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Robert Whiting

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Book Review: A disappointing; clinical look at 'besuboru'

by Bruce Allen (Sep 13, 1977)

Digitized by Jessica Suchman and Catherine Nissley.

Whiting's portrait of Japanese professional baseball makes a disappointing book, primarily because its details receive less attention and emphasis than do its overriding generalizations. We're told the differences between baseball there and here and we're encouraged to conclude these are reflections of larger social differences.

This will comfort people who balk at according superstar status to players like home run king Sadaharu Oh of his teammate Shigeo Nagashima ("a symbol of national pride"). After all, Japanese umpires are deferential automatons, unable to control the games they work. Managers operate by hunch (they call it "inspiration"), sacrificing when many runs behind, batting left-handers against left-handers, an so forth. Balancing things a bit, Whiting demonstrates that sports casting and sports reporting in Japan are more statistically sophisticated, and also more dramatic and colorful, than their American counterparts.

The salient fact is that 'besuboru' is highly structured and rigidly controlled. Teams are owned by large corporations. Training regimens are harsh. And "paternalistic" managers place heavy stress on both "team image" and ethnic solidarity. The results? Players in Japan apologize for batting slumps, and winning pitchers apologize for not throwing a shutout." Exciting plays are rare, because the meticulous style of play demands subordination of individual skills to patterned strategies.

Whiting's approach to his promising subject is numbingly encyclopedic. Specific examples abound, and are needlessly repeated while essential information is arbitrarily withheld (we don't learn until page 213 that ties count in the league standings). The text is padded with unimaginative itemizations such as a list of recommended principles and strict rules or the highlights in a "typical fan's day" and predictable comparisons such as the resemblance of aggressive base running to samurai warfare.

The parts are better than the whole. Most readers will be most interested in the chapters dealing with "Ugly Americans" (ex-Yankee Joe Pepitone seems to have set records for unacceptable behavior). Yet the typical experience was that of former Chicago Cub George Altman, who "had the best all-around single season of any American ever to play in Japan," but shared the treatment reserved for the average alien major leaguer – he was considered "a side-show attraction," and his achievements went unheralded and pretty much unrewarded.

Whiting climaxes his study of "a nation of besuboru nuts" with an account of the powerful Yomiuiri Giants' disastrous exhibition series against the 1971 Baltimore Orioles (losers) of that year's World Series). The whole thing reads to me like a finger-wagging reproof to what the author labels "the Japanese people's almost desperate need to be recognized and be respected as a nation."

This book is a partisan discussion of cultural conflict. It pretends to be about baseball, but it shows no absorption in the game, no love of it. That's the problem.

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