TIME sent author ROBERT WHITING to find out Seattle Mariner ICHIRO SUZUKI's take on Japan's player drain, the future of U.S. baseball and his own hyped-up image.
Robert Whiting: You were the best
player in Japan when you played with Orix, yet your games were seldom
on national TV, the stands were never full and you hardly ever made the
cover of the sports dailies. It was the national institution Tokyo
Giants and their star Hideki Matsui who got all the attention. But that
all changed when you went to Seattle. Watching you everyday on NHK, the
Japanese public was so transfixed by your performance-batting title,
All-Star, American League MVP-that you were personally responsible for
a big fall in the Giants' perpetually high TV ratings. Don't you find
that ironic-that you had to go all the way to a foreign country to get
the attention you deserved at home?
Ichiro Suzuki: Well, it's a temporary phenomenon. I was the first Japanese everyday position player to play in the major leagues. But it's only been two years. If this attention continues for a long time, five or six years, then maybe you could say that.
Whiting: Some Japanese analysts say
that there is a kind of nationalism at work here in regard to your
great popularity, that your performance represents Japanese superiority
to America. Others say that it has something to do with an inferiority
complex Japanese have towards the West. How would you analyze it?
Ichiro: I think it's just that there has never been a player in my position. Fans saw me play here for a long time, then go play in the big leagues. By seeing me play everyday on TV, the fans were able to grasp the reality of major league baseball-which they hadn't fully appreciated before. I think what I did is help to reduce the distance between Japan and America.
Whiting: Matsui just announced that
he is now going to play in the major leagues. Why is it that so many
Japanese stars are leaving Japan and going to the States to play?
Ichiro: I don't know what other players are feeling, but in my case, I played seven years in Japan-nine if you count my time in the minors. It was time to move up. I heard that in the United States the level of baseball was the highest in the world. So it was only natural that I would want to go there, as a baseball player.
Whiting: When I first came to Japan
there was a lot of talk about a real World Series between the U.S.
Champion and the Japanese Champion. The goal was parity with America.
But not any more. Now, there's a lot of talk in the Japanese and
American press that the departure of so many big stars to the States,
like you and Matsui, is harming Japanese baseball, that it's hollowing
out the talent and turning Japanese baseball into a feeder system for
the U.S. What's your take?
Ichiro: You could say that with so many players going to the U.S. Japanese professional baseball is losing its appeal. But while that may be true in the short term, it is not necessarily so if you take the long view. The more that Japanese players go to the big leagues to play and succeed, the more that will serve to inspire young kids in Japan to want to become baseball players when they grow up. The problem with Japanese baseball is that it needs a bigger base from which to grow, because the minor league system is so limited. And this will serve to expand that base-and create a larger pool of available players.
The next step you will see is more Japanese players on a given U.S. team. The day will come when there will be three or four, or even more on one team. At the same time, Japanese baseball will be able to absorb the best aspects of American baseball and increase the level of the game. The skills and techniques Japanese ballplayers acquire there will make there way back to Japan. So over the next couple of years, things might look bad for Japan, but in the long run, it will be a plus.
Whiting: You've played several
seasons in Japan and now two in the United States. You've seen the two
systems. Japanese spring training is like boot camp. It starts Feb. 1,
lasts a month, players are on the field from nine-to-five, followed by
workouts indoors and lectures in the evening. It's like military
training. In the U.S., camp starts a month later and the players are
only on the field from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., then head to the nearest
swimming pool or golf course. How do you compare these two systems?
Ichiro: Japanese camp is pretty long, but you have a day off every fourth day. In America, once you start camp, you go everyday with no break. The fact that you have one day off out of every four is a big help in Japan. Moreover, in America, while a day in camp is only three hours, the sun in Arizona, where Seattle trains, is something else. So despite the fact I came from Japan, I didn't find it easy at all. It was tough.
Whiting: Are there things the two
countries can learn from each other in this regard? I know in Japan,
teams spend a lot of time in camp on minute details-like the push
bunt-which might be used only once or twice a season. And there is a
lot of work on so-called sign plays and relay drill. How about in
Ichiro: Not at all. Not in the two years I've been there. And I think that kind of practice is very important. Spring training is the only time you have to work on team play. You can always go off and work on your game by yourself, but the only real time there is to practice as a group is in the spring and I think that's valuable. Because the Mariners don't do that, you would sometimes see players make mistakes during the course of the season. And it was at times like that when I thought, "We should have worked on those plays in spring camp." So I think that the attention to detail is one of the superior things about the Japanese game. So there are things we can learn from each other.
Whiting: Tell us about the meeting factor. Which organization had more team meetings, Orix or Seattle?
Ichiro: Orix. We had pregame meetings every day to watch videotapes of the opposition. In Seattle, we had a meeting only when we faced a team for the first time, and only then before the first game of the series.
Whiting: Let me ask you about
batting. In Japan, you batted third and hit a lot of line drives to the
outfield for hits. In the U.S. you batted lead off and slashed a lot of
choppers to the infield for base hits. Did you consciously change your
style in this regard, in order to become a lead off hitter?
Ichiro: I didn't intentionally try to change it, but the Seattle manager Lou Pinella gets mad when I hit fly balls. He wants the ball on the ground, so I was conscious of that when I went up to bat.
Whiting: When you're in a slump in
the States, who do you turn to for advice-your old batting coach with
Orix, the Mariners batting coach, other players?
Ichiro: No one. If I'm in a slump, I ask myself for advice.
Whiting: Matsui is going to the
States. A lot of people expect him to be a big home-run star. Do you
have any particular advice for him in order to succeed there?
Ichiro: He is going to find himself in a very difficult environment. There will be a lot of talk among the fans and media, and high expectations, but he should set his own yardstick for success and not be swayed by what those around him are saying. Personally, I don't like the term "success." It's too arbitrary and too relative a thing. It's usually someone else's definition, not yours. Matsui has to stay within himself, to set his own personal goals within himself and decide for himself what is a successful season. That's what's important. Also, he's going to be in a new and different world, so he's got to construct an environment, a place where he can feel comfortable and at peace.
Whiting: When you look at American major league baseball, can you see something that might be called the American character?
Ichiro: Well, those players are all very individualistic. They're all very different and have their own characters.
Whiting: When you look at Japanese baseball what do you see? Can you see something that might be called the Japanese character?
Ichiro: The Japanese have a strong tendency to suppress their own feelings. That's the Japanese character. They kill their own emotions.
Whiting: They don't get angry.
Ichiro: They get angry, but they don't let others know. They don't throw bats or break things ... like Brett Boone.
Whiting: How about you? Have you ever gotten really mad playing in the big leagues?
Ichiro: Oh yes. Especially at some of the umpire's calls. But I don't want to show it, so I keep it inside.
Whiting: When you look at the Japanese fan and the American fan, do you see a difference?
Ichiro: Yes. I've never watched a game from the stands in the U.S., so I can't tell you from that perspective, but I think the Japanese fans are very otonashii [quiet]. American fans, by contrast, do their own thing-people stand up and dance. The fans get up and express themselves, they show their own individuality, just like the players.
Whiting: Why do you think Japanese fans are so quiet? Is it shyness? Or are they just being courteous to the people around them?
Ichiro: I think it's shyness. When I'm sitting in the stands in Japan as a fan, I can really understand that feeling.
Whiting: There are a lot of scouts
from the States who have been watching baseball in Japan for quite some
time now and most of them say the same thing about the talent here,
that there are about two to three dozen players who could make it in
the States. What's your take?
Ichiro: I can't say. You'd have to see them actually play there. Only then would you know. A player might have the ability, but there might be problems with his character. Some guys might not be able to play their best in a totally new environment. On the other hand, there might be players who aren't very good in Japan who would do much better playing in the States.
Whiting: Who do you think has it tougher: a Japanese player going to America or an American going to Japan to play ball?
Ichiro: I don't know. I think it depends on the person. But Japanese practice is pretty tough during the season. You have to practice on travel days. So America doesn't even compare on that score. It's pretty awful.
Whiting: What do you think of the
concept of seishin yakyu, so-called spirit baseball, where a player can
overcome natural limitations by sheer force of will?
Ichiro: Konjo [fighting spirit]? I think that Japanese really have that to a great degree. I think it's a really valuable thing.
Whiting: Have you ever studied any of the martial arts? Judo? Kendo?
Whiting: I've heard a lot of people
say they can see the martial arts kata, or form, in your batting stance
and swing. My wife, who's Japanese, practices kyudo [Japanese archery].
She says there are a lot of similarities between that and your approach
to batting: pointing the bat toward the pitcher, the clockwise take
back, the lock-in.
Ichiro: I didn't know that.
Whiting: Do Americans throw more brushback pitches than Japanese?
Ichiro: That's a difficult question. They both throw inside. They are both really trying their hardest to get the batter out. They do whatever they can to succeed in both countries.
Whiting: After two seasons in America, don't you get tired of listening to "The Star Spangled Banner" before each game?
Ichiro: No, I actually like it. Japanese don't do that. It makes you think. Americans really value their country and have a lot of pride in it.
Whiting: Do you think Americans are more patriotic than Japanese?
Ichiro: Hearing the national anthem makes me feel that. When I see the flag, everyone standing, hand over their hearts, singing the national anthem, it makes me really feel that.
Whiting: Have you ever experienced racial discrimination in America?
Ichiro: [pause] No, I've never felt that anyone was discriminating against me.
Whiting: Do American fans ever yell at you in Japanese?
Ichiro: Oh yes, baka [idiot], hetakuso [lousy]. And sushi, wasabi. Wasabi also means whassup. People use it as a greeting, like 'What's up?'
Whiting: Your father started
training you to be a baseball player from primary school, working you
hard everyday for hours after school at a public park in Nagoya and
spending evenings at the Airport Batting Center where you'd swing the
bat 250 times a night under his watchful eye. Were there instances when
you didn't want to practice baseball?
Ichiro: Sometimes it was pretty hard to take. It bordered on hazing. I suffered a lot.
Whiting: I read your father's book,
Musuko Ichiro [Son Ichiro]. He took great pains to say in the
introduction that your story was much different than that of the
characters in the popular manga classic Kyojin no Hoshi [Star of the
Giants], in which a father subjects his son to savage, brutal training
from an early age and molds him into a star pitcher for the Tokyo
Giants. But from what you say, it was a little bit like Kyojin no
Hoshi. Your father says that what he subjected you to was not Spartan
training, just fun. A father and son enjoying time together.
Ichiro: He says it was all sweetness and light. But it wasn't that nice. It was a lot like Kyojin no Hoshi.
Whiting: Do you think of yourself as a symbol of Japan?
Ichiro: Not at all.
Whiting: Are you ever afraid of the ball when it's coming at you at 100 miles an hour?
Ichiro: No, not at all.
Whiting: Not even when Randy Johnson is pitching?
Ichiro: I only faced him once, but no I've never felt afraid.