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Trade Deficit

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Trade Deficit

by Rob Smaal (May 28, 2004)

A new book by Robert Whiting looks at Japan's latest quality export to America: Ichiro and the boys. Rob Smaal catches up with the author.

When it comes to books on the culture of Japanese baseball, well then, you gotta have Bob. In this case, "Bob" is renowned author and Japan expert Robert Whiting, who has just come out with his latest effort to reveal the true character and inner-workings of Japanese society through a fascinating study of what has become one of Japan's national pastimes: puro yakyu (pro baseball).

This time, however, much of the focus is on the Japanese stars fleeing these shores for a shot at Major League glory in North America. Unlike one of Whiting's previous bestsellers, You Gotta Have Wa, which looked at the trials and tribulations of American ballplayers coming to Japan to play, The Meaning of Ichiro is largely an examination of the effect that Japanese players like Ichiro Suzuki, Hideo Nomo and Hideki Matsui have had on American baseball and US-Japan relations in general.

"I'd like to see a merger, or two or three Japan-based entries in MLB," says Whiting from New York, as he winds down an exhausting 19-city book tour in the US. "This is the direction that history is moving in. There's just too much money at stake. Set up a system where each North American MLB team makes one trip to Japan a year. The Japan-based teams would have to travel more, but that's the price they'd have to pay." Whiting says he's also been told that there are many MLB players who'd love to play for a team based in Tokyo, "as long as it was MLB style and not the practice-until-you-die variety," adding that there are people "seriously trying to set up an MLB franchise in Japan as we speak."

For Whiting, who first worked in Japan with the US Air Force in 1962 before getting his degree in Japanese politics from Sophia University, this book is his fourth that uses baseball as a backdrop to a deeper study of Japan in general. After his initial effort, The Chrysanthemum and the Bat, was a success back in 1977, Whiting came out with the hugely popular You Gotta Have Wa in 1989, which has sold some 300,000 copies. He next penned a memoir with ex-MLB star Warren Cromartie about his time with the Yomiuri Giants and from there it was on to Tokyo Underworld, an entertaining and informative look at post-war Japan through the life and times of pizza peddler/gangster Nick Zappetti and some of Tokyo's more colorful mobsters and lowlifes.

Combining a fondness for baseball with his knowledge of Japan just seemed to make sense for Whiting, who was born in New Jersey in 1942, grew up in Northern California and now makes his home in Kamakura.

"At first, baseball was the only thing I could understand on TV," says Whiting, reflecting back on his early days working for a Japanese company after he graduated from Sophia. "Then I learned to read Japanese by poring over the sports dailies. Working as the only gaijin in a Japanese company and following Japanese baseball religiously, the obvious similarities presented themselves – unpaid overtime and voluntary training, 70-hour work weeks and 12-hour-a-day camps. Daily meetings with nothing really to discuss...unions that never went on strike. I was told I didn't understand wa. I wasn't surprised to find that American ballplayers were told the same thing when they complained about the Japanese approach to the game."

The Meaning of Ichiro runs through the cases of all the high-profile "defectors" to the majors, starting with Ichiro's move to the Seattle Mariners in 2001 and Hideo Nomo's jump to the Los Angeles Dodgers 1995, and concluding with Hideki Matsui joining the New York Yankees prior to last season. Whiting also pays homage to a couple of other trailblazers, without whom none of this might have happened in the first place: Masanori Murakami, a nondescript 20-year-old pitcher who became the first Japanese to play in the Major Leagues in 1964, and Don Nomura, the shrewd player agent who exploited a loophole in Hideo Nomo's contract with the Kintetsu Buffaloes that allowed Nomo to realize his dream of pitching in the Major Leagues.

Whiting also provides some historical insight into the traditions and beliefs that have in many ways shaped baseball in Japan – and in many cases held back the development of the game. When Ichiko (the First Higher School of Tokyo) formed a baseball team back in 1886, seishin yakyu (spirit baseball) was born, "which essentially turned the game into a new sort of Japanese martial art." With harsh, year-round militaristic training, and a team motto that advised players to "practice so hard that they urinated blood," generations later it's still easy to see why many Americans who have come to play in Japan have had trouble adapting to the tougher physical training regimen here.

Some of the more interesting passages in the book deal with the nurturing of young Ichiro Suzuki by his father Nobuyuki in the suburbs of Nagoya. A Japanese baseball version of the classic "tennis dad," Suzuki senior would knock off work at 3:30 every afternoon to train his then-7-year-old prodigy for a few hours. After a break for dinner and homework, the pair would head to the local batting center for up to 300 swings a night until closing time at 11pm. This routine went on for years until the skinny kid with the lightning-quick hands entered high school.

Years later, reporters compared Ichiro's treatment to a famous cartoon character named Hoshi who grows up to play for the Giants after long hours of sadistic training by his father. While Ichiro's dad dismissed such insinuations, claiming they had both been having fun during the training sessions, Ichiro himself is quoted as saying: "It might have been fun for him, but for me it was a lot like Kyojin no Hoshi. It bordered on hazing and I suffered a lot. But I also couldn't say no to him. He was doing his utmost to help me."

Digitized by Jessica Suchman and Catherine Nissley.

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