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Robert Whiting

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Japan Closely Guards the Art of Besu-boru

by David Sanger (Mar 26, 1990)

Digitized by Jessica Suchman and Catherine Nissley.

The hottest movie in Tokyo this spring seems as distant from the Ginza as the Iowa cornfields where it was filmed. "Field of Dreams," the fantasy-on-a-diamond in which faith and a willingness to risk all bring back the heroes of a golden age of baseball, has captivated the Japanese, who can scarcely imagine living in a place as unpopulated as Iowa and likely never heard of Shoeless Joe Jackson.

But that should be no surprise. The lore of American baseball has always been a source of fascination in Japan, but one that the Japanese are happy to preserve as something of a distant fantasy. This is as much of a besu-boru-fanatic society as any that you can find outside the United States. But 117 years after the Shimbashi Athletics first took to the field – in traditional wooden clogs – Japanese baseball remains at once haunted by comparisons with the game in America and as determined as ever to keep its version distinctly Japanese.

These days it seems everyone is chronicling Japan's struggle to reconcile its envy of American baseball with what the sport has become here. Robert Whiting's recent book, "You Gotta Have Wa," may be the definitive history of how Japan turned baseball into a martial art, a game that strives for perfection more than drama, for team spirit and unity over spectacular individual performance.

Nonetheless, just as there are always people looking for evidence that Japan is becoming more like the rest of the world, there are those who want to believe that Japanese baseball is becoming more American. This year the temptations are great.

As the Japanese season begins – Opening Day is April 7 – the country is immersed in allegations that the star pitcher of the perpetual champion Yomiuri Giants may have associated with gamblers, raising the specter of a Japanese equivalent of the Pete Rose scandal. For the first time, Japan's Central League will allow games to go on until someone wins – or until the last train home is about to depart – in an effort to eliminate what may be the most frustrating statistic in all of Japanese baseball: Number of games ending in tie.

Then there is the news, unsettling to some and welcome to others, that a major Japanese spirits company has made its first investment in American baseball, buying the Birmingham Barons, a Double-A farm team that has swept the Southern League three times in seven years.

But anyone rushing to the conclusion that the world is becoming a global baseball diamond should turn on a television set anyplace in Japan, any afternoon this week. For this is the start of the spring championships for high school baseball, which engenders more passion, more hometown rivalries, more rhetoric about "purity" and more pressure to perform that anything Japan's professional leagues can muster.

It is in high school baseball that one can find evidence of how different Japanese baseball is from the pick-up games of "Field of Dreams." If American players got their start by idly throwing a ball against the side of a barn, high school stars in Japan are created by 365 days of practice.

"The point is how to train, how to master a kind of spirit," says Masaru Ikei, a professor at Keio University who frequently studies baseball in Japan and the United States. "The coaches are just interested in winning, not teaching the game. They have no worries about using the same pitcher four days in a row, and that even makes a losing pitcher a hero because he worked so hard."

What makes the values of high school baseball so fascinating is how deeply they affect professional ball. By the time a player makes it to the big leagues, the conflict between pitcher and batter gives way to an endurance contest between teams. The most important thing is not to make a foolish mistake; that is why infielders are put through the torturous "1,000 grounders" exercise, then expected to go out on the field for a full game.

The players, in short, resemble nothing more than more ordinary, blue-suited employees of the companies that own their teams, bound by a strict set of rules, willing to practice until they drop and work for wages that American players would laugh at – and do. The average big-leaguer in Japan made the equivalent of $138,000 last year, far below his American counterpart's $490,000.

But it is the American players who, in many ways, add the wild card to Japanese baseball. They are hired, at salaries their Japanese teammates resent, simply to add some excitement to games that can often be remarkable for their low scores and lack of drama. Not too much excitement, of course: Each team is limited to two foreign players, and efforts to raise the limit, most recently this winter, have regularly collapsed.

It is a classic form of protectionism, but like all trade barriers here, it seems bound to fall of its own weight in the seasons to come. Last year, for the first time, two Americans won the Most Valuable Player awards, Warren Cromartie of the Yomiuri Giants and Ralph Bryant of the Kintetsu Buffaloes. It was the first time that foreigners had swept the title in both the Central and Pacific Leagues in a single year. People noticed.

It is exactly this same instinct – a desire to pump more of America into baseball here without actually drowning the Japanese character of the game – that lies behind Suntory Ltd.'s purchase of the Birmingham Barons.

Americans may fear that baseball teams are about to go the way of Rockefeller Center and Columbia Pictures, and they may be right. But Suntory says it bought the Barons less out of a desire to become a big presence in American baseball than to become one in Japan.

"Our final goal is to create a new kind of entertainment here at home, much as Disneyland did," said Mashide Kanzaki, a spokesman for the company. "Japanese baseball companies have sent observers to America before to learn, but they couldn't get anything. We decided that to understand American baseball, we had to do everything, from grounds keeping to finance."

If that strikes non-Japanese as a mercenary approach to the national pastime – applying the same principles to learning about baseball teams that Toyota applied to learning about cars – it is a reminder that Japan makes no apologies about treating baseball as a business first, a sport second.

American owners may pay homage to "the boys of summer" or the "good of the game." In Japan, teams are tools of their companies, which will be molded to fit corporate goals. Most lose money. But there are other benefits. No one ever heard of Orix Corp., a leasing company, until it bought a team and named it the Orix Braves. Now the leasing business is booming, and Japan's best students are rushing to work there. The Nippon Ham Fighters were owned, and named after, a railroad company, a movie studio and a home construction firm before they were renamed again to tout the glories of meat packing.

But if baseball is supposed to be a business for the owners, it is not expected to be a business for the players. The Seibu Lions, known for strictness, prohibit players from side businesses and product endorsements. And the graduates of high school baseball are, given their roots, expected in particular to think of nothing but the game.

That explains the controversy over Masumi Kuwata, the 21-year-old star pitcher of the Giants, and a graduate of Japan's most famous high school team. A recent book titled "Good-bye Masumi Kuwata, Good-bye Professional Baseball" charged that Kuwata associated with a suspected gambler, and told the gambler when he would be pitching – something teams here keep secret until the last minute. The book never charged that Kuwata helped anyone place bets, or profited himself, except for receiving some large fees to help his friend in some vague business deals. The Giants conducted an internal investigation, declared Kuwata innocent and said they would sue the author for libel.

As in the Pete Rose case, there are many unanswered questions, and the controversy rips through Japan's sports pages. It is enough to make people nostalgic for the cornfield beginnings of baseball that never were. But in the end, most people think Japan will settle the Kuwata controversy in a quiet, Japanese way, just like it plays the game.

The writer, a baseball enthusiast, covers business affairs from The New York Times bureau in Tokyo.

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