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Robert Whiting

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Frankly Speaking - Interview with the Transpapcific Forum of Japan Air Lines

by Robert Whiting (1987)

When Admiral Perry reached Japan the word for "sport" didn't exist in Japanese. Today half of all Japanese consider themselves baseball fans, and the annual high school baseball tournaments dominate the nation's television attention. According to Robert Whiting, author of "The Chrysanthemum and the Bat," for the Japanese their version of baseball is a perfect blend of confrontation and harmony. Furthermore, cautious Japanese fans and players are glad there is no time limit to the game, so there can be dozens of strategy meetings. The usual baseball game in Japan is nearly an hour longer than the North American version. "Japanese professional baseball games," observes Whiting, "like Japanese business meetings, can seem interminable."

You've said that no leisure activity is so popular with the Japanese as is besuboru. How did it become so popular?

It began with the country's efforts during the Meiji Restoration to catch up with the West through education. An American professor named Harold Wilson taught history at Kaisei School, which eventually became Tokyo University. He was an enthusiastic promoter of baseball, and introduced it to his students. The first game was held in 1873, and baseball has been extremely popular ever since. A recent survey found that 50% of all Japanese consider themselves baseball fans.

This was Japan's first team spectator sport?

Yes, although there were various martial arts which had evolved through military training. When Japan opened itself up to the West there wasn't even a word for sport in the Japanese language.

So baseball was, by chance, the first sport in Japan. Would basketball, for example, have been just as popular?

No, because a main attraction of the Japanese to baseball was the battle between the pitcher and the batter. There were similarities in it to the one-on-one confrontation found in kendo or sumo.

Such a confrontation seems at odds with the stress Japanese place on wa or harmony.

In Japanese baseball players and spectators get both confrontation and harmony. They're able to have the one-on-one battle between the pitcher and the batter. But there's also teamwork in such plays as sacrifice bunts and the hit and run, where individual achievement is sacrificed for the good of the team. The idea of the team is much more important in Japanese baseball than in the American game. Japanese players who aren't dedicated team players are ostracized by their teammates.

Why else do you think the Japanese are so hooked on baseball?

The Japanese are very cautious people, who don't like to make hasty decisions. Because baseball games don't have a time limit, players and coaches – and spectators – enjoy being able to take the time to think things through. In Japanese baseball there may be dozens of strategy meetings which slow down the game. An American baseball game takes about two and a half hours, but a Japanese game will take nearly an hour more. Japanese professional baseball games – like Japanese business meetings – can seem interminable.

Where do Japanese major league players come from?

Historically, straight from the high schools. By the turn of the century colleges and high schools all over Japan had teams. High school and intercollegiate baseball was the country's leading sport. College teams were even making tours to the United States. But the first Japanese professional team wasn't formed until 1935, following a highly successful tour of Japan the year before by a U.S. all-star team which featured Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig.

Before that was college baseball considered semi-pro?

No, baseball has always been regarded as a tool of education, in high school and in college. It's a way of teaching spirit.

What's the route to the majors for these kids?

Each year there's a "high school world series" in Osaka's Koshien Stadium. Regional winners play for the national title, and all eyes in Japan are glued to their televisions. This is where the pro scouts find future stars. The best from this tournament get a contract right out of high school. There are scouts who cover the best high schools during the regular season. Entire families have moved to another area of Japan, just so a boy could play baseball in a high school with a particularly good team.

The high school tournament sounds as popular as the Japan series, the national major league championship.

It's more popular. In 1986 the summer tournament drew over 800,000 for two weeks, or an average of slightly under 60,000 per game. Last year the Japan Series averaged less than half that, 27,000 people each game.

What makes the high school tournament so popular?

Tradition is one attraction. It started in 1915. In the process, high school baseball has evolved into a youth and purity cult, where the kids do nothing but devote themselves to baseball. The boys who play on the best teams practice every day, even in the winter. There are summer and winter baseball camps, and some schools have all-night marathon workouts. To the Japanese, high school baseball is more than athletic competition, it's almost a religion.

Pro baseball is a big business too, with major league teams owned by major corporations. Do the best players simply follow the money?

Yes and no. When baseball began again after the war, everyone wanted to play with the Yomiuri Giants because they were the first team, they had the nicest stadium, and the top stars. They won nine Japanese championships in a row, and when other teams would offer contracts to the high school stars – even at twice the money – the kids would turn them down to play for the Giants instead.

Then what happened?

In the mid 1960s the draft system was created. The leagues had to do something. Nobody would go to see a non-Giants game.

Is it now fashionable to dislike the Giants?

It used to be if you didn't like the Giants you weren't patriotic. But now there is a healthy "I hate the Giants" faction, which is good for the game.

So it isn't so easy for corporate owners to use their money to buy a winning season?

It's not so easy, but some still try. The Seibu Lions are owned by the major department store chain and railroad company. To get fans out to the ball game Seibu built a beautiful ballpark, and a railway extension to the stadium from its Ikebukuro store. Also, because Seibu has so much money it hires players for its semi-pro industrial league team, just so they can't play for Seibu's major league competitors.

When did foreign players begin to play in the Japanese major leagues?

There were gaijin players before the war, but it wasn't until 1951 that the first non-Japanese player was again permitted. In the sixties two retired major league players, Don Newcombe and Larry Doby, came over from the States for two seasons. They didn't do all that well, but they did hit some.  Ex-major leaguers playing stimulated interest and made the Japanese stand back and take a new look at their game. From that time on the Japanese have been looking for gaijin players who are going to hit long home runs and play the field like Willie Mays.

So they're looking for individual superstars?

They want players who can help them win the pennant, but who won't take too much publicity away from the Japanese players. The Japanese have a word for the foreign player, suketto, which means "helper." They want the Japanese to get most of the credit.

This must make it frustrating for foreign players.

It does; they always remain foreigners. For example, the Japanese major league home run record for one season is 55, which is held by Sadaharu Oh. During the 1985 season the very popular Randy Bass of the Hanshin Tigers hit 54 home runs, with two games left. The remaining games against the Giants were meaningless, because the pennant and standings had already been decided. But the Giant pitching coach told the pitchers they would be fined $1,000 for every strike they threw to Bass. Bass was intentionally walked almost every time he went to bat. The Giant front office didn't want the home run record to be broken by a foreigner. (Incidentally, Oh himself is half Chinese.)

Is this discrimination changing?

I'd say the Japanese accept foreigners better now than they did ten or twenty years ago. Bass is a national hero now because he helped the Tigers win their first championship in 21 years. Also, he's very even-tempered and has the right kind of presence for the Japanese.

Is it difficult for American players to fit into the game and into the Japanese culture?

They don't fit in. About half of the new gaijin recruits each year aren't invited back. Part of this is just because the training is so tough. The Japanese have year-round training, whereas in the American major leagues spring training is more of a warmup ritual.

American players train individually.

Yes, but in Japan individualism is simply not allowed. Coaches and managers have absolute and final authority. A couple of seasons ago the top Giant pitcher, Takashi Nishimoto, ignored a coach's advice. The coach punched him between the eyes. Nishimoto was forced to apologize, and to pay a $500 fine.

Baseball in Japan is more than a game?

It's more spiritual, based more on harmony and hard work. For example, the Japanese players have a drill where they field ground balls until they collapse. If a player gets tired during practice or during a game, he's thought to have less spirit than those who can keep going.

How will Japanese besuboru change in the future?

Basically it will become less and less Japanese. Tradition dies hard, but there's a lot of pressure to change.

Will there be more non-Japanese players?

Current rules say each team can only have two, but the quality of the gaijin player is improving. Last year the Yakult Swallows signed Bob Horner, who used to play for the Atlanta Braves, as the first active American star to come to Japan. He came because he was a free agent and couldn't get the money he wanted in America. The Swallows met his price, and this will have a tremendous impact on Japanese baseball, because now more and more American players probably will come to Japan. I'm not quite sure how happy the Japanese players will be about this.

Because American players' salaries are higher?

Much higher. The Japanese minimum pay for a major league player is $18,000. But the Americans are paid more than five times that, about $100,000 minimum to play in the starting lineup. Horner makes about $2 million a year.

Are foreigners necessary to Japanese baseball?

That was exactly the question asked by the Asahi Shimbun at the end of 1985. The majority of the fans, 56% said yes. But only 10% of the players – and none of the managers – thought gaijin were necessary to the game. In fact, the major league executive committee recently voted unanimously to eventually phase out gaijin, arguing that they are overpaid, underproductive and generally irritating. Said one committee member, "It's not right that a player no longer wanted in the United States is the key member of a Japanese team. Besides, it's ideal that Japanese baseball be played by Japanese alone."

Still, since Horner came, attendance at Yakult games has doubled. So I doubt the ban will ever be effected, which is good, because the stiffer competition that will ensue from having people like Horner in the Japanese leagues, will only make for a better game in the long run.

"Frankly Speaking..." is published by Gatewood Press, 149 Kisco Avenue, Mt Kisco, New York 10549 for Japan Air Lines, 655 Fifth Avenue, New York 10022. All rights reserved, copyright 1987 by Gatewood Press. No part of "Frankly Speaking..." may be reproduced by any means, including by photocopying, without the written permission of Gatewood Press. All comments and suggestions should be directed to Japan Air Lines, attention "Frankly Speaking..." at the above address.

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