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Robert Whiting

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Japanese Baseball's 'Wa' Factor

by Patrick L. Smith (Jul 18, 1989)

When Bob Whiting arrived in Tokyo back in 1965 to attend Sophia University's extension for foreign students, it was only natural that he gravitated quickly to the spectator sport both Japan and the United States claim as a national pastime.

How could he know that a quarter of a century later he would write about the Japanese version of baseball to describe not what binds his native and adopted homes together but what deep social and cultural divides keep them depressingly far apart?

"I majored in Japanese politics back in California, but I knew nothing of the language when I got here," Whiting recalled recently in his beachside home south of Tokyo. "Baseball was the only thing I could understand on television."

Much water has flowed beneath the bridges of Whiting's life since then: He has bounced from Manhattan to Mogadishu, with stops between, in the process of developing the theme of which his hard work is made: baseball and national character and how the one subtly reveals so much about the other. One of Whiting's favorite quotations, used prominently in his new book, "You Gotta Have Wa," is from Reggie Smith, the former Los Angeles Dodger.

"This isn't baseball," Smith told Whiting after his first season with the Yomiuri Giants in 1983. "It only looks like it."

"You Gotta Have Wa," excerpted in Sports Illustrated last month and just published by Macmillan, is a long, well-crafted meditation on baseball as it is played in Japan. More specifically, it is centered on the hardships experienced by U.S. players when stars such as Warren Cromartie and Bob Horner accept lucrative offers to join Japanese teams.

As Reggie Smith discovered, there is baseball and there is Japanese baseball. Instead of the high-pitched individuality American players display on the diamond, the Japanese are dedicated to concepts such as <i>doryoku</i> (effort), <i>gattsu</i> (guts) and <i>wa</i>, or harmony and team identity.

What does a Japanese pitcher do when his arm hurts? He pitches some more. What was the first thing the Japanese players' union did after it was formed amid extraordinary angst in 1985? It solved the prickly question of player loyalty by pledging never to strike, of course.

Near-religious workout schedules, the on-field strategy sessions sometimes after every pitch, the total control of a manager exercises over his players' lives – there are shocks to many of the U.S. players who have come to Japan since Don Newcombe and Larry Doby pioneered the practice among U.S. professionals in 1962.

It can drive them literally crazy. There was the evening Daryl Spencer was told he needed a rest when he was hitting .340 for the season against the opposing pitcher. When the manager then listed Spencer in the lineup to trick the other team, the former San Francisco Giant walked straight from the locker room to the on-deck circle in his underwear and shower clogs. The fine that followed "was worth every penny," Spencer later recalled.

"'Wa' is about cultural conflict," said Whiting, a diffident, quietly cheerful man in his mid-40s. "The basic theme is the inability of Japanese and Americans to get along with one another."

It is a knowing book, filled with sentences of elegant restraint. Whiting's most attractive habit as a writer is to let the game speak for itself, never intruding with explanations dedicated to the larger truths of the volume. They simply emerge along with his knowledge of the tales, the history and the nature of the Japanese game.

It was hard-won wisdom. After Sophia and spells as an encyclopedia editor, a writer of bilingual fairy tales, a publisher and a wanderer in Europe, Whiting found himself in a $240-a-month walkup on the Upper West Side of Manhattan trying to explain Japanese unions, factories – how the whole place worked. That was in the early 1970s, and nobody was interested.

But people would listen to accounts of a strange way to play baseball, Whiting discovered. Broke and surrounded by stacks of Japanese sports dailies, he began his first book, "The Chrysanthemum and the Bat," the title an allusion to Ruth Benedict's classic 1946 anthropological study of Japan, "The Chrysanthemum and the Sword."

By Whiting's own account, "Bat" is not as well written as his latest effort. A straightforward description of the Japanese game, James Fallows nonetheless called it "a deft analysis of modern Japan masquerading as a witty sports book." David Halberstam, in Japan to write "The Reckoning," his study of the auto industry, called "Bat" indispensable to an understanding of the country.

After the first book's modest success in the United States – it was a best seller in Japan – Whiting spent more than a decade in Tokyo writing commentary for the national sports dailies. He was a recognized expert on the Japanese game by this time, and while seeing several collections into print, he was steadily gathering material for "Wa."

Along the way he married a Japanese and reduced his beer intake by getting away from the hectic pace of the capital – "the only way to do it," Whiting says. He now divides his time between a rustic cabin in Kamakura, a seaside town favored by artists and intellectuals, and wherever his wife is posted as a United Nations official – in Somalia until recently and now in Pakistan.

With interest in Japan currently running high among Americans, Whiting has just finished a nationwide promotional tour, and there is vague talk of a film version of "Wa." But Whiting is already starting his next project, a biography of Warren Cromartie, a favorite player, and talking quietly of other ideas.

And is he still a skeptic on the subject of U.S.-Japan relations, a tense topic on both sides of the Pacific just now, for which "Wa" could not have been better timed?

"I don't see things getting better," Whiting offers, "not unless both sides make some basic changes."

Digitized by Jessica Suchman and Catherine Nissley.

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