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Wa Is Hell; The name of the game is besuboru

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Wa Is Hell; The name of the game is besuboru

by Barry Hillendbrand (Nov 25, 1989)

In America they call it baseball. In Japan it's pronounced besuboru, but the form of the game in both countries is identical: umpires, nine players, walks, strikeouts, double plays and, of course, home runs (homu ran). Aside from a few quirky exceptions -- ties are permitted after twelve innings -- the Japanese play baseball by American rules. It's been that way since 1873, when the game was introduced in Japan and soon became the national obsession as well as the national sport. Yet as journalist Robert Whiting notes in his new book You Gotta Have Wa (Macmillan), the style and, most important, the mind- set of baseball in Japan differ dramatically from those in America. Japan and the U.S., concludes Whiting, are two countries separated by a common sport.

Take the matter of conditioning. American players 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 to conserve strength as the season wanes. The Japanese approach firmly states that more is better. 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 participating in evening strategy sessions. During the season teams report at 2 p.m. for a four-hour drill before a night game.

Such jocks-apposed strategies come down hardest on the two American players who are permitted to play on each of Japan's twelve major-league professional teams. Usually older, fading stars, the Yanks go to Japan confident that they know how to play baseball, only to be promptly disabused of that notion. Japanese managers are ironhanded disciplinarians who believe that great players are made, not born, and they try to reshape the foreign players into the Japanese mold. The Americans, intense individualists that they are, rebel. The Japanese conclude that the Americans are rude, lazy, and worse, lacking in the sacrosanct wa, the sense of team spirit that obliges the Japanese to subordinate everything else in life to the interest of the team.

Randy Bass was one of the most successful foreigners to play in Japan, but his lack of wa nonetheless did him in. A towering left-handed batter who once played for the San Diego Padres, Bass hit 54 homers for the Hanshin Tigers in 1985, and that year helped his team win the Japan Series. Then in May 1988, the idolized Bass left Japan to be with his son, who was undergoing brain surgery in the U.S. The team slumped, and Bass's absence offended many Japanese; they could not forgive him. The Tigers cut him and then quibbled over paying his son's medical bills.

Whiting's book offers an unobstructed knothole through which to view the peculiarities of Japanese baseball and the Americans who struggle to play it. But a larger point also slides home to the reader. If Americans and Japanese cannot see eye to eye on baseball, how can they understand each other on such issues as trade? The answer is evident from this book: they are not yet able to.

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