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Umpire of the Sun

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Umpire of the Sun

by John Boyle (Oct 26, 1989)

Baseball is more than just a game. It has eternal value. Through it, one learns the beautiful and noble spirit of Japan.

Those are the words of Suishu Tobita, pioneer baseball player and manager, known as the "god of Japanese baseball" until his death in 1965. For Tobita, baseball embodied virtues most Japanese associate with Zen, especially gaman. Gaman, which translates as the ability to endure hardships patiently, is practically what it means to be Japanese. As the race for the pennant winds down this month, Japan's 12 professional baseball teams are working overtime to demonstrate their gaman.

Tobita's version of gaman involved what some baseball players call infield practice. He called it "death training." Players would shag balls, Tobita prescribed, "Until they were half dead." More precisely, until "froth was coming out of their mouths." "If the players do not try so hard as to vomit blood in practice, then they cannot hope to win games. One must suffer to be good."

Baseball is not one of those recent American exports like break-dancing or Burger King. It goes back even further than the Ray-Ban fad that swept over Japan in the dark days after the war when Gen. MacArthur was proconsul and a walking advertisement for the sunglasses. The sport goes back farther than 1934, when Lefty O'Doul, Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth played exhibition ball games in Tokyo and Osaka, and prompted the creation of the first professional league in Japan. Baseball goes all the way back to 1873. In that year, only months after the Meiji government dropped a 250-year ban on Christianity, a missionary teacher by the name of Horace Wilson arrived and instructed students on the campus of what is now Tokyo University in the rudiments of baseball. The game caught on. Christianity never did.

According to the Kodansha Encyclopedia of Japan, however, baseball did not really become a popular sport until a team fielded by Tokyo's prestigious First Higher School (Ichiko) challenged the American Athletic Club in Yokohama. At first, according to Donald Roden's account in Schooldays in Imperial Japan,the Americans copped out with excuses about baseball being "our national game" and with warnings about the physical hazards posed by oversized Yankees playing undersized Ichiko lads.

After five years of temporizing, the Americans consented to a match on 23 May, 1896, on the grounds of the Athletic Club, until then off limits to Japanese. In the best tradition of gaman, the Ichiko lads endured the derision of the boorish foreign spectators and then went on to trounce the blue-eyed barbarians by a score of 29-4. When the Americans asked for a rematch two weeks later, the Japanese team agreed, vowing that they would play for the glory of the nation. Once again they triumphed by a huge margin. These victories were all the sweeter, Roden explains, since it was well known that the Yokohama American Athletic Club cheated by recruiting players from the crews of American battleships moored nearby.

The heritage of Japanese baseball is rooted in amateurism. College baseball rivalries are the oldest in the nation; the one between Keio and Waseda universities is so well established that a special word had to be coined for it, sokei-sen. High school and collegiate teams played in well-organized leagues with large, enthusiastic followings years before professional teams appeared. And to this day the nation's single biggest sporting event is the National High School Baseball Summer Championship Tournament, an event which rivals the Olympics in its appeal to the Japanese public. Every August the eyes of the entire nation are fixed on the near sacred Koshien stadium near Osaka where the best 49 teams, pared down from almost 4,000 schools, compete in the single-elimination event.

Professional teams scout the games and recruit about half of their players from the tournaments. Many other high school stars are given privileged positions in big corporations which maintain teams in the industrial leagues, asserts Robert Whiting, an American living in Japan and the author of You Gotta Have Wa, a masterpiece study of Japanese which illumines many other aspects of Japanese life.

The wa in the title refers to the Confucian notion of social harmony – or team spirit. Grandstanding is out. The slugger who wins the game with a grand-slam home run in the bottom of the ninth inning insists that the victory is okagesama-de, thanks to the team and to the military-like cheering sections.

Whiting catalogues a few other Japanese contributions to the game. Batters bow to the umpires. Tie games are commonplace and even welcome because neither side loses face. Batters are not supposed to let themselves get hit by inside pitches; those who do are expected to show their cool by jumping up and letting the pitcher know that they are okay with a smile. Unlike American fans who will happily wrestle each other to see who keeps a foul ball hit into the stands, Japanese spectators hand them over to stadium attendants. Teams practice for eight hours on game days.

Japanese have mixed feelings about the American expatriate players on their teams. They are prized of course for their skills and especially their powerful performance at the plate. But there are charges that they are whiners and that they destroy the wa spirit by complaining about rules – no long hair, mustaches, beards in some clubs. Perhaps the most commonly heard grievance is that the foreigners are only in the game for the money and that their huge salaries (some over US $1 million) demoralize the rest of the team.

And nor do all Japanese appreciate the mechanical drone of the cheering sections. Keiko Tomishige, sportswriter for the Mainichi newspaper, after attending the final game of the 1988 series at Oakland, wrote of the deliriously good time she had and how much she preferred the spontaneous and emotional shouting of the American fans to the incessant din of the regimented Japanese cheering sections.

Generally speaking, however, Japanese and Americans would feel equally at home with the lexicon of Japanese baseball. American terms, modified to conform to Japanese phonetics, are used. A radio announcer calling a game of besuboru will describe the pitcha throwing the ball to the kyatcha. With good pitching it will be sutoraiku-wan, sutoraiku-tsu and then sutoraiku-suree, sending the batter back to the dagguoauto. A hitter will be judged either seifu or autto by the umpaiya.

There are perfectly good words in Japanese for all of this borrowed vocabulary but it has always been the Japanese practice to use the foreigners' words when distinctly foreign artifacts or ideas are involved. Japanese, for example, could come up with a Japanese word for "inflation" but prefer to say infureshon, as in kurippingu infureshon (creeping inflation).

The only time indigenous Japanese words for baseball were used was during the Pacific War when the military outlawed not the game but the "enemy pronunciations" and provided a list of approved native words. There is a hilarious scene in an old movie spoofing this bit of nationalistic fervor as a flustered umpire, under the stern eye of an army censor, keeps forgetting to adjust to the newly mandated and strange-sounding terms like yoshi hitotsu for "strike one." Incredibly, pro-baseball continued to be played until midway through the 1944 season when the Osaka team was declared the winner over the Tokyo Giants (redesignated Kyojin in deference to the army). It was perhaps a measure of national priorities that 10,000 geisha houses and other amusement centers had been closed a year earlier.

The pro-teams, divided since 1950 into Central and Pacific Leagues of six clubs each, are known by English names spelled out in Roman letters on the uniforms. Most of the teams are animalized – as the Tigers, Lions, and Buffaloes, for example, with a few like the Carp and Dragons adding a dash of soya sauce. Teams like the Seibu Lions, from Tokyo, are associated with cities but are actually owned by corporations who generally regard their teams as promotional assets rather than profit-making ventures. The Lions belong to the Seibu railway and hotel conglomerate. The Hiroshima Carp are owned by Mazda which is headquartered in that city. And the Nippon Ham Fighters who play in the new Tokyo Dome are sponsored by a meatpacking firm.

It cannot be easy for most of the 12 teams in the race for the pennant since the Giants have been winners in more than half of the seasons – though their glory days ended in 1974 after winning their ninth consecutive championship. In any case, befitting a nation which places great importance on consensus, the Giants are everybody's favorite team no matter how they perform. Of course, it helps that the team's parent company is the Yomiuri newspaper, the world's largest daily, with a morning circulation of 9 million and its own television network keeping the spotlight on the Giants.

Whatever the reason, the team's following is a national phenomenon. Whiting declares that until recently a Japanese who was not a Giants fan "was practically considered unpatriotic." Even now, he adds, few television stations would be so foolish as to run a non-Giants game during prime-time.

Further, the Giants' Sadaharu Oh, the Bamboo Bambino, holder of the world career record of 868 home runs, is everybody's all-time favorite player. When a recent poll asked 15,000 college students who they admired most in the world, Oh scored number three (after mum and dad).

Oh's place in the record books is immovable. Never mind that Oh was able to surpass the records of Americans Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron because the Japanese play longer seasons in smaller ballparks and because he hit his homers with compressed bats (since outlawed). What really irritates American expatriate players – there have been about 300 of them who have played for Japanese clubs – is that they have been systematically prevented from taking a crack at Oh's single-season record of 55 home runs. Pitchers give the American sluggers intentional walks when they get close to magic number 55.

It has happened several times in recent years, most recently in the 1985 season when Randy Bass, in his third season with the Hanshin Tigers, crept all the way up to home run number 54. In the final game of the season, playing against the Giants, the one-time Expos' player received four straight intentional walks. It was really five except that Bass reached for a wide pitch and poked a fluke single past the infield.

According to Whiting, the newspapers the next morning contained only factual accounts of Bass' failure to break the old record along with assertions from the Giants' manager that no orders had been given to walk the batter. The manager was Oh. It seems a long way from the pluck of those First Higher School students at the Yokohama American Athletic Club in 1896.

Digitized by Jessica Suchman and Catherine Nissley.

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