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When the Japanese invaded America: Determining 'The Meaning of Ichiro'

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When the Japanese invaded America: Determining 'The Meaning of Ichiro'

by Todd Leopold (May 27, 2004)

(CNN) -- Robert Whiting jokes that there should be a statue of Japanese pitcher Hideo Nomo at Tokyo's Narita Airport.

Or maybe he's not joking.

Before Nomo, no Japanese player had ever been a star in America. Indeed, the path usually went the other way, as second-tier major leaguers such as Warren Cromartie, Randy Bass and Tuffy Rhodes went to Japan and became offensive forces for their teams.

Nomo, who won the National League Rookie of the Year Award and caused a frenzy upon his arrival in 1995, blazed a trail that's now been followed by several Japanese baseball players, most notably Ichiro Suzuki, the speedy Seattle Mariners outfielder. Suzuki -- or simply "Ichiro" -- won the 2001 American League Most Valuable Player and Rookie of the Year awards, only the second player, after Fred Lynn, to ever pull off that double.

Whiting, a longtime observer of the Japanese game, writes about the changes symbolized by Suzuki in a new book, "The Meaning of Ichiro: The New Wave from Japan and the Transformation of Our National Pastime" (Warner Books, like CNN a division of Time Warner). His other books, including "You Gotta Have Wa" and "The Chrysanthemum and the Bat," have told of the development and customs of the Japanese game and Americans' place in it; now the glove is on the other hand.

If Nomo caused a rumble, Ichiro's impact was that of an earthquake. He led the American League in batting and electrified fans with his speed and athleticism.

"All of his games -- including exhibition and intra-squad games -- were telecast nationwide," Whiting observes in an e-mail interview during a U.S. book tour. "It was this that gave the Japanese their first real solid look at the way Americans play ball. They saw how accepting the Americans were, and decided that maybe they could act the same way."

Americans were also catching Ichiro fever. He was helping to change the image of his native country.

"As a New York-based sports editor put it to me," Whiting says, " 'Ichiro -- with his shades, his panache, swagger -- is the first "cool" Japanese I've ever met.' "

'That was the way it was done'

So what was once exceptional -- a Japanese player in Major League Baseball -- has become routine in less than a decade.

MLB now has star Japanese players, such as Suzuki and Yankee slugger Hideki Matsui, and journeymen. There may be plenty more, too: In "Meaning of Ichiro," former Mets manager Bobby Valentine -- who managed in Japan -- says he believes there are 100 Japanese league players who could make it in MLB.

Even if he's wildly off the mark, there's no doubt that the talent level has improved greatly. Japanese teams were once routinely beaten by American all-stars; now they play them to a draw.

"The NPB [Nippon Professional Baseball] is somewhere between the MLB and AAA [in ability]," says Whiting.

But the Japanese version of "besu-boru" still remains rather different from its American counterpart. Practices go on for hours and are as important as games. Free agency exists, but only after nine years of service. Team harmony -- "wa" -- is paramount.

"Their baseball reflected Japanese values," former Brewers pitcher Jim Colburn says in "Meaning of Ichiro." "Proper form. Rote learning. Harmony. Constant effort. It frustrated Americans. ... They'd ask, 'Why do we have to hop and skip for 30 minutes beforehand?' Of course, the answer was because that was the way it was done."

And despite the many teams in the NPB -- among them the Orix BlueWave, Lotte Orions and wonderfully named Nippon Ham Fighters (teams in Japan are named for the corporation that owns them) -- the country tends to have a fixation on just one: the Tokyo Giants, who are the New York Yankees, Green Bay Packers and Manchester United all rolled into one.

The Giants "are the oldest, winningest team in Japan and have always had the best players," says Whiting, adding that the team is owned by a huge media conglomerate that televises almost every game in prime time. "My own personal theory [regarding the fixation on the Giants] is that the country has been brainwashed. If you grow up seeing the Giants on TV every night, you don't feel right without them. ... The Giants are a national disease."

Going both ways

But, just as Japanese and American cultures have found common ground, Whiting foresees the two countries' games meeting in the middle.

Traditionally, the Japanese teams have treated their Americans -- known as "gaijin," or foreigners -- warily. "It often seemed as if it were 'us against them,' " Whiting says.

That attitude may be changing. Two decades ago, American Randy Bass was walked several times so he couldn't break Sadaharu Oh's season home run record, to little outcry. But in 2002, when Tuffy Rhodes challenged the record and was also walked, the Japanese commissioner and a major newspaper attacked the opposing team's manager (who happened to be Oh).

"I think the change is partly due to the very warm reception the Americans gave Ichiro, even as he was threatening George Sisler's single-season hit record," says Whiting.

Meanwhile, MLB scouts have hit Japan in force, looking for young talent. Whiting says MLB representatives are impressed. "Managers and coaches like them because they're so fundamentally sound ... and have such a great work ethic," he says. Currently MLB draft rules prevent taking amateur Japanese, but if that changes, "watch out," says Whiting.

And MLB partisans should keep their eyes on other Japanese players. One Giants pitcher, Koji Uehara, struck out Barry Bonds three times in a MLB-NPB all-star match.

It's a different world now, one that can lead to a greater international awareness of baseball. At the very least, MLB partisans are now aware of the skills of Japanese players.

"You've got loggers and fishermen in Seattle who didn't know what sushi was a decade ago, eating it at the ballpark and wearing headbands with kanji [Japanese characters] on them," says Whiting. "That's quite a transformation. Ichiro is the one who is responsible for that shift."

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