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Robert Whiting

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'You Gotta Have Wa' gets to the base of Japan' s spirit

by Anne Tergesen (Nov 26, 1989)

When Robert Whiting submitted his first book, "The Chrysanthemum and the Bat," to his American publisher 12 years ago, he was told that there are two types of books that do not sell: baseball books and books about Japan.

Although the solid performance of "Chrysanthemum" proved the editor wrong, no one, least of all Whiting's current New York publisher, Macmillan, seems to have anticipated the success in store for his next treatment of the cultural chasm separating American and Japanese baseball.

"You Gotta Have Wa," published this past summer, is now on its third hardcover printing and has garnered rave reviews and a handsome paperback sale to Vintage Books. It has even caught the attention of Hollywood, where movie rights have been sold to Linda Gottlieb ("Dirty Dancing") of Viacom.

Here, Kadokawa bought translation rights for a large sum in hopes that "Wa" (a Japanese word, meaning "team spirit, unity") will duplicate the success of "Chrysanthemum" on Japan's charts.

And Whiting has been courted by publishers both here and abroad, to whom he has promised an autobiography of Warren Cromartie and a postwar history of Tokyo.

"This book hit it just right," he said in a recent interview. "Five to 10 years from now, Hollywood won't be interested in books like this."

But beneath all the hype and glamour is a dark and serious message. For Whiting, "Wa" is more than an analysis of how two different cultures play baseball, it's an illustration of how fundamentally "different and incompatible" those two cultures are.

"I go around telling everyone that the future (of Japanese-American relations) is bright, but sometimes I wonder if I'm not full of it," he said, in his characteristically pointed way.

For Whiting, who has lived in Japan on and off since the mid-1960s, tension between the two countries is nothing new, although the media has only recently focused on it.

"In all my experience there's always been more trouble than anything else (between the U.S. and Japan)," he said.

"I've always heard that Japan is changing and seen how the younger generation is changing – but things change on the surface," he said, explaining that Western appearances belie the persistence of the traditional Bushido, or samurai code of chivalry, which accounts for an ingrained "closed" attitude among the Japanese.

"The Bushido culture affects business and sports so much. Total dedication, total loyalty, total spirit are still everywhere. Look at (Tsutsumi) Seibu, he's not an aberration, although he may be extreme. We (the U.S.) can never compete with that kind of discipline, ever," he said, referring to a chapter in "Wa" devoted to the Seibu management philosophy of spirit and dedication over creativity.

Equally disparaging about American youth, Whiting foresees that Americans "will fall far behind the Japanese," primarily due to deficiencies in the American educational system, which are fast creating an unskilled workforce.

"Americans are in a lot of trouble," he said. "I'm shocked every time I go back there. Americans still think they're Number One."

But while Whiting is forthcoming on the subject of international relations, he is by nature a reserved and circumspect speaker who seems most comfortable expressing his opinions about Japan through the baseball metaphor.

For Whiting, fan attitudes toward their national pastimes are revelatory: "In Japan baseball is seen as a tool of education, a moral discipline," which contrasts sharply with what Americans look to the game for – entertainment and fun.

It is this penchant for hedonism, he charges, that accounts for the decline in American economic competitiveness. "I don't know how you change the attitude without good leadership at the top," he said. "The last time I saw anything like that in the U.S. was Kennedy – he had the ability to move people."

As for the future, Whiting waxes ambivalent. In his view, Japanese rigidity will prove as intractable and as dangerous as American frivolity.

In baseball, this is exemplified by the reverence most Japanese coaches cultivate for tradition, even when it is contradicted by scientific fact – the "pitch through your pain" mentality that nearly claimed the career of Lotte's pitching great Choji Murata.

For Whiting, change and tradition in Japanese baseball are locked in a perpetual zero-sum contest, symbolizing an underlying ambivalence toward Japan's internationalization movement.

"American players have been accepted more," he said, pointing to the success of Warren Cromartie in overcoming cultural and racial barriers.

"Cro is doing a beer commercial and he has the Japanese elite who sit in the infield stands doing the banzai cheer with him. Ten years ago that would have been absolutely unimaginable."

But because strict rules continue to limit the number of gaijin players per team to two, and the number of gaijin All-Star participants to three in the lineup at any given time, Whiting is pessimistic that the ideals of internationalization, as expressed in baseball, will become assimilated.

"(These rules are) protectionist...because (the management) doesn't want to shock the fans," he said, warning that "the principle that they're teaching Japanese children is that it's O.K. to have one set of rules for gaijin and another for Japanese. That it's O.K. to cheat – because that's what it is, cheating."

This is an attitude which Whiting also see manifested in Japanese trade practices. "It's ingrained," he added, faulting this, along with unrealistic American demands for what he predicts will be a failure of the Strategic Initiative Talks.

But while this sounds bleak, Whiting sees hope for the future in players like Cromartie, Murata, and "the new breed" at Seibu, who seem capable of balancing Japanese "wa" with a certain amount of American individuality and innovation. "To me," Whiting said, "they are the real heroes."

Digitized by Jessica Suchman and Catherine Nissley.

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