The Rio Olympics have come and gone! Although I know that like many other global events such as the Olympics, is made possible through the displacement of underclass communities and in many cases, a stress on ecologies and linked to economic-social-ecological ruin for the local, and at the same time linked with benefits for a certain few, there is the ideal, the spectacle, the beauty and tragedy of sport, of different world cultures, of the striving toward excellence.
The next summer Olympics is slated for Tokyo in 2020. As one born in Japan, and raised there twice in my younger life, and with Japanese being my first language until I was fully bilingual as a teenager, I have a special place for Japan and Japanese sport. My chosen sport was volleyball. I learned basic skills from young teenager players at a Japanese Junior national team public practice in Japan, after I had first been attracted to volleyball in Hawaii in the mid-1960s. I continued in Albuquerque, New Mexico as a player and later as a player at Long Beach City College in the Los Angeles, California area in the late 1970s. Volleyball in Japan, in the 1960s, was the most popular women’s sport, and there was a ブーム (boom, or explosion in popularity) in those days, and due to the popularity of the National Women’s Team that had gone undefeated in years and in 1962, had won the world championships and ending with the Gold Medal at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, against bigger, taller opponents. “Witches of the Orient” (東洋の魔女) as they were called, became an attraction to me and later became a reality for me in Hawaii in 1966, upon seeing volleyball there.
Parallel with this, was, of course, my own struggles with American racism along with what comes along with many in their twenties and thirties. In my earlier years, I kept my troubles private and suffered privately. With teammates, coaches, referees, associations. Of course this had a price to my psychological well-being. But as usual, I thrived to a certain extent. I became a decent but imperfect coach, coaching several Junior Olympic volleyball club teams—both girls and boys, as well as high school teams of both genders that usually won local and state championships. I was a student of the game, and luckily had great assistant coaches who supported me and driving together to watch Olympic teams and top junior national teams practice, taking in the coaches and drills and whatever I could. I could honestly say that for two decades solid, volleyball was my entire life, my child, my spiritual practice. In that sense, it was a bit unbalanced. But in many ways, my focus and love of volleyball shielded me and helped me survive in an otherwise untenable world.
After I retired from volleyball, of course my love for the sport is still there. Now I love to watch. So the Rio 2016 Olympic Volleyball competition felt the same as exciting as it ever did for me. I also go to YouTube and watch competitive volleyball in the United States and Japan, and other countries, of all kinds. At the same time, I was noticing many things about nationalities and ethnicities and how things change or stay the same.
The Japanese Black-Japanese sprinter that won the Silver medal behind Usain Bolt in the relay, was particularly interesting for me. Aska Cambridge ケンブリッジ飛鳥 ran that last leg that ran next to Usain Bolt at the finish line of that race. Aska was born to a Japanese mother and Jamaican father.
In the past two years, I have noticed changes to volleyball teams as well. In particular, there were more hapa, or mixed-Japanese players. Since volleyball is one of the top three sports in Japan, their national elementary school, junior high school, high school, and national corporate/club and national team matches are televised. I noticed, in particular, two young high school players who were Black-Japanese.
One of them–a female volleyball player from Kinrankan 金蘭会 High School in Osaka—Miyabe, Airi 宮部藍梨, was good enough to be selected to the Japanese National Team for preparation for the 2020 Olympics. She led her high school team—Kinrankan , in Osaka, to the 2015 National High School Title.
The other is a male player from Souzou Gakuen High School 創造学園 in Nagano, named Jeffrey Evadedon(?) エバデダンジェフリー.
Both are quite good and since they are tall and move very well and have great snap on the ball when spiking, they show promise in higher level adult competition, remembering that Japanese High School volleyball is better than many college teams in the United States.
With the recent representation of Miss Universe Japan by Ariana Miyamoto, who is Black-Japanese, and her tireless work to address racism and prejudice in Japan, Japanese society continues to struggle with its own legacies of the caste system and the positioning of “the other.”
However, in interviews I have viewed/listened to with these two Black-Japanese volleyball players, there is reason to have hope for Japan to change. Nothing stays the same. But there is much more work to do until anyone can rest in Japan, as far as racism. It is a constant struggle. But I know from my younger days in Japan, these players may not have been selected onto the teams. Although merciless condescending and cruel behaviors may be thrown at them, the tendencies to totally exclude has lessened quite a bit. In sports training, it often would show up as excessively violent behaviors directed at those considered “outsiders” which would include Koreans of Japan (Zainichi) and anyone of Korean descent, Okinawans, Buraku, others with names representing shamed family names with legacies dating back centuries, and foreigners and mixed-race Japanese, as well as those deemed “stupid” or “fat.” But these behaviors against racialized “other” have lessened to some degree. One of the biggest reasons for this is that the younger generation wants to separate cultural memory from the traditional parents’ and grandparents’ issues, as is the case with many younger people around the world, from whatever culture.
In addition, there is forgetting.
From the standpoint of being Black-Japanese in Japan, this legacy is the most intense as a war and post-war memory—something that most Japanese want to move away from. Of course there are many Japanese who are still attached to Japanese nationalism in its most virulent racist forms, who teach their children to hold on to the racisms of the past, especially when it comes to Black-Japanese and Koreans of any kind, and that in the present-day, having nothing to do with war and postwar realities. In sport, these will show up on teams and the teams must struggle with it.
In saying this, sport participation is, at the same time, a haven for hafu and the racial-ethnic outsider. Often, as it is in most countries, sports and the entertainment industry (which are basically linked) are two prominent spaces where outsiders are funneled by dominant society. Black-Americans in the United States, certainly and often only see themselves reflected in popular society by excelling in sport or music or movies. The same is true for many Black-Japanese and Japanese-mixed people in Japan. Even in diaspora communities, I have been told by many White-Japanese mixed people that I should try to be a singer or get into sports. If we are lucky enough to find teams and spheres where we can drown ourselves in sport (or entertainment industry) and not be abused, then certainly it is open and almost expected. In that sense, these two Black-Japanese athletes have found a place in Japanese society. Even so, when I watch the videos, I can see many audience members, as well as opposing team members, staring at them for long periods of time (watch the videos!). No matter how many times there are Black-Japanese entertainers on television, speaking native fluent Japanese, and who have been in Japan their whole lives, living, Japanese people continue to play-out that divide.
In the United States, it is a general anonymity, a false “equality” that allows someone like myself to become coach or player. However, since volleyball is expensive to play if we are to excel, there are very few Black volleyball players in the United States that rise high in the sport because one cannot make money at it. No matter what color, volleyball players wind up going outside of the United States where professional volleyball players can make six figure salaries and even become millionaires (I’m not talking about Beach volleyball, I’m talking about the sport in its indoor 6-person form). Often, in this case, the Black American players face a special racism similar to the Black soccer players on European teams.
For national teams, the need to be victorious feeds the need to be open to different people traditionally excluded because the old ways no longer work. The national Japanese teams have the most glaring problem in international volleyball competition—which is not skill level and athletic level but size. This is where both of these young Black-Japanese players have an edge.
Airi is 18 years old this year, and was training with the young national team training squad since she was 16 years old, in preparation for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Her mother is Japanese and her father is Nigerian.
To watch a Japanese program featuring her in a segment, watch this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cM_S7G14vD4
To read a short article about her from the Japan Times, in English, go here: http://www.japantimes.co.jp/sports/2015/04/15/more-sports/volleyball/high-school-student-added-japans-national-volleyball-team/#.V76CFbVrgUE
This year’s Male High School Boys’ Championship featured Jeffrey Evadedon‘s team Souzou Gakuen, which made it to the National Semifinals.
To watch him in action, you can go here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UyziuYJAgZI