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Robert Whiting

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Zen and the Art of Baseball

by Barry Hillenbrand (Aug 14, 1989)

 

Digitized by Jessica Suchman and Catherine Nissley

Like M.B.A's, lawyers and corruption investigators, books follow the money. So it is that hopper loads of volumes are rolling off the assembly line to meet the insatiable desire to learn more about Japan. Often these books – opaque with charts and sociological cant – are more readily purchased than read. Do books about Japan have to be so tedious? Not when they take you out to the ball game, as Robert Whiting does in his wonderfully entertaining look at baseball and wa, or team spirit – a knothole view of the Japanese mores. If it is not the best book about Japan in years, it is certainly the most readable.

Whiting took a swing at this topic once before in his 1977 classic The Chrysanthemum and the Bat, but his new book approaches the sport, which became a national obsession in Japan after it was introduced in 1873, from a different angle. The author contrasts the way the game is played in Japan with the way Americans play it. His conclusion: Japan and the U.S. are two countries separated by a common sport. The rules are the same, with a few exceptions – ties are permitted in Japan after twelve innings, for example. Yet the style and, most important, the approach to the game differ dramatically.

Take the matter of conditioning. American pros usually start formal training about five weeks before the season begins, continue a medium dose of exercise for the first half of the year and tail off as the heat waxes. The Japanese approach firmly states that more is better, that hard work conquers all. Thus in mid-January, three months before opening day, teams hold a “voluntary” winter training camp. Everyone attends. By February they are practicing seven hours a day and attending evening strategy sessions. During the season, teams report at 2 p.m. for a four hour drill before a night game. Rest is considered equivalent to defeat.

When the arm of Choji Murata, star pitcher of the Lotte Orions, began troubling him, he tried to pitch through the pain. Put on the disabled list, he daily tossed a ball against a wall. When that failed, he went to a Zen retreat, stood under icy waterfalls and underwent painful massages. Finally admitting defeat, he went to an American doctor, who discovered and repaired a torn arm ligament. Murata returned, a star reborn.

At the center of the cultural difference over the approach to the game are the two foreign players allowed to play on each of Japan's twelve major-league professional teams. These Americans, usually older, fading stars, come to Japan confident that they know baseball. They are promptly thrown into culture shock as coaches and managers attempt to reshape them into the Japanese mold. The Americans rebel. The Japanese find the Americans rude, lazy, overpaid and, most serious of all, lacking in the sacrosanct wa. Individualism and wa are mutually exclusive. The Americans are doomed. When the foreign players perform well – their hitting is frequently a key to the league championship – they are tolerated. When they fail to perform, they are vilified.

Are the Americans stars merely because of their larger size? Or is individualism more effective than wa? Neither side has an answer. And if Americans and Japanese cannot see eye to eye on baseball, how can they understand each other when it comes to other issues, like trade? Whiting is too wise to clutter up his book with a direct answer, yet he provides so clear a window into the Japanese psyche that the response, depressing as it may be, becomes evident. They cannot.

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