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The International Pastime

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The International Pastime

by Robert Whiting (Oct 2, 2004)

Kamakura, Japan - As the Seattle Mariners outfielder Ichiro Suzuki prepares to break one of baseball's most durable records - George Sisler's 257 hits in a season, set in 1920 - Americans may ask how this achievement is being viewed in his native Japan. The question everyone here has, though, is how much attention the Americans are paying.

The fixation can be seen everywhere. The nightly news often includes clips of Americans sports anchors singing the praises of the man known in both countries simply as Ichiro. The news programs are also fond of man-in-the street interviews in which Ichiro is smothered in praise by American passers-by. Newspapers regularly carry articles about American sportswriters and columnists who praise Japan's native son.

When Lee Jenkins of The New York Times wrote a lengthy article last month about Ichiro's batting artistry, it was featured prominently on NHK World Network's popular Sunday evening program on international affairs. An announcer, proudly holding up a copy of the article for the program's 15 million viewers, noted that "even people on the East Coast are paying attention to Ichiro's activities." A few days letter, the venerable daily Asahi Shimbun noted in an editorial that there would be "celebrations in both Japan and the United States if Ichiro reached the long-untouched number of 257."

This obsession with foreign perceptions of Japan is, alas, nothing new. Ever since Commodore Matthew Perry and his Black Ships opened the country at gunpoint in 1853, Japan has been saddled with anxiety about its place in the world. Now the emergence of Ichiro as a full-fledged cultural icon has helped change that.

Midori Masujima, a prominent sportswriter, even sees Ichiro as a phenomenon transcending sport, writing, "Today's athletes, standing shoulder to shoulder with their overseas peers, can inspire great hopes in the Japanese people."

The Asahi Shimbun sees things similarly. "Japanese were once seen in the United States as a 'faceless' people obsessed with exporting cars and consumer electronics," it editorialized. "The excellent play of the Japanese baseball players and their positive personalities have changed the American image of Japanese."

Yet Ichiro's success has also created a problem for the domestic league game. Fans here have became so fixated on Ichiro, and on Hideki Matsui of the Yankees, who followed Ichiro to America, that TV ratings for Japanese baseball fell sharply. This even led to moves to restructure the 70-year-old league - an effort that last month caused the Japanese game's first players strike (albeit only a two-day interruption, so as not to totally inconvenience everyone in harmony-conscious Japan).

The fans, however, seem less concerned than the Japanese players. Typical was one "man on the street" interview I saw the other day. When asked if he worried that Japan's once-proud game would become nothing more than a feeder system for the American major leagues, the interviewee said: "Not really. It's gratifying. Because this trend shows that Japan, and Japanese baseball, is equal or superior to the United States."

Another big question among the Japanese is whether Americans are upset that such a longstanding record is being challenged by a foreigner. In large part, this curiosity is rooted in the history of the Japanese game, in which native players too often have colluded to ensure that American expatriates are denied chances to surpass honored marks.

Perhaps the most notorious example of this involved a former Chicago Cub named Tuffy Rhodes of the Kintetsu Buffaloes, who tied Sadaharu Oh's single-season home run record of 55 in 2001. He was walked several times in an end-of-season series against the Daiei Hawks, who happened to be managed by Oh. "If Rhodes broke the record I would have felt sorry for Oh," Yoshiharu Wakana, the Daiei pitching coach, said later. "I doubt Oh wants to see Rhodes break the record in front of him. I just didn't want a foreign player to break Oh's record."

To be fair, America has its own unsavory record of discrimination. Beyond the obvious example of the Negro Leagues, consider that when the founder of the Japanese electronics giant Nintendo bought 60 percent of the Mariners stock in 1992, he was granted only 49 percent of the company's voting rights.

Today, though, it seems that xenophobia is nearly extinct in the Majors. After all, some 30 percent of the players are born outside the United States. And Japan, too, has seen its changes lately - perhaps inspired by the warm reception given Ichiro and Matsui. In a historical rarity, last season two American managers, Trey Hillman and Bobby Valentine, took the reins at Japanese teams, the Nippon Ham Fighters and Chiba Lotte Marines, respectively. Both teams vied for playoff berths, and each man was invited back for 2005. Lotte fans even erected a shrine to their American manager near the stadium.

Perhaps, finally, we've reached the point of acceptance on both sides of the Pacific.

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