Jul 23 2021

The Cursed Olympics


By Fred Varcoe

When bones were discovered during construction on the new Olympic stadium in Tokyo, people said the Games could be cursed. It’s been a tough journey to 2021 and the cursed Olympics continue to suffer problems even as the 2020 Games start in 2021.

It’s not even Tokyo’s first cursed Olympics. There were also the 1940 Games that never happened. At the Nazi-led Berlin Olympics in 1936, the IOC in their wisdom decided to award the next Games to another militaristic, expansionist host: Tokyo. As with 2020, part of the selling point of the Japanese was to showcase Tokyo’s recovery from a devastating earthquake – the 1923 quake that levelled half the city. But, similar to 2020, the real reason was vanity and self-serving. Japan wanted to be accepted as a “first world” nation.

To this end, it figured it had to “reach out” to its neighboring countries, by attacking and colonizing them, starting with Korea. Japan’s much coveted men’s marathon gold medal in 1936 was won by a colonized Korean — Sohn Kee-chung — reluctantly representing his oppressors. In 1937, Japan initiated a war with China and this proved costly, literally. The government decided it couldn’t afford to wage war and host the Olympics, so it went with the choice it thought it would do better in – war – and informed the IOC that it no longer wanted to host the 1940 Olympic Games – but would be interested at a later date when it had finished subjugating East Asia. The Games were handed to Helsinki but were eventually cancelled due to the war in Europe.

 

Korean Sohn Kee-chung running the marathon for Japan at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.


Getting the 1964 Olympics so soon after waging an inhumane war against the world was, perhaps, another odd decision by the IOC, but it satisfied the organization’s remit to spread the Games around the world and enabled Japan to believe it was, or could be, a first-tier nation. Japan embarked on a massive modernization program, hoping to impress the world. In the end, Japan hosted a splendid and successful Games and achieved its goals. For the 2020 Games of 2021, the best Tokyo can hope for is survival.

While there was an inevitable wave of excitement after Tokyo was awarded the 2020 Games, a bumbling, incoherent government led by a bumbling, incoherent prime minister and a dithering, out-of-touch Games Organizing Committee led by a dithering, out-of-touch ex-prime minister led to a series of incomprehensible and almost comical decisions.

Arguably, the most egregious decision was made by then-Prime Minister and Olympic cheerleader Shinzo Abe when he scrapped the design of the new Olympic Stadium. Tokyo had chosen to go with a stunning design by world-famous and award-winning architect Zaha Hadid, an Iraqi-born British woman, to replace the 1964 Olympic Stadium, which was well past its sell-by date. Hadid’s design would have seen a beautiful, 21st-century stadium emerge in its place. It was the kind of stadium that Olympics are made for and it was perfect for Blade Runner Tokyo. Her design hit all the right buttons: spectacular, original, big, on budget. Well, on budget until it went out to tender to Japan’s extravagant construction companies. The costs ballooned, the media started to complain and Prime Minister Abe, sensing political capital, pulled the plug on the Hadid stadium. The job was handed to established Japanese architect Kengo Kuma – one of many who had complained about Hadid’s design – whose concept was so utilitarian, it has been likened to an oversized toilet.

Zaha Hadid’s fabulous, but rejected, design for Tokyo’s new Olympic Stadium.


But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Tokyo’s bid was based on a number of falsehoods. The first, famously spoken by Abe, was that the problems surrounding the Fukushima nuclear plant were under control and that the Tokyo Olympics would be the “Recovery and Reconstruction Games,” with a special emphasis on Fukushima. He knew the problems surrounding the devastated nuclear plant were ongoing and unresolved, and the residents of the prefecture were still suffering, with thousands living in temporary housing. The cleanup of the nuclear plant will take at least 50 years. In April this year the government approved the dumping of over a million tonnes of contaminated water into the Pacific Ocean. Fukushima Prefecture got to host the first events of the 2020 Games, two days before the Opening Ceremony. As a sop to its years of suffering, it hosted a few baseball and softball matches at one of the most remote baseball stadiums in the country, in fact so remote there was a bear scare on the opening day.

The second major falsehood was that the climate in Tokyo in late July and August would be “moderate.” July, August and September are the hottest months of the year in Japan. And it’s very hot. In 2019, the temperature in Tokyo reached close to 41 celsius on July 23. In the six days before that, according to The Mainichi newspaper, 94 people died and tens of thousands had to be treated in hospital for heat-related problems. Such were the concerns of the organizers last year, they opted to move the marathon races – one of the premier events for Japanese sports fans – to Sapporo in Hokkaido, where they are hoping it will be cooler. But last year, Hokkaido, usually the coolest place in Japan, set a record temperature in May of 39.5 C, more than two degrees higher than the previous record. The 1964 Games took place in October for the simple reason that it is cooler then.

The actual bid and the budget were, unsurprisingly, wholly inaccurate. The initial estimate of costs was $7.5 billion. Last year’s postponement cost at least $3 billion and the official estimates now predict costs of $16 billion. Unofficially, the Games are likely to cost much more than that, possibly even double according to some estimates. Early on, Tokyo sought to cut costs by changing the bid outline and using existing or cheaper venues while obstinately refusing to trim the sports program. After initially considering an existing venue, Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike agreed to build a new venue for volleyball, which is just around the corner from the new aquatics center. Other sports will use existing venues, some outside of Tokyo.

Due to COVID-19, spectators have been ruled out. A number of surveys in Japan have indicated that 60-80 percent of Japanese wanted the Games canceled or postponed, largely due to ongoing concerns over COVID-19. While Japan has suffered far less in the pandemic than other countries, this is seen by its citizens as more by luck than judgement. No one knows why the infection rate appears to be low in Japan, but with the Olympics approaching, that rate has risen sharply, putting pressure on a health system that isn’t designed to cope with a pandemic. Tokyo has been under a state of emergency for much of 2021, while in other parts of Japan, people were dying at home because of a lack of hospital beds. One hospital in western Tokyo put up posters demanding that the Games be canceled and these sentiments have grown stronger by the day. Japanese people are afraid the Olympics could turn into a super-spreader event and make a bad situation uncontrollable. To make matters worse, Japan’s vaccination program has been a disaster, with only 17 percent of the population getting fully vaccinated by July 7, compared to 48 percent in the United States and 52 percent in the United Kingdom.



The government of Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has been under constant fire for seemingly putting the Olympics ahead of the welfare of Japan’s people. Whether true or not, the perception remains that the government were going to hold the Games at any cost. It didn’t help that the main liaison between the government and the Games had to resign. Former Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori stepped down as president of the Tokyo Organizing Committee in February after making inappropriate remarks about women. Mori may have been idiotic but he was a smooth conduit for the Organizing Committee to reach the ears of government. His replacement, seven-time Olympian and current lawmaker Seiko Hashimoto, does at least have Olympic credentials and one of her first moves was to add 12 women to the Executive Board.

But Mori wasn’t the only victim of bad judgement. Hiroshi Sasaki, the executive creative director for all four 2020 ceremonies, was also forced out after floating the idea of dressing up a well-known, plus-size entertainer as a pig and calling her “Olympig.” The Tokyo Organizing Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games Committee fired Kobayashi Kentaro as show director of the 2020 Opening and Closing Ceremonies two days before the Opening Ceremony for a joke about the Holocaust that he made 23 years ago. An early casualty in the Olympic process was the proposed logo for the Tokyo Games. Kenjiro Sano’s design turned out to be almost identical to that of the Théâtre de Liège in Belgium, so out went Sano and “his” design. Automaker Toyota announced it would not air TV commercials related to the Games in Japan. And in a follow-up to the stadium controversy, architect Kengo Kuma was accused of stealing the best bits from Zaha Hadid’s design, but the finished stadium was dull enough for people to realize that it was actually quite different.

Even nature wouldn’t cooperate with the Games. In August 2019, a Paralympic triathlon test event was canceled due to E. coli bacteria in the water, which was also close to the maximum allowable temperature. Triathletes who had managed to swim through Tokyo’s murky waters complained that it smelled like a toilet. Scientists and coaches suggested that the events should be relocated, but the Organizing Committee said measures would be taken to alleviate the problems before the Olympics.

While almost any major sporting event has problems – Rio, for example, had plenty – Tokyo has managed to shoot itself in the foot so often, it’s barely able to walk. Poor leadership and poor decisions have left the organizers with red faces on too many occasions. If the Tokyo Olympics are “cursed,” it’s been a self-inflicted curse.

 


Jul 18 2021

Japan’s shame: State-sanctioned child kidnapping

By Fred Varcoe 


The Olympic Games were meant to highlight what a fabulous place Japan is, how its economy is not really shit, how the streets are clean, the people friendly and life is just a fantasy.

Well, the reality is most of that is just a fantasy.

Just 100 meters from the new, unspectacular Olympic Stadium, a Frenchman is staging a hunger strike. Vincent Fichot’s wife stole their children and he hasn’t seen them for three years.

While Japan loves to promote its cuteness and fluffiness, the reality of life in Japan is that it has serious flaws, most notably in its judicial system. Carlos Ghosn fled not because he thought he might be found guilty of what was a minor crime, but because the judicial system sets out to pre-judge and pre-punish those who cross the invisible line of social wrong. If you are the nail that sticks up, you will be smacked down into submission.

To say the rulings on family matters are odd would be an insult to odd. They are inhumane.

Japan does not subscribe to the notion that divorced parents can jointly raise their kids. In most cases, one parent gets to keep the kids, the other is told to fuck off forever.

When former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s wife was pregnant with their third child, the slimeball politician decided to get a divorce. Usually, the mother gets to keep the kids, but as Koizumi is a slimeball politician, his sons were delivered to him. Then, slimeball that he is, he tried to grab son No. 3 as soon as it came out of the womb. This time, he was unsuccessful, so he cut off son No. 3 and has refused to meet him ever since.

As a married man, I can imagine the need for some parents to divorce, but as a father, I can’t ever imagine divorcing my child.

Vincent Fichot is not alone. Some 150,000 children are divorced from a parent every year in Japan. Australian Scott McIntyre was jailed for 45 days just for going to his in-laws’ apartment as he searched for his kids.

Fichot has sought help from French President Emanuel Macron, the EU and the United Nations. All have condemned Japan for its heartlessness. Japan’s response: “We don’t care.” The Justice Minister even refuses to acknowledge the issue.

When Japanese citizens were kidnapped by North Korea, it was a massive issue. How ironic that it was Father-of-the-Year and de facto child kidnapper Junichiro Koizumi who helped get some of Japan’s citizens returned. When two Americans helped free Carlos Ghosn from its penal hostage justice, Japan threw a tantrum and demanded Ghosn was returned. When that failed, it demanded the people who freed Ghosn be effectively kidnapped to Japan to face its unjust justice system.

When children are kidnapped against the law, Japan turns a blind eye to justice.

When I was young, comic books depicted Japanese soldiers as the most evil people on the planet. In Japan, old soldiers never die; my guess is they join the Justice Ministry.

 

 


Jun 3 2021

Naomi Osaka: Saint or Sinner?

 

By Fred Varcoe


Wouldn’t it be nice to sympathize with Naomi Osaka? At least then I’d be on a bandwagon with thousands of others. People unrelated to tennis or journalism are falling over themselves to give her a figurative hug – and a free pass for everything she says.

Let’s take law professor Scott Douglas Gerber writing possibly one of the worst sports opinion pieces ever in USA Today: “It is profoundly disturbing that Naomi Osaka felt compelled to withdraw from the French Open, one of tennis’ four Grand Slam tournaments. It is also illegal to make her feel like she needed to withdraw. Osaka had informed tournament officials that news conferences adversely impacted her mental health, and that she would be willing to be fined for not participating in them during the tournament. … Shockingly, the president of the French Tennis Federation did not agree to Osaka’s reasonable request for an accommodation.”

Let’s get one thing very clear here: The only person who says Naomi Osaka has mental health issues is Naomi Osaka herself. Not one shred of evidence has been made public that she is suffering from ongoing mental health issues. Osaka says she has suffered long “bouts of depression” since winning her first major three years ago, but they haven’t stopped her from winning three other majors since then, including the last two. I guess she usually times her bouts of depression well. This time, apparently, not so well.

Well, what is the nature of her depression? Gerber cites French law for the disabled as the reason for the organizers of the French Open breaking the law. Is Osaka a disabled person, unable to function normally? Was she disabled as she won her first-round match at Roland Garros? Did her disability prevent her from attending the press conference? Well, we don’t know because no one knows what her disability is or how bad it is. She’s probably attended a few hundred press conferences to date, so it’s strange how she’s managed to get through them during her bouts of depression.

The worry here is that she isn’t suffering from depression. I’ve know several women with severe clinical depression. Some self-harm; one was sectioned and doped up so much, she didn’t know who I was when she came out of hospital. They usually take drugs to maintain some kind of mental equilibrium. Is Osaka taking drugs for her depression?

The problem here is people have just taken Osaka’s word as gospel. She has “depression”; she has “mental health” problems. She’s disabled. She may be depressed in the more common usage of the word. Do you know anybody who’s never been depressed? And “mental health” is such a catch-all phrase. Everybody has mental health issues; it’s part of daily living. If Osaka is confusing having a bad day with mental disabilities, she is doing seriously ill people a disservice.

She blames journalists and press conferences for her anxiety. I find this very hard to believe. I have been a tennis journalist and attended hundreds of press conferences with the top players in the world. They are generally very benign affairs and usually tennis players are treated with kid gloves. As a rule, the tennis stars give us the routine answers to routine questions and everybody goes home happy. Miserable bastards like Jim Courier would say next to nothing and get out as quickly as possible. Martina Navratilova scared the pants off most journalists as she would crucify anyone who asked a dumb question.

And this gets to another point: The players are generally protected in these press conferences. The WTA are very protective of the players and players of the stature – or insecurity – of Osaka would almost always have a manager lurking in the background to make sure their client was OK. So I don’t see where Osaka’s problems are coming from. Yes, there are dumb journalists and there are dumb questions, but as Navratilova showed, the player is, or should be, in control of the press conference, not the journalists. Don’t like a question? Ram it down the throat of the journalist. No journalist wants to be shown up as an idiot. Or don’t answer or deflect questions you don’t like. You have to wonder who is advising Osaka. She’s represented by IMG, the biggest and most powerful sports agency in the world. Her dad and her sister often hold her hand at tournaments around the world. The WTA offers advice to all players on how to deal with the media. It’s not rocket science.

It’s also strange that Osaka consciously courted the media to promote Black Lives Matter at the U.S. Open, wearing face masks bearing the names of people killed by police officers in the United States. TIME magazine reported it like this: “After winning the U.S. Open’s singles tournament on Saturday, Osaka said the masks were her way of using her platform to protest this injustice and advocate that black lives matter. Asked by a reporter after the tournament what message she wanted to send, Osaka responded: ‘Well, what was the message that you got was more the question. I feel like the point is to make people start talking. I’m not sure what I would be able to do if I was in their position but I feel like I’m a vessel at this point, in order to spread awareness,’ ” So, she was saying that should be using the media for this and presumably she wasn’t anxious about doing it; she wanted to use her (media) platform. It’s also ironic that she used (social) media in Paris to announce that she didn’t want to engage with the media.

And getting back to Gerber and other Osaka apologists, she didn’t make a “reasonable request for an accommodation” regarding press conferences. She just complained about her media duties and said she wouldn’t agree to them. Effectively, she was challenging them. Not surprisingly, they challenged back. Presumably, they hadn’t been advised of Osaka’s mental health issues, so why should they believe her? She pulled back after their threat by saying: “I really want to work with the Tour to discuss ways we can make things better for the players, press and fans.” Well, OK, that does sound like IMG doing its job. If it’s Osaka talking, it sounds like bullshit. The WTA has an eight-person Players’ Council to take on grievances from the players and as a four-time major champion and the highest-paid female athlete in the world, if Osaka had taken her grievances to the Council, they would have listened.

I could be accused of making assumptions, but not as bad as those who blithely take Osaka’s side. If she has mental problems, she should be getting advice, help and treatment from friends, family, her extensive support staff and medical professionals. She shouldn’t be heaping pressure on herself by playing tennis. She’s taking a break and that makes sense. But she dug a deep hole for herself by making her claims on social media. The issues have to be raised and debated in public. Some sympathizers are saying athletes don’t need the media because they can say what they want to say on Instagram or Twitter. Well, Osaka tried that and it blew up in her face. The reason the traditional media exists is to ask questions that social media posts don’t answer and to debate issues in public. Osaka’s Paris blowup has raised more questions and that means us journalists want more answers, not less. Time for a press conference, Naomi….


Mar 25 2021

How Football Can Change

By Fred Varcoe

When Marco Van Basten was Technical Director at FIFA, he came up with a number of ideas to change the game. These included sinbins, no offsides and foul counts for individual players. He didn’t stay long at FIFA, probably because he knew that it is one of the least progressive sports organizations in the world. It still thinks penalties are a good way to decide a World Cup (more on that later).

FIFA is not alone. Many sports organizations are run by fusty old men with no imagination and a misplaced idea of sporting purity. “That’s not football” is probably their motto. But they can still come up with this season’s laughable handball rule. Some sports – rugby, volleyball, cricket – have changed with the times and recognized when rules, even the sport itself, had to change. FIFA is change averse, but many fans also have their heads stuck in the sand.

Football desperately needs to reform itself. Even the Premier League is becoming boring and not just clubs managed by Jose Mourinho. Contrast the dirge that is Tottenham with the energy and positivity of Leeds. It’s almost two different sports.

Football has become too predictable and we can probably trace this to Spain and Barcelona, who believed that doing nothing for 85 minutes of a game was entertainment. You can’t argue with results, can you? Can you?

I don’t know, but when I think of great teams, I think of the Arrigo Sacchi’s AC Milan, Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United and Bob Paisley’s Liverpool – winning teams who were great to watch over extended periods of time. Their free-flowing football made them fans around the world and fans of any club watched them with wonder. This was football.

Try watching Tottenham’s Ben Davies or Southampton’s Kyle Walker-Peters (ex-Tottenham) without gnawing your hands off in frustration. I would like to see their stats on passes played forward and passes played backwards. I’m sure backwards wins.

And they’re taking football backwards. In the old days, full backs would hoof the ball forwards. Back passes on pitches in the ’70s were dangerous. But Route 1 was actually exciting. It brought an element of randomness and chaos to the game. Predictable, it wasn’t. And, statistically unproven though it is, I don’t believe teams lost possession any more playing football that way than they do with the brain-numbing taki tiki taki crap. Bring back chaos, I say.

The game needs an element of unpredictability and the rules need to change to help that. Other rules also need to change and the people who make the rules need to change. If you have no imagination, you’re not going to improve the game. The geniuses and innovators in our world didn’t succeed by making small adjustments to their products, they brought something new to the table. So let’s try and see what new things could be brought to football’s table. Some are practical, conservative even; others might seem a little strange, but they work for me, but probably because I haven’t wasted energy overthinking them.


The Changes

1. No offside

Van Basten says: “I think it can be very interesting watching a game without offside. Football now is already looking a lot like handball with nine or 10 defenders in front of the goal. It’s difficult for the opposition to score a goal as it’s very difficult to create something in the small pieces of space they give you. So, if you play without offside you get more possibilities to score a goal.”
It’s been tried before, but I don’t think anyone took it seriously. But why shouldn’t it work? When you see the amount of goals ruled out for marginal offsides, it is frustrating. Defenders should be marking players, not an invisible line on the pitch. How would it change the game? Defenders would still have to mark players and the most efficient way of marking them is to be goalside. Attackers would still be trying to get past the defender. Not having an invisible line to worry about would give the attacker an advantage and that’s what football wants. And it would, as Van Basten says, open up the pitch, make the game wider and more attack-minded. And it would allow referees’ assistants to monitor more important aspects of the game. Ditto for VAR. It would make life a lot easier and keep football flowing.

2. No offside running into your own half
Bit of a dumb rule at the moment. You can’t be offside in your own half unless you run from an offside position into your own half. Pointless, isn’t it. If you are going to have offsides, this shouldn’t be part of it.

3. No passing back over the halfway line
The horror of possession football is the pass back. Not a little pass to a guy behind you or lateral from you, but a series of pass backs that takes the ball from the corner flag all the way back to the keeper. This is my No. 1 choice for a rule change. It also gives the linespeople something to do. Cut out the safety first pass back to your center-half or goalkeeper and the game will liven up. The attacking team will have to look forward instead of backward. It will make life more difficult for them, so adding danger/ chaos/ unpredictability to the game. It will also put Ben Davies and Kyle Walker-Peters out of a job. Next time you watch a match, think how they dynamic of that match would change if this rule was introduced. You know it makes sense.


4. No penalties
After watching VAR for a season, this one’s a no-brainer for me. Again, there’s limited logic to the penalty area. You get penalized the same for a little (sometimes accidental) trip or handball in the corner of the penalty area by the byline as you do for a deliberate goal-stopping handball. Even with VAR (especially with VAR?), the merit of a free goal is, more often than not, not disproportionate to the offense. The penalty area should actually be the goal area with the side lines extending from the goalposts. If there’s a foul in there, you get a regular penalty. Outside of that, it’s just a free-kick as per the rest of the pitch. The penalty area will then just be the area where the goalkeeper can handle the ball.

5. Three seconds for keepers to release the ball
And talking of goalkeepers handling the ball…. there’s a rule that’s crying out for change. The keeper is meant to release it within six seconds. Nowadays, nobody’s counting. When did you ever see a ref penalize a goalkeeper for holding on to the ball too long? You didn’t. So, the new rule is: three seconds. That’s three seconds from the point where the goalkeeper is in control of the ball and unimpeded and on his feet with the ball in his hands. Failure to release the ball hands the opposition an indirect free-kick from any spot on the perimeter of the penalty area. I get the impression referees don’t want to count to six, but three would be easy.

6. No goal kicks
They’ve become a bit of joke, but that’s partly because players aren’t as clever as they think they are. Simple answer: no goal kicks. The keeper merely has to get rid of the ball from anywhere in the penalty area to another player in any way he likes. We’re trying to get the game moving. This does it.

7. Free throw-ins
Why do we have such a formalized method of throw-ins? I don’t think we need it. It would be far more exciting and probably less time-consuming if the thrower could just chuck the ball back into play any way he wants. The ball could go further and it would take less time. And it would be an advantage to the team in possession. Throw-ins now are often so heavily defended (often in a confided space), they are often a liability. Free throws is the answer. As with the goalkeeper above, there should be a time limit. For throw-ins, four or five seconds once the thrower has the ball under control. And he’s not allowed to pass it off to another player to waste time. And if no one moves to take the throw, the nearest player to the ball gets a yellow card.

8. Corner kicks
The area from which corners are taken should be extended from 1 meter to 2 meters and most of the ball should be within the line markings, not 1 millimeter inside the outside of the line. Personally, I would like to see time limits for taking corners: 20 seconds should be enough. The extremist in me would also limit the number of players who can be in the box when the corner is taken to four from each team plus the defending goalkeeper.

9. No penalty shootouts
OK, the purists will say I’m being extreme here, but actually, I’m the purist. The penalty shootout is a curse on the game. OK, it’s decisive and can be exciting in a masochistic kind of way, but it’s a terrible way of deciding a World Cup final or two-leg European Champions League semi. The fact that FIFA hasn’t even thought about changing this shows their lack of imagination and sheer incompetence. So, how do you change it? I always liked the idea of sudden-death goals, but apparently TV companies didn’t because it left empty air time. But it still doesn’t guarantee a finish to the game. My solution should, although it’s not guaranteed. If extra time is needed, the first session should be 20 minutes. The difference is each team has to lose two players. If there’s no result after 20 minutes, you play another 20 minutes. This 20 minutes is sudden-death – the first goal wins – AND there are no goalkeepers, although multiple substitutions can be made. That should get a result. If not, maybe I’ll allow penalties, but there is a better alternative….

10. Corner shoot-outs
Van Basten has suggested the old American style shootout where a player dribbles the ball unopposed from outside the box and has to score within 10 seconds, but if you want to avoid extra time, there’s a better way: corner shoot-outs. Each team gets 10 corners from which they can score within 10 seconds after the kick is taken. Only four players from each team is allowed plus the defending goalkeeper. The corners are taken in groups of five. If there’s no result after 10 corners, you just keep going until you get one. You could also reduce the number of players to three, two or even one from each team. My ideas involve much more real football than the penalty shootout, so the purists should be on my side, not FIFA’s.

11. Rugby rules
Rugby has a pretty disciplined approach to the rules and football should have the same, so we need to adopt some of rugby’s rules.
A. Sinbin: I haven’t figured this out exactly, but sometimes two yellow cards is not equivalent to a red. Players are getting red-carded for treading on people’s feet, while Jordan Pickford gets nothing for turning the best defender in the world into a cripple. The good thing about the sinbin is that it is instant justice affecting the two teams as they play;
B. 10-yard rule: This has been mentioned but never seriously considered. If a team is awarded a free-kick against them then the rule should be that no opposition player can touch the ball until the free-kick is taken. Also, if a player fails to make an effort to retreat 10 yards from the ball, the attacking team can move the ball forward up to 10 yards. It should be the responsibility of the player to get away from the ball, not the responsibility of the referee. Penalty for not doing so: another 10 yards and a yellow card;
C. No complaining: Only the captains can question a decision by an official and all players must keep a distance of at least 2 meters from the referee. Players swearing at the officials shall get a yellow card;
D. Bonus points: It’s about time teams were rewarded for scoring goals. I would prefer to see a system of, for example, 10 points for a win, five for a draw and a point for each goal scored. Hopefully, this would end the pathetic system of deciding a league on goal difference. No major league placings should be decided on goal difference. If two teams are equal on points, have a playoff.
E. Don’t stop for injuries or substitutions: Medical staff should be allowed to enter the field of play at their discretion, but play should not stop (except for certain extreme circumstances). Likewise, the fourth official can take care of substitutions instead of the referee. Again, play needn’t be held up.

12. More cards
I believe it was before the 1994 World Cup when FIFA said they wanted more aggressive refereeing. So the refs got more aggressive and started dishing out lots of cards. FIFA, spineless as ever, told them to stop showing cards so liberally. It was a golden opportunity to make the game better. If FIFA had had the courage of their convictions, football would have changed. They just had to stick with the program. My idea of strengthening the position of referees is for infractions to have a points system. Sounds a little complicated, but it’s not. A bad foul is five points. If you get 10 points, you’re off. Oh, and failure to leave the pitch immediately is another 10 points. In fact, the ref can keep adding points until he’s got a degree in maths. Kicking the ball away or swearing at the ref could be two points. Time wasting is one point (it’s not really much of an infringement as the ref can always add time on – more if he’s vindictive). It won’t be hard on the refs. All they have to do is put the points total on the card and show one to five fingers to the player. And it’s the responsibility of the player to check, not the responsibility of the referee. To help the referee, the fourth official should be allowed to advise on or even make decisions in the event that the referee misses something or makes a mistake.

13. VAR
There are those who say that the offside rule is clearcut, so if your fingernail is in front of the defender’s toe, you’re off. But is the letter of the law defeating the spirit of the law? If you’re going to draw lines across the pitch to check for offside, then go all out. My answer is to draw lines from points on the head, chest, hip, knee and toe. If three of the points are offside, it’s offside. Otherwise, it’s OK. Can VAR handle this? I actually suspect VAR technology isn’t very good, but if it is good, then use it properly. Going the other way, perhaps there should be no lines at all and no slow motion (others have suggested having a player making the call as well as an official). At least then you’re getting a more realistic on-pitch decision. But you’d still want VAR to determine the really big things, like did the ball go into the net.

My image of the football that I love is that it is basically a non-stop game with a large helping of unpredictability combined with skill. My current view is that most teams are intent on playing by numbers and the backpass is now a tactic rather than an act of desperation. The chaos of my cherished football also led to more moments of inspiration. Football used to be an organic game; each match had a life and identity of its own, and players had identities, not like some of the plug-and-play mercenaries of today. Football needs to move itself and its players out of the comfort zone and rediscover its imaginative qualities.


Sep 16 2020

New Nissan Z, a study in ugly


Aug 23 2020

The moustache that offended Korea


By Fred Varcoe

Korea, how can I offend thee?
Pretty easily, as it turns out. Just grow a moustache. The Guardian reported a few months ago that “Harry Harris’s facial hair is vying with denuclearisation as the defining theme of his tenure as U.S. ambassador to South Korea.” Seriously, Korea? I think you can do better than that.
Of course you can. In October last year, The Guardian reported, “South Korea is intensifying its campaign to ban the Japanese ‘rising sun’ flag from being displayed at next year’s Tokyo Olympics, in the latest diplomatic row linked to the countries’ bitter wartime history.”
Meanwhile, Japan Today reported that Seoul and Busan were to pass a bill to boycott Japanese companies they feel are guilty of “war crimes.”
And, of course, Korea is permanently mortified by the denials of wartime atrocities by Japanese right-leaning politicians such as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and, well, all of them really.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s hard to find a more odious bunch of war-crime apologists than Japan’s blinkered “conservatives,” but Korea’s knee-jerk reactions don’t do anything to resolve diplomatic tension or, indeed, practical issues such as compensation for Japan’s wartime sex slaves. And yes, you should be offended every time you hear them referred to as “Comfort Women.” Of course, Korea is not alone at being offended. In December, Kyodo News reported: “Japanese and South Korean lawmakers will cancel their annual meeting aimed at deepening bilateral ties this year following a controversial remark by a Korean lawmaker on Japan’s emperor.”
Japan objected to South Korea’s National Assembly Speaker Moon Hee Sang’s suggestion in February that it would be a nice idea if then-Emperor Akihito would apologize for the “sins” of his father, the sex slaves and any other thing that offended Korea in the previous 100 years or so.
Moon was 100 percent right to make his suggestion.
Those of us who have studied the guarded remarks of the Imperial family are convinced that the now Emperor Emeritus – he abdicated last year – would relish the chance.
In conversations with Korean Embassy officials in Japan, I have suggested many times that Japan’s Emperor should visit Korea. The government of Korea does not need to demand or even suggest that the Emperor Emeritus or the current Emperor, Naruhito, make an apology. That will happen simply because both emperors understand history and understand humanity.
Korea has to do one thing above all others: Get the current Emperor or the Emperor Emeritus to visit Korea.
The opportunity was missed in 2002 when it was suggested that Emperor Akihito visit Korea for the opening of the FIFA World Cup. With Akihito retired and a forward-thinking Naruhito in his place, now is as good a time for Korea to obtain an apology from someone who matters and who won’t withdraw it when political disputes arise.
Asking the government of Japan for an apology is a waste of time, partly because they are so easy to get and partly because they are absolutely meaningless. Wikipedia has a page titled, List of war apology statements issued by Japan, a sad indication of how facile they are.
The Emperor formerly known as Akihito has made a number of remarks that suggest he despises the likes of Abe, his right-wing ministers and the far right in Japan. Most astonishing of all was his declaration in 2001 when he said: “I, on my part, feel a certain kinship with Korea, given the fact that it is recorded in the Chronicles of Japan that the mother of Emperor Kammu was of the line of King Muryong of Paekche.”
In relation to Confucian and Buddhist teaching and cultural aspects, Akihito added: “I believe it was fortunate to see such culture and skills transmitted from Korea to Japan.”
You would think that would set off a genealogical and cultural bomb in Japan. But, of course, almost none of the media in Japan reported the remarks in detail.
Being offended by Japan’s refusal to acknowledge its war crimes is easy enough, but essentially futile. One alternative is just to ignore Japan and its haters. It would probably have as much effect. Many commentators in the West are frustrated by the ease with which Korea becomes offended, with the result that many think Korea is in the wrong to pursue claims against Japan when quite clearly it isn’t.
The hurt that Korea feels often results in damage to the relationship between the two countries at a human level. It’s quite shocking to see Korea cancel trips to Korea by Japanese schoolchildren, academics, etc., when this is the kind of interpersonal communication that can enlighten the Japanese and actually change people’s perspectives. Korea’s soft power – food, fashion, pop groups, TV, etc. – has had an extraordinarily positive effect on the way the people in Japan view Korea.
There is one wartime memory in the West that is inviolable and from which Korea can take a lesson: The Holocaust.
Let’s not equate the two. While Japan did carry out a form of ethnic cleansing, it was never as forensic as Germany and the Holocaust.
But who would deny the Holocaust?
In Europe, none but the most virulent of haters. And if they do, they face criminal prosecution. Most countries in Europe have laws making Holocaust denial a criminal offence.
So, my final suggestion to Korea is to take a leaf out of Europe’s book and make the denial of Japan’s wartime sexual slavery a criminal offence.
Ambassador Harris’s moustache may be no more – he recently shaved it off – but that won’t stop Koreans being offended by the memory of it.


Jan 20 2020

Japan’s brutal police state: 45 days in the hole for walking into a lobby

 

By Fred Varcoe

Prosecutors demanded that Australian Scott McIntyre be imprisoned for six months for walking into a lobby.

Much to their disgust, they had to be satisfied with torturing him for 45 days and giving him a suspended sentence. Because he walked into the lobby of the building where he believed his kidnapped children were being held. Two minutes of parental concern translated into 45 days of life on the chain gang.
Scott’s two children were born in Australia and spent the first half of their lives there. The family moved back to Japan, but Scott and his wife didn’t get along and she started divorce proceedings. The children were 10 and 7 at the time. In May 2019, Scott’s wife disappeared with the children after a visit to their in-laws who lived 100 meters down the street. He was unable to find them or see them. Child abduction is against the law in Japan and runs counter to a United Nations convention that Japan has signed. But in Japan, it’s a regular occurrence and one that rarely gets punished. And one the police don’t want to get involved … unless a foreign dad walks into a lobby.
After a couple of seriously violent typhoons, Scott wanted to make sure his kids were safe, so he went to his in-laws’ apartment building and gained access when a resident came out. He wasn’t able to find out anything about his kids and left the building after a couple of minutes. The police arrested him.
One. Month. Later.
Bad enough, you might think. But it gets much worse.
In a civilized country, the cops might have given Scott a warning. More likely, they wouldn’t have bothered. In fact, in a civilized country, the cops would have gone after the wife for abduction and the in-laws for conspiracy to kidnap children. Remember, the couple were still married and the wife had no right to abduct her children and prevent Scott from seeing them. What if she was a lunatic and child abuser? Apparently, that’s OK, just as long as she’s Japanese and doesn’t walk into a lobby. If you think having your children kidnapped is bad enough, then obviously you haven’t been arrested in Japan for walking into a lobby.
Scott McIntyre held a press conference at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan after his release. Reuters, the BBC and the Wall Street Journal showed up, but no Japanese media. Which was a shame because he had plenty to say.

The Ghosn treatment
‘I was subjected to the same treatment as Carlos Ghosn was with the use of 24-hour light, which is classified by both the United Nations and Amnesty International as a method of torture. On three separate occasions I asked to make a formal complaint that I was being tortured and I was told that nothing would be done and if I complained further, I would be placed in solitary confinement or a strait jacket. These are not the marks of a modern, civilized nation and also bring shame on the nation of Japan and should be immediately ended, not just for myself but for the 95 percent of detainees and prisoners who are Japanese and who also don’t have a voice in this issue.’
‘I did 45 days detention for a minute of just going into the lobby of my parents-in-law’s apartment to try and see if my children were safe after a natural disaster. I was handcuffed and put in a four-by-three tatami-mat cell. I shared a cell with several murderers, with a rapist, with a pedophile, with a violent armed robber, with various yakuza. This is unusual for someone on a trespassing charge to be put in these kinds of situations.’
‘This is the image that Japan is portraying to the world ahead of hosting the Olympics, that they’re allowing abductions of children to happen and what I believe and what Amnesty International believe is torture for people in detention. Their own people are being tortured in detention. You can understand why if I had $20 million and a private jet and a big drum case, I would be out to Lebanon as well, because why would you want to stay here and suffer under these conditions?’
‘I was not allowed to exercise daily and when I complained about that, I was threatened with isolation and with the strait jacket. In Kosuge, where Carlos Ghosn was held, we were not permitted to stand up in the cell, so you have to sit at a table. You were not allowed to lean against the wall. So that was 23 and a half hours a day of sitting on the floor. You could lie down for a two-hour nap period in the afternoon and you could lie down at night, but during the day you had to remain seated at the desk, and over the nine-day New Year period, there was no exercise. So, for nine days, it was either lying asleep or sitting on the floor either seizan style or with crossed legs on the tatami.’
‘I made three separate complaints about what I explained to them was torture and was not permitted under Amnesty International and U.N. regulations and, as I said before, I was told this is just my opinion that this is Japanese law and this is the way things are done in Japan and if I made any further complaints about it I was threatened with either being placed in an isolation cell or with a strait jacket. I complained about the use of 24-hour light. The lights remained on and it’s impossible to sleep. I haven’t slept properly since November. I was fortunate to only have 45 days. You can only sleep for maybe an hour at a time. What does that do to people mentally? It’s like the night of the Walking Dead. People are walking around like zombies. You can’t have clarity of thought.’
‘I met so many people, other detainees and prisoners, who openly said to me: ‘I didn’t do what they are accusing me of doing but I’ll confess because I’m told if I confess, I’ll get half the sentence. If I fight it, I’ll get 10 years. If I confess, I’ll get five years.’ As Carlos Ghosn mentioned in his press conference, Japan has a conviction rate of 99.4 percent. This is not normal. This is not normal in any country.’
‘Japan uses this as a way of showing how safe and how efficient their system is, but I know from my experience, because I was told directly by so many inmates, ‘We didn’t do what they said we did but we’re confessing just to get out and we were told by prosecutors if we confess we will get a substantially lower sentence.’ This I was told directly by multiple prisoners that I was being held with. During the interviews I had – I think it was three interviews with the police and three or four with the prosecutors – at not one of those interviews was a lawyer present at any point in time, which I think is also an accepted practice.’

The chain gang
Both inside and outside the detention center, things weren’t going well for Scott. ‘When you’re moved, you’re moved in handcuffs and you’re tethered with rope to other prisoners, anywhere up to a dozen other prisoners. This is unacceptable, but it’s certainly not acceptable for a father who is trying to ascertain if his children are alive or dead.’
Not content with messing up his life, the police were also complicit in messing up his apartment.
‘Three days after I was detained, I managed to pass the key to my apartment to a friend of mine. When she opened the door of the apartment, the apartment was completely trashed. There was rubbish and garbage all over the floor and multiple items had been removed from the house. She went back two days later and everything was gone. All of my children’s belongings were removed from the house, my children’s books, their desks, their chairs, their toys. All of their photographs were gone, boxes containing little memories of them were all gone, the vast majority of my property was gone. I’ve managed to borrow a suit from a friend and bought a T-shirt from UniQlo, but outside of this I have almost nothing. The fridge was taken, the washing machine was taken, the television was taken. Almost all of my property was taken from my apartment.’
‘I don’t know who came into my apartment but there’s only two people that had a key to that apartment, me and my wife, and there was no sign of forced entry. Someone came into my apartment three days after I was detained and I want to know how they knew I was detained. Who from the police is informing people that I was detained? I made a complaint immediately to the police that everything had been removed from my apartment and I want to make a complaint of theft. I was told they would do nothing. My children were taken, my children’s memories were taken and now everything has been taken from me.’

It’s a family affair
‘So, now this ordeal for me is over but it’s not over for the children. I have to start again. I have nothing. And this all for trying to find my children who were taken from me against my will. I was told we won’t do anything for you; this is a simple family matter and simple family dispute. So, if it’s a simple family matter and simple family dispute, why, when I go to the apartment of the parents-in-law who are family, why am I arrested? Why are they supporting one element of the family but they are not supporting the other element of the family? Things are not equal, things are not just and as you know, as with so many parents, we go to the police. I went with a copy of the law. ‘This is the law of Japan, you must investigate.’ They said, ‘Go away. We will not investigate. I went more than a dozen times. It’s not acceptable. The police are obliged to investigate.’
‘What I would like to see the police do is put in the amount of effort they put in to investigating a two-minute trespassing in which I didn’t talk to anybody, I didn’t touch anything, I didn’t damage anything. I went in to look if my children’s umbrellas or shoes were there and I immediately left. It was no more than one or two minutes. The amount of effort they put into that they could have put the same amount of effort and work into investigating the claims I’d made of kidnapping and abduction but which they refused. What I want them to do now is to investigate equally the theft and removal of all of my children’s and my property from my apartment. It’s now time for the police to show they treat everybody fairly and equally. If they are going to investigate trespassing, then I want them to investigate why 90 percent of the things from my house were removed.’
‘In many cases in my experience in Japan, children are viewed almost not as a human. In this case, they are almost viewed as a marital asset, as property to be removed and distributed. In Japan, as soon as divorce is finalized, one of the parents is removed from the family register. You’re obliterated. You’re not longer a parent. If the parent remarries, the new partner has the chance to officially become a father or mother of your children and you have no rights. It’s not normal in most countries and this is why we keep coming back to the same thing – just change the law to joint custody. We want the family court to move things quickly. It’s not good enough – nine months on average for someone to see their children. It’s not good enough for 70 percent of parents to never, ever, for the rest of their life, see their children. It’s an abuse. It’s a human rights abuse against children, 100,000 children a year, and in my opinion, it’s one of the biggest human rights abuses anywhere on the planet that 100,000 children are being denied basic fundamental human rights by multiple organs of the Japanese state.’

The dehumanizers

It should be completely embarrassing for Japan to have a Wikipedia page titled ‘International child abduction in Japan,’ and for there to be websites such as bachome.org and japanchildabduction.org dedicated to child kidnappings in Japan. Japan was horrified by the abduction of its citizens by North Korea, but it seems to have no qualms about its own citizens stealing children. The United States put Japan on a blacklist of countries showing non-compliance with the Hague Convention on parental abduction. It removed Japan from its blacklist in the same month that Scott McIntyre’s wife kidnapped his children, despite State Department concerns ‘about both the lack of effective mechanisms for the enforcement of Convention orders and the sizable number of pre-Convention abduction cases.’ The move was criticized by U.S. Rep. Chris Smith, who stated: ‘It cannot be denied that the Japanese government has done little to help reunite those American children who have been separated from their left-behind parents.’

The police state of Japan fits right in with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s desire to relive the glories of its militarist past. The wartime and pre-war military ‘thought police,’ the Kempeitai, struck fear into the hearts of Japan’s ordinary men and women. The current judicial system, including its police and prosecutors, aims to do the same. It’s ironic that the West tried to dehumanize the Japanese for their savagery during the Pacific War, when in fact the Japanese – led by the Japanese state – are perfectly capable of dehumanizing themselves.


Jan 3 2020

Tokyo’s New Olympic Stadium, an Exciting New Definition of Dull

By Fred Varcoe

Tokyo has a new Olympic Stadium. The National Stadium has been officially opened after a long and painful saga that clouded Tokyo’s Olympic preparations as well as the Rugby World Cup.

After deciding on a brilliant, futuristic design by Zaha Hadid, Japan’s organizers were slow to realize that their showpiece stadium would be credited to a muslim woman based in England. In a country known for xenophobia and nationalist pomposity, it was a massive own goal.

Japan’s leading right-wing dimwit, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, stepped up to the plate and declared: “This is a proudly homogenous country and we’re not going to have any foreign tart messing up our capital city with some space-age monstrosity.”

OK, he didn’t exactly say that. He said: “We have decided to go back to the start on the Tokyo Olympics-Paralympics stadium plan and start over from zero. I have been listening to the voices of the people for about a month now, thinking about the possibility of a review. The construction cost had been greatly inflated and there were criticisms from the public including the athletes on the plan. This made me believe that we will not be able to host a Games that everyone in this country will celebrate.”

Mr. “Back to Zero IQ” Abe never listens to the people, unless those people are the right-wing nuts he has in his government. The claim was that the Hadid stadium, which was stunning in its concept, would prove to be too expensive, even though the design was within the budget considerations set out by the organizers.

“It is not the case that the recently reported cost increases are due to the design, which uses standard materials and techniques well within the capability of Japanese contractors and meets the budget set by the Japan Sports Council,” a statement from Hadid’s company said.

More to the point was the baying of Japan’s architects, who were all less young, less female, less muslim and less talented than Hadid.

“I’ve never felt so emotional about any kind of architecture up until now,” Tokyo-based architect Edward Suzuki told Reuters. “But it’s happening in my garden, in our garden … We just can’t let it happen. It’s a sin, it’s a crime. It’s so overpowering, it’s not a human scale. It’s going to replace all the trees that had once been there. It was a park. Now it’s just going to be a very man-made object that is not really beautiful to look at.”

One must assume that Suzuki is a blind architect. Or a liar. The myth that Hadid’s stadium would wipe out a “park” was a lie. There were a few trees around the old stadium, but they were planted in concrete. It was not a park.

Hadid’s proposed structure was spectacular, but also stunningly beautiful. Some said it was too high. Also rubbish. Who has complained about architectural monstrosities such as Roppongi Hills or Tokyo Midtown or the ugly 50-story communications tower at Japan’s Self-Defence Forces headquarters in the middle of the city. No one. Pritzker Prize-winning architect Fumihiko Maki organised a symposium for Japanese designers including Toyo Ito and Kengo Kuma to protest against the size of the design. A number of Japanese architects were among the 11 finalists in the competition to design the stadium.

“I think it’s embarrassing for them, that’s all I can say,” Hadid said. “I understand it’s their town. But they’re hypocrites. They don’t want a foreigner to build in Tokyo for a national stadium.”

So, Tokyo has a new National Stadium designed by one of the protesting architects, Kengo Kuma. It’s way bigger than the old stadium and admittedly looks a lot better than the 1964 design, but it’s a 20th century lump of concrete (Wait, don’t forget the wood!) that looks pathetic when compared with Hadid’s 21st century design.

Kuma said he did not think that the Japan Sport Council had decided against working with Hadid because she was a foreigner, but added that working in Japan as a non-Japanese might be ‘challenging.’

Almost as duplicitous as his prime minister, who at the opening ceremony in December stated: “We revised the project, and today, we have arrived at this moment to announce the completion of the National Stadium, which has the world’s utmost universal design and is in harmony with the surrounding environment.

“I believe that there have been difficult times leading up to the completion of the National Stadium, which will serve as the symbol for the 2020 Olympics and Paralympics. There was the alteration (of the design), but it was successfully completed with an ‘All-Japan’ effort.” The prime minister blended in well with the concrete and wood used for the new “All Japanese” stadium.

Hadid died before the new stadium was completed. Probably just as well. If she’d seen it, it would have killed her anyway.


Dec 28 2019

Isn’t It Time Japanese Golf Changed?

 

By Fred Varcoe

It happened again. I think it happens a lot. It shouldn’t be surprising, but it is.

About a year ago, I went to play Pacific Golf Management’s Chiba Kokusai Golf Club in Chiba Prefecture with my friend and regular golf buddy Don. Don had to leave by 13:30 in order to get to work on time. So we booked an early start time, around 7 a.m., figuring we could get through in less than six and a half hours. We also figured that as Chiba Kokusai has 45 holes, there wouldn’t be any great delays. We finished the first half at around 9:10 and, depressingly but not surprisingly, were told to take “lunch” and wait until 10:50 before we could play our second nine holes. Still, we figured we should be finished by 13:30. It shouldn’t take two hours and 40 minutes to play nine holes of golf on a 45-hole golf course.

It took an hour to play the first three holes, at which point we encountered a serious golf traffic jam. This sometimes happens at Par 3s but usually things clear up after that. That didn’t happen. If anything, the pace slowed. After finishing the seventh hole, it was nearly 13:30. “I’ve got to go,” Don said and he called the clubhouse to ask someone to pick him up along with his clubs. I figured I might as well get my money’s worth and finish the last two holes. But the man on the cart said “No!” I couldn’t continue as a solo player. Why? Who knows? There was no logical reason for denying me the last two holes. I was paying for 18 holes, I had a cart and I wasn’t holding any other players up. If I’d finished the last two holes, the second nine would have taken roughly three and a half hours. I thought that was scandalous and made my feelings felt with comments on the Golf Digest (GDO) website.

Amazingly, someone (from the golf club, I think) called me the next day to apologize. I suggested that, as Chiba Kokusai has three nine-hole courses plus a separate 18-hole course, they allow golfers to play through on the 18-hole course. I got some pro-forma apologies and nothing happened. Obviously, I haven’t been back to Chiba Kokusai again.

Fast forward to this year and Don and I are in the same situation. He has to finish by 13:30 to get to work, so we choose Moonlake Mobara (coincidentally and unfortunately another PGM course) as it’s close to home and has a 7:21 starting time. We finish the first nine by 9:10 and then, once again, are told to have “lunch” for an hour and 40 minutes. More traffic jams on the back nine but we finish at 13:30, so Don can get to work. That’s good, but why should a round of golf take six hours and why can’t we play through? Simple questions, but the answers aren’t simple.

The pointless lunch

Why do golf clubs in Japan – almost unique in the world – insist that you stop for lunch, even if “lunch” is at 9 o’clock in the morning? It’s part of a frustrating golf experience in Japan, which has a reputation for slow play, and an odd attitude to golf’s rules that edges toward stupidity at times.

A note on PGM’s parent company’s website gives the impression they want to change:

“In the future, while there is concern that players in their late 60s, who are the major golf players, will retire at a stretch, ‘one person reservation’ services such as increasing opportunities to visit golf courses are drawing attention. There is a movement to gain visitors. In addition, to make it easier for young people and women to participate, you can also find casual golf courses that can be enjoyed more casually, such as using nine holes instead of 18 holes per round, or shortening the time by through play.”

In other words: No halftime lunch. The compulsory stop for lunch is an obvious ploy to try and squeeze more money out of the golfer. Customers are prisoners of golf clubs. They can’t go anywhere, there aren’t any alternative eating establishments and they have nothing to do for an hour, so the clubs make them eat food, pay for the food and, hopefully, drink beer. In the past, this might have made some sense as a big lunch can cost quite a lot, especially if you include drinks and coffee. But this is now largely redundant. Most clubs now include lunch as a package, which means it’s not going to affect the cost of a round of golf. But it also means there is no reason to stop after nine holes as the golfer has to pay for lunch whether he eats it or not. And, of course, it doesn’t make any difference to the golf club if lunch is eaten after nine holes or 18 holes. If I start my round at 7:30 and it takes a “normal” four and a half hours to play 18 holes, I can then choose to go home at midday or eat lunch at lunchtime. More to the point, I won’t disrupt my rhythm on the course and my stomach won’t be weighed down with curry, rice and beer as I play my second nine.

One of the problems of the Japanese system is that it is so ingrained into the Japanese consciousness that golf clubs can’t even conceive of players playing through. On a number of occasions, I have almost had to force staff to allow us to play through. Once, after being told we couldn’t play through, we were waiting around and there was no one on the tee. Still, the reaction of the staff was NO. Eventually, they realised that there was a space on the schedule – which, of course, they hadn’t even checked – and reluctantly allowed us to go ahead and play half an hour earlier than our scheduled post-lunch tee time. Compare that to the club where I regularly play – Ichinomiya Country Club in Chiba Prefecture. The staff there – mainly old ladies – are just wonderful. They remember our names, they laugh and joke, they noticed when one player was absent for a long time (due to illness) and they know we always like to play through. The last time we played there, they said there was an opening after about 25 minutes. So, as usual, we sat down in the lobby for a quick drink. Moments later, one of the old ladies came rushing in looking for us and said they could squeeze us out if we could start immediately. This, Japan, is service. They always try to accommodate us and we know that if they can’t, it’s not for the lack of trying. Invariably, we start between 7:30 and 8 o’clock and finish by midday. Then we have lunch and everyone gets to work on time.

The irony of the Japanese system is that while the clubs might think they are earning more by forcing people to stop for lunch, they really aren’t. A golfer is far more likely to feel hungry at lunchtime rather than at 9 o’clock in the morning and is going to drink more beer after his round than during the round. But don’t try that now, especially if you start late. After finishing our round at Nouvel Golf Club in Chiba Prefecture, my friends and I went to the restaurant for some drinks and snacks. At 5:30, I went downstairs to take a shower. “No shower,” the manager said. “The bathroom is closed.” Ridiculous. That is not good service.

So, how does this compare with the West? Have Japanese golf clubs never heard of the 19th hole?

The 19th hole in the West is the bar/restaurant in the clubhouse, where people can drink and eat and chat and have a laugh. Many clubhouse bars and restaurants are open to the public and cater to groups, parties and even weddings. They are open all day and close late at night and are often a focal point in the local community. In effect, the catering side of the golf club is separate from the golf side but provides a greater service. OK, this isn’t going to work for many of Japan’s remote golf courses, but one of my local courses, Kimi-no-Mori, is on a housing estate that has very few catering outlets. An upmarket café/ restaurant has opened on the edge of the golf course and is doing terrific business but has no connection to the golf club. You would think that the golf club would have wanted to use its own extensive catering facilities for more than lunch. By doing so, it could play a greater role in the community and even attract more members. Ironically, a new restaurant has opened up around the corner from the clubhouse and is doing good business.

Slow, slow, slow

I was once playing golf in Los Angeles with a friend and I was keeping an eye on the group ahead of us. They’d started a hole or two in front of us but were getting slower and slower. I watched how they played, particularly on the greens. “They’re Japanese,” I said to my friend and when we caught them up, I was proved right.

Lunch aside, why are Japanese golfers so slow? Well, it’s not all their fault. At a recent USGA-JGA symposium in Tokyo, most of the American speakers explained how they were trying to make golf a better all-round experience and create more customer satisfaction. They outlined the changes they were making and the targets they were aiming at. Most of the Japanese speakers had nothing to say, no results to explain and no vision of the future. They seemed reluctant to take on board the ideas expressed or else they just didn’t understand them. To their credit, Kasumigaseki Golf Club – the host club for the 2020 Olympic golf tournament – explained how they had done a heat-image survey of golfers on their course to find out where players went, where they didn’t go and where players got held up. Areas that players seldom visited needed less turf and less maintenance, so saving the course money, while logjams could be analyzed and solutions sought to maintain pace of play. Holes could be redesigned to be either more difficult or less difficult to adjust the pace of play. This might involve shifting a tee box back or forward or adding/ removing bunkers. Another way of improving pace of play was to lengthen the separation of tee times. The USGA reported that the biggest annoyance that golfers had on a golf course was being held up by other golfers.

The ritual of the green

Japanese golfers are so slow in putting, it’s painful to watch. In a casual round, me and my friends concede putts of around 50 cm or less. We just pick up the ball. Of course, in a competition you’re not going to do that, but in a friendly round, putting out is not really necessary, especially if there are people behind you. But the Japanese not only insist on putting out, they become obsessed with the ritual of the green.

They LOVE marking their ball, cleaning their ball, lining up a line on their ball and using their putters as a plumb line. And they love doing this on EVERY putt. Even if the putt is 20 cm. It wastes an inordinate amount of time and is largely unnecessary. I would guess that you don’t actually need to clean your ball more than 50% of the time. If the course is dry, dirt won’t stick to the ball. Japanese golfers think this is imperative, especially if you have a caddie to do it for you. There’s nothing quite like being a feudal master instructing your servants to do your bidding. This wastes time.

And the line on the ball? It’s there to help you square your club to the ball, but really I think it’s an illusion. It makes little or no difference to your putt unless you can line everything up perfectly, which most players can’t. And if you can, you probably don’t need a line on your ball. Yes, professionals do it, but they probably don’t need it either. The slightest deviance from your line’s alignment or the face of your putter renders the line useless. Even worse, it locks you into a shot when you need to retain some flexibility. When you address the ball from an upright position, the target will look different again. You might have to readjust. Not only will the line on your ball not help you, it will distract you from the target and the target is what you should be focused on. Mygolfspy.com did a comparison of putts of balls with a line and without a line and found that at 5 feet, there was a marginal advantage. But at longer distances (10 feet and 20 feet) the line on the ball was disadvantageous. The margin wasn’t huge, which seems to confirm that having a line makes no difference, so spending unnecessary time marking your ball and then annoying other golfers as you mistakenly align your line with your imagined route to the pin is just posing. Don’t waste my time!

Hurry up!

A recent marketing ploy by golf equipment manufacturers is the mini-bag, sometimes called a greenside bag. This is a little bag you can put your putter and wedges in and is another complete waste of time. My short-game set consists of my putter, 8-iron and three wedges. That’s all I’ll ever need and I can fit them in my hand quite easily. I don’t need to put them in another bag, unhook that and carry it to my ball. It’s another time-waster.

As is waiting for other people to play their shots after you’ve finished. It’s traditional for the player who is furthest away from the hole to go first, but this is not a strict rule. The actual rules state the following (bold emphasis is mine):

“A round of golf is meant to be played at a prompt pace.

Each player should recognize that his or her pace of play is likely to affect how long it will take other players to play their rounds, including both those in the player’s own group and those in following groups.

Players are encouraged to allow faster groups to play through.

(1) Pace of Play Recommendations. The player should play at a prompt pace throughout the round, including the time taken to:

Prepare for and make each stroke,
Move from one place to another between strokes, and
Move to the next teeing area after completing a hole.
A player should prepare in advance for the next stroke and be ready to play when it is his or her turn.

When it is the player’s turn to play:

It is recommended that the player make the stroke in no more than 40 seconds after he or she is (or should be) able to play without interference or distraction, and
The player should usually be able to play more quickly than that and is encouraged to do so.
(2) Playing Out of Turn to Help Pace of Play. Depending on the form of play, there are times when players may play out of turn to help the pace of play:

In match play, the players may agree that one of them will play out of turn to save time (see Rule 6.4a).
In stroke play, players may play “ready golf” in a safe and responsible way (see Rule 6.4b Exception).”

In other words, get on with the game.

But one sentence stands out from the above-quoted rules: “Players are encouraged to allow faster groups to play through.” This almost never happens in Japan for two simple reasons:

1. It’s barely a concept that’s thought about in Japan.
2. Fixed cart paths.

When I talked with Lauren Johnson, who gave a speech on pace of play at the USGA-JGA symposium, she wasn’t aware that the biggest obstacle to pace of play in Japan is that golf carts are invariably on a fixed path, making it impossible for one group to give way to another, faster group. Some courses do have free-roaming carts but they are expected to stay on the cart paths just like fixed carts. However, it is possible to play through and very, very rarely that happens. The old rules actually stated that two-ball groups had precedence over all other groups. In other words, you had to give way to a two-ball group. Now the rule is simpler, if the group behind you is faster, you should give way.

This almost never happens in Japan. But it’s not only other players who are to blame; the golf clubs and online booking services are also to blame. It’s very, very annoying when you book an early tee time for you and your friend only to find there’s one group ahead of you and it’s a foursome of old people who stick to their old traditions and think they’re playing by the rules. When you made your booking, there was no way of knowing who or how many people would be in front of you because online booking systems in Japan allow you to book two to four people on either the out course or the in course. Surely, there’s a more rational way of doing this. Wouldn’t it be better if all the foursomes were routed to one nine and all the twosomes to the other nine. Threesomes could go either way, hopefully ensuring that neither nine is overbooked. This would make it far more likely that the groups on one nine would progress at the same pace.

And then there’s the groups who want to play through. As I have stated above, clubs such as Ichinomiya will go out of their way to help groups play through, while others just don’t care or can’t be bothered. Why? Why? Why?

 

There really aren’t many reasons why playing through shouldn’t be an option at every golf course. The prime reason why golf clubs THINK they can’t accommodate golfers who want to play through is that they think it will be difficult. The real reason why I have to have nearly a two-hour lunch at 9 a.m. is because the tee times between 9 and 10:30 have already been allocated. Those starting early have to wait until all other groups that have booked have gone out. But the answer is very, very simple.

If a group that starts at 7 a.m. makes a booking with an option to play through, then the golf club eliminates a tee time at, say, 9:10 or 9:20 to allow that group to go through. They can add tee times after 10:30 to accommodate those who want to play a little later and still have the same number of groups each day finishing at the same time. There might be a need for all parties to be a little flexible, but players often have to wait anyway and traffic jams can cause heavy delays. Overall it would give players a more satisfying golf experience. Japanese golf clubs are wrong if they think that Japanese players don’t want to play through. It would also make sense for golf clubs to offer both earlier and later starting times to allow more groups on the course, especially at weekends. I once called a golf club from Narita airport asking for a tee time at 11 a.m. “We can’t do that,” came the reply. There were no starting times after 10:30. If the sun sets at 7 p.m., there should at least be starting times until 2 p.m. It’s very frustrating to drive past golf courses at 5 in the afternoon and see nobody playing, the flags removed and the course getting ready to shut up shop.

The last resort

Finally, there’s my experience at Kanucha Resort in Okinawa. I went there as a journalist and promised to publish my article on golf websites, a good opportunity for publicity for the resort. They came back with an offer: You can play six holes! If you think that sounds ridiculous, their next statement was even more absurd: “You can’t play on your own.” This is ridiculous in itself, but it is compounded by the fact that we’re talking about a resort golf course. So, a player could travel halfway around the world to experience an Okinawan golf course, he could take his clubs and his gear and then be told he can’t play because he’s on his own? At a resort course with almost no players on it? This is pure idiocy and symbolic of Japan’s resistance to change. In the West, a solo player expects to be teamed up with one, two or three other players, especially at a resort course or busy course. It’s nice to see there’s been a little headway on accommodating solo golfers in Japan, but so far the progress is slow.

And that is Japan: Progress is slow. When I worked at The Japan Times, my Japanese boss once refused to use an idea I had. I asked him why and he replied: “Because it’s never been done before.” Golf courses in Japan, which in general are a joy to play on, are facing a major crisis in the years to come as the population declines and the economy falters. If they’re not going to do stuff that hasn’t been done before, many of them are doomed.


Nov 6 2015

Victoria’s Video Debut