A Perspective from Japan
by Joe Okamoto
Joe Okamoto, seen here with his Hanshin Ensen Lacrosse Party (HELP) team in Japan, spent the past few weeks as an executive intern with US Lacrosse. He shares his lacrosse experience.
Twenty-six years ago, I was an ordinary 5-year old boy in New Orleans longing to be like Michael Jordan. Lacrosse was not even on my list of interests. After a two-year stay in New Orleans, I went back to Japan and spent long hours in the gym playing basketball. My high school made it to the national championship in my senior year, but I did not make the final roster. That heartbreaking incident led me to lose interest for basketball, but then I found lacrosse.
One of my best friends played on the college team at Waseda University and took me to the field. At the beginning, lacrosse was fascinating, but I was not interested enough to play. After watching the players playing wall ball, lifting, running, watching film and discussing plays, I felt a great sense of passion — exactly what I was looking for. I’ve been playing the sport for 13 years, continuing to play for Hanshin Ensen Lacrosse Party (HELP) after college, while working as a volunteer with the Japan Lacrosse Association (JLA).
I’ve spent most of career on faceoffs. My hard work my freshman and sophomore years didn’t bear fruit, so I felt I needed to change something. I focused on the faceoff, which wasn’t something most midfielders wanted to do. It doesn’t look fancy, unless you’re making a clean fast break, your clothes get dirty easily and you take hard hits from 360 degrees. A lot of people think faceoffs is just a game of luck, like rock-scissors-paper (clamp-jump-rake), and quickness. One of my goals as a faceoff specialist was proving to people that it’s about preparation, prediction, body angle, stick angle, and most importantly, the mental game.
I believe I contributed to establishing the Japanese faceoff standard together with my teammates and great rivals. Being awarded the 2007 Eastern Collegiate League Division 1 Faceoff Player of the Year is one of my biggest honors.
Now my role as a volunteer is my top priority. More than 90 percent of players in Japan don’t start playing until college, and most non-players, coaches and referees never get to experience the sport. When I started working with the JLA as a volunteer, one of my roles was stadium operation. Even thought players and teams have chances to play in great stadiums where the audience can have fun, the opportunities were not fully utilized. When I served as chairman of the Western Post Collegiate League in 2010, I introduced the Red Hot Games (RHG) and asked teams to bring as many spectators as possible. The audience doubled from the previous year. JLA and Japanese lacrosse communities have gradually extended the circle of involvement.
Having this background, coming back to the United State and studying for my MBA at the Robert H. Smith School at the University of Maryland has been awesome. I am like a kid at Disney World. I frequently see star Maryland lacrosse players like Taylor Cummings and Matt Dunn in the same building and get to watch them play for free. Coaches and players are very fan-friendly. I was impressed with Maryland head coach John Tillman and attackman Colin Heacock for their kindness in speaking with me.
Working as an executive intern at US Lacrosse has been very special. I had opportunities to interview 28 people to find out what has been successful and what has not worked. Hopefully, some of my findings will be reflected in the JLA in the near future.
One thing I’ve noticed from my perspective is the sense of independence in lacrosse in the United States. Each player, coach, team, referee, parent, volunteer, employee have their own opinions and form lacrosse in their own ways. Because of this circumstance, it is very difficult to set a universal rule and structure that is followed. On the other hand, this independence is one of the reasons that lacrosse has been successful in this country.
If I can suggest something to the U.S. lacrosse community, be aware that the U.S. is the leader of the global lacrosse community. I’m not only talking about the high competitiveness, but also how lacrosse embraces people, community and education. There are a lot of issues under discussion, and lots of room to improve, but it is obvious that the U.S. is looked up to and perceived as a role model by other countries, at least, that’s the case with Japan.
Lacrosse in Japan is still relatively closed and less independent. Part of that is that the culture is based on seniority. People tend to want things to be in order without any problems. If you have a chance to play a game against a Japanese team, you’ll be surprised how disciplined and organized they are. This is the biggest reason the JLA and Japanese lacrosse have grown rapidly in the last two decades. On the other hand, it is high time accept new things and be creative. Japan can use the effort, passion and love for lacrosse to spread out and extend the sport to people have not had a chance know, see and play it. Currently, some national team members have started clinics for lots of players. They travel around the nation, teaching young players for free or for very little money. This campaign has been generating a good tide.
If I can suggest something to Japan, I would recommend to get out of your comfort zone. Go meet with teams and learn their struggle and go to middle schools and elementary schools and learn how to teach. These are great opportunities to learn, grow, improve and get creative.
No matter the differences between the U.S. and Japan, friendships have grown. On the 27th International Friendship Games on June 4, the Winthrop women’s team and Hofstra men’s teams played against the respective Japanese national teams. It was impressive to see Hofstra wear a special jersey with stars and stripes on the left sleeve and the Japan national flag on the right sleeve. I’m glad they enjoyed their stay and I hope this friendship lasts and grows bigger.
In the last 26 years that have passed, Michael Jordan has been replaced by my kid’s stick. My 2-year-old son grabs a stick and tries to throw the ball yelling “Ball, Ball, Shoot.” Is he going to be the first NCAA lacrosse player from Japan? I don’t know and I don’t want to expect too much from him. But I am sure he is already embraced by the sport of lacrosse, and he loves this sport. His smile is the proof.