SOCCER/ Interview with Takeshi Okada: Chinese players show they can change

February 02, 2013

By SATOSHI USHIO/ Senior Staff Writer

This year, former Japanese national soccer team manager Takeshi Okada will again be at the helm as manager of Hangzhou Greentown Football Club, a team in the Chinese Super League, China's top league.

Last year, Okada's first with the club, his team finished in 11th place. During a season in which he overcame clashes over conflicting values and the Senkaku Islands dispute that rocked Sino-Japanese relations, how did Okada, as a leader, perceive our Asian neighbor? And what potential does the sport hold in China? The Asahi Shimbun took the opportunity to ask him during a brief visit back home to Japan.

Excerpts from an interview with The Asahi Shimbun follow.

* * *

Question: Both Japanese and Chinese are Asians, but we hear that there are many differences between us. What did you make a point of when coaching?

Okada: I don't know what Chinese people are like as a whole, but what I kept talking to the players about was self-discipline and self-responsibility, and also about loyalty to fight for the team to win. Chinese coaches say, "You have to discipline Chinese (players)." For example, a curfew was set for the dorm and coaches patrolled it, but I made them put a stop to it. Certainly this caused various problems and some players even suffered consequences, but every time they took notice and changed on their own.

Q: What consequences?

A: There was talk of players who had sneaked out of the hotel the night before a match. I said, "I trusted you. I don't think I can forgive you, but I'll give you one more chance. I want the players who sneaked out to come out and admit it." My Chinese coaches said there was no way they'd come forward, but five did and I told them, "Next time you betray me, I will not forgive you." One of them did the same thing again, so I dismissed him. I felt bad about doing it, but it was necessary for the team.

Q: It seems you had some clashes with the owner until you agreed on a two-year contract extension that begins this year.

A: There were two times when I thought of quitting at the end of the year. In July the owner said he would trade a defender who had played for the Chinese national team. I couldn't understand why he would get rid of that player, but when I said I wanted to use the money to beef up our team with a non-Chinese player, his reply seemed to indicate he agreed. When I decided on a player and returned to Hangzhou, the club president, who serves the owner, said, "We can't use that money."

I put up with it at the time, but a little later another incident occurred. The owner told me to use a young player I had used in a match we had won as a starter in the next match. The next day at our opponent's stadium, I was enraged to hear from a Chinese coach that four young players we had left in Hangzhou were also on their way to join us. I told the owner I wouldn't discuss a contract extension, and that I would quit after one year with the club.

Q: Such intervention on the pitch is rare, isn't it?

A: The owner is a good person, with no malicious intent. He feels that he gets to choose the manager and players that form a team for each match. I couldn't expect him to understand my reasons for being angry. We talked things over, and now we're getting along fine. But I wonder if it would be the same for me in Japan. I used to have my disagreements here, too.

Q: So despite all this, you didn't quit.

A: The day before my birthday (Aug. 25) we were at Hangzhou's airport to depart for an away match, when supporters who came to send us off sang "Happy Birthday" to me. They said, "Don't quit." I thought about it for a couple of hours on the flight. I remembered that I do this work not for myself, but to put smiles on the faces of players, staff and supporters. I had come to China to pursue my dreams with the idea that I might be able to get talented young athletes to play an ideal brand of soccer, and if not, then I could just return to Japan. But I learned that would be unacceptable.

But it's been frustrating, so I set conditions and made the owner accept them. They included funding to strengthen the team in the second year and no interference on the pitch. Even so he'll probably interfere anyway. That way of thinking is different from Japanese people's.

Q: They say China is a society where honor is important.

A: If you organize a practice mini-game for youth soccer and say that you'll penalize the losing side by having them kneel on the ground and say "We are defeated," then they'll play their hearts out. But they will not kneel, no matter what, even if they lose. Honor and pride have nothing to do with age. That's why I have to respect them. With the Senkaku Islands dispute, too, I heard people say that the real reason behind it was that President Hu Jintao had his honor trampled on when the Japanese government bought the islands.

Q: There were also demonstrations in Hangzhou during the Senkaku flare-up, and a match scheduled for soon after was canceled. Did you ever feel you were in any danger?

A: I've never felt uncomfortable about living in China. The game wasn't canceled because the team has a Japanese manager. The reason was there weren't enough security personnel for the match. Now, of course, there was indeed some bad rioting, but I think there was also some misunderstanding on the media's part.

Q. Yet there wouldn't have been such a disturbance without considerable anti-Japanese sentiment.

A: There may be many Chinese who don't like Japan. Even so, they probably aren't thinking of sending their children into battle. So far as political systems are concerned, we each have irreconcilable differences. At such times I think all I can rely on are personal bonds and trust. It starts with culture--sports. I'm not a politician, so what I can do is to show people of both nations how well Chinese and Japanese can play together on the pitch with a shared mindset. I believe that's why I want to play a match right away even when it's been canceled, and that's why I can't go back to Japan.

Q: When you're in China, are you made more aware than before that you're Japanese?

A: It's no different. Of course I like Japan and I have a Japanese identity. I've worn the Hinomaru, Japan's national flag, managing the national team. But if you look at the true essence of the Senkaku dispute, it's just silly. Both sides say they are an inherent part of their territory, but since when has it been inherent? If the 4.6 billion years of Earth's history is represented by a timeline 460 meters long, the 200,000-year history of Homo sapiens would only cover two centimeters.

When I was in kindergarten and playing in the sandbox and I kept friends out of my space by telling them not to cross a certain point, the teacher would scold me by saying, "Think of a way so that you can play nice." Likewise, we can either argue or talk about (the Senkakus). Or shall we go to war? I don't want to. It's not that big a deal.

When I went to China, I expected to a certain degree that something like the Senkaku dispute would happen. When something happens, I don’t think that I want to save the Earth or save humanity. All I think is that I don't want to leave behind discord for when my three children become adults; I want to leave them a good society and a good Earth. If you think about what's good for the children, then it's simple to come up with the answer to any problem. Nuclear energy, for example, is like that. The answer is what will benefit the next generation.

Q: How should we interact with the Chinese?

A: From the start, I didn't have any preconceived notions about what Chinese people are like. That's why I don't keep my guard up or think that I have to do things a certain way. Some people repeat the stereotype that "Chinese people are lazy," but actually that's wrong. Some also say that they don't keep promises, but there are people like that in Japan, too. Neither the Democratic Party of Japan nor the Liberal Democratic Party keep their promises, do they? A lot of people hate China, but how many of them have actually been there or lived there? It's absurd to say you hate someone you don't know. When I've come back to Japan and read newspapers, at times I've thought that China is a selfish, unsavory country. But I don't feel that from most of the Chinese I meet when I return to Hangzhou.

Q: Yet we tend to explain things away based on a single fact. For example, some say that the one-child policy is the reason why Chinese players can't think for themselves.

A: Is that really so? My players have come to talk (about strategy) a lot, even during a match's halftime and with their teammates. At first they seemed to think that the manager would do something for them, but when we were fighting to stay in the top league I think they figured they couldn't just leave everything up to me. And when the Chinese coaches saw that, they changed, too.

Twenty or so years ago, people said that Japanese players couldn't make decisions for themselves because of the uniform educational system. But that's changed in soccer, where many Japanese players are competing across the world. Blaming things on the one-child policy is just an excuse. I'm not saying society can be changed, but soccer definitely can, because the Hangzhou players really are starting to change themselves.

* * *

Takeshi Okada is the manager of Chinese soccer club Hangzhou Greentown. Born in 1956, he attended Waseda University and played for Furukawa Denko (now JEF United Ichihara Chiba of the J2 League). Okada also played in 24 matches with the Japanese national team. He managed the national team in its first World Cup appearance in 1998 and guided the team into the Round of 16 in the 2010 World Cup.

By SATOSHI USHIO/ Senior Staff Writer
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Takeshi Okada (Photo by Toshiyuki Matsumoto)

Takeshi Okada (Photo by Toshiyuki Matsumoto)

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  • Takeshi Okada (Photo by Toshiyuki Matsumoto)
  • Takeshi Okada (Photo by Toshiyuki Matsumoto)
  • Takeshi Okada (Photo by Toshiyuki Matsumoto)

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