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.