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  • Joseph Polack


Updated: Jun 30, 2020

John broke the Guinness record by chance. The 12 FIFA World Cup finals on 4 continents that he attended consecutively remain vividly in his memory. And so does his memory of the tough years when he was almost defeated by his own rapidly declining health.

Against the odds, John still plays in international senior soccer games. Yet, twenty years ago he could hardly walk.

His way back to health was like a scary roller-coaster: ups and downs and up again. Injections were followed by medical operations and lengthy rehabilitation.

Though Covid disrupted John’s usual schedule of playing around 80 games a year, he keeps his training intact and remains optimistic.

Since his retirement, John has become happier and busier than ever before.  The experimental physiotherapy device he invented to regenerate his bodily functions is being produced in China and marketed in South Korea under the brand MBUS. His business startups are getting international attention.

Linking international business with soccer has been John's way of life for several decades. During his 43 years working in R&D for one of Japan’s leading global conglomerates, John has been recognized for over 300 Japanese and international patents. His ability to communicate in English, Chinese, Spanish and Japanese allowed him to travel the world as an invited scientist. And, as he told me years ago, he always made sure that his guest lectures and research consulting coincided with the regions where the FIFA World Cups were going to be held. Soon after being appointed Chief Senior Scientist, John developed a weekly Cross-Cultural Communication Seminar that gathered English speaking researchers from different laboratories. This was followed up by establishing a R & D Lunch Soccer Team where John served as a playing coach. That most of the lunch players were much younger and faster than he, didn't discourage John at all. At the contrary, he found their competition stimulating to train even harder.

And as always, every four years John was disappearing for a couple of weeks to attend the World Cup finals in some faraway places. His World Cup eccentricities were tolerated by his superiors as the price for keeping his patenting creativity and languages flourish. Then everything turned upside down: his body rebelled. Being unable to walk was for John something he had never imagined might happen to him. And yet, he managed to avoid wheelchair prospects by chanelling his common sense. Instead of blindly following Japanese physiotherapy programs, he became his own therapist with the help of his MBUS invention. During the past twenty years, John has overcome most of his medical adversities and has succeeded in improving his physical wellbeing.

Yet, John was met with disbelief by his fellow senior players, when he made a comeback to international tournaments in far better condition than before his physical collapse. Before reaching the age of 69 this February, John played for a Japan Senior Team in dozens of international football games. Last year in South Korea. In 2018 in Hawaii. And earlier in New York, Hong Kong, France, Germany, Spain, and a number of other countries where seniors refused to give up their passion for soccer because of age. John’s passion for soccer coincided with two important events in his life: his first trip overseas to watch the 1974 World Cup in then West Germany... and his falling in love with a girl he had met at his first English conversation class in his late twenties.

John & Tamae’s marriage was colored by soccer from the beginning. Initially, John continued to pay his debts from visits to the 1974 World Cup trip, followed by those he attended in Argentina/78, Spain/82, and Mexico/86.

Between John’s trips to the World Cups while John kept polishing his English and Spanish, Tamae gave birth to their three children. Rather than soccer, their sons became passionate about marshal arts and mastered kendo, while their daughter entered a gymnastic sports club. When John and I played at the same Soccer Club in the Kanagawa Senior League, sometimes our kids would join us on our trips across Japan and the American West Coast. 

Coaching his kids in crossing cultural boundaries through team games and trips was as natural to John as his travels to the world cups and playing overseas amateur tournaments.

For John’s wife having foreign house guests John had befriended during his overseas journeys wasn’t anything unusual. It reminded Tamae of her own childhood.  As some of Tamae’s ancestors were of Chinese heritage, she wanted her kids feel comfortable by naturally interacting with those from other cultures. John’s foreign soccer friends were always welcome for Tamae’s home dinners whenever they visited Japan for revenge soccer matches.

Yet, she was unprepared for John’s unconventional outdoor schooling methods of their growing kids. When John decided to show firsthand their teenage son the dangers of wars by having him join a volunteer project in Cambodia, Tamae became worried. The war in Cambodia had just ended. Newly graduated from high school, their son had never been confronted with real danger. His marshal art training was limited to a kendo bamboo sword, hardly useful during a fragile Cambodian peace.  Tamae felt it was far too risky for her husband and their son to be involved in a community school building project in the dangerous Cambodian countryside where there were still many undetected landmines.  Yet, it didn’t seem too risky for John. His attitude was typical: as long as one has good team support and the right coach, one can learn how to calculate risks in advance and avoid danger.  For John, real life and the soccer field were naturally related.

As my anthropological fieldwork required longer leaves of absence from Japan, I had to give up my regular position in our Kanagawa soccer team where John and I had met: he playing coach and mid defender, I playing goalkeeper. But after many years of absence, when I settled on the Shonan coast, John was the first to visit my hillside studio in Kamakura, and then my Enoshima neighborhood. He brought with him a gift of fresh blueberries that he and Tamae cultivated at their ecological farm at the Hadano mountains.

During one of our outings to Enoshima Hot Springs, John demonstrated to me his newly improved mobile physiotherapy device: MBUS.  The ultrasound MBUS was small, waterproof, and being battery powered, it could be used indoors and outdoors anywhere in the world. According to John, his daily use of MBUS therapy  for 15 minutes in a bath tab has improved his health during the past several years far beyond his expectations.  He claimed that his improving blood circulation and stronger bones made him feeling twenty years younger... and even his wife Tamae noticed his increasingly youthful energy!

Though I couldn’t believe in MBUS regenerating an aging body, I accepted John’s invitation to follow his performance at a Yokohama Senior Soccer Tournament. Last week I joined John and a joyful group of 45 men changing into their uniforms in a back alley near Keikyu Tomioka St. All the guys were wearing protective masks and undergoing temperature checkups by their field leaders, Tanaka-san and Kodama-san. 

After completing their warming up exercises, they jointly transported the two heavy goal posts to the soccer field.

The group was divided into the four competing soccer teams.  

Watching their fast-paced game and technical skills, I was surprised to learn that their age varied between 60 and +70. 

Most of the players were, like John, passionate amateurs, from different walks of live. Some were retired caretakers at welfare facilities, or working in manufacturing industries. Others, were retired executives from global organizations. There were also former professionals from the J-League.

They seemed like a microcosm of our rapidly aging Japanese society.

The Yokohama Senior Soccer Friendly (YSSF) group was founded by a soccer-loving-dentist, Yasuyuki Kurokawa, and has attracted over 150 players since its formation in 2013.  Meanwhile Mr Kurokawa has become Kanagawa Senior Soccer League’s Vice-Chairman and Managing Director.  The YSSF’s founding idea was simple: Soccer is not something you see, it is something you do. Anyone, even in their mature years was welcome to keep improving his soccer skills on the field, rather than just following J-League on the TV screen.

Though most of the YSSF’s players belonged to the local Kanagawa clubs, any senior-soccer-fan could join the YSSF community at anytime regardless of his residence and nationality... at least as long one was willing to invest 250 yen (or about $2) for a few hours each time we played. As I didn’t bring right soccer shoes, I was assigned for running after out-balls...

And indeed when one of my former Kawasaki team-mates spotted me talking to John during the break, I was scolded for not wearing cleats and matching club uniform.  Then we were joined by a much younger team-mate in his early sixties, who didn’t seem  remembering me playing with John. Though John explained that I used to be a number one goal keeper in Kawasaki‘s first division team before I had left for Europe, it didn’t assure the man.  Only when I added that I was the Nr 1, because there was no second goalkeeper, and I was only assigned the position because of my being the slowest runner in the field, we all began to laugh...  At that time the Japan Senior Soccer League consisted of only one division, so we jokingly insisted with John that we had already played at the first division in our younger years. Only when we stopped laughing and our youngest team-mate figured out that I had indeed played before his contemporaries Hiki-san and Isotani-san took over as our goalies, he demanded to know when I would invest in our new soccer uniform and restart the training. And he wasn’t joking!

John’s explanation after I had resettled in Shonan after 8 years, when I switched from soccer to lifesaving in Kamakura SURF90, didn’t convince our YSSF’s players. The younger ones jokingly advised me that life-guarding shouldn’t be an excuse for taking my soccer training lightly, and the older ones suggested that I could easily combine soccer with life-guarding as soon as the pandemic was over. 

After taking a commemorative  photo of John with the two other oldest players in their seventies, I witnessed something unusual. All the members, regardless of their age, professional standings, and leadership positions, had joined each other in carrying the heavy goal posts off the field.  The team spirit on and off the game seemed equally binding to all the YSSF members.

After cleaning up the soccer field we headed home. On board our Yokohama-bound train, I congratulated John on his two victories in the YSSF games and his almost magical mixture of speed and agility on the soccer field.  I joked that John hardly reminded me of the guy who twenty years ago was hunted by osteoporosis symptoms and after several knee surgeries was confronted with a lifelong wheelchair prospect.  He claimed that there was no magic at all, but an innovative MBUS combination of LIPUSS and MFP. As I couldn’t follow him, John simplified his therapeutic device further:  MBUS combines a low-intensity pulse ultrasound stimulation (LIPUSS) with pre-programmed multi-pulse repetition frequencies (MFP) that are streamed directly toward the user’s submerged body during fifteen minutes long sessions. Because the MBUS equipment can affect a diversity of injured tissues and organs and has a potential for OA and osteoporosis (OP) treatments, including  pain relief and long-term physiotherapy, John’s international startup is focusing on global markets.  According to an academic review, MBUS could be recommended for both professional and recreational athletes suffering from sports injuries as well as less mobile seniors depending on medical home healthcare.  When I played devil’s advocate by saying that theories and real life situations may differ greatly, John responded with his usual World Cup example: The best strategy is useless if the players lack motivation. And my motivation to win against the odds was to develop a MBUS-like therapeutic device that could keep the wheelchair prospects away and still be affordable in low price. We were already approaching Yokohama St when John added: there is no better way to check if my invention may really work than testing the updated prototypes on my own body first. At Yokohama JR Station we parted, I on my way home to the Shonan coast for my usual afternoon 1km swim training at the ocean, and John in a hurry to return on time to restart with Tamae harvesting at their blueberry farm in the Hadano mountains.  While taking care of his 300 blueberry trees, John was already busy planning his future travel itinerary. His plan was to combine watching his consecutive 13th World Cup with introducing the latest prototype of his MBUS device.  John believes that his invention could soon be reduced to the size of a mobile phone ran by AI. And if it could be mass-produced in an affordable price, MBUS would help healing our bodies anywhere and everywhere where there is no access to specialized but expensive medical facilities. 

John is still uncertain when the flying restrictions caused by the pandemic will allow him to return to his research post in the USA.  Since 2017, Dr Yohachi John Yamashita continues commuting between his research post as an Adjunct Professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at North Carolina State University (NCST)... and his volunteer activities as player-coach in several senior soccer clubs in Kanagawa, Tokyo, and wherever he happen to be traveling.  John’s energy and appetite for life seems endless.

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carla hernandz
Jun 27, 2020

Brilliant story!! I love John’s spirit and his never fighting for life.

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