Photo/IllutrationToshiya Saito, left, listens to advice from the men's national team coach, Oleg Matseichuk. (Masaki Kono)

  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

A planned English-language requirement for national team fencers drew comments of bewilderment online, but the president of the Japan Fencing Federation said there is a point to the new rule.

Yuki Ota, in an interview with The Asahi Shimbun, said his own bitter experiences with English and his gradual grasp of the language helped him win the silver medal in the men’s foil event at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Ota, 33, also said English ability is needed to communicate with coaches and referees, and it will also help fencers after they retire from the sport.

The federation in April announced that from 2021, fencers must achieve a certain level of English fluency to qualify for the national team. No other sports organization in Japan has set such requirements.

Messages posted on the Internet questioned the need for fencers to have English fluency.

Ota, who pushed for the policy, explained that despite giving an emotional speech in English in 2013 for Tokyo’s campaign to host the 2020 Olympics, he was not always comfortable with the language.

He recalled that as a second-grader at junior high school when he was on a competition trip in Germany, vendors could not understand his English when he was trying to buy bread at an airport in Frankfurt.

He also admitted that he had difficulty understanding the instructions in English by Oleg Matseichuk, a Ukrainian who still coaches the Japanese foil fencers.

Ota explained that fencers need English to state their case when referees make close calls during a match.

And the language skill could help Japanese fencers gain an advantage over top athletes from other nations.

Ota said that when he was still an active athlete, he spent time at the home of Peter Joppich, a German fencer who was once ranked No. 1 in the world.

During their English conversations, Ota said he picked up hints about fencing techniques and what Joppich was thinking.

He explained that those bits of information helped him to defeat Joppich for the first time in the quarterfinals of the men’s foil at the Beijing Olympics.

Ota acknowledged that he was almost forced to learn English because he usually traveled alone for competitions abroad.

Now, however, national team members travel as a group, and they are more likely to depend on others for communication.

“I thought it would be better if they were given a new goal to achieve,” Ota said.

After the 2021 world championships, fencers will have to take the GTEC test managed by Benesse Corp. as part of the qualification process for the national team.

Benesse is an official supplier of the Japan Fencing Federation, and its English test covers the four basic areas of reading, listening, writing and speaking.

Those seeking to join the national team will need the equivalent of an A2 level on the CEFR used in Europe. The A2 level is the second lowest, and those who do not reach that level in all four skills could be given an exception if their speaking ability reaches A2.

Benesse will provide free educational materials to national team candidates to help them brush up on their English conversation skills.

A more pressing reason for requiring English ability is the number of foreign coaches on the national team.

In March, one of the men’s epee coaches slapped an athlete after a match. The federation said the cause was miscommunication between the two.

The coaches are from Ukraine, France and South Korea, and they use English to instruct the athletes.

The national team has a number of university graduates, but many entered university based on their athletic skills and were exempted from taking entrance exams that included an English category.

Fencing is a minor sport in Japan, and retiring athletes may not have as many opportunities to find jobs as those in other sports, such as baseball or soccer.

“We don’t want to focus only on fostering athletes who are strong in competition,” Ota said. “We want to think first about their futures. English will expand their range of choices.”

Having a certain degree of English fluency will allow retired fencers to work as coaches abroad, such as in Southeast Asia, he said.

(This article was written by Masaki Kono and Takeshi Teruya.)