The Japanese have three standard responses when faced with a complete foreigner like myself speaking fluent Japanese. The first (and the most common in Tokyo) is complete denial that they have seen anything out of the ordinary: They just can’t be bothered. The second is utter bewilderment (most common in the countryside), which generally leads to me giving my life story and ends in an exchange of business cards or a request for me to marry their daughter, niece, cousin or granddaughter, depending on the age of the parties involved. The second group has led to many interesting conversations, some friendships and even me being interviewed a few times as the representative for foreigners living in Japan. The final group refuses to believe that a person with my face can speak fluent Japanese. When I speak to them, they reply in marginal (at best) English, preferring to speak in one word sentences to accommodate the Gaijin who couldn’t possibly understand them.
The participants of one of the first pickleball events ever held in Japan belonged to this third group of people. When I arrived, the organizers told me that I could only speak English, telling me they would translate for me because they had told everyone I was the US champion, and it would detract from the champion’s coolness if I spoke Japanese. Feeling rather like a trophy on display, I begrudgingly agreed to their request, resigning myself to being a circus animal performing tricks for the next 3 hours.
30 people attended, which I thought was a remarkably respectable number for an unknown sport in a new country. However, as I quickly found out, the reason I was not allowed to speak English was that 20 of the 30 participants were from a local mentally handicapped club. This was their weekly exercise event, and the organizers were accommodating these people, who they thought wouldn’t be able to comprehend the racial/linguistic gap. This actually proved false as I broke down a couple of hours into the event and started ignoring my translators. The handicapped people understood me perfectly well, and some were remarkably good players after just a couple of hours. I was still on display, as everyone simply called me champion even after I repeatedly told them my name was Daniel, but I didn’t mind so much :)
The pickleball event, and my subsequent weekend trip to Korea have made me think about a few things. At first, I wrongly thought of handicapped people coming to our event as something depressing, like those were the only people we could gather. Then I realized how great it is that pickleball is accessible to everyone. They never quite grasped the rules (having 3 numbers in the score is confusing for anyone), but they had a great time. What a great testimonial for the sport. It is the only sport I know of that can accommodate grandparents and grandchildren, athletes and couch potatoes, wheelchairs and handicaps and to an extent, allow these people to have fun all playing on the same court. When I really thought about it, there might not have been a better way to launch the sport in Japan.
And second, I was reminded of the invaluability (that’s not a real word) of language. Taking away my linguistic ability in Japan, then traveling to Korea turned me from a fully functional, intelligent adult to struggling with basic communication. I’m reminded how thankful I am that I grew up speaking two languages, that Japan is still home and that there is a reason for me having grown up here. The reason is not entirely clear yet, but it is gradually becoming more apparent. Japan is weird and there are things that bug me, but that’s true of anywhere. It’s a pretty cool that I get to live here.
That is my story of starting pickleball in Japan. It’s going to be a long time before it’s mainstream, but you have to begin somewhere right?