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Japanese students go wild for Cuba

Sendai, Japan, July 15, 2005 - When in Rome...or, in this case, when in Sendai, do as the Japanese.

For observers of Volleyball and of the human characteristics that give countries their special identity, it was a remarkable sight to behold: The Cuban women's Volleyball team, usually so exuberant and raucous, sitting silently in a Japanese classroom. Perhaps it was the first time in their lives they had been lost for words.

The occasion was an official visit by the team to Nagamachi Junior High School, a short drive on the team bus from Sendai City Gymnasium, venue for the World Grand Prix Final Round.

It was Friday, the rest day, and time for a spot of Volleyball public relations. Even before the bus pulled into the sandy play area, expectations were high for this fascinating culture clash.

Japan, conservative, reserved and as punctual as a bullet train from Tokyo to Osaka; and Cuba, full of passion and emotion, and slightly more carefree in their outlook on life, but the neutral observers were in for a shock.

As the players stepped out of the bus into the bright sunshine, the students were hanging out of the classroom windows, shouting greetings in Spanish and applauding wildly. Some of them even screamed on recognising the more famous of the players. Yumilkamania, perhaps?

The Cubans waved back, smiling and headed inside.

First job, of course, was to remove the adidas trainers, put them in a neat line and slip on a pair of sandals, before heading upstairs to the official "welcome party" classroom.

The board was full of greetings, such as "Buenas Dias" and "Bienvenido", and the desks were decorated with Japanese and Cuban flags.

The players were invited to take a seat, and, after a short briefing, were asked to split up into groups of four, and to follow one of the students who had been selected as a school tour guide.

Like a real-life Japanese tour guide overseas, the students led the way with their right arm in the air, but without the obligatory travel agency flag.

One group entered a room where the students were eating lunch. The players were asked to say their name and number. The students clapped.

Then a senior member of the coaching staff informed the students how many Olympic medals they had each won. The students clapped even more.

It wasn't the Japanese students who were shy; it was the players who looked a little uncomfortable.

But then the Cubanness in them came out, and they bent low (very low, in fact) to plant a culture-busting kiss on the cheeks of a male and female student. Their classmates cheered, as the faces of the chosen ones turned as red as the Cuban tracksuit.

Then the players regrouped in the first classroom, and it was question and answer time. But most of the players were too shy to talk.

Roaring like lions on the court, they were as timid as a Japanese mouse, while outside in the sunshine, the students played Volleyball during lunch break. One player turned to the window, and looked out longingly, her eyes almost misting over.

Then it was gift-giving time.

A calendar and some hand-made ceramics of snails (it's the official season for ceramic snail-making in Japan), helmets and dolls from one side, and a signed Volleyball from the other (it's always the season for Volleyball in Cuba).

The players had a tough time making it back to their bus, as the stairs were crammed with students seeking autographs on schoolbooks and on clothing, and demanding handshakes from the bemused Cubans. Very un-Japanese.

The school principal, Nobutake Yoshino, said the Japanese regarded the Cuban character as "cheerful, bright and open."

"It takes a while to get used to that openness because we are more reserved, but when you get used to it it's fine," he added.

When it was pointed out that the noisy, excitable Japanese students were behaving more like Cubans, and the shy, reticent Cuban Volleyball players were behaving more like Japanese, Mr. Yoshino explained: "This is because the Japanese students are very frank and honest and show their feelings more openly. It is different to the Japanese adults.

"If it had been one child they would have been shy, but together in a group they can show their emotions."

Over 500 Nagamachi Junior High School students had attended the previous afternoon's match between Cuba and Brazil, and they had studied both countries in social science in the build-up to the World Grand Prix.

On the day of the visit, despite their massive height disadvantage, the Japanese students gave the Cubans a taste of their own fiery medicine.

"Adios" they shouted, as the bus pulled out -- and it was the Japanese doing all the shouting!