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Whiting Explains Differences Between U.S., Japan Games: There Are at Least Two Ways to Play Baseball

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Whiting Explains Differences Between U.S., Japan Games: There Are at Least Two Ways to Play Baseball

by Karl Greenfeld (Apr 21, 1989)

Digitized by Jessica Suchman and Catherine Nissley

It's not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game – and sometimes who plays the game – that counts.

"I believe baseball is a good metaphor for the Japanese way of thinking," said Robert Whiting, author of the acclaimed book on Japanese baseball "You Gotta Have Wa" (Macmillan Publishing Company, 1989), at a press luncheon at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan Wednesday. "By comparing you can see the differences between the two cultures."

Through baseball Whiting has eloquently engaged in what sometimes is a brutal indictment of Japanese society. In the spate of books about Japan, "You Gotta Have Wa" stands out, for its humor, for its narrative, and for its wit.

Whiting was born in Eureka, Calif., and attended Sophia University in Tokyo. An enthusiastic follower of Japanese baseball, he has written columns in Japanese for various dailies and first gained attention in 1975 for the best-selling "Chrysanthemum and the Bat."

But if he wanted to talk about cultural differences, why baseball? "When I went back to America and I told people about factions in the LDP or labor unions nobody cared." Whiting said, "But I found that if I told people about Japanese baseball they would pay attention. I realized this was a way of communicating something about Japan."

And he communicates this: all the way down the line, from strategy to fastballs to pre-game drills, the two cultures view the game distantly. On the Japanese side, there is the strict adherence to established methods – hard, grueling, boot-camp style training, over-bearing managers, players who docilely accept whatever salary the club deigns to offer; in Japan the team, or group, always comes first. Whiting quotes Hiroshima Toyo Carp manager Koji Yamamoto, who hit 536 career home runs while playing for the Carp, as saying during a speech at Waseda University, "The key to my success was doryoku (effort), and the one-thousand-fungo drill."

American ball players imported to Japan tend to have their own practice regimen and shun the exhaustive workouts favored by Japanese managers – the aptly named one-thousand-fungo drill being a particularly oppressive example. The price they pay for this is frequent derision in the press and constant run-ins with management. After all, popular wisdom goes, gaijin are more highly paid than their Japanese counterparts so they should work that much harder to maintain team harmony – even if that means putting up with being pulled from a game after committing an error, being pinch hit for in the second inning, or never seeing a hittable pitch during an at-bat.

In Japan, a style of play has evolved – kanri yakyu (control baseball) – whereby the game is, according to Whiting, stripped of its fun and transformed into a martial art. "When baseball was introduced in Japan in 1872 the whole concept of sport was non-existent. That's why it became a martial art...They just don't play for fun."

Despite his sometimes negative appraisal of Japanese baseball, Whiting maintains a positive outlook on the future of Japan-U.S. relations, both on and off the field. "I wrote this book to show Americans that understanding another culture is not an easy thing...I don't think they realize just how different Japan really is."

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