Iranian Coach at Japan Kids Club Builds Bridge Between Two Nations

By Ikuo Higuchi

Next year will mark the 90th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic ties between Japan and Iran, with a number of cultural events planned to further deepen the relationship between the two countries. A duel meet in wrestling and related activities are among the plans that are in the works.

Helping strengthen the Japan-Iranian link in wrestling has been the lifework of Javid Esfanjani, who has been acting as a bridge between the two countries. Having now lived in Japan for 25 years and fluent in both languages, the 51-year-old Iranian is the founder and coach of the Koshti Club for kids in Ichikawa, Chiba Prefecture, just east of Tokyo.

His contributions go beyond his clubhouse. This past August, Esfanjani accompanied the Japanese team to the 1st Asian Schoolboy Championships in his homeland of Iran as a team manager. With his language skills, he ensured that all went smoothly for the team both at the tournament and during its travels around the country.

"He did so much for us," said Hisashi Numajiri, head of the Japanese delegation, "whether it was making preparations for cultural exchanges and matches with local teams, or doing various tasks at the tournament."

Japan came away with four gold medals and finished second in the team standings, and it is not too much to say that such a result would not have been possible without Esfanjani's efforts, which allowed the wrestlers and staff to focus fully on the competition.

For Esfanjani, the tournament was also a homecoming, as it was held in his hometown of Karaj, a large suburb of Tehran with a population of over 1.6 million. It was his first back home in 16 years. The pride that he felt when he brought the Japanese team to his former club in Iran for a joint practice still remains in his heart. "Their proper etiquette with greetings and their good manners took everyone by surprise," Esfanjani recalls. "Even at the tournament, the Japanese team's conduct was exemplary. Not only the Iranians, but other countries were very surprised. I think they set a wonderful example."

Born in 1967 in Karaj, Esfanjani started his career in Iran's national sport from his junior high school years. When he later left school and entered the workforce, the company he joined also employed Behrouz Yari Kalani, a two-time Asian Games champion (1990 and 1994) and 1994 world bronze medalist in freestyle 74kg. Yari had long had a fondness for Japan, where he won the Asian Games gold in 1994 and the Asian title the previous year, and it was through his prodding that Esfanjani decided to venture to Land of the Rising Sun.

Although he did not speak a word of Japanese, he made his way over at age 23 and eventually found a job, while also finding time to join in the Nihon University practices.

In Japan, Esfanjani became enamored with the country, along with Naomi Yoshida, whom he met and married. The couple has six children, including one set of twins---they all are wrestlers. "Because of Japan, I was able to start my own family and build a happy home," Esfanjani says. "So I thought I must do something to express my gratitude to Japan. Wrestling is something I can offer. I thought I would repay [Japan] by opening a wrestling club and developing [a new generation of] wrestlers."

At the club he started in 2012, he emphasizes building physical fitness, and puts importance on the fundamentals. As the wrestler's level gets higher, then he works more on techniques. But what he is most strict about is making proper greetings and showing respect and appreciation that are inherent to Japanese culture. He resists a coaching style that only seeks victories. His aim is develop wrestlers who will stay in the sport for a long time.

"It's important to win," Esfanjani says. "But if the coach forces it too much, the wrestler won't continue for very long, even if they are winning. Offer praise, enhance their desire to do it, get them to love wrestling. That's what is important. It doesn't matter if they don't become a champion right away. Even if they're not very good right now, if they put their full effort into training, they will surely become a champion."

The strong feelings he still harbors for his home country is represented in the Iranian flag that adorns the wall of his club. But he has a similar passion for Japan, for which he feels he owes so much. "My goal is to see the Hinomaru (the Japanese flag) raised at the world championships, Olympics and other international tournaments," he says.

The recent Asian Schoolboy Championships had an epoch-making aspect. In Iran, women are banned not only from participating in wrestling for religious reasons, but even watching the sport. But for this event, it is said the Karaj wrestling association made the decision to allow female spectators. "My mother and my older and younger sisters came the tournament," Esfanjani says. "Supported by [my mentor] Mr. Yari, the executive director made this decision. 'It was quite a bold action,' I told him."

Esfanjani foresees such a movement spreading. If Iran were to ever host the senior Asian Championships (the country is ineligible because regulations state that all three styles must be held concurrently), "I think that women will be allowed to watch," he says.

Still, he adds with regret that regarding women competing in Olympic-style wrestling, "As long as there is the Islamic religion, I think it will be difficult."

His two oldest sons, both of whom have Japanese citizenship (children of mixed marriages in Japan must choose one nationality by age 22), currently wrestle at Nihon University. Second son Keiwan Yoshida finished fifth as a high schooler at last year's All-Japan Championships in freestyle 92kg, and as a freshman at Nihon this year, he placed fifth at the Japan Collegiate Championships.

Keiwan made the Japanese team to the Asian Junior Championships at 97kg last July in India, where he faced an Iranian opponent in the first round. While he lost this time, there will certainly be other chances for his son, and other former Koshti club members, to take on Iranian opponents.

"I would love to see one of my club members and an Iranian meet in the final of a world championships or Olympics, and stand on the medal podium together," says Esfanjani, whose pride as an Iranian and passion for his homeland still continue unabated. This becomes abundantly clear when the subject turns to Iran's global superstar, reigning world and Olympic champion Hassan Yazdani Charati, whom Esfanjani raves about with a glowing smile.

Many Iranians are expected to come to Japan for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics to support the country's athletes. "I'll no doubt get calls to help out," says Esfanjani with a hint of enthusiasm at the prospect. Never forgetting the love of his country, he also dreams of seeing the Japanese flag raised in triumph. Such a man is one who can be expected to do all he can in serving as a vital bridge between Japan and Iran.

The Facebook page for the Koshti Club can be found at:市川コシティクラブ-463710670392498/