The driver of Japan’s team bus cannot stop smiling. The boys have hopped in to get going to Gandhinagar and captain Masayuki Shimokawa just folded his hands and greeted him with a ‘Ram Ram!’ It is Shimokawa’s third visit to India in as many years, and he is the de-facto food and cultural guide for his boys. I join team Japan on this trip to the Swarnim Gujarat Sports University (which serves no purpose besides bureaucratic photo-ops) to get to know the men who are likely to be semi-finalists.
Japan are among the few unbeaten teams this tournament, a distinction even India does not have. They beat USA 45-19 in their opener and Poland 33-22 in their next, and face Iran on Saturday. But to know if they have it in them to get into the final four the 2016 Kabaddi World Cup and more importantly, win a medal or two on the world stage in the coming years, I get talking, via their translator Ms Yukako Vyas, of course.
A brand new team
Despite having played kabaddi at the Asian Games since 1990 and winning bronze at Guangzhou 2010, the sport is only played by a handful of men in and around Tokyo. Unlike for rugby and baseball, sports that grew after the war and now have a large following and player base, there were no ‘fathers’ of kabaddi in Japan to take it beyond university sports complexes.
A majority of the current national side comprises college students. “I was playing rugby until two years ago but my professor, a kabaddi coach, asked me to try it out. I loved the tackles and blocks – and switched. Anyway with so many players in rugby, it would have been difficult to make it to the national team,” 25-year-old Ryosuke Fujii says. Fujii made it to the Japan kabaddi side last year but is touring this time as a manager as he’s nursing a knee injury.
Defender Shota Miura, 21, son of a theatre actor, is worried he won’t be able to pursue kabaddi once he moves to Taisho University next year. “They do not have a kabaddi team… but I have already begun sending out messages. I hope to build one when I get there,” he tells me.
A mish-mash of professions
That all kabaddi teams feature part-timers from other sports or professions is an open secret this Kabaddi World Cup, but the Japan team is a tad more intriguing in this department. Amidst the folds, there is a priest and a pro-wrestler to name a couple. “My father was a priest… I work at a Buddhist monastery every day, waking up at six, praying twice a day and doing desk work. I am taking kabaddi quite seriously though, as building good team-work and skills takes a while,” Takamitsu Kono, another defender shares. Kono is just 23 and doesn't want to give up priesthood for kabaddi or the other way round just yet. Meditation, after all, will only shape him into a better player.
Miura on the other hand, took to kabaddi earlier but delved into pro wrestling as ‘it was cool.’ “Kabaddi until then was just a pastime, but it has grown on me,” he tells me, mentioning that he still pursues pro wrestling at club level.
Captain Shimokawa himself used to work in a fish-market in Tokyo until the last Pro Kabaddi League, but a twist of fate happened. “I wanted to leave for India but my boss would not allow such a long leave, so I had to quit,” he tells me. There were further bad news – he got injured prior to his new franchise Jaipur Pink Panthers’ season four campaign, and had to skip that. The 27-year-old is set to end his year on a high though, as “in December, I will begin with my new job in an insurance company. I’m in sales – if I do well, I can bargain for leaves for upcoming Pro Kabaddi seasons!” he smiles.
Ready to fight
Perhaps it’s the two wins or simply Shimokawa’s confidence, but team Japan are have set their World Cup targets high. “I tell you four semi-finalists – India, Iran, Korea… and Japan,” Shimokawa gestures, adding, “Boys of almost all other countries are bigger than us, but we must use mind and teamwork to beat them.” He also claims the side is not nervous about meeting Iran on Saturday, but ready for the challenge.
Their source of confidence might be Arjuna Awardee and former Puneri Paltan coach Ashok Shinde, who was among the many Indian minds sent by the IKF to participating countries to polish (and in some cases, teach) kabaddi skills. “He came to Tokyo for two weeks, and our young team learnt much about techniques and physical drills,” the captain recalls.
Even with the negligible on-ground kabaddi action back home, this Japanese side seems ready to make this World Cup a turning point. “We are planning to play thrice a week after the World Cup to continue the momentum. We want to do well in the Asia Cup and Asian Games,” Shimokawa says.