"This country has got its national flag all wrong," remarked one bemused visitor from New York recently during his brief stay in Japan. "Instead of the Rising Sun in the center, there should be a baseball."
The multitude of American tourists who annually visit Japan find the same amazing phenomenon: a consuming, nationwide passion for besuboru (baseball).
The Japanese first learned how to play the game in 1873 from an American missionary. It has been played professionally since 1936, and today there are 12 teams in two leagues (the Central and Pacific), over 13 million paying fans each year and several modern stadiums with electronic video scoreboards and artificial grass.
According to a survey made in 1981, the "male symbol of Japan" is a baseball player – Tatsunori Hara, the star third baseman of the defending champion Yomiuri Giants, Japan's most popular team. Hara received more than twice as many votes as the second-place finisher, then Prime Minister Zenko Suzuki.
Baseball, not sumo or judo, is Japan's national sport. What is also apparent at a closer look is an indelible "Made in Japan" stamp on this once-imported game: Besuboru and baseball are two different things.
What really sets baseball, Japanese-style apart is the single-minded dedication with which its participants attack the game. A close look at how they go about it may furnish some interesting insights into how Japan as a trading nation has been able to lambaste the rest of the world. It is the Protestant work ethic to the Nth power.
American teams start spring training March 1, allowing themselves five weeks to prepare for the six-month season. They spend three to four hours on the field each day before heading for the nearest golf course.
The Japanese begin "voluntary" training in the freezing cold of mid-January. This routine of daily workouts is designed to get them ready for the traditional February 1 opening of camp.
Camp itself is a brutal regimen of daily six-to seven-hour outdoor workouts, followed by indoor practice in the evening. American players who have been subjected to a Japanese training camp liken it to life in a Georgia chain gang or, at best, United States Marines boot camp.
During the season, hard training continues. Whereas American players curtail their pregame midsummer workouts as a means of conserving energy for the games, the Japanese often step up theirs – believing that extra work os the only way to beat heat fatigue.
The attitude of Sadaharu Oh, now the Yomiuri Giant assistant manager and the man who topped Hank Aaron's record with 868 career home runs, is typical. "I achieved what I did because of my coaches and my willingness to work hard," he says. When Oh signs autographs for young fans, he signs the ideograph "doryoku" (effort).
Oh's view of himself strikes a responsive chord in the Japanese psyche. The prevailing view in this cramped and resource-poor land is that nothing in life comes easily, that only through doryoku and the ability to persevere in the face of adversity can one achieve success. In a survey last year conducted by the Japan Broadcasting Corp., doryoku was chosen as the "most-liked" word by those polled. The rest of the top 10, in descending order, were patience, thanks, sincerity, endurance, love, harmony, kindness, friendship and trust.
The capacity for doryoku, Japanese coaches will tell you, must be cultivated through practice. Consequently, an integral part of spring training routines are gattsu ("guts") drills designed to push a player to his limits. Last year's most noted example was a veteran player who, in two hours and 50 minutes one day in camp, took 900 consecutive ground balls at first base before dropping from exhaustion.
(Copyright 1982 by The Asia Society. Reprinted by permission from ASIA Magazine.)