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Play 'wa,' work 'wa'

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Play 'wa,' work 'wa'

by Jonathan Friedland (Oct 15, 1989)

Digitized by Jessica Suchman and Catherine Nissley

All Asia Review of Books, October 1989
"If the players do not try so hard as to vomit blood in practice, then they can not hope to win games," said Suishu Tobita, a diminutive second baseman who went on to become one of the greatest coaches and most influential pundits of Japanese baseball.

"The Japanese don't play baseball," sums up Bob Horner, a red-headed hayseed American power hitter who learned about the differences between two national sports the hard way. "The Japanese work at it."

Japanese besuboru and American baseball share the ball and the bat. They share the diamond, most of the rules of the game and the curmudgeonly umpire. There is a parallel of fierce devotion of fans. There the similarities stop.

Robert Whiting's terrific You Gotta Have Wa is a book about cultural boundaries in the most ritualistic of games. The Japanese version is a long way from the bawdy, tobacco-spitting camaraderie of the American sandlot with its emphasis on individual sluggers and idiosyncratic pitchers. Besuboru, predictably enough, is very much a team game, the emphasis on harmony (the Wa of the title) and discipline.

In Japan, the practices are long (eight hours before a night game), tie games are permitted, even encouraged (no one loses face) and the coach's word is final. In the US, players routinely rest before games and winning is everything. And just ask Billy Martin of the New York Yankees how final his word is. When the twain meets, as it does more and more as wealthy Japanese corporations slap down some loose change to own an American ace for a season or two, the differences are manifest. Misunderstandings are rife. Sparks often fly.

Consider the position of one man in the middle, translator Toshi Shimada of the Nippon Ham Fighters, whose job it is to prevent cross-cultural exchanges from ending up in fisticuffs. Tony Solaita, an American Samoan who played for Nippon Ham, suffered a series of brushback pitches in a game with the Lotte Orions. The next day he approached the Lotte catcher:

"Listen you no-good son of a bitch," said Solaita, who was built like a Brinks armored truck and had a temper to match, "if you have a pitcher throw at my head again, I'll fucking kill you."

Shimada did not bat an eyelash as he translated: "Mr. Solaita asks that you please not throw at his head any more. It makes his wife and children worry."

Whiting is a master at recounting these incidents in a wry, understanding manner. He loves baseball the American way but he also understands why the Japanese play it the way they do. Like his previous book on the subject, The Chrysanthemum and the Bat, Wa is empathetic, even-handed and skillfully written. It is also very funny.

Baseball in Japan can be traced back to just after the Black Ship incident when a young American history teacher named Horace Wilson brought a ball and a glove to his new job at Tokyo's Kaisei Gakko. The first team was established in 1883, when players ran around the bases in their geta (wooden clogs). "From the beginning, Japanese who coached baseball regarded it as a moral discipline, like kendo – a tool of education for developing purity and self discipline," writes Whiting.

The business of serious baseball starts early. At one strict and traditional secondary school, the regular drill was known as "bloody urine," for it was said that players practiced so hard that they peed blood at the end of the day. To this day, the Koshien summer High School championship among secondary school teams is a national obsession, "like America's Super Bowl and World Series rolled into one." The glare of publicity at Koshien is the young ballplayer's own version of exam hell.

Whiting recounts the sense of inferiority Japanese players felt before World War II as team after team of American superstars, including Babe Ruth and Lou Gehring, handily won exhibition games. This sensitivity, in part owing to the clear physical advantage of the larger, stronger American players, still persists and helps explain the exaggerated focus on discipline. An exemplary hitting record is seen more as an act of will than as a reflection of physical prowess. Home-run king Sadaharu Oh used to slice away with a sword at a tiny strip of paper suspended from the ceiling. Oh signs his autographs "doryoku" (effort) and says he owes his success to his coaches.

Humility and abstemious discipline are not traits associated with Dodgers great Reggie Smith, who refused to part with his Afro and mustache after being signed by the Tokyo Giants for US $1 million a year, twice what any Japanese player was making at the time – and who once wore his Giants uniform backwards to a game to protest against the way he was being treated. Nor did these traits come easily to pitcher Clyde Wright, who in two and a half years on the Giants helped take the team to a pennant but also threw a soda bottle through the window of his manager's office, smashed a bunch of grapes on his coach's uniform and frequently broke into song whenever TV cameras focused on him in the dugout.

The very different characters of American and Japanese ball players have led to charged debate on whether foreigners should be allowed to play baseball in Japan, a debate not dissimilar to the one that rages over Japan's foreign trade policies. "To ban foreigners is discrimination pure and simple," says Smith. "The problem is that Americans, being a multi-ethnic, diverse group of people, can't appreciate the feelings of a homogeneous people with special common characteristics like the Japanese," counters an Asahi Shimbun columnist. American players are routinely denied the chance to break hitting records, benched by coaches who won't upset wa and risk the opprobrium of Japan's hyperactive sports press.

Whiting believes both approaches bring advantages to the game. The American sport allows creativity to flourish and has elevated physical conditioning to a high art, winning results without brutality. The Japanese sport inculcates a cooperative attitude, in the main a better approach to winning than the rampant individualism that characterizes major league baseball in the US. Both approaches will likely remain unique to their cultures. Says Leron Lee, a long-time American player in Japan: "The Japanese and American games are running on parallel tracks. And they'll never, ever cross."

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