James Holmes

What Japan and the US Can Learn From March Madness

Recent Features

James Holmes

What Japan and the US Can Learn From March Madness

One can do worse than the basketball metaphor for explaining the Senkaku/Diaoyu Island dispute.

So the Naval Diplomat just put the finishing touches on an essay for next month’s issue of the Naval Institute magazine, Proceedings, wherein I disclose double-secret strategies for defending the Senkakus, Ryukyus, and adjacent waters against a certain large Asian power that rhymes with angina. An illudium Q-36 explosive space modulator may be part of my infernal scheming. Imaginative use of geography certainly is.

Which, oddly enough, puts me in a basketball frame of mind. As part of the Vanderbilt faithful, I’ve watched a normally solid team suffer defeat after defeat this year. The Commodores sit at home watching on TV as 68 teams gear up for “March Madness,” the NCAA championship tournament. Play commences this week. Though dejected, however, I have a diverse sports portfolio. Having spent two happy years studying mathematics at Providence College in the mid-1990s, I’ve traded my Vanderbilt black-and-gold for the PC Friars’ black-and-white. Providence squares off against traditional powerhouse North Carolina this week.

And if that doesn’t work out, well then, the Red Sox have commenced spring training. Abandon all hope: sports metaphors will never cease here!!

That’s because they’re instructive, however imperfectly peacetime pursuits on the playing field map to the battleground. Think about it. Isn’t basketball about bringing the ball down into the opponent’s side of the court — into his territory, as it were — and either breaking through his defense perimeter or lofting a long shot over that perimeter? Or if you’re playing defense, isn’t it about finding the balance between perimeter defense and man-to-man defense, whereby one or two defenders cling to an opposing sharpshooter to keep him from scoring from downtown or driving to the hoop?

Seriously. Tokyo and Washington could do worse than settle in with beer and wings at the local sports pub to think great thoughts about island-chain defense. Imagine yourself standing along the Ryukyu Islands facing west, toward a certain acquisitive Asian power on the mainland. That power’s navy and air force covet access to something behind you, namely the vast maneuvering space of the Western Pacific. Unlike a basketball coach, you’re lucky when drawing X’s and O’s on the chalkboard to develop plays. Fixed obstacles — namely the islands themselves — constitute a partial defense perimeter already. Ships find it difficult to go over islands. So, they have to exit through the passages in between to reach the open sea. Close those narrow seas and the red team can’t get near your goal.

So how do you deploy your players — submarines, minefields, surface craft, warplanes — to stop up those passages? Be frank with yourself, Coach. Do your blue team’s players match up against the red team well enough to mount a forward defense beyond the perimeter? Can you get in their faces? If not, can you station players in the gaps themselves to prevent the red team from breaking through? Or did you recruit poorly of late compared to the opposing team? If so, Coach, you may need to keep the boys in blue behind the perimeter, instructing them to shift around to points where red-team players try to crash through.

If personnel mismatches render man-to-man defense unworkable, double-team the other guys. Two weaklings working together can box out even the Beast of the (Far) East.

But to complicate matters further, this ballgame takes place on two overlaying courts at the same time (Mr. Spock, call your office). Suppose your reserve players are coming from out of town. And suppose the red team can do things to slow down or block their team bus without breaching your defense perimeter. That lets the red team’s coach flip the logic of perimeter defense 180 degrees, to face eastward across the court, er, Pacific Ocean.

The red team’s defense perimeter, a.k.a. the second island chain, lies hundreds of miles away and is far more nebulous than the blue team’s. It’s hardly a defense line at all. Yet the red team has recruited some potential — if untested — clutch players to make things tough on the blue team’s reserves. If the red team can slow down or halt your reinforcements, the resulting mismatch may let its coach accomplish what he wants on that inner court. And that’s what he mostly cares about.

OK, OK, the basketball metaphor has gotten threadbare by now. But you get the idea. To think about guarding your own perimeter or piercing an adversary’s, you could do worse than tune in for some hoops. Be awesome, baby, with a capital A!