"Much more just than a game, this martial arts baseball has a deeper purpose: the forging of the spirit. Through the stories of two schools, the film brings audiences inside this closed world where an American game has become a Japanese discipline. A Tale of Two Schools: Chiben is a private, powerhouse baseball academy led by Japan’s most legendary tough-as-nails coach, Takashima. Over 35 years, Takashima has led his teams to Koshien a record 21 times, and won 3 National titles. Through extensive interviews we reveal the mindset of the man many Japanese consider a "living Samurai". His training regimen focuses not on technique, but rather on developing fighting spirit." (text taken from Amazon)
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Kokoyakyu - High School Baseball in Japan
Kokoyakyu is a powerful documentary that follows two different high schools in Japan as they prepare for “Koshien” – the mega-sized, national baseball tournament that ends the season. The schools are very different – in that one is a basic public high school where the team is comprised from students who live in that prefecture and attend that school by default. The second school – Chiben Academy - is more of a prestigious prep school that places a major focus on the advancement of the students to play professional baseball. They not only have coaches, but actual baseball “teachers” who work at the school.
The students from both schools approach the sport with an obsession. The documentary does an excellent job of depicting the raw emotion and the amount of heart and soul each player pours into the team. One poignant scene show the coaches choosing the players that will represent their team at Koshien, and one boy is chosen as the ‘last player’. Apparently, this is a position of much importance and the boy breaks down at being chosen for that spot. He seemed concerned that he wouldn’t be chosen for the team at all. It is the responsibility of this ‘last player’ to keep up team morale and make sure everyone stays focused. He is a physical embodiment of the essence of the team.
As the tournament progresses, the teams are eventually eliminated and must return home defeated. The graduating team members give heartfelt speeches to encourage the new incoming players to work hard and bring pride to their schools and their teams. I found it interesting to see the school pep squads that came to Koshien to cheer on their teams. These pep squads were comprised of both boys and girls and ranged from pompoms and mild applause, to full blown militaristic drum cadences, matching costumes and dance numbers. They were equally defeated when their teams lost at the tournaments and emotions often ran high.
Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed this documentary. I can see it being very useful in a classroom setting while learning about high school sports culture in Japan – or even just learning about the Japanese school systems in general. It is very insightful and uses very little commentary. The subtitles of the team members and coaches convey enough information to show what is happening throughout the film. And the emotions on display are universal and heart wrenching.
A Rare Glimpse into High School Sports Culture in Japan
Shaler Area Middle School / High School
Japanese Teacher 8th-10th Grade
Kokoyakyu is a PBS documentary that follows two high school baseball teams in Japan as they compete in the national championship. Told entirely through interviews with students and coaches, this 60-minute examination of Japan’s most popular sport is immediately engrossing, as viewers watch the drama of the sport unfold as teams compete for the national title. At the same time, viewers are also introduced to the approach Japan takes to one of America’s most beloved sports.
As a Japanese teacher, Kokoyakyu is a great documentary to teach students about school culture in Japan, especially the importance of club sports. The documentary covers the regimented practice schedules that these students undertake, as well as how other students in the school support their team. Outside of this narrow scope, Kokoyakyu may also be an ideal documentary for Physical Education teachers to introduce East Asia into their curriculum. Coaches and students talk at length in the documentary about baseball, team commitment, and how their training resembles that of a martial art. Teachers can then compare American sports culture with that of Japan’s, and talk with their students about how different cultures approach physical education and the sports culture.
Versatile KOKOYAKYU glimpses more than just baseball
As a Japanese language teacher, it is vital to balance the nuts-and-bolts of grammar and vocabulary with cultural exposure and material relevant to my students’ lives. Living thousands of miles away from Japan, it is often a challenge to make the language and culture feel immediate and vital to my classes. KOKOYAKYU comes in at a perfect balance. The subjects of the documentary are high school students. They speak like high school students, which is excellent for the language aspect. They also live the lives of high school students and this makes the film exciting and relevant to my classes.
The students in the film are easily relatable, but impress with their devotion and commitment.KOKOYAKU is an excellent view of the rigorous training that Japanese high school players undertake. The high school dream of making the national championship is also alive and well in the aging, expressive faces of the teams’ coaches. More than just the sport, we also see the inner workings of the heirarchical “sempai-kohai” strata in action among the students and watch as the torch is passed to the new leadership after the final game. KOKOYAKYU also grants a fair amount of time to the Cheer team (OUEN), whose members approach their work with the same devotion and seriousness. OUEN as a concept is somewhat difficult to get across to my students, but I find this to be a fine tool in its explanation.
KOKOYAKYU is an excellent way to not only highlight the cultural significance of baseball in Japan and to provide a glimpse in the everyday Japanese life. Moreover, it reveals that the tight bonds formed as both teammates and friends not dissimilar to those formed by our own students. This is a very humanizing film and reveals that the honest emotions of teenagers in Japan are the same as our students around the world. The scenes when coaches are moved to tears or when individual players feel the weight of group responsibility are gripping and create genuine human moments to witness.
I would recommend this film for Eighth grade or above. Some vocabulary review with be necessary when using this film concurrently with a Japanese language lesson. There are many other classes where this film could make a plausible entry. Social Studies, Asian Studies, World Cultures or even a cross-curricular program with a Health class would be appropriate given the attention to training, teamwork and sportsmanship
Kokoyakyu: High School Baseball - The Samurai Tradition Lives
Review by Tim Jekel
High School History
World History I & II, Western Civilization, AP US History, AP European History
West Shore Christian Academy
There are so many ways to use this video in teaching that I hardly know where to begin. Japanese baseball is such an important cultural phenomenon, that it touches on almost every other area of life in Japan. There was even a poignant moment after the Tsunami where a speech made by a high school baseball player before a tournament riveted the nation. The high school baseball tournament held every August in Osaka takes priority even over the professional game which yields use of its legendary stadium for the event. The documentary film, Kokoyakyu [High School Baseball], attempts to discover some of the energy of this cultural phenomenon by going behind the scenes of two Japanese high school baseball teams and the individuals that play and coach for those teams.
This documentary film is powerful precisely because it keeps commentary to a minimum – the story is told in the lives of the individuals featured. One boy’s family wakes before 5:00 each morning to get him ready for the rigors of school and practice. Mom is already working away in the kitchen to prepare what seems to American audiences as a very elaborate lunch. The student player rides public transportation in the thin hours of the morning. Another player explains how he moved by himself into an apartment close enough so that he could attend the elite Chiben Academy. Another boy talks about how academics are not a priority because baseball takes all his free time. In his book You Gotta Have Wa, Robert Whiting explains that some high school baseball teams practice every day of the year except New Year’s Day. Teams in Hokkaido use orange balls in winter so that they can continue to practice throughout the year.
The intensity with which the Japanese approach the game of baseball seems obsessive to many Americans who see baseball as a sport, a pastime, or perhaps just a game. For the Japanese, it is much more than this – baseball is the central vehicle for the moral training of young men. Victory in baseball is a validation of the rigors of the moral instruction. It is no surprise that the Japanese have folded many of the characteristics of the Samurai tradition into their approach to baseball. Discipline and focus are pounded into the willing teens. One scene in the film shows the Chiben team running laps in the dark and in the rain. The coach explains his methods and their seeming harshness by referring to the struggles the team will face in the heat of August. Only if they train hard enough will they have the strength to overcome in the summer. In his book, The Samurai Way of Baseball, Robert Whiting develops the many connections between the medieval Japanese warrior and the modern approach to baseball. While in Japan, I saw several posters in sporting goods stores depicting modern heroes of the game dressed in Samurai attire holding katanas like baseball bats.
The film shows a moving meeting where the coaches announce player by player who will represent the school at the National Tournament. The last player chosen bursts into tears as he receives a moving charge from the head coach. Later, as this same team is eliminated from the tournament, the seniors give speeches to encourage next year’s players who will begin practice the very next day! The speeches are thoughtful and from the heart and show how the culture of the sport is passed on from coaches to players and from older players to younger players.
The film also highlights an element mostly missing from the American game – cheering squads. Cheering squads practice all summer along with the team and prepares to shout, chant, and yell their teams to victory. The American audience might be surprised to see how seriously they take their cheering. Whether in cheering or in playing, the film hints at the lifelong ties that are forged through playing the game. The coach in a tearful goodbye to an outgoing senior encourages him to stay in touch and call him when he marries so he can attend.
The film has value in its own right in a history class that covers modern Japan. I have used the film as the capper to a unit on Bushido as it has changed from the middle ages down to the present day. The film could also be used in a sociology class or a psychology class. If there are students in class who already play baseball, this film will generally impress them very much.
I doubt whether American coaches would or even could approach the game with the same intensity of the Japanese high schools, but it is an enlightening experience for anyone interested in baseball or in modern Japanese culture.
A quick note
When watching this film, consider showing some of the DVD extras as well - they include some great short interviews that contextualize some of the scenes shown in the movie, including a great one where a man suggests that the boys in this film cry like babies not because Japanese men are extra sensitive or because of the crushing defeats, but because this is a televised event where everyone is expected to show great emotion, and therefore you better try hard to work up a few wails and tears to fit in. Could be a great choice to pair with some chapters from the Japanese baseball classic book "You Gotta Have Wa."
Kokoyakyu is a film about 2 high school baseball teams on their journey to reach Koshien, the final rounds of Japan’s National Championship. But more than that, it is a look into the essence of Japanese society, which believes in hard work, teamwork, persistence and overcoming adversity. Coach Takashima believes in developing a fighting “samurai” spirit in his team, which is illustrated in daily practices some of which begin at predawn or in heavy rains. It is an emotional and dramatic film as we watch the teams compete. The coaches and players reflections are especially poignant.
I recommend this film for 8th and above (only because of the sub-titles). It is a good film to talk about the values of the Japanese society and how those values prepare the young men for life lessons. (Be sure to watch the film’s out takes which add an understanding of the film’s drama.)
A look deep into Japanese society
This film really gets at the heart of Japanese group ethos by looking at high school baseball, something near and dear to most Japanese. Those not familiar with Japan will surely take away much from this film, while those with knowledge of Japan will find themselves nodding their heads by the astute insights. The film looks in depth at baseball, and while clips might be of use with younger students, the film is probably best shown to highschool or college age students.