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Playing Baseball Samurai Style

Robert Whiting's Homepage at

Playing Baseball Samurai Style

by Andy McCure (Jan 18, 1978)

Digitized by Jessica Suchman and Catherine Nissley.

Baseball, it is often argued in the United States is a peculiarly American game, a sport whose charm is intertwined with the relaxed tempo and spaciousness of a rural summer in the Midwest. Some have even gone so far as to argue that America and Britain are strong democracies because their national games of baseball and cricket lend themselves to the negotiation of disputes rather than the violence of other sports.

But a game is merely a set of rules. And the movements within the rules, if not the rules themselves, can adapt themselves to different cultures in different ways.

Robert Whiting's "The Chrysanthemum and the Bat" is a book about baseball in Japan, or what he calls baseball samurai style. The title for the book is borrowed from Ruth Benedict's classic "The Chrysanthemum and the Sword," a work initiated to help American planners in World War II understand the Japanese which has become the staple English language work on Japanese culture. Although Whiting dedicates the book to two ballplayers, Clete Boyer and Sadaharu Oh, he might well have included Benedict for the debt he owes her.

As the borrowed title would indicate, the book is about more than the personalities and statistics of Japanese baseball (although there is plenty of that). Instead, Whiting has used the way the patterns of baseball have evolved in Japan to illustrate some of the dominant cultural patterns in Japanese life, hierarchy, conformity and the continued vitality of the samurai ideal.

Cultural Overview:

For many American readers, Whiting's book is undoubtedly more accessible than Benedict's. In any cultural overview, even one as good as Benedict's, there is a tendency for the reader to get lost in the generalities. But if the reader knows a subject well enough to appreciate the subtleties of "normal" behavior in given situations, the differences and their rationale have a greater impact.

It is one thing to be told, for example, that there is a great deal of pressure for social conformity in Japan which is enforced by peer group pressure and parental censure. It is another thing entirely for the reader familiar with the wayward behavior of the Babe Ruths, the Bo Belinskys and the Joe Pepitones of American baseball to be told that young Japanese ballplayers are expected to live in the team dormitory until they marry. Marriage should occur late and the woman shouldn't be a starlet.

It is definitely baseball in Japan. A fan from the U.S., the Philippines or Taiwan could go to Korakuen Stadium in Tokyo, home of Sadaharu Oh and the Yomiuri Giants, and follow the ball and strike count, the base and out situation, and the final score without knowing a word of Japanese.

Sliding Head First:

At one game, spectators could have seen the visiting team sliding head first into every base, including first. The move wasn't a new tactic, but had been ordered by the manager, despite the risk of injury, because he felt his losing ball club had to demonstrate to its fans that it hadn't lost its "fighting spirit."

"Fighting spirit" appears to be one of the preoccupations of baseball in Japan, and in fact typifies the attitude that mind can overcome matter, a consistent theme of both managers and players. Players with injuries aren't encouraged to rest so that they can return at full strength to help the team later in the season. Instead, they are expected to rise above the pain by ignoring it.

These remnants of the bushido code of the samurai pervade the game in Japan. American baseball experts have long contended that Japanese managers destroy their pitchers by asking them to work too often. Whiting cites a long list of pitchers who were unbeatable in their early 20s and cannon fodder five years later.

Although Whiting says this practice is beginning to change, until recent years the player was expected to do what his manager asked, no matter if he risked shortening his career. To refuse would indicate he is wanting in "fighting spirit," a quality which no Japanese player can lack with impunity. When one pitcher found his arm required more than one day's rest between starts (the American minimum is generally three), he was labeled "morally and spiritually week." His second year out of high school, he won 25 games. By the age of 27, he was finished.

At the same time, as Whiting notes, the emphasis on "fighting spirit" means that Japanese players don't just go through the motions as so many American ballplayers on non-contending teams do late in the summer. Japanese ballplayers seem much more conscious of the responsibilities to the paying customer, and public apologies for bad play are a common occurrence.

Whiting is very good at highlighting the theatrical and public relations aspects of baseball in Japan. The sports of a nation, after all, stand not so much on their own, but in the way they are reflected in newspapers and on television. Japan boasts five daily sports newspapers and the Yomiuri Giants broadcast all of their games, albeit in a somewhat frustrating manner. All games are televised for one hour and 26 minutes, and if it's the bottom of the ninth, two out, bases loaded, three-two count and Oh up with the Giants three runs behind, that's too bad. The results will be on the late news.

Educating the Fan:

Whiting contends that Japanese baseball announcers have done a much better job of educating the fan than their American counterparts. He notes that in tense situations, the Japanese fan favors the drama of the moment, with the pitcher shaking off signs and the batter stepping out of the box. The American fan, he rightly asserts, would be screaming for the player to do something. The Japanese, Whiting says, because he understands the intricacies of the situation and the strengths and weaknesses of the pitcher and hitter, is much more able to appreciate the moment.

It would seem more revealing to argue that the Japanese fan appreciates the situation more because he sees it as drama. He is as much interested in how the situation is resolved as in the result. The American just wants to know who won.

The Japanese emphasis on form is one thing Whiting concentrates on, pointing out that how something is done can be more important to the Japanese than what is accomplished. Individual eccentricities are drilled out of every player, until his form is perfect. A player in Japan would never be allowed to have the corkscrew stance of Stan Musial or the windmill windups of Juan Marichal or Luis Tiant. Like the great practitioners of the martial arts or samurai swordplay, everything must flow from perfect form. Sadahuru Oh, who recently broke Henry Aaron's lifetime home run record, is an exception. He lifts his leg quite high off the ground as he strides into the pitch in a manner reminiscent of Mel Ott. But, as Japanese are a bit reluctant to concede, Oh's father is Taiwanese.

One of Whiting's most revealing stories about both form and the concept of being Japanese tells of a player who had recently joined a Japanese team being instructed by a coach to change his unorthodox batting form. He was too aggressive, the coach said. At first the player was non-plussed, but then pointed to another hitter who also attacked the ball vigorously. That was different, he was told, the player was not Japanese. The player, a Korean war baby, whose father was a black American, had been born and raised completely in Japan.

There are a couple of chapters in the book devoted to the Americans who have come to play in Japan and how they have adjusted and been accepted or rejected. They range from the physical and human accomplishments of George Altman and Clete Boyer to the "Ugly American" act of Joe Pepitone. It was inevitable that Pepitone and Japanese baseball would clash. Even in a culture which places as much emphasis on the individual as America, he stood out for his non-conformist attitude. Once he got to Japan, Pepitone managed to develop injuries very quickly and left the country without fulfilling his contract.

A Game of Stories:

Beyond Whiting's delineation of Japanese culture, there are other delights to the book. Baseball is a game of stories and Whiting retells some good ones. For one, Masanori Maurakami, the only Japanese to have played major league baseball in the U.S., performed the near impossible feat of bringing an American minor league crowd to its feet – by bowing deeply to his third baseman after a sparkling fielding play.

Baseball reverberates with great names, improbable combinations of nickname and surname which warm the true fan's heart. Who could ever forget Dizzy Dean, Whammy Douglas, Dooley Womack, Bobo Holloman or Sibby Sisti? "The Chrysanthemum and the Bat," like all good baseball books, has provided the connoisseur with another, Bozo Wakabayashi. Despite his name, Bozo was not a clown, but an American Nisei pitcher who won over 300 games.

In the 105 years since baseball was first introduced in Japan, the country has undergone immense changes while retaining much of its cultural underpinnings. For the baseball fan, or the prospective student of Japan, Whiting has provided an interesting and readable introduction to baseball in Japan and the culture of the people who play it.

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