Shot maker stages his own Olympic boycott

Craftsman viewed as hero in Japan for refusal to supply Beijing Games

April 13, 2008|By Bruce Wallace | Bruce Wallace,Los Angeles Times

TOKYO -- Masahisa Tsujitani is getting a lot of attention these days for a man who has spent much of the past 40 years bent over a lathe in a garage workshop, where amid the sharp smell of burnt oil and iron he grinds out some of the finest 16-pound shots ever tossed by Olympic athletes.

But Tsujitani's cheerful face is showing up on Japanese television and in newspapers not because of what he does but because of what he is refusing to do. After four Olympic Games in which his finely grooved iron balls were the shots of choice for most medalists, this Tokyo craftsman has told Chinese Olympic officials that they will not be receiving any of his products at this summer's Beijing Games.

"This is a personal statement about my pride as a craftsman and how my work is used," said the fit 74-year-old, standing in his home's low-ceilinged garage surrounded by drill bits, the detritus of shorn metal and cardboard boxes filled with polished shots.

"I feel badly for the athletes who won't get to use my shots, but after Tibet I know I'm right," he said last week. "Enough is enough."

With his one-man boycott of the Beijing Games, Tsujitani has become a reluctant hero in Japan among those unhappy with the muted response of politicians to China's crackdown against dissent in Tibet. Japan's political class has uttered barely a peep of protest, with Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda saying only that he would "welcome talks between the concerned parties in a way acceptable to both sides."

The Asahi newspaper dismissed that comment as "tantamount to saying nothing." Shot-maker Tsujitani is blunter.

"Japanese politicians are wimps," he said.

The government is squeezed between Japan's self-image as a beacon of democratic values in Asia and its economic interests, which are ever more entwined with China's rise. The mutual economic dependency expanded despite the diplomatic freeze of recent years, when China accused Japan of soft-pedaling its militarist past and anti-Japanese riots broke out in several Chinese cities in 2005.

Top-level relations since have thawed, even as the Japanese public remains conflicted over whether to treat China as an opportunity or a threat.

Unlike his most recent predecessors, Fukuda has long been an advocate of a Beijing-friendly foreign policy, calling China an indispensable partner and nurturing the warming diplomatic mood.

No Japanese government officials were allowed to meet the Dalai Llama, Tibet's exiled spiritual leader, during a 10-day visit in the fall shortly after Fukuda took office. And diplomats acknowledge that Fukuda is loath to take a hard line over Tibet ahead of Chinese President Hu Jintao's arrival next month for a summit that Tokyo is eager to see go off without a hitch.

Yet large swaths of the Japanese public remain suspicious of their booming neighbor. The mood has only darkened in recent weeks after reports emerged of Japanese consumers being poisoned by pork dumplings imported from China. Amid allegations that the products intentionally were laced with pesticide, the food scare has become a staple of the national conversation, as consumer purchases of Chinese food imports have plunged.

Tsujitani said he had planned his own Olympic boycott even before the Tibet violence. He was appalled by incidents such as the rough treatment of a visiting Japanese soccer team by Chinese fans three years ago as well as the anti-Japanese riots that many people here are convinced were stoked by the government in Beijing.

Beijing's harsh reaction last month to sometimes-violent protests in Tibet against Chinese rule merely convinced him that he had been right all along.

"I am not anti-Chinese whatsoever," said Tsujitani, who has visited China four times and has friends there.

The story of one man's principled stand on an issue that politicians step gingerly around has struck a chord with Japanese news media. TV crews have poked cameras into his workshop on a suburban Tokyo back street, and his wall calendar is filled with circles indicating more visits from journalists.

Upstairs in his home, amid videotapes showing shot-putters winning Olympic gold in Sydney using his shots, Tsujitani pulled out letters of support he has received from across Japan, fanning them like a hand of cards. He dealt one: "Against the Massacre Games" it says, atop a drawing of the figure of an athlete being gunned down by a Chinese firing squad.

Still, Tsujitani doesn't want the athletes to be hurt by a boycott and said it was a pity they won't be able to use his shots. The politicians should stay away, he said. Not the athletes.

But while a wider boycott might have a sobering effect on the Chinese government, Tsujitani does not expect his own defiance to carry much weight.

"I just wanted the Chinese government to ask themselves why one man would not send something like shots to their Olympics," he said. "I wanted them to be embarrassed. But I doubt they'll get it."

Bruce Wallace writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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