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Random Thoughts: The Japanese at Bat

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Random Thoughts: The Japanese at Bat

by George Y. Somekawa (Oct 28, 1977)

Digitized by Jessica Suchman and Catherine Nissley

If someone were to tell me that a study of the Japanese playing baseball would reveal basic characteristics of the people of this country, I would immediately think he was out of his mind.

The concept of relating sports with national traits of character just did not seem possible.

Yet, Robert Whiting, a serious student of Japan and the Japanese, does describe many elements of the Japanese character and their approach to situations that are to be found both in playing a sports like baseball and in life in general in this country.

When I first picked up Whiting's recently published book "The Chrysanthemum and the Bat," I was tempted to shrug off his work as something that would stretch the reader's imagination.

Yet, as I read one chapter after another, it became apparent that Whiting had found a new approach to a study of many of the basic factors of Japanese behavior.

Many of the Japanese attitudes on training for and playing baseball games – and most other sports – have been, in my mind, rather irrational from the American point of view. Having played considerable baseball in the United States – not outstandingly but at least in the local semipro (or in Japan, non-professional) leagues – I shudder to think if I had been subjected to the truly diabolic "1,000 fungo drill," in which balls were hit to an infielder until he was completely exhausted and then ordered to stand up and be showered with hard-hit balls for fielding practice.

And the thought of running up and down long stairs with a 50-pound load on the back to the point of exhaustion or to have to run around a field five or 10 times makes me shudder. Proper warm-up exercises or drills to build up leg, back shoulder and arm muscles were important but up to a limit.

And in America, the coach did not insist that swinging a bat or throwing a ball must be done to a fixed form or style. He would give advice ways to improve one's performance but did not insist on one pattern and style for the entire team.

From this point of view, it became obvious that Japanese coaching and discipline for members of an athletic team became a "do-or-die way of life" in Japan.

Whiting has evidenced his close and detailed observation of the mentality of players, managers and management in professional baseball. And the more one reads his description of the Japanese approaches to the problems involved in athletic competition and in developing a winning team, the more one sees how the same factors are to be found in Japanese life in general and especially in business.

The relationship between the manager and player and between a veteran and a rookie is to be seen in a business office or other working places. There is the exception, perhaps, that an office worker's of-duty activities are not as severely scrutinized as those of a member of an athletic team. For, in Japan, an athlete is to be – whether an amateur or a professional – a sportsman and a gentleman. (Many an American superstar in college or pro sports would have been greatly discontented if they had similar restrictions on their off the field activities).

If there is anything to criticize in Whiting's excellent reporting and analysis of Japanese pro baseball, it would be directed toward the translations of Japanese sports news items containing an overabundance of editorializing by reporters and their often irrelevant comments of players and their behavior.

Japanese newspapers, including the sports press, have outstanding reporters and commentators. But on the whole, the sports press tends to be excessively sensational. Newspaper competition in Japan has been extremely fierce, but the sports papers have been even more so.

Thus, reporters, too often magnify sports incidents or so-called "scoops" far beyond their journalistic value in order to attract the eyes of their prospective readers.

But for a keen insight into what makes Taro run and behave as he does, Robert Whiting's "The Chrysanthemum and the Bat" will provide a unique insight of the Japanese character. Many of the patterns of behavior and attitudes are to be found in various facets of Japanese life; On the other hand, the efforts of the average Japanese at work cannot always be so neatly graded as the batting average, home runs, RBI's or ERA's of baseball players.

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