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Robert Whiting

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Whiting focuses on America's chief export to Japan: baseball

by Mae Woods Bell (Jun 11, 1989)

Digitized by Jessica Suchman and Catherine Nissley

 YOU GOTTA HAVE WA by Robert Whiting. Macmillan, publisher. Illustrated with photographs. 339 pp. $17.95.

When one thinks of Japanese-American relations it usually centers around something to do with imports automobiles, computer chips or audio-visual equipment. We tend to forget that there is a major export to Japan from America, an all consuming passion since the 1870s – baseball.

Japan-based journalist Robert Whiting gives the reader a closeup look at Japanese culture from the vantage point of the baseball diamond. That baseball is such a focus of interest in the Land of the Rising Sun is difficult to understand from the viewpoint of the average American who sees the game as an exhibition of clashing personalities, individual stardom, temper tantrums, bickering and rivalry among individual players; we all know that the Japanese are taught to suppress their own desires to those of the group – surely this is a clash of philosophies.

Whiting points out that the most important thing to a Japanese team is its "wa," meaning unity, harmony and team spirit. He adds that the fastest way to knock a team's "wa" awry is to hire an American.

The book is packed with anecdotes about some of the American players who have been lured to Japan by the big money and adventure and who were chagrined to learn that Japanese besoboru is a much different ballgame – and "no bed of lotus blossoms." As former Dodger player, Reggie Smith, grumbled after a season with the Tokyo Giants, "This isn't baseball. It only looks like it."

Here are a couple of stories from the book to illustrate its flavor:

Willie Davis, a former captain for the Dodgers, and a practicing Buddhist, thought life in Japan would be easy for him. He faithfully repeated Buddhism's sacred chant – in the morning, at night, in his room, in the team bath, on the team bus – thinking it would be music to his teammates' ears. Instead it drove them nuts and threw their "wa" out of whack. He'd pray that he'd do well, that the team would win, and that nobody would get hurt," said his Japanese manager, "but it gave the others the feeling that they were at a Buddhist funeral." When a wrist injury sidelined Davis for a year, the team immediately went on a winning streak. The manager insisted it was their pitching, but other experts knew it was because the team "wa" had been restored.

Tony Solaita, an American Samoan who played with the Nippon Ham Fighters, was up in arms over brushback pitches in a game against the Lotte Orions and used his interpreter, Toshi Shamada, to raise the issue with the Orions catcher during pre-game practice the following day. "Listen, you no good SOB," said Solaita, who was built like a Brinks armored truck, "if you have a pitcher throw at my head again, I'll (expletive deleted) kill you." Shimada did not bat an eyelash as he translated, "Mr. Solaita asks that you please not throw at his head anymore. It makes his wife and children worry."

Whiting's love for baseball shines through on every page; it will delight sports fans interested in any phase of the game, but beyond that it is a perceptive and troubling exposition of two cultures in almost complete conflict with each other. What he writes about the collision of two cultures on the baseball diamond can be a metaphor applicable to almost every other aspect of American-Japanese relations.

Robert Whiting is the author of "The Chrysanthemum and the Bat," which was voted the best sports book of 1977 by Time magazine. He has authored five books in Japanese and from 1979 til 1985 was a columnist for Tokyo Daily Sports, the weekly magazine Sankei, and the bi-weekly Number. He divides his time between Japan and wherever it is the United Nations stations his wife, Machiko. In recent years that has meant Geneva, Mogadishu and Karachi. He was born in New Jersey in 1942, grew up in California and graduated from Sophia University in Tokyo with a degree in Japanese politics.

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