When I first met Makoto Nagano at a media event last December, we had a long discussion about why so many people are impressed with watching him on SASUKE. "The attention is almost embarrassing because all I'm doing is having fun with my friends." But part of what makes Nagano and so admirable is precisely that he has so much fun with his friends, even as they fail.
SASUKE is the rare event where there is heroism in failure. The respect people have for Makoto Nagano is from the way he handles defeat - when he falls in the muddy ditch, he smiles brilliantly as he surfaces; he wholeheartedly cheers for his friends even when he makes an early exit; he is never boastful and never makes excuses.
In an early SASUKE episode, actor Kane Kosugi and former Olympian Jordan Jotchev prepared for attempting the final stage. There was no comradery, no smiles as the two gladiators aim to better the other. But Makoto Nagano changed the rules of sports competition with the tears he sheds for his friends, for his proposal that they achieve victory together. He showed everyone that indeed, sport is about how you play the game.
Even when he finally succeeded in conquering the "Iron Witch" in the 18th competition, he shocked everyone with his reply about what he found at the top of the tower. "There is nothing up here," he said. For Nagano, SASUKE was never about his own success, but about having fun.
Even away from television cameras, Nagano's attitude doesn't change. "I've never cared much about winning. I just love the thrill of playing a game," he says. At a sport amusement facility built by the producers of SASUKE, he and I played games that test mental agility - something we both profess to being bad at. But I can brag that I defeated Makoto Nagano at a place called Muscle Park - albeit at a game that required only the muscles of fingers pressing numbers on a screen. Despite my victory, I had little interest in doing something I wasn't any good at. Nagano doesn't get better but still he keeps trying - smiling that famous Nagano smile. "It doesn't matter whether he's good at something, this guy really has fun doing everything," I thought.
In one of our conversations, he came up with some insight on life he wanted to share. "People get disappointed when a dream doesn't come true. But I think that there is always something gained by just going after a dream." The more he went on, I more I began to realize that his story about the importance of challenging rather than winning is a story that should be shared with all SASUKE fans. The more we talked, the more we realized that there were other inspiring stories to be gathered from the other Sasuke stars. It is our hope that people will gain something to motivate them from reading this site.
Makoto Nagano grew up with one dream - to be an Olympic gymnast. His dream was thwarted early on as he did not go to high school and had no chance of competing at national level. Though his dream ended, Nagano kept training his body. The result was something beyond his wildest wishes, all because he believed that there is always something to be gained by trying.
Makoto Nagano was an active, mischievous boy who loved to play outdoors whether it was diving into the jagged rocks of his seaside hometown or by the rolling hills behind his modest home. At 10, he began mesmerized by the physical prowess of Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan and began training his body to imitate his heroes. One routine he had was practicing Jackie Chan's famous pose in "Drunken Master" by balancing a tea cup on each thigh, each forearm and on the top of his head. When asked to do it now, he tries and then laughingly concedes, "My goodness, I can't balance a cup on the top of my head anymore."
As time went by, his ambition to be a kung-fu master transformed into one of being an Olympic gymnast. But in the town of Kitaura -- population 3,000 -- there were no gymnastic clubs for kids. His dream centered on training by himself using school equipment and practicing with friends. At the sports day of his last year in junior high, Nagano and a friend thrilled the entire school by doing handsprings across through the entire field. Without the grades or the finances to go onto high school, Nagano opted to become a fisherman - a common choice in his seaside town. He assumed that sports day would be his last display of athleticism.
But Nagano didn't stop working out. "I guess I liked the attention from people around me complimenting on how fit and agile I am," he said. A coffee shop owned by his cousin had a universal gym set and Nagano frequented there on his days off. But he gained his muscular physique by his first job which involved by pulling sandbags out of the ocean.
One day, a friend watched an episode of SASUKE and thought, "Hey, Makoto can do this stuff." Out at sea for 300 nights a year, Nagano did not have access to much terrestrial television. Growing up mesmerized by the antics of "Takeshi's Castle", he fell in love with the zany obstacles of SASUKE at first sight. He sent in his application, and the rest is history.
Makoto Nagano did not stop training his body even after his dream of the Olympics was over. By gaining the admiration of the people around him, he earned his ticket to SASUKE and now have fun doing athletics on a stage he never dreamed of. "No matter what it is, if you keep trying, something good will come out of it," he says. "Let's say someone was dreaming of being an Olympic swimmer and though that dream never came true, the person walks along the beach one day and rescues a drowning child. His efforts saved a human life. Hard work will always reap some kind of result," he says with conviction.
My first impression of Kazuhiko Akiyama is that he is a very shy man who would be difficult to talk to. The first time I met him at a Muscle Park press event, Makoto Nagano and I had played all the games together. Katsumi Yamada joined us for a few sessions, but Akiyama shied away. However, the second time I met him in Kagoshima, I saw a completely different Kazuhiko Akiyama. Maybe it was the familiar smell of the ocean water but here, he stands in front of Nagano's company booth with his hands cupped, beckoning loudly for customers to buy fresh fish.
Born with impaired vision (degenerative retinoschisis) had never stopped Kazuhiko Akiyama from pursuing his desires. With his finely chiseled body, he became the first ever SASUKE champion at the #4 competition. Although he has officially retired, his view of life before and after SASUKE is always filled with optimism.
"When I was a boy, I played baseball. I was a back-up outfielder. Because I couldn't see fly balls very well, my chances of regular play would be slim. So I switched to basketball, the ball was bigger," he says with a chuckle. All through his life, Akiyama says he's never felt sorry for himself because of his vision. Even today if he became blind, it would not prevent him from pursuing his goals. "Why should it? There are so many people with perfect vision who never do anything in their life," he points out as he takes on challenges others are too afraid to.
Makoto Nagano began training his body from admiring Bruce Lee. For Akiyama, it was Sylvester Stallone from the Rocky movies. He began to work out, cutting down his body fat to a single digit. His dream of being a boxer transformed into a serious desire to be an Olympic wrestler. His athleticism won him a spot on the prestigious Japan Self-Defense Force's sports academy to train world class athletes. But as his training became more serious, Akiyama realized the solemnity of his doctor's warning: "If you continue to compete in sports where your head is constantly banged, complete blindness will be merely a matter of time." "When I was young, I wouldn't listen to my parents and their worries, but as I got older, I realized being blind would be really scary," he said.
Kazuhiko Akiyama then returned to his native Hokkaido and joined the family business as a crab fisherman. One day, he watched a television show calling for participants to compete in a 3-mins. push-up contest called Quick Muscle. Akiyama easily won the regional contest and on national television, he became the world Quick Muscle record holder at 307. Because of his Quick Muscle performance, Akiyama wore the prestigious number 100 on his first appearance at SASUKE. He lived up to the expectation when he became the first ever champion on his third attempt.
But the revised SASUKE course became vastly difficult to complete with impaired vision. "I could conquer the Jump Hang by practicing the trampoline jump so many times I could do it with my eyes closed," he said. "But then there is the Metal Spin in the second stage which is also difficult to see." His reasons for retiring were multiple.
After completing SASUKE, there were dramatic changes in Akiyama's life including marriage and the birth of his two sons. He also quit crab fishing to work to become a massage therapist. The training of SASUKE took valuable time away from his neophyte business. There comes a time when a man puts his family before his hobby.
Although there must be times when Akiyama feels lonely since his retirement, he never loses his optimism towards new goals. Having recently written a special feature on massage therapy in Tokyo, we enjoyed talking about his work. "I think senior citizens in Hokkaido would appreciate oil massages especially in the cold winters," I suggested. He replied with a laugh, "Oh I don't think so. If I did oil massages, people may get the wrong idea of what kind of therapy I do."
"I feel like crying when I think about Kazuhiko Akiyama retiring," writes one American fan. Akiyama wins the respect of people around the world not only for being the first SASUKE champion, but he will always be remembered as a warrior who never let any setback stand in his way of fulfilling dreams.
Toshihiro Takeda shocked fans and even his best SASUKE friends when he announced that he would retire from SASUKE after #17. To him, the decision had been made a long time ago. "My wife and I had agreed years ago that I would quit SASUKE when our older son started elementary school," Takeda explains. Their reasoning was that unlike the cloistered atmosphere of his daycare, elementary school was a more intimidating place. "Sure, there would be lots of kids who thought it was cool that Reiya's dad competed in SASUKE. But there would also be kids who would tease him if I performed poorly or if he had problems in sports," he says. "As much as I love SASUKE, I love my family more. It wasn't fair to exposure him to potential negativity because of me."
But as SASUKE #18 drew closer, he received from his fans, phone calls from Makoto Nagano and the producers of the show, words encouraging him to reconsider. Still Takeda did not waver on his decision or start training. Then two weeks before the taping, he decided to have a private moment with his son. "It occurred to me that my wife and I had made this decision without ever once consulting Reiya on what he thought. It didn't seem right."
The conversation went like this:
"Reiya, what do you think about my retirement from SASUKE?"
"Dad, I want you to continue."
"Are you sure?"
The words were simple, yet to Takeda, so powerful. It was probably the first and definitely the most memorable father to son conversation they have ever had. "My son is a bit timid and my wife and I are to be blamed for always wanting to shelter him from harm," Takeda says. "We were wrong for not asking him how he felt. To Reiya, the pride he had in watching me outweighed any potential taunting he may receive. He was stronger than we had given him credit for. That conversation made me realize that my son has grown up to be able to make decisions. Every time I think about that moment, I get teary-eyed," he says.
"When I watched how strong my little boy has become, it's such an incredible feeling," says Takeda. "This summer, we made a deal that if he swam 50 meters, I would buy him anything he wanted. I was at work when I received his call. He was so excited. It was like his version of completing SASUKE! I really believe that watching me has made him want to take on difficult challenges and try his best at things."
Takeda's family has not been there to cheer him on recently. "I'd love to have them come all the time, but as my family gets bigger, it gets harder. I still remember my wife being eight months pregnant the first time I went on. When I finished the first stage, she jumped up and down so hard, I was scared her water would burst," he laughs.
When I commented that it must be hard to bring a baby in diapers to Midoriyama, he replied, "Oh diapers aren't so bad as when they are being toilet-trained. Then being on the set for the entire day really becomes a pain," he laughs. When he shares anecdotes of his family at Midoriyama, it becomes obvious that to Takeda, each competition is etched by memories of his familyfs growth -- this was the Sasuke when his wife was pregnant; this was the competition after she first gave birth, etc. Even he shows up at Midoriyama by himself, Toshihiro Takeda's family is always by his side.
"Bunpei Shiratori is so straight-laced and serious, he hardly seems the type to do SASUKE. But this contrast is his appeal. The two-faces of Shiratori makes him so awesome." (Fan from a Japanese Internet site)
Bunpei Shiratori, the rural government employee, is every bit the mild-mannered Clark Kent. Yet on SASUKE, he transforms into a Superman who advances to the third stage even when battling heat stroke. It is difficult to imagine this soft-spoken civil servant promoting himself over thousands of applicants to win a ticket to Midoriyama. The story of Bunpei Shiratori is how his passion for SASUKE helped him overcome some character flaws.
"I really like myself when I get passionate about something," Shiratori says with a shy smile on his face. It's hard to imagine why he wouldn't. Surrounding by a loving family, good friends, a job he likes, spending his free time competing in amateur track and field, and being a Sunday carpenter. His life before SASUKE was fulfilling and blessed. However, he admits to having one major weakness: "I have trouble talking to people I don't know." It's not like if Shiratori went out and decided to change himself, but in his passion of pursuing SASUKE, he found himself being able to handle new situations better than ever before.
Shiratori is exactly the way he looks - not the type to hoot his own horn. But the first time he saw SASUKE on television, he said, "Hey, I can do this stuff." So he sent away his application including a casual snapshot of himself taken outside his home. Two days before the taping, he was called in as a substitute. At first, he thought he was selected because of his athletic record in track and field, but later he found out that his selection was based on the photo. "There is a small hill behind my old wooden house and it just looks so rural. The show imagined that I worked at a little one-room government building. They thought it was so quaint," laughs Shiratori.
On the 9th competition, Shiratori became the only person in SASUKE history to complete the Jump Hang by taking off on one foot. Because of this feat, his performance was aired in full. But despite this claim to fame, he was not selected as a participant for SASUKE 10th. Shiratori took this rejection hard. But instead of quitting, he became more determine. He built extensions to his homemade SASUKE set, and this time, he sent in a video of it along with his application. Initially, he was reluctant to get his workplace involved, but this time, he asked his boss for permission for the television crew to film. His boss agreed. Because of his efforts this time around, Shiratori was selected for SASUKE 11. In the 12th competition, he reached the third stage, and became a bonofide All-Star.
"It's really hard for me to talk to people I don't know," admits Shiratori, as his smile turns into an excruciating expression. Because of this trait, it took a lot of courage of Shiratori to first approach Nagano and Takeda at Midoriyama. "I especially wanted to talk to Nagano-san because he was stuck on the Warped Wall twice but he conquered it this time. I was nervous but they were both so friendly and gave me valuable advice," recalls Shiratori. Now it is other participants who approach Shiratori at Midoriyama with apprehension while he warmly advises.
"I've changed since SASUKE. Before, I wasn't able to vocalize my opinions at meetings, but after SASUKE, I find myself being able to assert myself more," says Shiratori with pride.
During the 15th competition, when Shiratori got a heat stroke, it was not only his All-Star friends who attended to him, but many other lesser known participants also helped care for him. Their fondness for him comes from how the entire Shiratori family has opened their home to many people to practice on his set. "My wife and kids enjoy having people over,Ehe says. "We've met all sorts of people we would have never had to chance to know if it wasn't for SASUKE. There is no doubt in my mind that the greatest gift I've gotten from participating are the wonderful people I've gotten to know."
Makoto Nagano has said on camera and frequently in private that of all the participants, he thinks Bunpei Shiratori is the most superior athlete. Yet Shiratori has never reached the Final Stage. A former Kanto district collegiate triple jump champion, Shiratori is someone who knows what success is. "It would be nice to complete it once," he admits. As long as his body permits and it isn't a burden on his family or workplace Shiratori plans to continue SASUKE. But even if he doesn't complete it, the rewards he's gotten are already immeasurable.
Importance of having a hero:
Makoto Nagano: When I was in elementary, I was obsessed with Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee action films. I wanted to be like them so badly that I began working out by myself, on building muscles and improving my dexterity.
Kazuhiko Akiyama: I was inspired by the Rocky movies and began to train my body. I was probably also influenced by the message of an underdog who never gives up.
I want to be like the SASUKE stars:
Makoto Nagano: Kids should play outside more. Video games may be fun, but you can build up your physical coordination just be playing outside. When I was a kid, I ran around outdoors all day long.
Bunpei Shiratori: Playing outside is important. When I was a kid, my friends and I would go to the forest and make our own SASUKE course jumping from tree to tree to logs.
When I fail at something, I just want to give up:
Toshihiro Takeda: It doesn’t matter whether you do well, when you start something, you have to commit to finishing it.
Makoto Nagano: Don’t think about the results, just have fun.
I’m scared to try new things:
Toshihiro Takeda: Have passion for things you try and you’ll forget being scared.
Makoto Nagano: Don’t think about things too much. Just do it.
When the Power of Sasuke first went up last year (thanks to the great computer skills of BunnyHere!), I collected a sample of responses to the site, mostly from American readers, many from this site, and e-mailed it to “The Boys.”
The very next day I received an e-mail from Bunpei Shiratori who said “I am very honored that my efforts at Sasuke could inspire people, even just a little bit.” The e-mail came at a time when Shiratori was experiencing debilitating back pain and I think it cheered him up quite a bit. Shiratori was still competing as a triple jumper, something he trains as hard for as Sasuke. We talked on the phone the following week and he sounded a little more optimistic since he could go back to work. However, the following spring when I was talking to Nagano about the Maguro Festival, he said Shiratori’s back pains still lingered. Bunpei Shiratori is a very reserved person but he was so friendly and open after reading people’s comments to Power of Sasuke. Just think, your comments can inspire the All Stars too!
In the typical Japanese self-deprecating way, Takeda's response was, “I sound like such a great guy that I can’t show my wife because she’ll say everything is not true.”
Kazuhiko Akiyama thanked me politely for it. He is not the type of person to put his emotions to words. But I know he was proud of being in it because for quite a while he kept asking me whether I plan to update it and write some more. For fans, the last time I spoke with Akiyama (in June) he was training seriously for a Sasuke come-back, so watch out for him.
My biggest regret is not including Shingo Yamamoto in the site. The reason was timing. I lived 10 minutes away from one of the gas stations Yamamoto managed, so it was always my priority to interview the guys who lived far away first. But because I wanted the site to go up before the airing of Sasuke 19, we decided to launch it and do his interview later. Then I got preoccupied with other things and never got around to it. I know him the least, but from casual conversations at Midoriyama, he is exactly the way he is on television – friendly and quick with a joke. The guy who pumps my gas told me that he’s attended training courses taught by Yamamoto and says he’s fun but has a serious attitude and high standards when it comes to work.. A genuinely great guy.
And Makoto Nagano. Somehow we did not discuss Power of Sasuke for a long time. We would talk about other things but neither of us mentioned the site. Then we lost touch for a while. Out of the blue, I got a very nice New Years greeting from him thanking me for EVERYTHING I did for him in the past year. That got us talking about the site, and really the bigger topic of whether he is a “hero” or not.
He was incredibly touched by the comments people made about the site. How people around the world looked up to him leaves him overwhelmed sometimes. But being a “hero” can be a lot of pressure. Before fame, when he is onshore, he could be just be an ordinary fisherman. But now, he has to be careful about his behavior in public. “It’s the kids,” he says with a sigh. “Grown-ups should be able to handle that I’m not a perfect person. But I don’t want kids to emulate my bad behaviors.”
And when he struggles with whether he deserves the “hero” moniker, I always assure him that I know the good and bad sides of him, and I still think he’s awesome so he should be proud of himself. He laughs, still unconvinced.
The lesson we should all learn from the Power of Sasuke is that no one is really a “hero” but everyone has heroic moments. The All-Stars are inspiring to many because their feats are dramatized on television. Our lives are not, but when we show kindness to strangers, teach our children important lessons and show determination by trying to be healthier – we are heroes too.