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The Enigma of Japanese Baseball-whacky

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The Enigma of Japanese Baseball-whacky

by Alan Booth (Sep 22, 1989)

Digitized by Jessica Suchman and Catherine Nissley

When major league batting star Bob Horner arrived in Japan in 1987 to play a season for the Yakult Swallows he said: "This place is great." Twenty-nine games later he said: "I've got to get out of here; I can't believe this shit."

The story of Japan's various collisions with the West – collisions of expectation as much as of philosophy or practice – has been told many times, but only once before in the context of baseball, and that was by Robert Whiting in his 1977 The Chrysanthemum and the Bat. To an extent, Whiting's new book rehearses again the points made in the first: that, superficial appearances notwithstanding, Japanese yakyu is an entirely different ball game from its ostensible model in the United States and that a study of the differences can be highly enlightening in fields far removed from sport.

Japanese baseball has "its own set of assumptions and values." Chief among these are that "hard work and quality control" are the main essentials, producing a game that is at once "as clear an expression of the Japanese character as one could find," "barely recognizable by Americans," and completely lacking in joy. Training for the game consists of "endless practice, iron-handed discipline" and "blind obedience to traditional virtues" and, when American players are involved, the result is almost invariably a "clash of free-spirited individualism with Japanese groupthink."

Two of the most absorbing of Whiting's new chapters concern the Seibu Lions franchise, which is owned by Yoshiaki Tsutsumi, by some accounts the wealthiest man in the world, and the annual summer high school tournament at Koshien Stadium. The latter is all about "spirit," "purity," "sacredness" and "the crucible of youth," while the former demonstrates what happens to this "crucible" once big business takes it over. But the bulk of Whiting's book is concerned with chronicling the reactions and conclusions of American players in Japan, and it is here that Whiting is at his best and his subject at its most revealing.

If you set out to invent the perfect metaphor for Japan's relations with the outside world, you would be hard pressed to come up with a better one than Whiting has found in baseball. American players (particularly former major leaguers) are hotly sought after, very highly paid and the objects of unremitting media scrutiny. They are also subject to a quota system (only two active players per varsity team), are invariably blamed when things go wrong, are the objects of undisguised racial discrimination ("Nigger!" the Hanshin Tigers' fans used to scream at Reggie Smith) and, the moment they show signs of breaking records held by Japanese players or winning league titles, they become the victims of wholly unsportsmanlike attempts to stop them. Foreign players are "a necessary evil," observes Leron Lee. "Let's have Asian baseball for the Asians only," advises Isao Harimoto. "Pure-blooded baseball is ideal," asserts commissioner Juhei Takeuchi. And Reggie Smith sums it all up as well as anyone can: "This is not just a problem of pro baseball; this is a problem of Japan."

Like far weightier tomes (Karel van Wolferen's The Enigma of Japanese Power, for one), Whiting's book is about the practical incompatibility of two systems that seem, at first sight, to have much in common and, like van Wolferen's book, it reaches conclusions that are ultimately depressing. But it also sparkles with enthusiasm for its subject, its anecdotes are pertinent well beyond the walls of the Tokyo Dome, and Whiting remains as objective as the evidence allows: "The only thing that fully matches Japanese intransigence is the unwillingness of many American players to bend even a little to please their hosts." It is a story we are likely to go on hearing.

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