Basketball Explains Japan and America


I spent my entire youth playing basketball. As I pursue organization building and leadership development these days, I often reflect back on the lessons I learned through sports. There are rules that govern basketball, but there are no rules about how you choose to play. This leaves tons of room for cultural expression. Here’s what I learned:

1) When polite teams play against polite teams, it’s about who can execute the best with predictable and soft opposition. It’s a gentleman’s game.

2) When aggressive teams play aggressive teams, it’s about who can outplay the other amid predictable and tough opposition. It’s chaotic.

3) When polite teams play against aggressive teams, each side leverages their cultural advantage against the other. If the polite team can execute its strategy crisply, they can defeat the simple aggressive team. If the aggressive team can disrupt the polite team’s plan, they can literally take victory out of the polite team’s hands.

4) Obviously a team that has both attributes can defeat teams that have only one.

So what does this teach us about Japan and America?

I played basketball for private schools. We were on the polite side. We always struggled with teams from the inner-city who were aggressive and would disrupt our plans. Personally, I was a pretty good player against polite teams but really struggled when my defenders were aggressive and in my face.

Eventually I learned how to be strong with the ball and punish defenders for being too aggressive. The more I played with strong competition, which was uncomfortable at first, the more naturally I was able to handle pressure. This is pretty normal in America.

Contrast this with Japan. My first game of basketball was just weird. There were strange rules like you only get to shoot once in 1:1 and you have to give the ball back to your opponent even if you get your own rebound. I would also play with a normal level of physicality and get shocked responses from other players.

Japanese basketball players get owned when they play in America. 

I think this goes far beyond basketball. There are things that work in Japan, the way Japanese play the game, but they fail miserably in global competition. Business and the education system are probably good examples. People are trained to play in a world that is very Japanese and predictable. This is why test-taking is valued more than real life abilities. It makes sense for determining value in a stable world. 

So what do you do when you realize the world is not stable?

This is what Japanese leaders should be thinking and acting on.

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