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"Not an International Way of Thinking" - Stephen Mayaka on Fitting Into Japan's Corporate Team World as a Foreigner

Stephen Mayaka was the first Kenyan high school runner in Japan and the first to go the complete route from high school to university and on into the corporate running world. Now a Japanese citizen, married to a former World Championships-level Japanese marathoner and head coach of Obirin University’s ekiden team, Mayaka is a mentor to Kenyan athletes both across Japan and back in Kenya. JRN interviewed Mayaka just before New Year, 2010 for an article for Running Times magazine. This is part two of his interview. Click here for part one.

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Part Two: The Corporate Life, Pros and Cons

At the professional level, in your day-to-day life in the corporate teams how is it for Kenyan runners or other foreign athletes?

I think every company has its own schedule. I support some companies, and I don’t support some other companies, the way they are using us. There are different understandings. I think there are companies that need a Kenyan just to run in the ekiden championships and some that need him maybe to do some pacemaking for them. Most of them, Kenyans that are here nowadays, sometimes it is very difficult if they don’t understand. If a Kenyan sees he’s training with somebody running 29 or something like that he thinks he’s wasting his time because he’s not using high speed. Normally when they’re needed in races, when they’re going to race for their teammates, that’s how they do it. Some other companies think that they want Kenyans to train with the Japanese so that the Japanese can be strong. So, there are many different cases.

But, I think that most of the corporate companies want to win. Their main aim is the ekiden. But the old system was that you train with the Japanese so that they could be strong. But they’ve changed because now they think that we are professionals and that we are racing against the Japanese professionally. So somebody can go and live alone and become someone with their own money, and most of the companies think that the only reason they want that person is to perform, not to run with the Japanese. But I think that move is a mistake, because you can only be one strong person and the others are weak. So in that case you are not a benefit for the ekiden because your section will be okay, but if the others don’t improve I think it is a minus.

So if they want to be strong they have to train with this person so that they get used to it. I think most of the Japanese, if we compare them to Kenyans, if they see a Kenyan doing 400’s, maybe he’s going with 64, 65, they don’t even hold with that person at that time, so that they just do 68, and maybe go to 70. In that case, they don’t improve. They should train with this person so that they get used to a high pace.

You were with Hitachi for eight years. Apart from running, did you have a desk job or a factory job with Hitachi as well?

In my case, because I speak Japanese, I used to go to the office during the week. Most of those ones who have studied in Japan, they usually go to the office. But you can’t bring somebody from Kenya straight and go to the office right away! (laughs) Because they are going and sitting there, seeing the Internet. (laughs) I see that these people sometimes, they need to be told how to go and make their own business, in the sense of they are only waiting to run and get money and take it home. Most of these people they don’t know how to go earn money with this money. They’re confused with how to use it. “I’ve never seen this much money!” (laughs) Their way of earning is running, but using it is difficult. Most of the athletes I’ve seen, they have that kind of a problem. So what I think is when they’re in a company they should be told how to be saving, and how they can account for and use their money in the future. What they can learn is how to invest it, but using it is a problem.

Eight years is quite a long time to be with one team. Looking at other runners coming over, how long do people usually stay these days?

I think there are those who are going to come and they’re going to finish one year and then go without even saying, “I’m going to come back.” There are some problems arising now, like, you know someone comes for the first time and he doesn’t have someone to assist him, he feels homesick, he goes to Kenya. He doesn’t come back because of the language, and he says, “I’m not eating this food,” something like that. That’s a small thing, what somebody is used to eating, but it’s going to get worse if he doesn’t get assistance and doesn’t communicate. In Japan you’ve got to get somebody to support him. He’s in Hokkaido, he’s training in Hokkaido and doesn’t have somebody to comfort him, he’s very, “Oh no!” But in Japan, the system is this. You can be using this and get used to it. But if he doesn’t get help with it, somebody gets heartbroken and goes back, saying, “Let me go, stop my contract.”

And there are those, maybe there are some companies that hire Kenyans, and they know how to be with foreigners, and they know at first they have to get used to the lifestyle, so they have someone near. The second year, they don’t have any problems. But the first two years it is difficult for somebody to understand the environment very well, and that’s where companies sometimes say, “If you stay you will get used to it. Don’t worry about it. Or maybe you can try this, or maybe you can eat rice and beans until you get used to it.” If we don’t have that comfort, somebody goes back. But most of them, they’re going back because of the language, and some of them are bad behaviors. They don’t do what they are being told. “Now we are going to start our training by 6:30,” but somebody comes around 9 o’clock. Why? “Because it’s cold.” But this is too much, so bad behavior and the language have made some of the people go back home.

Last fall I read an article that in Nagoya there were two Kenyans who were arrested and deported. Simon Maina was one of them. Do you know anything about that situation?

I know very well about it. Most of the cases, I’ve been involved in it. I say that because once they are caught they say to the police, “You call Mayaka about this situation, we want to talk with him,” and then they call me and I try to understand the case. I think that that’s a mistake. You can’t blame Japanese people if you are staying in their country. You have to follow Japanese regulations. If your visa expires you know the procedure that you have to renew it, and if you are kicked out of your company you have to talk with them very politely. But some of them, they make it a chance that they go and work here and work there on a sports visa, which is illegal to do other business when you are stationed here for sports. That’s why I told you that some of those who have come straight, they have misunderstanding, they don’t follow the regulations of the country and the system. They have no plan to know about the Japanese system and how to get around. When someone has stayed for five years he thinks now he knows everything better than the others. But he’s wrong. (laughs resignedly) So, I know that case, I followed it, and I say that it was probably just that their visas expired.

And there are those ones who are misusing, confusing people by saying like, “I want to buy something, give me your money and then I’ll buy for you a new car,” and then he goes and is not doing that thing, some kind of cheating. Some are cheating, and some are doing it for friends, like saying, “I’m just going to go see my friends,” or saying they are sending money to their parents. Those cases are there. Sometimes I’ve been solving that case, and sometimes the Kenyan Federation rules are breaked. They have to be told that Japan has its own rules. You are not going to stay in Japan like that, acting like when you are still Kenya. So, they must be educated first before being released from Kenya. I say that if we are bringing an athlete I have to tell him, “If you are going to Japan, this is the rules. It is very strict. One simple mistake, you are back to Kenya.” And someone says, “I’ll do that, yes,” and there are those who say, “No, no, this one is difficult.” That is okay. You get someone who is interested. But it is not very simple for the athletes.

Most of the Japanese, they know that those athletes are very honest. Most athletes are honest, and yet there are some bad. But some of the Japanese say, “If these people just keep to themselves it is very simple.” It is not only for a bad person, but for all Kenyans now it becomes that Kenyans are not straightforward, so it scars the name for me and Kenya also, even those ones who are honest around me here. You feel it, like when people accuse and say, “You are the one!” but you’re not the one. These are only stories. It’s not all of the Americans who are cheats, not all of them are cheats, but it happens that maybe this person is not clean.

Somehow often Kenyans have a problem, like another one is Mutai, who spent two years staying in Kanagawa. I tried this case, and it was very difficult. Driving a car while he was drunk, and hitting some people around. Such a nonsense thing. But I don’t empathize with it because I’ve seen what has happened to Maina. Yeah, I had a chance to talk with them, and those are the people I try to help, those who are just from Kenya and those who first came to Japan. I said to Maina when he came first to Japan, I’m the one who first helped him to learn Japanese, how to cope with the company. I used to go to Nagoya, and every week I’d tell him, “Now you have to make sure that you make friends in Japan.” He was given help, but when he started doing some funny things, that’s when he lost many friends. He would make such a nonsense thing.

I saw another article about two high school students, one of them a girl from Toyokawa High School, who disappeared. I never saw a follow-up on that. Do you know the circumstances?

Yeah, I know about them. I saw that article, but I tried to follow it more. You know, sometimes they claim, “They are bad to us. They don’t give us food.” They are using some excuses. But you have to tell them to be a big person and to play by the rules. Sometimes they are told that, the ones who are eating much, they are overweight. Now they are told that you have to take a pass on your test or something. They say, “No.” They use such excuses that, “I’m told not to eat because I’m getting fat.” They use some excuses, those who cannot do.

And some of them, they say that, “We are mistreated.” Okay, when they have done something wrong, they use in the case at first that, “We have been mistreated.” And that is not true. So they say like, “We are not getting pocket money.” There are some kids who come here sometimes I don’t understand because I myself, I passed the same way. You are a student, you have been brought here to study, you are given food, you have somewhere to stay, clothes and other things. You don’t always feel that you have to get money. You are not employed, you are a student. Do your work first, study hard and run fast. After that you will start your earning. Because I feel they bought your ticket, they are giving you food, they are taking you to training camps, what else you need? (laughs) Because your life now, it’s better, because you don’t have to buy food. It’s there. It also means they are supporting you for clothes, your uniform. But then they say, “I need money to send home.” No, because you’re not an employee, and your main thing is that you go to school and you do your best in your running and studies and you don’t have to pay anything at all. That’s what you see some of these times.

But because some ones can get money, they just try to leave and run away so that they get out of school. But some of them, they are cheated. In many cases they are told, “You come, we can get you a job somewhere.” That’s why they left school. But in this case, I think it was a lack of communication, with the teachers and with the students. That was the situation.

Including high school, university and corporate runners, how many Kenyans are there in Japan now altogether?

There are some who come I don’t even know, but I would say there about 90, students, corporate, yeah. Last time I counted, including some Ethiopians and Moroccans combined there were 96, but I think now the number has gone over 100. It’s growing.

Recently the New Year Ekiden restricted foreign runners to the very short “International Stage.” Looking at it from your point of view as an agent and as a professional runner, how do you feel about that? What do you think are the reasons behind it? How do you think it affects the opportunities for Kenyan runners?

I think that rule is very bad. It is not an international way of thinking. Those who made that rule, they were thinking about themselves. It’s not good to say that this is the section for only the Africans. Why? These people, they are training with Japanese. That rule, it doesn’t make sense. I don’t agree with their thinking because Japanese aren’t going to America and are told that you have to run only this. That experience is so often practiced in Japan. The reason I can’t even myself understand is these people, they are competing for a team in the ekiden, and you could say that if they put Kenyans in 20 km against Japanese they make up 3 minutes. So to cover this distance, let’s train for the Japanese to cover it, then this team will be winning. But in the current way this is not very important. And it is very bad, to my sight, because if you go to Olympics, you don’t select people you fight together. And in Japan there are different companies. These different companies are going against each other. A competition is a competition.

And then to shorten the distance, I think it is very bad. There are some individuals who don’t want foreigners, and there are those who want foreigners to run. It’s a misunderstanding because there are those who want to support some African runners, and there are those who want some African runners so that their athletes will be strong. There many cases of things like that. Not only there are some companies trying to get Kenyans for only the ekiden and are thinking only to win the ekiden, but to train some Japanese so that they can be strong. But the way of shortening the distance, it is not credible because if you have your Japanese athletes, you should train your athletes very hard, then they will be strong. I think if you are going to get Kenyans and the team is weak, you’ve not got a chance to win! You’ll be defeated all the time! (laughs) I think it is not good to do that.

And they have that condition, to say that foreigners have to be here for 180 days. Those who have studied in Japan they should not be counted to 180 days. I say that’s not normal to do just because these people are foreigners. That’s how they set it. If you set that kind of rule, you set it to all. I think that the other athletes would say, “Why these ones who are settled in Japan they should be required this?” Because they themselves can go to Kenya and stay long. Why these people are prohibited to go because of the number of days?

Now that Kenyans and Ethiopians and other foreigners are restricted to very short stages, there is less benefit to their team to spend the money to get an African runner. That seems as though it would reduce the number of teams that want to hire an African runner, but you said these days the numbers are going up.

I think for men it is a little bit okay, but for ladies you know it is 3.3 km. I see some companies are closing the market. They don’t need Kenyans, because 3 km, you can only make a difference of 10 seconds, which the Japanese can cover for the 3 km. So their number is going to reduce because one thing is the kilometer have been shortened, and the salary is going to be going down because what they are doing to help, it’s not enough like if they ran 10 km. And their behaviors. Some of them have started to make the Kenyan name very bad. Some Japanese, they are saying, “These people, they are not following our rules. They are rude, they are not honest.” There are some cases of that.

I think the number is increasing in schools, but not in companies, because there are some Kenyans who are not strong but they join a company. They lose their way and end up going back home, because their potential is terrible. You cannot believe some of the companies who just get anyone. Every company wants somebody who runs 27, or 26. And the high school student running 29. So there’s no need to be employed, because he’s not competitive. So some of them, they are ending up going back. These are the ones, they call on me and ask for help from me. Some of the clubs have closed, and the salary now, the contracts are going down. There’s a time it went up, and now I think the number of Kenyans is going down.

Recently I was looking at a lot of race results from the 90’s and early 2000’s and it seemed that there used to be more of a range in nationalities among foreign runners. You mentioned that there used to be more Moroccans, South Africans, Tanzanians, and there was even a Canadian.

Jeff Schiebler, my friend, yeah.

These days it looks like it’s almost entirely Kenyans and a few Ethiopians. What do you think about this change?

I think maybe it was, we had some South Africans, Kalamori, I know him, we raced together, from Burundi, and Morocco. But it became to happen that the companies mostly prefer the Kenyans very much because of the ability to speak in English. Communication is very easy. Some Ethiopians are coming but they are difficult because of the Ethiopian language and Japanese, and English is another. So that’s what makes it difficult for some Ethiopians who stay in Japan for a while. And their culture. It becomes very difficult to understand and to cope here. But it’s getting better because they have their Biruk Bekele, who is like their agent. He knows Japanese, so he speaks with them and helps them to communicate. That guy helps a lot, but, you know, like, South Africans were difficult because of the training and they were far from home, and I think there was a misunderstanding of the communication. They wanted to do their own training and didn’t want to run with Japanese. And Moroccans, I think it was tough. I don’t know if they had trouble because they were Muslims or such conditions. I think most of the companies stick with the Kenyans because of the communication, and because there are other Kenyans around so that they can communicate with each other so that they cannot feel so homesick. That’s way better.

But I don’t believe that the system has changed very far yet. Most Kenyans are fighting to be strong. They want it. They are aiming to get some earning from the races they are running because they come and every company says they get a bonus. They’re fighting for that. That’s next to the companies who say that, “Yes, that one is strong, we need that one.” For each company, because they have been using Kenyans there before. They know the system. Whereas you put in an Ethiopian, and then they say, “The Kenyan was better because he could understand.” Because of the communication. That’s like the Canadian, Jeff. He stayed in Japan long. We stayed together in Yamanashi for a couple of years. He wasn’t studying Japanese, but he was speaking English and he was doing his own training program. It was very good for him. So actually communication is the most reason for this trend here. Actually, you know, in the world you see Kenyans and Ethiopians coming in and the one who wins is the Kenyan because they are strong.

© 2010 Brett Larner, all rights reserved

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