Thursday, January 29, 2009

Critically assess the claim “Japanese climbers are better”

So I was in Fontainebleau over New Year and the weather wasn’t amazing. Therefore we spent much, but not enough, of our time in the shrine to the consumer that is Carrefour (which is worth a trip on its own). On one of my visits, accompanied by my former friends Ross, Penny and Mike I saw a Japanese couple, clearly climbers, whom I predict were climbing machines. As it was cold and they were well wrapped up in down jackets and trousers, which unfortunately concealed their gargantuan veiny forearms and wiry chicken legs. But, as I’m sure most font devotees will testify, it really is obvious when you walk into a Font supermarket who the climbers are. These guys were; that much was beyond doubt. But my crew did seem to be split on speculating just how hard they climbed. Really I think everyone could tell they were machines it’s just they were reluctant to admit to judging a book by its cover.
Forgive my horrific generalizing and positive discrimination but in my four years of travelling Europe climbing I am yet to see any Japanese climbers that are punters. I suppose with Europe being a long way from Japan it’s unlikely that the uncommitted would travel all that way purely to climb. However from talking to people on trips there does seem to be a sense that the average climber in Japan climbs harder. I remember a couple of years back in Ceuse trying to explain to my friend Genki what a ‘VS climber’ was and him assuring me there wasn’t anything like that at home in Japan.
I’ve not been to Japan and I’m not sure how I would really compare the scenes here and there if I had. It’s hard to make an accurate comparison of Japanese climbers compared with other scenes around the world without immersing myself in all these scenes simultaneously. Also it’s pretty subjective what makes for a good climber. In this essay I’m going to concern myself with how physically hard Japanese climbers climb and so will be limiting my study to Japanese bouldering and sport climbing.

In recent years Japanese climbers, despite staying relatively low on the radar, have been pushing the boundaries in rock climbing. Yuji Hirayama’s 2004 ascent of ‘White Zombie’ in Baltzola, Spain, was the world’s first 8c onsight. Also in 2004 came Dai Koyamada’s ‘Wheel of Life’ given V16 and touted as the hardest boulder problem in the world. In total Koyamada’s tick-list contains 10 V15’s and 2 V16’s and according to 8a.spew’s all-time ranking he leads by a considerable margin. Obviously this doesn’t prove anything on a more general level. As Ross said “Jerry Moffatt is obviously the greatest climber ever... should we therefore assume Brits are better?” Of course generally I would say this line of argument seems ridiculous but it would be similarly ridiculous to argue that time and place don’t affect an athlete reaching their potential. Since 2004, it has been the Spanish who have dominated onsight sport climbing, the only exception being American Chris Sharma (who lives in Spain). It seems to me inevitable that different scenes are going to be at different levels. Someone wishing to improve their onsight level is going to be much more successful living in Lleida, surrounded by the best crags, good climate and a strong scene than if they live in Forfar. Japan has got quite a bit going for it in terms of churning out beasts.
I think the only reason why anyone gets good at something is through dedication to it, natural talent being an illusion (naturally less untalented would seem more appropriate). Japanese work ethic is well documented. A survey by Japan's Productivity Centre for Socio-Economic Development recently found that, despite concerns from the older generations, Japan's new corporate recruits were just as committed to their jobs as ever. A survey of 4,000 new recruits found an overwhelming majority of them - 80 per cent - would be prepared to sacrifice a date in favour of work.
“At one factory in northern Japan, workers raise their fists and chant "we must work harder, we must do our best in all things" (
“At the risk of generalising, there is something about Japanese culture that values dedication. Dedication to work. Dedication to play. Just witness the overworked salaryman sleeping his drunken stupor off, lying on a bench covered in his own vomit, waiting for the morning train, and you will understand what dedication to work and play is. Most boulderers you'll meet will be quite focused too, eh, on bouldering that is. If you want to keep up with them, expect hard sessions among the blocks.”
In any society you will find incredibly driven people, the Rich Simpsons of this world, but when we are talking about a significantly higher average level, I think this indicates a cultural difference. For instance, there was a boom in standards at Alien Rock 2 when it became socially acceptable to train; when the climbing culture in Edinburgh and quite possibly further afield changed. You might all be shouting at your computer screen right now about how you’ve never finger-boarded, planned your micro-cycles or timed your intervals but really training is a state of mind. Climbing everyday in the mountains, psyched out your mind to improve and constantly daydreaming over how to do so seems to me more like training than going down the wall once a week to do the same circuit of problems.

Britain in general is terrible for this. All the geeks at school, swearing blind they hardly studied for their exams, the trad climbers round my flat to train, claiming the entire time they don’t train! There is something about British culture where it’s not cool to try or aspire to be better in everything. In the same way it seems quite possible and substantiated that there is something about Japanese culture that goes the opposite way and says it’s not cool to not try your hardest.
Another possible reason for a difference in physical standards between two different scenes would be the body type present in those scenes. The topic of diets is often brought up in sport climbing and bouldering circles; you can never be light enough. It might then be interesting to know then that psychologist Futoshi Kobayashi from Northern State University, South Dakota found, from a study of 245 Japanese students, aged between 18 and 32, that the mean weight of a student was 56.7 kg compared with 72.6kg in the 162 Americans he studied ( If 1 stone = 6.35029318 kilograms and according to Steve McClure half a stone= a plus grade, with 15.9kg difference that’s over 5 plus grades difference in the average population! Clearly these statistics are in reality pretty meaningless but I would imagine that the average weight of climbers would be lower still everywhere, I say blushing.
Also, in the same article, Kobayashi found that Japanese participants were significantly shorter on average than the Americans interviewed (1.64m to 1.71m). Whilst the excuse ‘I’m too short to do it’ frequently comes up amongst vertically challenged climbers, really when you start looking around you realise that the majority of the best climbers are short. At Alien Rock for example Roddy Mackenzie, Garry Vincent, Marc McQuade, Mike Rudden, etc aren’t exactly tall. Furthermore, the greater the number of short arses there are, the less valid height seems as an excuse for failure. Ultimately it might actually mean that short climbers work there weaknesses more, doing big moves, getting strong through their entire range of movement and turning their short levers to their own advantage.
Ross, Mike and Penny, you might still laugh at the idea that someone who has never been can seriously speculate that Japanese climbers climb harder, but if you aren’t going to go on casual observation at the hard climbing hotspots of the world, statistical evidence on the body types of the Japanese youth or pseudoscientific research on Japanese culture and desire to succeed, I think it would be no less meaningless to go to Japan and casually observe the wads there, all the time unable to compare them to the scene anywhere else without simultaneously observing them...
Shit, that’s four hours I should have been working.


Ross Hunt said...

What a crock of shit. If you lived in Forfar you would have the mighty Shanner at which to OS your way to glory, duh. Shot yourself in the foot a bit there, picking the one place in Scotland with easy access to a world class sport crag.

sam clarke said...

I quite agree that the shanner is Scotland's only world class sport crag, but once Yuji's onsighted the niche what's he going to do while he waits for merchant to dry? Hit legaston?

Pitcairn said...

Hi Sam,

Nice blog mate - always thoughtful and entertaining to read. The main factor seems clear to me - the size /weight issue. Apparently western climbers who go to Japan get spanked on most things except dynos due to the height difference. Im quite tall and my mates always go on about this but the key factor to being a good climber is weight. There are very few hard routes with TOTALLY blank sections that only a long reach can negotiate. There are many hard climbs where power to weight ratio is key and the lighter climbers win through.


Stewart B said...

Hey Sam,

We met that Japanese couple a few times while we where in Font and I can tell you the guy at least was a machine... Cruised La Berenzina and came very close to La Balance.

Excellent blog btw,

sam clarke said...

Cheers guys. I feel vindicated.

alpinedreamer said...

Sam, I think you deserve at least 1/8th of a degree for all that work!

1. we met a couple in Orpierre, of which one half was Japanese. She was in no way a super climber. To be fair, her partner was an American trad specialist and they lived in Amsterdam.
2. Height - only a problem indoors, unless as Mr Pitcairn says, there is bog all to crimp on in between the jugs which are meant for tall people. Indoors, if you "find something intermediate" you usually get shouted down for cheating.
3. Weight - agree. I should eat less cheese and more Ryvita. Actually, I just had cheese and Ryvita for lunch. Hmmm....
4. Where do you put yourself in the tall/weak-short/strong matrix? You look pretty strong and pretty tall to me!

If your definition of training is acurate, I'm glad I haven't lost it altogether!!

Oh, and does the number of positive responses you get here make any headway towards restoring your friendships with Penny, Mike and Ross? I'd hate to think of you being billy no mates ;-)


Penny said...

You've obviously put rather a lot of effort into arguing you're point, well done. Again I say it; you are a sad man.
An overwhelming majority? You wrote two of the five comments, only one of the others is on your side. S. B is sitting on the fence, giving validation only to half of your original statement.

sam clarke said...

The couple in Orpierre hardly count if they don't actually live in Japan. It's not all about body type and strength, it's as much about attitude.
I'm not sure that being short is really a disadvantage indoors either. The most successful comp climbers around are all midgets (Ramonet Julian, Magnus Mitboe, Patxi, etc)
Strong=redpoining 9a. Traditionally 8c was the beginning of hard but onsight standards have risen from 8b+ to 8c+ since then. This is however irrelevant as it means little for a higher average. I might be taller and stronger than average but I'm not even nearly strong on a world (or local) level.

Ross Hunt said...

Doing Berezina (a famously soft touch 7c) and failing on Balance hardly qualifies anybody for machine status. More like enthusiastic punter. I maintain that you are talking out of your chubby arse.

Shit blog btw.

Mike M said...

Yo. A thought provoking if slightly one sided argument Sam. You say there's no bumblie culture in Japan, but i suspect there is a similar trend wherever you go. My limited experience of Japanese physical ability comes down to two tv shows; 'Takeshi's Castle' and 'Ninja Warrior'...its about as clear a demonstration you can get, that even in Japan, for every wad there is a shambling, mud-caked, horde of bumblies right round the corner.

So I still disagree with your original statement 'all japanese climbers are wads' (a point which you have yet to concede). Just admit you were wrong mate...

p.s What do you mean soft 7C?! I can only assume you intended to say benchmark 7C Ross, even Sam couldnt do it!

Penny said...

Mike makes an excellent point. His TV based analysis is just as valid as yours.
In your article, you pointed out differences in attitude between the British and Japanese people. You did not, however, mention fashion in either country. I don't know where climbing fits into modern Japanese culture but here in the UK climbing is a rather trendy sport to participate in as a weekend hobby. It may be the case that a significant number of climbers in the UK are punters but maybe it's just a more fashionable part time hobby than it is in Japan. Maybe there are just more climbers in the UK. I'd be willing to bet that there's even more of a negative stigma in Japan surrounding the pursuit of such hedonistic activities as rock climbing... there may be more punters here at home but that doesn't automatically mean all Japanese climbers are wads.
You made a sweeping statement that really should not be attracting this much attention. Why are we still on the subject? Oh, that's right... Sam's a loser.

Ross Hunt said...

I think you capture the essence of the debate with perfect clarity there, Penny. Yup, Sam is a loser.

Mike, there is no need to let fact get in the way of an otherwise valid point. Plus I knew that would get you're head shaking...!

sam clarke said...

Ross- doing a 7c bloc might not make you a wad but clearly they're not punters. We're talking about a higher average level, not that everyone is a world class machine.
Mike- this is the real world. everything isn't a perfectly balanced argument especially when there is a right answer. This was clearly intended as a persuasive piece. world. Takohi's Castle' and 'Ninja Warrior'are not relevent at all. As far as I can tell climbing is about Strength to weight and attitude (head), feel free to disagree. But really with an underdeveloped sport like climbing a bit of enthusiasm can get virtually anyone up an 8a. What is it they say??? That the average grade in Britain is HVS. If you think that there is a similar trend of athletic ability (not necesarily natural talent) everywhere then why do the same countries place highly in the same athletics events consistently. Apparently over 40 people in Lleida have climbed 8b+ despite only 131731 inhabitants. Scotland has 5million inhabitants and yet only 5 people have climbed 8b+. Be it attitude, physical ability or opportunity you can't seriously be arguing that the level there isn't higher?!
Penny- you've totally missed the boat. Yes, training is a fashion choice. That's what i've been saying and I never said that all Japanese climbers were wads, just that the standards in Japan are significantly higher. I've found evidence to support my theory. All you dweebs have done is reference totally unrelated tv shows i've never seen.

Mike M said...

hahaha! This is fun!

Ross Hunt said...

No Sam, you've missed the boat. You are backtracking on your original wild speculatory assertion that 'those guys are clearly wads'. Well if they were wads they would have made footless flashed ascents of balance instead of failing on it.
Yeah so Llieda has loads of good climbers. What a suprise - it is the climbing capital of Spain. Just like the keen beans in the UK move to Sheffield and the keen beans in Germany move to Erlangen, the keen beans in Spain (or worldwide - witness Sharma and Bolger) move to Llieda. Who would move to Scotland to improve their sport climbing?
Who are you're 5 who've ticked 8b+ btw? Take it you're not counting Merchant as 8b+?

Ross Hunt said...

And what have any of these Llieda punters done at Dumbarton or Brin? Don't you remember when Patxi went down to A2 and got shut down?

Ross Hunt said...

If you think climbing is just about strength to weight ratio and head then maybe that's why you're so crap? It's about, the balance, the friction, the feeling, drop knees, knee bars, french blowing, grace, beauty, art. It's people like you who are turning our sport into thuggery and roped gymnastics.

Penny said...

HAH. Yeah, Sam, you did miss the boat... or at least the point that i was trying to make. I wasn't talking about training being fashionable or not. I think that there are a lot of punters in the UK because climbing is fashionable as an activity rather than a lifestyle/passion whereas in Japan there may not be a similar approach to the sport. Maybe it's not as easy to be a punter in Japan because climbing isn't as popular. If climbing was less popular here there would be less punters and only the really dedicated would still be in the game. The average grade might be lower in the UK (because of all the punters dragging the average down) but there is no reason to assume that 'Japanese climbers are better'. There are loads of beasts in Britain. You've only mentioned two Japanese wads in your article. Do you know the names of any other's?

Penny said...

Furthermore, Japan has a population of 124.4 million, over twice the UK's population (60.4m) so there are bound to be some beasts over there; there are bound to be some punters too.

sam clarke said...

Ross- If you accept that the standards are higher in Lleida because it's the 'climbing capital of spain', why is it so ridiculous to estimate that standards somewhere else are higher too? I accept that in the modern media doing a 7c doesn't make you a wad, but really it's all relative. If someone turns up and pisses your project then that makes them a wad, there and then. It's different from a hard climber (a 9a climber) who climbs hard things (9a routes), a wad just climbs harder than you, there and then.
Penny- I am talking about climbing as a lifestyle- see above for my definition of training. Climbing as a lifestyle is a fashion choice, albeit one facilitated for by wider society and social policy. For instance the number of climbers on the dole, living for climbing, in the 80's.
If the average grade of climber is lower in Britain THAT IS PROOF that on average climbers are better in Japan (if P then Q, P therefore Q).
And yes penny, there are loads and loads of Japanese machines. I just named Dai and Yuji because they are strong contenders for the best boulderer and route climber (not just sport) of the last decade. Hirotaro Hoshina has done half a dozen v14's and flashed v11. Keito Mogaki has bouldered v14 and flashed v12 and comments of his ascent of 'Hydra' (v14 in Shiobara, Japan) 'Maybe 7 people have climbed this before'. Maybe they were foreigners, I don't know. But I don't hear of many climbers going to Japan.
Also I forgot to mention the ammount of money there is in climbing in Japan. Anyone who has spent a bit of time in the south of france over summer will have seen Yuji Hirayama bombing about in his BMW and Tomoko Ogawa (the asian champion) seems to be a bit of a celebrity, claiming to play an active role in Japanese TV and Magazines. Can you imagine that in the UK; Steve Mc on Jonathan Ross?
Why Penny are there bound to be some punters over there too?

sam clarke said...


sam clarke said...

Also 5 Scots to have climbed 8b+:

Spider Mackenzie- Specialistes Direct, Verdon
Malcolm Smith- Numerous
Paul Savage- La Connection and Dalliance, Kilnsey
Dave Mac- Numerous
Alan Cassidy- Numerous

nunasjord said...

Sam i totally on your side here about the Japanese...They have a natural light weight flexibility and naturally strong...i noticed this in gymnastics too...disadvantage is they are small so tall people can have upper hand there...
come on its so simple they have perfect build for climbing(ok not every single japanese person)but still point is i on your side here....

i can not be bothered to go into it all....

nithin said...

What the heck r u talking about?Do u think u r great by talking about someone climbing some stuffs.I am very much sure that u r a very good climber than whome u r talking about.SO I REQUEST U NOT TO POST THESE CRAP SHITS.