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Robert Whiting

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Americans play baseball; Japanese work at it

by Bill Livingston (Aug 1, 1989)


Digitized by Jessica Suchman and Catherine Nissley

It is as American as baseball, apple pie, and sushi.

It is besoboru, or what they call baseball in Japan.

It is a world in which a manager will throw a ball at a player, slumped on the ground after four hours of taking infield practice, to see if he is faking fatigue or not. If he dodges the ball, he's in trouble. If it beams him, he's OK.

It is the world of "You Gotta Have Wa," a new book by Japan-based American journalist Robert Whiting.

In the 1950s, "Made in Japan" was a joke label in this country, one which stamped the goods bearing it as shoddy and inferior. Today, "Made in Japan" ought to describe the traffic jams in most American cities, as the thousands of Toyotas and Nissans inch forward.

If you wondered why that change took place, "You Gotta Have Wa" will get you up-to-date in a light, entertaining way.

"Wa" is the Japanese word meaning team spirit, unity, and the belief that "the ball club always comes first," said author Whiting in a telephone interview.

It is a central concept to understanding how Japan has gained dominance in world industry and is at least dimly threatening American supremacy in both countries' national sport, baseball.

It is also a key element in understanding the great, untold story of the late 20th century in the United States, the increasing control of American business and industry by Japanese interests.

"The attitude of the worker is entirely different in Japan from that in the United States. And the difference hurts America in the long run," said Whiting. "If the day is over at 5 o'clock and a job remains to be done, the Japanese worker will stay until it's finished. To Americans, the job is almost secondary to leisure pursuits."

Whiting subtitled his book "When Two Cultures Collide on the Baseball Diamond."

The American concept of individual freedom and the Japanese ethic of personal strength stemming from a group identity smash together like a fastball and the bat of Bob Horner – the most famous gaijin, or foreign player, in the recent history of Japanese baseball.

Whiting offers an illuminating example of the conflicting values of the two cultures: Current Indians batting coach Charlie Manuel missed several games when he was playing in Japan to return to the States for his son's high school graduation. But all-time home run leader Sadaharu Oh refused to miss a single game late in his career, even though his father had just died.

Such a deep commitment to "Wa" strikes Americans as excessive, even obsessive. But it is perfectly normal to Japanese.

Similarly, the rigorous pre-game workouts at the height of the Japanese summer strike American players as counter-productive, but they are actually more important to the Japanese than the game itself.

"What Japan did was graft martial arts philosophy onto baseball," said Whiting. "They place great stress on the development of the spirit and will-power.

"The American idea is that each player has a limit to his potential. Once you reach it, nothing can help you improve more.

"The Japanese don't recognize limits. If the spirit can become tough enough, they think you can do anything. They say just give evolution time and people will be able to play 24 hours a day."

It was, of course, a similar line of thinking that convinced the Japanese people they could use bamboo spears to repel a prospective invasion of the home islands by fully-equipped American naval, army, and marine forces in World War II.

Whiting argues that baseball is perfect for the Japanese temperament. The duel between pitcher and hitter satisfies the one-on-one demands of such traditional Japanese sports as sumo wrestling, while the submergence of ego within a team fits the Oriental mentality of group regimentation.

The Japanese, he points out, are a people who were shielded from Western ways until the Meiji Restoration brought the concept of a divine emperor back in 1871.

Within 70 years, they had undergone their own Industrial Revolution, had not only copied but had improved upon Western technology, and were prepared for war with the United States.

Even after the atomic devastation of World War II in 1945, they rebuilt themselves into a world economic power within four decades.

As far as baseball goes, the Japanese use the same hectic, hurry-up-and-succeed approach. Each game is played as if it is the seventh game of the World Series, with sacrifice bunts in the first inning and with starters often called in to work long relief.

The work ethic is almost suicidal. After pitching complete games, Japanese pitchers sometimes throw 100 pitches, as hard as they can, the very next day.

"All the way from high school to the university level, the Japanese players may be slightly ahead of the Americans," said Whiting. "But in the big leagues, Americans get more specialized instruction and far better weight training. American practices are more systematic. An entire workout might be devoted to just one thing, like hitting to the opposite field.

"Still, I think an All-Star team of Japanese players would play .500 in any division in the major leagues."

In 1984 in Los Angeles, Japanese "Wa" and will-power carried their baseball team to the Olympic gold medal over a powerful American team that featured such players as Mark McGwire, Will Clark, Cory Snyder, B.J. Surhoff, Oddibe McDowell, and Bobby Witt.

Having learned their lessons, the Americans came back with a vengeance behind Jim Abbott, the best pitcher in U.S college ranks, in the gold medal game in Seoul last year. The result was a hair-breadth 5-3 victory over Japan.

We ignore these people and their lessons only at our own peril.

 
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