Thursday, December 2, 2021
Dec. 2, 2021

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Japan trip grabs hold of local wrestlers

Washington team on cultural exchange include four locals

By , Columbian Sports Editor

The matches were competitive and intense.

But that wasn’t the only thrill for four local wrestlers on their latest road trip.

Battle Ground’s James Rogers, Chris Joner, Adam Smalley and Prairie’s Kodi Walls traveled to Japan last month as part of a 12-man team of Washington high school wrestlers.

As part of the 2016 Washington Wrestling Association Cultural Exchange Team to Japan, they saw first-hand how the universal language of sport can overcome any language or cultural barriers.

“They get along immediately,” said Battle Ground High School wrestling coach Jay Rogers, who coached the Washington team. “They call them friendship matches. We’d go out and wrestle, and it would be very competitive. … Afterward, they’d spend an hour-and-a-half or two hours just taking pictures.”

Rogers has long known the value of such cross-cultural exchanges. In 1984, he went on a wrestling trip to Japan as a 15 year old.

So he was eager for his son, James, and others on the team to see Japanese culture from a unique perspective. The wrestlers visited four different prefectures (states), staying with host families for one or two days at a time.

The Washington team won three of four dual matches over a 12-day period.

But winning was secondary. The Washington team used to be selected with a tournament. Now, coaches fill the team with kids who will be good cultural ambassadors.

“Really, it’s based on whether they’re good kids,” Jay Rogers said. “Will they behave themselves and be respectful? Japanese culture is all about respect.”

Respect, but also pride and discipline. Rogers told of visiting a Japanese high school on a Saturday. Despite classes not being in session, “90 percent” of the students were on campus working on projects or practicing sports such as baseball.

Rogers also told everyone from coaches to teachers to restaurant waiters would spare no effort to do the best job they could.

“The pride with which they live their lives was a big eye-opener for our kids,” he said.

The Washington team wrestled near Tokyo, in Nigata on Japan’s west coast, in Nagano and in Saitama. On days they didn’t wrestle, the team visited temples, factories and hot springs.

They were made to feel welcome, even like celebrities. A welcoming committee greeted the wrestlers in each city. The matches were shown on television.

“They just treated them like rock stars,” Rogers said.

And the experience both on and off the mat made it a tour worth remembering.