Thursday, January 05, 2017

How I Came to Manage a Dodgeball League in Japan

We're going way off book today.

If you stay around long enough, though, you'll eventually hear something about almost everything.

DQ Reader and excellent musician Will VanderWyden has a remarkable story to tell, so let's let him. And I have two follow-up questions that he answers at the end.

In 2008 I was living in Los Angeles and playing a lot of soccer at Robbie Williams’ house. He’s the internationally famous British pop mega star who never quite made it big in America, but he lived in the Hollywood Hills and had an outdoor soccer (I should really say ‘football’) pitch overlooking the San Fernando Valley. Not too shabby.

Then one day my coworker found a coed dodgeball group on Craigslist. She invited me to a game, I had a blast, and they told me a league was starting up the following week on Wednesday nights, the same night I played soccer at Robbie’s.

It was a tough call, but I went with the group that had girls.

Before I knew it I had a huge group of friends, lots of parties to go to, and a new sport I excelled at. After every game we hung out at a local bar and either defended our victory or got our revenge over rounds of flip cup. I drank way too much, but it was worth it.

Long story short, dodgeball became a huge part of my life. It was underground yet popular, like our own not-so-secret Fight Club. I came up with our team name, Les Dodge à Trois, and became team captain. I would sit at my desk at work and dream of Wednesdays.

In 2010 I took a leave of absence from my job and traveled around Asia for a couple months. The first stop was Japan and my girlfriend (now ex) and I could not have had more fun. We explored the neon wilderness of Tokyo, the picturesque rivers and temples of Kyoto, and met a lot of drunk salarymen.

Back in LA something felt like it was missing. I started spending a lot of time hanging out in Koreatown and downtown LA, searching for both the excitement of unfamiliarity and the liveliness that only a bustling city can provide, something that LA unfortunately lacks.

I started eating lots of ramen, not the dried noodle packs from the supermarket, but real bowls of pork bone broth aka the de facto soul food of Japan. I read travel journals online as an escape and found a tremendous ramen blog written by an American expat. Each post was packed with fascinating info about ramen, but also with the mundane little details of what life is like in Japan.

Before I knew it my obsessive tendencies took hold and I had a ramen blog of my own. During one of my research trips to LA’s Little Tokyo I passed an advertisement and did a literal double take. Beginner Japanese lessons. I jotted down the web address and looked it up when I got home. It was cheap and started in two days. I figured it would be fun to learn something new.

Six months later when I found time to travel again there was only one option. This time I was in Tokyo alone and as solo travel usually goes I made some friends between copious bowls of unbelievable ramen. Before I knew it the trip was over, but I didn’t want it to be. Some of my new friends felt more real than my real friends back home. Tokyo was just too much fun. And I didn’t even spend much time in the red light district.

I guess that’s when the seed germinated. I had thought about living abroad for a long time by that point, but because I was already in my 30’s I didn’t want to just ship off for a couple years and have to get another job when I returned. Fun, yes, but I’d be right back where I started. If you’ve played Stardew Valley (and remember the intro) or watched the movie Office Space you know what I’m talking about. I had a pretty comfortable job, and I was playing in bands and having a lot of fun in a great city, but I was also spending a lot of hours looking at gray office interiors and pretending to care about things I really didn’t care about.

By this time dodgeball had grown by leaps and bounds and had reached every corner of Los Angeles while adult leagues could be found in virtually every major American  and European city, plus Hong Kong, Singapore, and many more. I took another trip to Japan to see my friends and explore more of the country and that pretty much sealed the deal.

So I put two and two together and in the winter of 2014 I arrived in Tokyo with two bags, one for my luggage and one filled with dodgeballs. It took me five months to navigate through all the Japanese red tape and get access to gyms, then I started hosting open gyms and inviting everyone I knew. Fourteen people came to the first game, now in our third year we average 60 (I have to limit the number of attendees), and have 100 at our Halloween and Anniversary tournaments. On New Year’s Day two couples who met at dodgeball got engaged. Another couple got married earlier this year.

But best of all I got out of the rat race. In Stardew Valley you get a farm. I have a dodgeball league.
My follow-up questions, with Will's answers:
1. How do Japanese people respond to dodgeball when it's first introduced? As casual games go, it's a bit more violent than most, since the objective is to hit people with the ball. Are there any cultural issues with that? . 

Literally every Japanese person has played dodgeball in elementary school. It's part of the official PE curriculum. But they play a different version - theirs has one ball, and when you get hit out you go behind or to the side of the opposing team. You're still in the game and the primary strategy is to pass the ball behind your opponent and hit them from there, or vice versa. (I think this is actually the most common way to play in schools around the world).

We play with 7 balls at once. When you're out, you're out of the game... but when your team gets a catch the first person in the out line gets to return.

This change (especially the 7 balls part) always gets a gasp of amazement whenever I explain it to a Japanese person.

So to answer your question, they're very familiar with the game, just not our style. Most Japanese people loved the game as a kid and ours is even more fun, chaotic, and strategic.

2. What unexpected cultural adjustments have you encountered in starting/running the group? Did you have to change or adjust anything that you didn't expect?

 By far the biggest challenge I've faced is the lack of available gyms. In LA I used to be able to schedule practices for my team at the local rec center (we took it a little too seriously) by placing a call. There was always availability.

In Tokyo space is at a premium. The public gyms are few and prohibitively expensive, plus there are so many clubs and groups trying to use them that you have to book them two months in advance AND win a lottery. I finally figured a way to get access to elementary school gyms, but finding availability at those is hit and miss and it's very hard to maintain consistency. Tokyo dodgeball is pretty big now, but it could be much, much bigger if I could get gyms like I could in LA.

Culturally, the language is the biggest adjustment. When I started dodgeball I could barely speak Japanese, and I would walk into these elementary schools and try to speak with the night guards (invariably old retired men) who would look at my long hair, tank top and huge backpack full of gear--and I'd fail hard. Half of our group is made of foreigners and I think a bunch of us throwing balls at each other as hard as we can freaks some of the staff out a little. So after a year I started bringing a bottle of tea or something to be friendly.

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