The Japanese word senpai, simply translated, means ‘senior’. It is both a natural and respectful way of referring to someone who is your elder. A mentor, if you will.
But behind the simplicity of the word lies an entire subculture of unwritten laws and responsibilities that you take upon yourself as one’s senpai, leading by example, only to then pass down the knowledge and experience you’ve gained to the generation behind you.
This is true in school, business or even sport, and the onus of being one’s senpai will be with that person for life.
So, when it comes to the young career of Keita Nakajima – currently the top amateur golfer in the world – though his sights are set on achieving his life-long goal of playing on the PGA Tour, he’s also focused on fulfilling a sacred responsibility passed down from senpai to senpai for centuries. He is playing the role of coach and mentor to underclassmen that look to him for guidance.
“I joined the team when I was 15 years old,” he said. “Back then there were many senpai that I really looked up to. I was playing among them, but now I am the oldest on the team, and I hope to set a good example for the younger players that follow in my footsteps after I leave.”
That team Nakajima refers to is not his high school club or even his Japan Sports Science University team, but the Japan national team, a squad that has produced the last two McCormack Medal recipients as well as the world’s No.1 reigning amateurs since 2020.
While golf is an individualist sport, Nakajima frequently credits his own senpai and fellow McCormack medallist Takumi Kanaya [pictured, top, with Hideki Matsuyama] as an integral part of his own success.
“In following Takumi-senpai’s game, I’ve always felt that his putting was very clutch,” Nakajima said. “His mentality stays strong, and he never gives up, which is something I’ve always tried to replicate.”
Kanaya himself is just 23 years old and already a three-time winner on the Japan Golf Tour – including once as an amateur – and he joins Nakajima at the Masters this week after cracking the OWGR top 50 at the end of 2021. As for Kanaya’s senpai? That’s none other than fellow Tohuku Fukushi University alumnus, eight-time PGA Tour winner and reigning Masters champion Hideki Matsuyama.
A rather impressive pedigree of descendants that the Elder-Senpai Matsuyama now sits atop of, breaching multiple generations of Japanese world No.1 amateur golfers with a single common thread among them – their beloved Japan national team.
What’s in the secret sauce behind the rebirth of the national team that is helping produce some of the top amateur golfers in the world? While the team has been around since 1984, it functions much differently today. It’s changed radically even from just a decade ago, when a young 19-year-old Hideki (2010-2012) was last a member.
“There were many good players in Japan, but instruction methods have changed,” said Andy Yamanaka, executive director and chairman of the Japan Golf Association. “In the past, it was customary that former players would eventually become the national team coach, however, our coaching methods have evolved to finding a coach who has actual coaching qualifications and studied instructional methods on being a coach.”
According to Aijiro Uchida, senior manager and high-performance development instructor for the JGA, “The turning point for us started back in 2006. We took our high-performance team to the world championship but ended up placing fourth. We felt something needed to change to enhance the level of our players.
“We didn’t have a traditional coach. We had a swing coach but no one who could offer advice in terms of physicality, mentality and dietetics. I went to Florida in 2011 and visited 10 academies known for their world-class coaches and, for the first time, I was introduced to a structure that united individual performance experts into a singular system in order to help develop a more holistic team.”
Uchida wondered if this method could apply in Japan. “In 2014, when the world championship took place in Japan, I saw firsthand teams that employed that kind of system perform very well and realised if we didn’t change what we were doing, we would never be able to do better than fourth.”
The Japanese already had a firm understanding of sports science and nutrition, so naturally, for a golf-crazed country deeply steeped in its own cultural pride and traditions, the obvious choice in a ‘golf’ coach for its prized national team would also lie within its own borders, right? When looking at a current team photo, you may notice one face that stands out. A pale-faced, green-eyed Australian named Gareth Jones is hard to miss among the sun-bathed faces of the young Japan national team.
“They’d seen me around through the Asia-Pacific quite a bit and we connected,” Jones said. “I guess my personality, or what they thought was my personality, was going to suit what they wanted to do. And my background coming from elite development was then, I guess, the match.”
Jun Nagashima, assistant manager of high-performance development at JGA, reflects, “Gareth has successfully combined his own essence of coaching golf with Japanese sports science, while also taking Australia’s Western culture and open-minded atmosphere and integrating that into Japan’s Eastern senpai culture and humility, and then individualising those philosophies down to each individual player. Today’s program transcends nationalities and is borderless between Japan and other countries.”
Jones adds: “We had sports sciences involved, we had strength and conditioning. We had psychology. When I came in, I really wanted to try to bring even more sports science involvement into the program but have it that sports science was involved in performance as well.”
One other very apparent thing stuck out to the newly christened Aussie coach that needed to be fixed.
“I’d seen them at many big amateur events around the Asia-Pacific and in America as well,” Jones said. “I thought they looked really organised, they’re always professionally turned out, they’re immaculate in their appearance. But I thought they probably underperformed for how good they looked. I thought their preparation for tournament’s absolutely could improve. I thought they were spending an awful lot of time hitting golf balls. And not enough time really getting detail about how to play a golf course.
“They have huge work ethics. They’ll hit golf balls all day if you allow that. What I tried to do was bring in a better way of practising, a more focused or more specific way. And focusing on areas that are actually gonna give us real score improvement, real performance improvement. We’ve had a huge emphasis on short game. And really trying to make that a major focus of training.”
One of the major obstacles that golfers, especially juniors, face in Japan is environment and access to actual golf courses. Most people spend an exorbitant amount of time at a driving range because that’s the only practice area they can get to.
“[Keita] had won the Australian Amateur Championship. He’s won the Asia-Pacific last year. It was only in the past couple of years he actually got membership to a golf club, which to me is incredible. The level of the play of these players is phenomenal and they don’t have access to golf courses like the juniors do here [in Australia],” Jones said.
As of 2021, there are 2,151 golf courses in Japan and approximately 4,000 indoor/outdoor practice facilities. Jones’ philosophy is to practise more efficiently. Less is more, where in general Japanese athletes will do the opposite having extremely high-volume practice sessions.
“When you practise for long, long periods of time, generally the intensity goes down. So we’ve tried to employ a method of what’s called deep practice and that’s coming from the research, from guys like Daniel Coyle, an author that’s published around this subject. It’s raising intensity and is not specific to golf.
“We really focus on the scoring zones. These are high-performing players; we have to get a result. We tend to focus 65 percent short game, 35 percent long game. That’s our mantra. And we’ve probably flipped what they used to do. It was probably 80 percent long game, 20 percent short game.”
Another thing that does not work in Japan’s favour is its ‘bukatsu’ mentality. Youth sports are not necessarily seasonal like you will often find in the United States, where kids jump from soccer to baseball, then football to basketball, depending on the time of year.
Kids in Japan will join a ‘bukatsu’ program and focus on a single interest, which could be anything from music, sport, art and science, but from a very early age a child will often specialise in one thing. In sport, you can argue either side of the coin as to which method is better, but what the JGA has seen with golf is that kids who only play golf from a very early age are missing out on a lot of other development.
“They’re missing out on other activities that help balance their bodies properly. Let alone playing team sports, which might give them a little bit more humility as well,” Jones said. “So, we really try to push that kids have multiple activities in their life. We’re trying to push a long-term athlete development program or focus.
“When you play a sport like golf, you’re going in one direction all the way. So, we end up with muscle imbalances. Their muscles are not developing necessarily in the right way. So, we have more injuries.”
Apart from practice methodology and specialisations, language for obvious reasons was also another major obstacle that Jones and the team needed to overcome.
“We have a language program (Education First) some of our players take,” he said. “And the ones that are really motivated to go overseas, they realise that learning to speak English, it’s going to be a really positive benefit for their own careers.”
Language company EF provides players with both online and classroom situational learning. Students can do modules, work at their own pace, getting into real-life situations and conversations. They can also learn privately as well, and not feel threatened or embarrassed.
“English is the international language in golf and they (JGA) felt having a foreign coach that couldn’t speak the language is really important. It was gonna push the players to have to learn to speak, to communicate. We wanna push them to expand themselves and be comfortable to make mistakes as well.
“It’s an ongoing process, but we know that English is really important and will give them more opportunities with their caddies, maybe with other coaches in the future, but also to travel independently. We’re trying to build independent athletes.”
Due to COVID, Jones has not been to Japan in more than two years, and he and his team have had to pivot and adjust how they communicate with each other where being able to understand English at even the most basic level is at a premium.
Jones and Keita now have weekly virtual lessons via Zoom where Keita is hooked up to monitors with video and TrackMan data being shared back to Jones, who is joining remotely from his home in Adelaide.
“We have to keep connecting with the player or the athlete, digging a little deeper to find out what they’re experiencing and what they’re actually feeling, not just what I’m seeing,” Jones said. “I want to find out what the athletes are thinking and feeling and really getting them to grow their voice, learn to communicate. So we can, accelerate the learning process.
“It’s a means to an end,” he continues. “It’s something we have to do. It’s better than doing nothing. We’ve learned some things over the past few years that we’ll continue to do as well.”
The sentiment holds true to what has naturally become the team’s motto, “JKG.”
Just Keep Going.
“It’s not about shooting course records every day,” Jones said. “We’re gonna have bad days, and good days. But if we can learn something, just get that little bit better, just learn something every day.”
Regardless of what era any player on the national team was a part of, they feel it’s their responsibility when they become the senpai player to influence the younger players.
It’s like passing the baton in a relay race, and now it’s Keita’s running anchor in his final race.
“What they’ve learned, they can then pass that onto future generations, and Hideki has been a massive influence over all of these players. From what he’s done 10 or 12 years ago, and then these boys then follow on his footsteps. It’s a cultural thing, but it’s also a responsibility, and that’s the great thing, the players take that responsibility seriously,” Jones says.
“It’s a massive thing for a Japanese kid to get into the national team. It’s a huge honour for them, and that’s really powerful. So, to get the badge on the shirt is a really powerful thing and it drives so many of them to try and excel at golf.”
Time will soon tell if the Japan national team will host a third consecutive McCormack winner and world No.1. But one thing is certain – the future wave of young Japanese stars on the PGA Tour is high and, without doubt, nearly every TV set in Japan will be tuned into Augusta this weekend, when three of Japan’s top Rising Sons will tee it up together in what will be a historic Masters for Japan.
TOP/MAIN PHOTO: Getty Images