Kei Hisanaga (Okayama university of science)
In professional sports such as soccer and baseball, players are increasingly moving around the world. In this context, some top professional players with high technical, tactical, and physical characteristics are able to play in foreign countries, while others are not. This phenomenon can also be seen in the J-League, Japan’s professional football league. In this article, these factors are identified from a CQ (Cultural Intelligence) perspective through interviews with their interpreters on how three foreign players who played in the J-League were able to adapt to different cultures and perform at a high level on the pitch.
They were able to gather information about the country they were playing in on their own, and with their interpreters’ help, they could create an environment in which they could concentrate on their playing. The similarities between their cultural background and Japanese culture also helped their cross-cultural adaptation. From their case studies, it became clear that gathering information in advance, learning from experience, building relationships, and having supportive staff are necessary elements for cross-cultural adaptation in the J-League.
soccer, foreign players, interpreters, cross-cultural adaptation
In professional sports, including soccer and baseball, transnational player transfers are common. Many teams have scouting staffs worldwide looking for talented foreign players who can play as an immediate asset. In European soccer, since the Bosman ruling in 1995, players with EU nationality are exempt from the foreign quota in the European countries leagues. In Japan, players with non-Japanese nationality are restricted from playing in matches as foreign nationals. Before the start of the 2022 season, the total number of players in the J-League, Japan professional football league (Divisions 1-3), was 1,759, of which 156 were foreign nationals, the largest number being 89 from Brazil, followed by 21 from South Korea, six from Spain. The entry restrictions in the COVID-19 pandemic probably impacted the registration of foreign players, but many teams still had foreign players as helpers. In the 2021 season, LEANDRO DAMIAO, who belonged to J-League Division 1 champion Kawasaki Frontale won J-League MVP. This is the second consecutive year a foreign player has won MVP, following OLUNGA (Kashiwa Reysol) in the 2020 season. In addition, four or more foreign players have been selected for the Best Eleven Players Award for four consecutive years. While some foreign players play an active role in the J-League every season, others leave the team without having achieved the success they were expected to. Since the beginning of the J-League in 1993, world-famous players joined several teams and were expected to play a significant role. However, some players have left Japan without achieving the desired results. For example, players who played for their national teams at FIFA World Cups such as LINEKER (England, 1993-1994, 18 appearances, four goals), BEBETO (Brazil, 2000, 8 appearances, 1 goal), and FREDRIK LJUNGBERG (Sweden, 2011, 8 appearances, 0 goals). It is not that they were not talented, but that they could not show what they had in the J-League. Thus, a team needs to acquire competent players and, at the same time, have the management skills to ensure that the players can show their abilities.
- Overview of the research
As mentioned in the introduction, some talented foreign players can play an active role in the J-League while others do not. The author considered that the country’s cultural background might impact the factors that make the difference. For example, there are different difficulties for players brought up in a European culture playing in Japan, which is part of Asia, compared to playing in the same European countries. One of these is language, and when a J-League team acquires a foreign player, they usually provide the player with an interpreter to cover the language differences. The interpreter’s role is to support communication between the player and the coaching staff and between the players and eliminate any inconvenience in their lives. Therefore, interpreters always think about how they can help their foreign players perform better in Japan. With the support of these interpreters, the foreign players live in Japan and try to show their true potential on the pitch. This suggests that the role of interpreters significantly impacts the performance of foreign players in the J-League. Therefore, the aim of this article is to clarify the factors that contributed to the players’ adaptation to a different culture, Japanese soccer, from the perspective of the interpreters of foreign players who played an active role in the J-League.
2.-2 Subjects and methods
Interpreter-A: Japanese nationality (interpreter of Japanese and Spanish).
- Player-a: Spanish nationality. Represented the national team. he played five seasons in the J-League, with 108 league-matches appearances and 21 goals (as of 15 August 2022).
Player-b: Spanish nationality. Represented the national team. He played one season in the J-League, with 28 league-matches appearances and 13 goals.
Interpreter-B: Japanese nationality (Japanese and English interpreter).
- Player-c: Swedish Nationality. Represented the national team. He played three seasons in the J-League, with 90 league-matches appearances, and seven goals.
An unstructured interview was conducted with each interpreter. Then, utilizing CQ’s six-dimensional model, the elements of the success of foreign players were considered from the interview contents. CQ (Cultural Intelligence) is a score of cultural differences proposed by Dr. Geert Hofstede and expressed in six dimensions: PDI (Power Distance), IDV (Individualism), MAS (Masculinity), UAI (Uncertainty Avoidance), LTO (Short vs. Long Term Orientation), IVR (Indulgence vs. Restraint)
- Interview results and discussion
3.-1 Japanese soccer from the CQ perspective
The scores of the six-dimensional model of CQ for Japan as a comparison for consideration from the interviews are as follows.
Table 1. Scores for Japan (prepared by the author based on Miyamori et al. (2019))
As shown in Table 1, Japan is characterized by rather high scores for MAS and UAI. These are likely to significantly impact the J-League itself, which takes place in Japan. Due to MAS and UAI scores, passing soccer tends to be favored in Japan. England, with its low UAI score (35), delights in kick-and-rush and 1vs1 battles, while many teams in Japan prefer soccer that is more focused on passing, where the ball can be reliably carried.
Japan also has a medium level of PDI and IDV, which means that Japan can understand both sides of the power divide – high and low power inequality, collectivism and individualism.
3.-2 Interpreter-A for Spanish national Player-a
Table 2: Comparison of scores between Spain and Japan (prepared by the author based on Miyamori et al. (2019))
According to Interpreter-A, the following are some characteristics of the support he provided to Player-a.
▪ It was the first time for him and his family to live in a foreign country (beforehand, he had heard from an acquaintance that Japan was safe)
- The family had a positive impression of Japan as soon as they arrived. They were not approached when they walked around the city and were gently left alone. They could go where they wanted to go when they wanted to go. The family could live in their own rhythm.
- The most worrying thing was finding a hospital for the children.
The fact that Player-a had collected information about Japan in advance of playing in his first foreign country shows that he could solve the uncertainty avoidance problem. From this, it can be read that Player-a valued his family life, which is reflected in the MAS score in the six-dimensional model. And the fact that interpreter-A provided solid support to ensure the quality of life, such as finding a hospital for the children, helped create an environment in which Player-a could concentrate on playing soccer without worrying about their families.
- He always pointed out the quality of the team’s playing position when they had the ball.
Concerning the soccer aspect, as mentioned in 3.-1, many teams in Japan are oriented toward passing-oriented soccer. This is also the case for the team that Player-a belonged to. Spain also traditionally has a soccer orientation with an emphasis on passing. Still, both countries have high UAI scores and similar soccer styles, which led to Player-a’s ability to play an active role in the J-League.
3.-3 Interpreter-A for Spanish national Player-b
Interpreter-A was also the interpreter for Player-b. According to him, the characteristics are as follows.
- He had played in foreign countries and was used to living in different cultures.
- The city where the team is located was originally a city with a large foreign population.
Unlike Player-a, Player-b and his family had lived abroad in the past and were used to living in a different culture. This could have been a plus for them, whose Spanish culture tends to avoid uncertainty (UAI). In addition, the city where Player-b and his family spent most of their time is inhabited by foreigners and were less likely to be singled out. Again, this is similar to Player-a.
- Player-b, whose job is to score goals, was committed to scoring points, and to achieve this, he put a lot of effort into building relationships with his teammates. For example, he went to dinner with his teammates and gave them gifts to strengthen their friendship. But unfortunately, the achievement-oriented (MAS) Japanese are hesitant to talk to each other for fear of miscommunication. Therefore, while the Japanese players were asking how Player-b was doing, Player-b had an open mind to the Japanese players, calling them by name frequently and talking to the younger players about their hair and other unimportant topics, thus proactively closing the distance between them.
This can be read as a sign of the combination of the proximity of IDV to Japan, where they can take a moderate position and the Spanish cultural characteristic of focusing on the quality of life (MAS).
3.-4 Interpreter-B for Swedish nationality Player-c
Table 3: Comparison of scores between Sweden and Japan (prepared by the author based on Miyamori et al. (2019))
Interpreter-B said that he had noticed the following in supporting Player-c with English.
- Respectful as a person. Always positive, always without any hidden side. Considerate of others. Encouraging young players. He is ranked No. 1 in Sweden in terms of players he would like to pass on to the next generation.
- Picturesque family. Values his family. Balances home and work. Conveying love. As he came to Japan alone, it was difficult in some aspects to control the loneliness.
The Swedish cultural traits of emphasis on quality of life (MAS) and high orientation towards fulfillment (IVR), in which everyone supports each other, can be read from these.
- He was very frustrated when the team lost, or he didn’t get a chance to play. He was frustrated, but he practiced hard. He always gave his best. He was a very competitive person, always trying to improve his condition through diet, treatment, and, if necessary, running on his days off.
This aspect of being competitive and willing to work hard to improve can be interpreted as high individualism (IDV).
There are relatively significant differences in CQ scores between Sweden and Japan. If Player-c had pushed his cultural background as it was, he would not have performed well in the Japanese culture. This is where the support of Interpreter-B would have been significant. Interpreter-B had himself studied in the USA and knew the difficulties of living in a different culture. Therefore, Interpreter-B judged that he was expected to stand up to Player-c like a friend, family member, and lover, and he supported him with these things in mind. For example, he accompanied Player-c to the hospital and explained Japanese culture to him so he could play comfortably. The fact that such a relationship between the two was established, with the interpreter providing support and the player accepting it, can be attributed to the low power distance of the Swedish culture (PDI).
As has been mentioned, the three players could play an active role in the J-League because they could adapt to the Japanese culture, either on their own or with the help of interpreters. However, the three cases showed that prior information gathering, learning from experience, building relationships, and a supportive staff were necessary for their adaptation. In particular, in the J-League environment, where the main language is different from their countries, it became clear that it is essential to support foreign players in a way that goes beyond simply conveying the language. It is also significant that Interpreter-A and Interpreter-B, the subjects of this interview, have a Japanese cultural background and were able to take a middle ground, which made it easier for them to support players to adapt to different cultures.
On the other hand, when foreign players transfer between countries that speak the same language, such as English-speaking countries, interpreters may not be necessary. In such cases, for the foreign player to be successful in that country, it may be essential to have staff who support cross-cultural adaptation in a form other than interpreting or for the player to have knowledge of cross-cultural adaptation.
Finally, in the interviews conducted for this research, both interpreters were seen to lump together the factors that contribute to the success of foreign players, such as ‘professionalism’ and ‘great human qualities. While there may be such factors, it was realized that a CQ perspective could help in a way that considers the differences in cultural background between the players and the countries in which they play. From this point of view, it would be of great significance to spread knowledge of CQ to many people in the professional sports world, including soccer.
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