Spirituality: In Kyoto I visited temples many of which were constructed in the Edo period—over 800 years ago. Protected as World Heritage Sites, these centers for public worship were culturally and religiously fascinating. I learned about the purification center, how to pray at various shrines: two bows, one two claps and a concluding bow. Their usage of incense and candles isn't much different than those that can be found in Catholic churches (neither is the space for the donation).
The water purification is a necessary ritual before entering into a temple.
A personal highlight for me however was attending Catholic Mass at St. Ignatius Church on the campus of Sofia University. The presider was a Jesuit priest; I know this because his stole was adorned with the logo of the Society of Jesus. Although the entire liturgy was in Japanese, the order of the Mass was no different than those I have attended my entire life. 

I was anxious to discover the differences between the "home" and "away" Mass. I was not surprised that during the sign of peace, we bowed to one another. The kneeler caught my eye as it resounded of Eastern spirituality; it was a simple block cushion. Although more women wore a lace veil on their heads than the faithful at home, the differences were minimal. A cell phone still rang during the consecration, members of the congregation arrived a little late and more sat toward the back than the front of the church. Catholic truly means "universal."
I loved this little "Za Zen" kneeler for Catholic Mass.
Sports: I insisted upon but one thing of my travel companion—Ray—my colleague and friend who I describe as "an early adapter," linguist and insider of all things culturally Japanese. My singular request was that we go to a baseball game. 

I had heard stories that Japanese fans had great cheers. I knew of players in MLB who had played in Japan so they could resurrect their careers. And of course I knew that one of the highest paid players in the game, Masahiro Tanaka  is Japanese. What I saw, learned and experienced trumped what I could have anticipated.

Ray and I arrived at Seibu stadium to watch the Saitama Seibu Lions play the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters. Not knowing a single player, the language or any of the fans surrounding me I wasn't sure how the experience would translate. Some things however transcend a language barrier or cultural norms—like knowing who is on offense just by the sound of the crowd. 
During the 7th inning stretch, all fans release
balloons that represent their team's colors.
It's true, the variety and sheer volume of Japanese fans was impressive. They used batons (inflatable bats) as rally sticks. Like us, every player has his personal walk-up song, but the fans also have special cheers for certain players. The center of this spirit emanates from the outfield general admission seating. Instead of a set of bleachers, fans are free to put down a blanket, but I'm not entirely sure why. They stood and cheered to the beat of loud drums that were as active in the first inning as they were in the ninth.

I love that when the batter comes to the plate, they announce his surname, followed by his first name. The unspoken message of that custom suggests that we are part of something larger than ourselves, we represent a heritage and a legacy. We bring that with us to all that we do and who we are—even in hitting a baseball.

But what may have been the highlight of my trip, was also the highlight for every Lions fan that evening, that week, heck—maybe this season. Bottom of the ninth, and the Lions are down by 3 runs. They score a run with one out. Four batters and one out later, outfielder Shogo Saito comes to the plate. Bases are loaded and he hits one deep into right field. The walk-off home run. I could not believe it happened. The game started at 6:00 pm and last nearly four and a half hours. It was so magical, I wondered if the clock had struck midnight.

But the joy of feat did not end when Saito crossed home plate and into the arms of his teammates. No, the entire Lions team lined up on the third base line and took a bow in unison. There was nothing formal about this gesture; it was a physical demonstration of gratitude.

Suddenly the fans descended from their seats toward the field. I didn't know what everyone was waiting for, as the team had disappeared into the dugout. Suddenly, a small stage was erected on the field. A Japanese Erin Andrews traipsed in from the outfield and suddenly the hero of the evening #65, Saito, ran out from the dugout for his public interview. 

If you watch professional tennis, you are familiar with this type of interview. Fans were able to hear every question and Saito's response. They laughed and clapped, cheered and smiled. It was awesome. My friend Ray was able to translate much of the Q & A which was great to hear, even though I could understand in my heart the overriding sentiment.

Upon conclusion of the interview, Saito ran to every section of the yard and gave high fives and waves to the fans still inside the stadium. When the Giants clinched the NL West in 2010—on the very last game of the season against the Padres—they completed this same gesture. I stood incredulous at one players' outreach on a Wednesday night game.
The personal touch that both the fans and the players brought to a game I'm already quite familiar with confirmed some truths about our humanity. We are so hungry personal outreach. We are seeking confirmation that what we do—be it as a fan or as an athlete in some small way matters. And it does. It matters because it's the small gestures and practices that reveal how unique we all are and how special we can be. I didn't need to go to a chapel or a baseball park halfway around the world to learn this, but it sure made it easier to see...and that much more fun to enjoy. 

Go to an away game...I want to know what you see and how you see what you already know as a result of that with fresh eyes.

Oh, and I'd like to write an open letter to Brian Sabean about the possibility of incorporating some of that outreach from the players into the fan experience....

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