Monger and monk, the rising sons of Japanese kabaddi

The game was introduced 20 years ago in Japan and has had a slow growth.

Written by Shahid Judge | Mumbai | Updated: May 16, 2014 1:37:58 pm
Kono is studying for a degree in Buddhism while Shimokawa deals with frozen crabs. Kabaddi, however, is their overwhelming passion. Kono is studying for a degree in Buddhism while Shimokawa deals with frozen crabs. Kabaddi, however, is their overwhelming passion.

Japan’s Masayuki Shimokawa primarily deals in frozen crabs. He is at his job as early as 3 a.m and work takes up 11 hours or so of his day, which typically ends with restaurants, hotels and supermarkets purchasing his catch. After work, though, the 24-year-old engages in his second passion, Kabaddi. Despite his heavy work hours, Shimokawa trains three hours a day, every alternate day.

In another square across Tokyo, Takamitsu Kono is studying for a degree in Buddhism at the Taisho University. The 21-year-old follows in the footsteps of his father Ryosen, a Buddhist monk. Kono’s calm and peaceful nature befits his intended occupation, yet his love for Kabaddi, a contact sport, comes as a surprise.

Interestingly, the youngster was once a rugby enthusiast during his time in school, but eventually took up the Indian game once he moved to college, where rugby wasn’t supported but Kabaddi was surprisingly and prolifically backed.

The pair are now an integral part of the Japanese national Kabaddi team, currently in Mumbai to compete and practice against the city’s clubs. The team is scheduled to play a few more games before they head back to Japan towards the end of the week. But this will not be the last that the Indian followers of the game will be hearing of Shimokawa and Kono, as the Japanese pair is among the invited foreign players who will feature in the inaugural Pro Kabaddi League auctions on May 20.

Participation in the cash-rich tournament essentially has two benefits for the duo. They hope to gather experience and technical knowledge through their “watch-and-learn” method in perpetration for the upcoming Asian Games. But the financial reward has also been a key component in attracting their attention.

The game was introduced 20 years ago in Japan and has had a slow growth — currently, the country boasts over 30 clubs, predominantly in Tokyo and Hiroshima. But there has been something to show for it. Japan’s greatest success in kabaddi came four years ago in Guangzhou, when the men’s team won bronze at the Asian Games. Yet government funding is almost negligible. “They don’t get much for representing the country in the sport. So it becomes necessary for them to find other occupations to sustain themselves and their families,” says Yoji Kawai, managing director of the Japan Kabaddi Association (JKA). For example, Shimokawa, Japan’s best rated player and an important member of the bronze medal-winning squad, is a fish monger. Similarly, Kono, declared the best player at the recently concluded Junior National Championships, hopes to make a living as a priest.

Despite the lack of financial incentives, the oriental team is riding on the confidence from its 2010 campaign as they look for an encore at Incheon. “It’s all a step-by-step process. First we want to beat Pakistan, then Iran. And then once we’re in the final, we want to beat India,” says Shimokawa, smiling.

With next week’s auctions in mind, Shimokawa hopes he gets drafted into the same team as Indian raider Ajay Thakur. “I too play as a raider and I really look up to Ajay. It’ll be a good chance to learn from him,” mentions Shimokawa. Kono, who refers to himself as the team’s “lethal weapon,” on the other hand, plays as a right-cover defender. Talking through a translator, the youngster claims that the atmosphere in India is what he is looking forward to.

“In Japan, there isn’t much of a crowd, and they’re always silent. But here everybody is shouting and cheering. It encourages us to do much better,” he concludes.

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