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Robert Whiting

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No Gattsu, No Glory for Japanese

by John Holmes (Jul 3, 1989)

Digitized by Jessica Suchman and Catherine Nissley

SUMMARY: Baseball in Japan has a very different spin to it, as Robert Whiting points out in "You Gotta Have Wa" (Macmillan, $17.95, Illus., 339 pages). Most telling, team harmony, or wa, is just about as important as winning. Whiting says "besuboru" is very popular because it is the only team sport in a country where group identification is key.

Japan's version of baseball looks a lot like the American national pastime, but only from a distance. The Japanese have been playing besuboru since they picked it up from visiting American servicemen more than a century ago, and they have proceeded to make it far more than just a game. Baseball has become a way of life, a clear and accurate reflection of their customs, work ethic and philosophy.

In "You Gotta Have Wa," author Robert Whiting explores the evolution and state of Japanese baseball and uses the sport as a metaphor for examining a modern Japanese culture and society vastly different from our own. The book, a follow-up to "The Chrysanthemum and the Bat," his fine 1977 look at Japan and baseball, is well-written, well-researched and full of analysis as well as amusing and very telling anecdotes. And one need not have read the earlier volume to get the utmost enjoyment out of this one.

The Japanese have thrown themselves into professional baseball with vigor and intensity, and their interest is heightened by the ubiquitous presence of a half-dozen daily sports newspapers, some of which carry incredibly detailed box scores. Oftentimes, this enthusiasm produces reactions among the fans who jam ballparks of the six Central League and six Pacific League teams that are far from what most Americans see as traditional Japanese decorum.

"The typical fan, left alone and to his own devices, will sit quietly through a nine-inning game," Whiting writes. "Yet, put him in one of the highly organized cheering groups, or oendan, that can be found at all baseball stadiums in Japan, and he quickly sheds his traditional restraint. Spurred on by energetic cheerleaders, and the pounding rhythm of taiko drums, horns, whistles, and other noisemakers, he becomes a veritable wildman, yelling and screaming non-stop for nine solid innings."

By contrast, the action on the field is often downright cautious. To the Japanese, he points out, the game is "not one of aggressive strategy and tactics, but one of walks, of sacrifice bunts in the first inning – a step-by-step approach that seems to reflect the conservative bent of Japanese society as a whole." That strategy is logical against larger, more physically capable opponents, but the Japanese also play that way – and even allow games to end in a tie – to avoid unpleasant confrontations or embarrassing mistakes.

Though the batter-vs.-pitcher contests replicate the test of wills so crucial to the martial arts, Whiting speculates that baseball has gained such popularity because it is the only team sport in a nation whose culture is so deeply rooted in belonging to a group. He notes that team aspects – the sacrifice bunt, say, or the hit-and-run play – have come to characterize the Japanese game far more than individual feats such as home runs or strikeouts.

The Japanese are far from in their preparation, however. Take spring training, which for most American players is largely a six-week stretch to work out the kinks and tune up for the season. Not in Japan. There, training begins in the bitter cold of January with seven hours of rugged on-field work followed by lengthy evening exercise and strategy sessions.

The workouts often include the dreaded gattsu, or guts, drills, which are designed to push a player to his limits. Whiting tells the story of Koichi Tabuchi, who in 1984, at age 38 and preparing for his final season before retirement, capped off a full day of workouts by fielding 900 consecutive ground balls. After two hours and 50 minutes, he finally slumped to the ground.

No American coach at any level would dare subject his players to that kind of workout for fear that they would injure themselves or develop bad habits as they tire. But the Japanese believe their rigorous regimen improves the player's spirit as well as his physical skills. To the Japanese, spirit and attitude are as crucial as batting average and earned run average, and individual displays of emotion simply are not tolerated for fear of disturbing a team's group harmony, or wa.

This concept of wa "is what most dramatically differentiates Japanese baseball from the American game," Whiting writes. A player's behavior is often as crucial to his evaluation as is his ability to perform. Fitting into that mind-set is often the biggest hurdle most foreigners, especially free-spirited Americans, must overcome.

The Japanese exacerbate the problem through their love-hate relationship with Americans. Some fans, sportswriters and even team owners actively promote the exclusion of gaijin, even though they realize their teams cannot win without foreign players. So the teams pay mediocre or washed-up Americans outrageous sums, only to treat then with disdain. Yet while their bosses and teammates may treat them rudely, the Americans often become media stars and huge fan favorites – until they threaten to break Japanese records or otherwise disturb wa. After reading page after page of horror stories, it is easy to see why so few Americans want to play there.

It is also easy to see that the game suffers from this approach. The Yomiuri Giants preserved their wa by walking American Randy Bass four times in the last game of the 1985 season, which prevented him from taking a shot at the Japanese home run record. They proved themselves cowards in the process. Sport is at its best only when all players are allowed the opportunity to meet its ultimate challenges – a Western idea that has so far failed to follow baseball to Japan.

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