July 22, 2015

Ogi: The Life of Ichiro Ogimura by Mitsuru Jojima, translated to English by John Senior

I recently read the English translation of this book, which covers the life of perhaps the most influential person in table tennis history. Suffice to say it was a fascinating read. (It was also a great resource for my own table tennis fantasy novel, The Spirit of Pong, which features two chapters where the wannabe American trains with the spirit of Ogimura.)

Ichiro Ogimura of Japan was perhaps the most driven table tennis player in history, and then he became perhaps the most driven coach and then most driven ITTF official in history. He started late, at age 16, but was so single-minded in his training that by age 22 he won the first of his two Men's Singles titles at the Worlds (1954 and 1956). He also won Men's Doubles twice, Mixed Doubles three times, and led Japan to five straight World Men's Team titles. The book chronicles this and everything else about him in great detail, giving both the facts and the spice of his life.

He didn't just train and win titles; he revolutionized the game in numerous ways. When he was developing as a player, the world was dominated by European defenders, such as Richard Bergmann and Johnny Leach; Ogimura developed the penhold attack game and figured out how to defeat these choppers, often going against the advice of coaches – and often getting into trouble for his strong-minded views, which over and over were proven to be correct. For example, against the advice of his coaches, he developed the "51% strategy," whereby if he thought he had a 51% chance of hitting a winner, he took the shot, while his coaches wanted him to play more cautiously. He revolutionized how to train for the sport with a single-minded approach to training – both at the table and physical training away - that led to greatness.

The book covers this all in great detail, showing step-by-step how he went from essentially a novice to world champion. It starts with Ogimura's campaign to get a table tennis club at his high school, despite the sport being thought of at the time as a "girls' sport," and continues as he develops his game and takes on challenge after challenge. It covers his obsession with training, even his constant shadow-practicing away from the table. It covers his other training techniques, such as knocking over a pen with his serve 100 times in a row, and then trying to do it blindfolded; frog jumping 4 kilometers with 40 kilogram weights on his shoulders (that's 2.5 miles and 88 pounds); and his infamous "7 strokes in 5 seconds" drill, covered on pages 210-211.

The book also covers his huge success in training of other players. It also goes over why he is often considered the father not only of Japanese table tennis, but of Chinese and Swedish table tennis. China's first champions developed by studying of his techniques and training, much of it from a table tennis film he created titled "Japanese Table Tennis." He often toured China, training their top players. He also made numerous trips to Sweden, where he trained their best players. Sweden's Stellan Bengtsson went to Japan to train under him as a junior and then went on to win the 1971 Worlds as part of a 30-year reign where Sweden often battled with China for world supremacy.

"Swedish table tennis owes him everything," said Swedish head coach Anders Thunström on page 348.

"Japanese Table Tennis was the perfect textbook for us," said Zhuang Zedong on page 205, who would win three men's singles world titles after seeing the film at age 16. "Watching you and Mr. Tanaka practice made us realize that you do not swing a table tennis racket with your arms; you hit the ball with your feet."

It also covers Ogimura's personal life, including growing up in post-World War II Japan. (He was born in 1932, and was 13 when Japan surrendered.) Much of the book features Hisae, the woman who took Ogimura under her wing during the years he trained at her club. It was a strange relationship, where a club owner fed and did laundry for the high school student, but the partnership paid off in the end. You also learn about Ogimura the person, who liked Louis Armstrong music and Van Gogh paintings, sang "Johnny Boy" at parties, always slept with his socks on, and couldn't straighten out his left arm due to a childhood injury where he fell from a tree. The arm injury caused him to give up gymnastics, and indirectly led to him taking up table tennis.

After his playing career, Ogimura had a long career as an ITTF official starting in 1973, including ITTF president from 1987 until his death at age 62 in 1994 from lung cancer. The book covers his single-minded approach to the problems the sport faced. Included were some of his ideas that would later be taken up by others after his death – including the idea of a larger ball, games to 11, and making speed glue illegal. He was the hidden driving force between the joint North and South Korean team at the 1991 Worlds, and relentlessly tried to use table tennis to get the two countries together again – who knows what would have happened if he had lived longer. He spoke perfect English, which helped in his international travels.

Here are a few of my favorite Ogimura quotes from the book:

  • "What's needed isn't extraordinary ability, but extraordinary effort."
  • "Set a personal best each day."
  • "You mustn't dilly-dally."
  • "Did you know that a ping-pong ball spins faster than an airplane propeller?"
  • "If you don't have the guts to sing a song in front of other people, you'll never win a match."

The bad news: the book is not yet on sale in the US, though it'll likely be on sale at Amazon at some point. The good news: if you don't want to wait, you can order a copy now for $25 (which includes shipping) via Etsuko Enami from the ITTF at ete@yj9.so-net.ne.jp, with payment via paypal to that email address. It is on sale in England from Tee's Sport; here's the page where they sell it, where you can also see the cover.

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