Book Review: Where are the Scholar-Athletes?

kuehnart1I am an educator. Truth be told, it’s not by choice anymore. But because the world of sports journalism is about who you know, and my window of opportunity to enter that world seems to have faded into oblivion in my rear view mirror, I do what I must to provide food, clothing and shelter for me and my family. Why have I grown jaded about teaching (especially English) in Japan? This book and its title go a long way towards explaining that. The English sub-title is Where Are the Scholar-Athletes, but the Japanese title, 文武両道、日本になし (No Balance Between Academics and Sports in Japan), is a little more straight to the point.

Marty Kuehnert goes where most authors dare not. The first twenty-some chapters of the book profile some of the greatest athletes in the world who have moved on to incredible professional careers away from sports. What concludes each chapter makes this book such a good read: advice from said athlete (a good education is the best life insurance policy, life after pro sports is much longer than life as an athlete, etc.) or a lament from the author about why no such athletes exist in Japan.

Or should I say, no Japanese athlete has ever made the leap from highly successful player to highly successful… Doctor, lawyer, musician, author, etc. The first three athletes profiled all played sports in Japan before returning to their homeland where a very high profile Chapter 2 awaited them. To my surprise, one of them was former Edmonton Oilers defenseman, Randy Gregg. I knew his nickname was “the doctor” and that he in fact was one, but I had no clue he played pro hockey in Japan before being signed by the Oil!

In any case, in some ways I was a little disappointed in this book through the first two thirds. The mini-bios were fascinating and I learned a lot about different athletes from different countries and eras, but my hopes for this book were that it would tackle the big underlying issue: a highly flawed education system. Kids playing their sport 360 days a year for 4-8 hours a day, and not studying a single iota but still getting into universities. Coaches who do not allow their students to take a week off in the summer to go on a family vacation. Kids who are allowed to stay on their team despite sleeping in every class and failing tests. Just a few of the reasons I am cynical when I hear people praising Japan’s education system.

But the book changes gears in its final chapter, and then in the recorded dialogue between Marty Kuehnert and noted author, sportswriter and music critic Masayuki Tamaki. The dialogue goes some 30 pages but I wish it had gone another 20. The beauty of their conversation is that both men appear to know their own country’s education and sports worlds quite well, but also understand the other’s infrastructure as well. Their talk bounces around between topics, all of which captured my attention and had me nodding in agreement (and sometimes dropping my jaw in surprise).

This was a really quick read for me, so I didn’t mind that the first ⅔ of the book did not get straight to the point. It definitely set up a strong argument for what Mr. Kuehnert and Mr. Tamaki discuss at the end. Also, having Mr. Tamaki in on the final chapter gives extra credibility to all that Mr. Kuehnert claims throughout the book: the Japanese education system does not allow students to become well-rounded or to excel at more than one thing. As a result, it has produced no scholar athletes. Sad but true.

  • On a technical note, I was interested in Mr. Kuehnert’s (or his translator’s) use of kanji and kana. I am not quite expert enough to know that these are the more precise characters in the case of kanji, but where most would write 聞く (kiku = to ask / to hear), this book often uses 訊く (kiku = to inquire). The only kanji I had ever seen for “accept” was 受け入れる but this book uses 受け容れる instead. Also, “v” in English normally just converts to “b” in Japanese (though there is a way to write the “v” sound, most people can’t properly pronounce it), but this book uses インタヴュー instead of インタビュー (interview) and イヴェント instead of イベント (event). Interesting.
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T-Ray is the founder, chief writer and Junior Executive Vice President of Hanshin Tigers English News (H-TEN). Find him on Twitter @thehanshintiger.