As the snow fell outside the office of Tetsuo Tomii, the manager of Asahikawa Jitsugyo high school, he admitted something. “We are the best in the world at passing with the inside of our foot. The best. But that’s the only thing we are the best at”.
Asahikawa is located in Hokkaido, the northern most island of Japan. It is famous for a zoo where the penguins go for a walk twice a day as well as a soya sauce flavoured Asahikawa ramen. And it snows. A lot.
Snow brought me here and so did school sports called “bukatsu”. No other countries outside of Japan and the US have a tradition of school sports. In Europe and South America, talented players are plucked by clubs, but not so here. Although club teams have managed to recruit the best players in the country since the advent of the professional football league in 1992, school sports reign supreme here.
With the bulldozer running at full capacity, the pitch at Asahikawa Jitsugyo is pure packed white. Even then they can only use half of a normal pitch. This starts in the middle of November and lasts until the following April, with the weather fluctuating between -10 and -20. I asked one of the players, Hinata Ando, what he thought about playing in these conditions. “I like playing in the snow because we get to play in a big space. The feeling of playing outdoors cannot be compared to indoors. And kicking the ball wearing football boots feels much better.”
One evening, I met up with Koichi Ishio, the manager of Asahikawa Higashi high school. As we walked towards the pitch, he pointed out to two girls with tennis rackets. They were serving into a wall of snow. “All the sports clubs at our school do not have much time inside the gymnasium. Therefore they need to improvise”.
Improvise. Asahikawa Jitsugyo is fortunate to have two gymnasiums. But they will be very lucky to be able to use the entire surface for training. Most of the time, it’s half or worse, a quarter. Any space that is under a roof is being used. Badminton teams are doing ladder training in the corridor. Basketball teams are jumping up a flight of stairs. With only one gymnasium, Asahikawa Higashi is forced to train in the snow three times a week. But desperation is the father of all innovation.
“We have lots of drills involving lots of touches of the ball," explains Tomii. "We also do a lot of two-on-two, three-on-three. We have to raise the quality of this type of training, because if we don’t it will become a disadvantage. Even training on the snow, we aim for 4-on-4.”
When asked about the Japanese national team, Tomii admitted as such, “The team is at a stand still. The players who have been under the guidance of the Japanese Football Association's (JFA) plan are now 24 to 30-years-old. But I hope with the birth of a league system at high school level, we will be seeing different “colours” from each region in Japan. The possibility of creating more ”individual” footballers will hinge on the the trainers at U15 level. This should be possible, in the past for example, we had technically superior players from the Kyushu area and physically gifted players from the coastal regions.”
“The level of play is much better than 20 years ago. Compared with the past, it is easy to get the latest training techniques from Europe. The environment and infrastructure surrounding the coaching staff are better. But the distinction between each training style depending on the region has diminished. Right now we need more individualistic approach to training. The same could be said of the education philosophy in Japan. There must be more focus in what one needs to do in order to achieve a goal. Not just following orders.”
There in lies the fundamental problem of Japan. It embraces the culture of 出る杭は打たれる, which translates to “a nail that sticks out will be pounded down”. It is preferred that everyone is equal and no one stands out. Another popular phrase in Japan is 空気を読む which literally means “read the air”. A mixture of “take a hint” and “read between the line”. It is easy to see that a country which emphasise the ethos of these phrases is not comfortable of cultivating a culture of individuals.
One of my final shoots involved a U15 team called “Traum”. The emphasis is on having fun. The kids were having the time of their lives in their rare occasion to train on the snow. What seemed to be different at this level is that they shot whenever they wanted and took opponents on whenever they felt like they could. When asked about this “un-Japanese” style of football, Shun Yahara, one of the coaches for Traum smiled. “They are just happy to kick the ball far as they cannot do it inside the gymnasium. As for the dribbling, they all watch Ronaldo and Messi on Youtube.”
Tomii dreams of an “Asahikawa” style of football that will one day become a catalyst to create a “Hokkaido” style. But he does not want the entire nation to play the Hokkaido style. What he wants is each region of Japan creating different styles of football. So that whenever they play against another region, they will be faced with another style of football. Fusion, an eclectic approach compared to that of JFA’s blueprint of pseudo-Spanish football.
“It will depend on how we can create an individual strong point in each player. We need to start thinking about this at the youth stage. At the national team level, we rarely see players who have specialised skill. We have been focusing on developing players, but we have lost a semblance of individuality and variety. Everyone plays like everyone else.”
There is a granule of hope. A high school in Miyagi prefecture, Seiwa Gakuen, is a dribbling school. The entire team are dribblers. They are instructed to dribble the ball out of danger then to boot it up the pitch. The antithesis to traditional Japanese football, but what if this model proves to be a success? If Tomii and like minded managers all over Japan are given an opportunity to individualise football, evolution is on the horizon.