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Robert Whiting

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When all else Fails, You Gotta Have Wa

by Hal Drake (Nov 19, 1989)

Japanese protectionism has moved from the trade arena to the baseball diamond and is keeping Japan from becoming a first-class baseball power, an American expert on the game played here says.

Insisting he is no expert on trade, Robert Whiting still says the refusal of Japanese teams to admit but few American players is the Japan-U.S. trade dispute in microcosm – and that ball clubs here could find it long-run costly to limit or exclude Americans.

Whiting is the author of "The Chrysanthemum and the Bat" and more recently. "You Gotta Have Wa," seeing the Japanese approach to the Great American Game as a searching light on the cultural gulf between Japan and the United States.

As it is now, Whiting said, two non-Japanese may play on the first-string varsity and one on a farm team. Few will be seen in an All-Star game, no matter what their season performance was.

All wrong, said Whiting, refusing to buy the argument that bigger, better American players would take all the jobs away from Japanese.

"I think that the more competition, the better, because the Japanese could only get better by fighting for jobs with people who are better than they are."

While six Americans were fully qualified to play as All-Stars, Whiting said, only two were chosen – a "bad mark" on the Japanese game.

"Japanese baseball, in my opinion, has gotten worse because it's been closed," Whiting argues. "It was a much, much better game 10 years ago, 15 years ago than it is now."

Whiting has watched the Japanese play ball since 1963, when he came to Japan in the Air Force. He got out there and worked for Encyclopedia Britannica. His first book was published in 1977 and Whiting became a commentator for Japanese newspapers and sports journals, at one time writing four columns.

Married to a Japanese who works for the United Nations, Whiting is moving with her to Pakistan, deciding that he could not leave Japan without putting all he has learned into another book in which he frequently faults Americans as well as Japanese.

"You Gotta Have Wa" – wa, the spirit of harmonized unity, putting the team above all else – often lost on Americans who, Whiting says and writes, take a workaday, timeclock approach toward baseball.

Whiting said the baseball barrier against outsiders is not so much xenophobic as cultural. Japanese managers, raised in a different tradition of authority and status, are leery of Americans who decline to do things the Japanese way.

"If you compare the way the Japanese play baseball with the American approach to exactly the same sport," Whiting observes, "you can really see the Japanese group ethic and work ethic in operation."

Americans start training in mild and sunny March. Japanese go to the practice field in mid-January, working eight to 10 hours in a bone-biting chill and going on to a hotel for indoor workouts, lectures and the like. If they're strangers to home and family, so be it. The team comes first.

Americans, often seen here as major league castoffs in the United States, consider a four-hour workout a workday, heading toward beach or golf course. If Americans taper off training during seasonal play, the Japanese do not.

"They believe just the opposite," Whiting said, "that the only way to overcome the summer heat is to work even harder. So in preparation for a game in the middle of August, you might see a two-hour workout, at noon, in hundred-degree heat."

Whiting tells of a "diabolical little drill" that is an annual ritual for every training-camp player – the thousand-fungo drill.

A team of coaches hits ground balls to him, left and right, forcing him to make steep dives and swooping catches, the ordeal ending only when he drops.

"And the player's lying on the ground, he's prone, and the coaches will pick up the ball and they'll throw it at him, as hard as they can," Whiting said. "If he doesn't move, then they'll know that he really is too tired to continue. That's the Japanese way of developing spirit. That's the work ethic."

If that's hard to sell imported Americans, they have only an American to blame – Horace Wilson, an American teacher who introduced the sport at Kaisei Gakko in the 1870s. Seizing it eagerly, the Japanese made besuboru a martial art, the same as judo or karate.

The Meiji Reformation was going on, the successful effort of an enlightened ruler to take Japan out of medieval isolation and into modern times. He disarmed the samurai, the warrior class that had ruled the country, forcing deposed swordsmen to marry into merchant clans and set up trading houses.

Into these, Whiting said, they brought bushido – the warrior code, "the whole idea of endless training and development of spirit." This became an undercurrent of business philosophy in Japan and baseball was a means to idealize it.

In 1896, Whiting relates, a team of American merchants in Yokohama innocently faced a team of youngsters from the First Higher School of Tokyo, the prep school for prestigious Tokyo Imperial University. Turning out in a casual spirit of sandlot sportsmanship, they might as well have been facing a charge of determined swordsmen. The students won, 29-4.

How could they have known, Whiting asked, that their opponents played everyday "before school, after school, during lunch break...  They were forbidden to use the word 'ouch.' So if you were standing in the batter's box and took a ball in the teeth, the only thing you were allowed to say was 'kayui' – it itches."

Suishu Tobita, called the God of Baseball in Japan, took this to higher extremes. He linked baseball to Zen Buddhism, the search for truth and self, training players who swore total allegiance to team and manager – demanding "morally correct" individuals who worked tirelessly and never complained.

Tobita once wrote: "The purpose of training is not health but the forging of the soul. And a strong soul is only born of strong practice. To hit like a shooting star, to catch a ball beyond one's capabilities, such beautiful players are not the result of techniques but the result of good deeds, made possible by a strong spiritual power...  Only with the cost and cultivation of tears, sweat and pain can a player secure his position as such."

Above all, Whiting said, it must be team before family, company before everything – the rule of ethic for auto worker, business executive, the humble clerk who will perform hours of required overtime while his wife is going through life-or-death difficulties with childbirth.

Whiting cites the case of Randy Bass, the Hanshin Tigers power hitter, who left the team in mid-season to take his gravely ill son to the United States. When Bass failed to return on time, he was fired. A team official, taking responsibility for the crisis, jumped from a high window.

The Japanese way.

Americans go against the dictates of tradition, Whiting feels, the brick and mortar in the wall that shuts most of them out.

As for Americans who make large salary demands and bench themselves until their demands are met, Whiting said he knew of only one Japanese player who did that this year.

He felt guilty because his teammates had already started winter training.

"So he signed the contract, he took what the team offered and he apologized to everyone for disrupting the team wa."

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