The Witless Clunkery of a Third-Rate Mind

Monday, October 15, 2007

Hobby or Obsession?

There is something very interesting about the Japanese psyche, and that is a full-fledged belief that, "If something is worth doing, it is worth doing right." You observe it at every level of society, from garbage collectors diligently picking up tiny paper scraps with long metal tongs, to convenience store workers who literally run to serve you, to post office employees who (enfuriatingly) won't let you proceed with a transaction if there is the tiniest little mistake or discrepancy in your paperwork. The garbage collectors hate their jobs, I'm sure, but they don't take it out on the job itself; they do the very best they can until they find a better job. And the postal employees don't do it to lord it over the customers; they do it because there are rules, and they have to be followed.

I think people in Japan are the same way with their hobbies. People pour their entire heart and soul into their pastimes. My friend Akiko says she plays tennis "just for fun" and she claims that she's not very good; I find that hard to believe as she practices between 6 - 8 hours a day every Sunday.

So it's not all that surprising that Japanese people dominate every kind of competition you can imagine (except for some sports where size is an unavoidable advantage). Some Japanese names in the news recently: (much of this taken from the Japan Times)

  • Mayuko Kamio, 21, won the prestigious International Tchaikovsky Violin competition
  • slender Takeru Kobayashi is the most feared competitive eater in the world, regularly devouring more than competitors who are twice or three times his weight
  • Yosuke Ochi has won the world Air Guitar championship two years running
  • five of the top 20 finalists in the world Yo-yo championships were Japanese, including the runner-up
  • Japan won the international Rube Goldberg machine competition this year
  • Japan routinely ranks highly in ballroom dancing
  • the world Rubik's cube champion is a Japanese 17-year-old who practices 5 hours a day and can complete a cube in an average of 10 seconds
Obviously, a lot of these competitions are in fields that are ... well, pretty weird. But I guess that's the point. There is little or no financial reward for most of these hobbies, and yet the Japanese people who take up these hobbies do so with the mindset that, naturally, they are going to try and be the best at what they do. And try damn hard! (5 hours a day doing the Rubik's cube??)

I haven't mentioned much about athletics yet. I don't know how to say this without sounding like an ass, but the Japanese are small. They have a real disadvantage when it comes to size. But, look at their accomplishments in any field where size is not a distinct advantage: Ichiro Suzuki is the record holder for most hits in a season; this is something that undeniably takes skill, not doping yourself with steroids. Japanese women excel at marathon running, despite being much smaller than their biggest rivals, the Kenyan team. Marathon running is clearly a discipline that is equal parts mental and physical. The Japanese are also good at gymnastics, synchronized swimming, diving, and most team sports.

I guess the downside is that practicing Rubik's cube for 5 hours a day tends to make a guy kind of one-dimensional. I like to think of myself as fairly well-rounded. I do martial arts (not very well, mind you); I can draw a bit; I'm somewhat musical; I can write to a degree (keep in mind I rarely edit these posts before publishing them!); I've been told I'm funny.

While I often think that it would be really cool to be the best in the world at something, no matter how obscure (at this point, you should go to YouTube and do a search for "cup stacking" ... no, those videos aren't sped up) I guess in the end, I'm pretty happy to be well-rounded.


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