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Robert Whiting

Robert Whiting's Homepage at JapaneseBaseball.com

If You Still Wanna Have Wa

by Dan Sloan (Jun 2009)

Back in 1977 veteran Club member Bob Whiting crafted a whole new genre of serious Japanese reportage with his seminal book The Chrysanthemum and the Bat, which provided his insights as a fan of Japanese baseball into how that sport reflected Japanese culture. Twelve years later he followed with the hit You Gotta Have Wa, informed by his evolution into a bona fide reporter of Japanese baseball.  This March he published an updated version of Wa with 12,000 new words on how U.S.-Japan baseball relations have changed over the past 20 years. Here is Boston Red Sox die-hard Dan Sloan's interview with Bob on the new edition.

Please set the scene for when the book was first published and the expectations you had for it.

Japan was at the peak of its economic power. The two countries were on the verge of a trade war and Americans were paying more attention to Japan than at any time since World War II. I'd written a long piece about baseball in Japan for Smithsonian Magazine on how the game, imported from the U.S. more than a century earlier, had been  transformed over the years and served as a window into Japanese culture. On the basis of that article, MacMillan New York offered me a contract to do a book expanding on the theme. You Gotta Have Wa was intended as an easy way to explain Japan to ordinary Americans, even people who didn't know much about baseball.

The New York Times did three glowing reviews, Time did a full page, I went on Larry King and several other TV and radio shows and it was a Book of the Month Club selection. The Japan Desk in the State Department made it required reading for Foreign Service personnel assigned to Japan. It has sold 125,000 in hardcover and trade, which was a lot more than I had anticipated, and is in its 22nd printing.

As a business or from a fan perspective, is Japanese baseball stronger or weaker now than then?

I'm tempted to say weaker. Back in the 1980s, the Yomiuri Giants, Japan's oldest, winningest and historically most popular team, were on nationwide TV every night with ratings in the 20s. Now, their ratings are in single digits and if you don't have cable or satellite it's hard to find their games.

On the other hand, attendance these days appears to be up, although teams have lied about their gate for so long it's hard to know what the truth is. The popularity of Ichiro and the World Baseball Classic appears to be spawning a whole new wave of interest in baseball among kids, so things are looking up in that regard. As for pure talent, players are bigger and stronger now than they were 20 years ago.

What level of foreign interest was there in Japanese players or baseball then, and was it thought the local side might once, or twice, be the best nine in the world?

There was zero interest. Most people bought You Gotta Have Wa to understand the culture.  Most Americans did not even know that Japanese played baseball. Those who did assumed the Japanese game was second- or third-rate. But ex-major leaguers who actually played in Japan recognized that there was talent. They said a team of Japanese all-stars could hold its own in the States.

Was there any negative publicity or reaction to the book, and if so, did that actually help sell it?

Not in the States. The Japanese translation of Wa was a best-seller and got generally good reviews, but some people here objected to my descriptions of the physical abuse that went on in training camps and the descriptions of the discrimination against foreigners that existed. My landlord called me a "Japan basher" and tried to have me evicted.

This was the pre-Nomo era when exports almost exclusively came over here. Who were your best foreign and Japanese sources then and what insights or scoops did they provide?

American ballplayers – Leron Lee, Warren Cromartie, Reggie Smith, Davey Johnson and Clyde Wright; Japanese sportswriter Masayuki Tamaki; a well-connected Bungei Shunju editor named Kiyondo Matsui; a gangster novelist named Joji Abe; and interpreters Luigi Nakajima, Tadahiro Ushigome and Toyo Fumimitsu.

Tamaki told me he suspected the Yomiuri Giants were lying about their attendance and the capacity of the Tokyo Dome. For years, since the Dome opened in 1987, the Giants had announced sellout crowds of 56,000 for every home game, so that inspired me to go count the seats. It turned out that there were 42,761.  Then another Japanese reporter and I went out and counted the standing-room crowd during a full house. It turned out there were less than 4,000. I wrote about that and was invited not to come to the Dome anymore by a Giants representative. It wasn't until 2005 that the Giants were forced to come clean.

Davey Johnson told me about the time Giants manager Shigeo Nagashima, angry about Johnson's plan to fly to the States during the All-Star break to consult with a doctor about an injury that wouldn't heal, ripped a towel off him in the dressing room, pointed to his private parts and screamed that he was nothing but a woman. Both Reggie Smith and Warren Cromartie told me about racism and prejudice toward Koreans, and how the coaches would punch and kick younger players as part of their "education." I wrote about that and was banned from Giants games for two years. I also did an interview with Randy Bass in which he called his manager an idiot. That got me suspended from Koshien Stadium for a season or two.

I've been to Sadaharu Oh's house, which was notable for its lack of ostentation and for the presence of a big easy chair in the living room that was shaped like a baseball glove. I've been to Nagashima's house on more than one occasion, and his house was far more deluxe. You could say the difference reflected their respective personalities. Once I went to Nagashima's house there with Gary Carter, a player from the Montreal Expos.  In Carter's honor, Nagashima's wife had placed a photo of her husband shaking hands with the Canadian prime minister at the time, Pierre Trudeau, in the genkan for Carter to see as he came in the front door. Since Montreal was a predominantly Roman Catholic town, Carter was ushered to the place of honor, a chair in the living room, next to which was a photograph of Nagashima having an audience with the Pope. That was class.  

Peter Gammons' Beyond the Sixth Game comes to mind not only because it chronicles my beloved Red Sox but captures the impact that free agency had on the sport. What major issue, be it talent flight ahead or a new "business" model – or the need for one – did your book foreshadow about Japanese baseball?

I pointed out the weakness in the player development system; that whereas American big league teams operated with a highly competitive, multitiered franchised farm system of some 150 players, each waiting to take a spot on the parent team, Japanese teams had but one farm club. While each Major League Baseball (MLB) team signs 100 players a year in the MLB draft, each Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) team signs 12. This system puts the NPB at a decided disadvantage in producing top-level ballplayers. I also pointed out there were a number of players who could have been big stars in the big leagues had they been given a chance.  Among them were Sadaharu Oh, Choji Murata and Koji Yamamoto. That wasn't something you read much about in the U.S. media in those days.

Have Ichiro's accomplishments in MLB guaranteed that at least one Japanese will enter Cooperstown as a Hall of Famer?

Roger Maris hit 61 homers to break Babe Ruth's record and he hasn't made it into the HOF, so the fact that Ichiro broke George Sisler's single-season-hits record will probably not be enough to get him in either, nor is the fact that he will break the record sometime later this year for consecutive seasons for 200 or more hits, with nine. But he will probably last long enough to get 3,000 MLB hits and that, combined with everything else, will be enough to get him elected on the first ballot.

How about Hideo Nomo?

Nomo deserves to be in for the same reason that Jackie Robinson deserved to be inducted. Nomo did not suffer anywhere near the abuse Robinson did when he broke the color barrier, but it took an enormous amount of courage for Nomo to defy the system in Japan and sign with the Dodgers in 1995. That was no mean thing.  The entire (Japanese) nation was against him. Nomo opened the door for every other Japanese to go to the States. Without Nomo, there would have been no Ichiro, no Hideki Matsui, no Dice-K in American baseball. There would be no posting system, no MLB Opening Day games played in Japan and probably no WBC. He should be a special first ballot shoo-in.

Did the Daisuke Matsuzaka posting and the $50 million Red Sox payout for the rights to chat early change how teams will cultivate their own talent?

I don't see any big change in the NPB modus operandi. They still operate as PR vehicles for the parent companies and are content to operate at a loss. They are at a disadvantage vis-a-vis the MLB, which benefits from taxpayer-funded stadiums and an antitrust exemption that allows it to operate as a legal monopoly. The Softbank Hawks, just to cite one example, have to pay $50 million a year in rent to use the Yahoo Dome. That's $50 million not spent on players. As for Darvish and Iwakuma, I would expect them both to bring as much, if not a lot more. Darvish keeps saying he wants to stay in Japan rather than go to the MLB, to help rebuild the NPB. But maybe that's more of a reflection of his Iranian father's feeling about the U.S., which is where the elder Darvish studied and where, he says, he was discriminated against.

Looking ahead, what changes do you expect for the Japanese game, particularly in regard to keeping or supporting its popularity? Did you ever think Japanese players would strike, even timidly?  I know the new NPB commissioner, Ryozo Kato, is trying hard to restore the NPB to its former glory. He went to the Ministry of Industry to see if the NPB could file a claim versus MLB over unfair trade practices, but was told the WTO doesn't deal with sports organizations. Apparently they are not aware what a huge business MLB has become. The (Japanese) leagues are trying to come up with an integrated merchandise and TV rights program of the kind that has benefited American baseball so much, but Yomiuri and Hanshin are refusing to cooperate, so that probably won't happen.  My guess is that the NPB will continue to muddle through.

If there's one Japanese or foreign player whose story you would like to write or read, who would it be?

Hideki Irabu. Interesting guy. All the talent in the world. He won two monthly MVPs in one season with the Yankees, something which I think no other pitcher has done. But he's self-destructive. When he is ready to tell the whole story I'd like to read it, if not write it. Among gaijin, I would choose Bobby Valentine. No manager in the history of the Lotte franchise has a better winning percentage. He has also quadrupled attendance in his six years here. He was sitting on top of the world, yet somehow managed to get himself essentially fired. There's so much intrigue going on at Lotte, it's like Hamlet.

Finally, how important is wa (harmony) as a concept now?

Public-opinion polls conducted every five years by the Institute for Statistical Mathematics regularly show social obligation outweighs respect for individual rights. NHK's latest survey of favorite words finds omoiyari, or empathy, at No. 2, while wa was the third-favorite. "Individualism" is nowhere to be found. This is reflected in the behavior of fans at the ballpark. All the noise comes from cheering sections led by flag-waving, trumpet-blowing cheerleader while the fans in other parts of the stadium sit quietly, politely suppressing their emotions.  This compares to the U.S., where there is a great deal of freelancing and exhibitionism all around the park, often in rude disregard of other fans. One change I have noticed is a bit more openness toward gaijin here as a result of Japanese seeing how welcoming American fans were toward Ichiro and others. Since Ichiro left for the MLB in 2001, there have been four American managers of NPB clubs. That's progress.

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