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A Whole New (Japanese) Ballgame

Robert Whiting's Homepage at

A Whole New (Japanese) Ballgame

by Larry Eldridge (Jul 27, 1989)

Digitized by Jessica Suchman and Catherine Nissley

The umpire doesn't say, “Work ball,” he says, “Play ball,” as Willie Stargell used to point out during his heyday in the 1970s. But that was in the United States. If the fun-loving leader of the Pittsburgh Pirates had spent his baseball career in Japan, he would have discovered exactly the opposite outlook.

This contrast forms the basis of Robert Whiting's fascinating book, “You Gotta Have Wa” [meaning unity, harmony, team spirit], in which he shows how the essential differences in philosophy between the two cultures manifest themselves on the baseball diamond.

Whiting, a Tokyo-based journalist and author, suggests that baseball's grip on his adopted country is basically due to the fact that it suits the national character, providing the Japanese with an opportunity to express their renowned group proclivities on an athletic field. Unlike other group sports, he points out, it has the built-in individual confrontation and test of wills that the Japanese enjoy in such pursuits as sumo wrestling and judo. As he quotes one Japanese writer: “Baseball is perfect for us. If the Americans hadn't invented it, we probably would have.”

But besoboru, Japanese-style, is a “whole new ballgame” in many respects. And in anecdote after anecdote, most involving former or transient US major leaguers (Dave Johnson, Reggie Smith, Bob Horner, etc.), Whiting shows what happens when the American penchant for individuality clashes with the Japanese emphasis on co-operation and conformity.

The ambivalent relationship the Japanese have to the gaijin (foreigners), in fact, provides as much insight as anything into their general thinking. Such players (limited to two per team) are usually signed with great fanfare, paid exorbitant salaries, and given special treatment. Obviously, it is at least tacitly understood that despite the great strides the Japanese game has made in the last couple of decades, it still doesn't compare with that of the US major leagues in overall quality.

At the same time, though, the centuries-old exclusion mentality of the Japanese shows itself in many ways. Both the media and public insist on not letting gaijin outshine their own top stars in fame and recognition.

And let anything go wrong – either in the foreigner's performance or that of the team, and he will be made the scapegoat.

While the book contains a lot of interesting material, it also gets redundant, since Whiting isn't one to let three or four examples suffice. Add to this the fact that much of the same material was covered in his 1977 book “The Chrysanthemum and the Bat,” and it becomes a case of “All you ever wanted to know and were afraid to ask about Japanese baseball.”

The book covers a lot of ground, such as the nationwide infatuation with the Yomiuri Giants of Tokyo; the thousand-strong cheering sections that howl wildly for hours before and during each game; and the exploits of home-grown stars like Sadaharu Oh. It explains the many differences in the two games on the field as well as off.

The Japanese tend to play every game as though it were the seventh game of the World Series, with ace starters coming in to pitch in relief, and plenty of pinch-hitting and sacrifice bunting – even in the early innings. The precipitous style of managing also takes some getting used to – as, for instance, when a player makes an error and is suddenly removed from the game, or when a star hitter goes out in his first two at-bats and is yanked because the manager decides he doesn't have it that day.

Such over-managing, as most Americans would describe it, coupled with the tendency of Japanese players to blindly follow orders, can lead to some bizarre tactical situations. American Leron Lee describes a time when his team had the bases loaded with one out and a 3-2 count on the batter. The manager called for a squeeze play, trying to bunt in the runner from third base. The opposing manager read the sign and ordered a pitchout (which, of course, should have resulted in a run-producing walk), but he got away with it because the batter tried to bunt it anyway and struck out, leading to a double play!

Baseball in Japan can be traced to the 1870s, but in contrast to the American game, the original emphasis was on high school and college versions of the sport. It culminates in an annual high school tournament that, in terms of public interest and media coverage, is sort of a World Series, Super Bowl, and Olympics rolled into one.

In the early days, the game was frequently compared to Bushido, the way of the samurai, with the great emphasis on total allegiance and obedience that continues to this day. The belief also grew that only by incessant practice to a degree unthinkable in Western countries could anyone hope to achieve his full potential.

As Whiting points out, this is partly due to the perfectionist nature of the Japanese, and their belief that with constant work and an indefatigable will a person can accomplish anything. The emphasis on making the effort is so strong, he says, that how hard a player tries is considered by many the ultimate measure of success.

Or as former San Francisco Giant Chris Arnold put it: “I'll tell you the big difference between Japan and the US. In the US we believe that a player has a certain amount of natural ability and with practice he reaches a certain peak point, but after that no amount of practice will make him better, because after a certain point your ability reaches its limits. But the Japanese believe there is no peak point. They don't recognize limits.”

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