Daily Archives: 14 May 2005

Japundit Series on Japan’s Baseball Revolution

Japundit contributor Ampontan has a wonderfully informative series about Japan’s baseball revolution from below that erupted last year. Of course, the baseball revolution reflects changes in the larger society as well. I’ll excerpt pieces from each of Ampontan’s installments. Even if you’re not that interested in Japanese baseball, the whole story illustrates how much Japanese society has been changing during the economic doldrums.

No Joy in Mudville

Last year at this time, it seemed as if Japanese baseball was teetering on the edge of a precipice, doomed to collapse in a heap of splendid splinters. Reaching the tipping point would have resulted in a plunge in popularity and prestige, relegating the sport to irrelevance as its best players fled to the United States, taking fan interest with them. Instead, a mass movement by the fans and a player strike enthusiastically supported by the same fans saved Japanese baseball from itself and even put it in a position where it can thrive in the future.

The Old World Teeters

Confronted by declining attendance caused by factors that included a poor economy, competition from a professional soccer league, and the flight of its top stars to the United States, the old guard of Japanese baseball, led by Yomiuri owner Tsuneo Watanabe (photo with cigar), came up with some self-serving solutions. They decided to merge the two Kansai area teams in the Pacific League with poor fan support, push for the merger of two other Pacific League teams, and convert Japanese baseball to a single 10-team league….

In the Japan of just 10 years ago, this plan probably would have gone through. But the old guard had not foreseen what would happen next: no one else liked the plan–not the fans and not the players–and this time they were prepared to do something about it….

The [players’] union handled their opposition to the merger brilliantly. Not only did they back the fans’ movement, winning their support and sympathy, but they appeared calm and rational in contrast to Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB), Japanese baseball’s ruling body. The union submitted a list of demands that baseball officials rejected. These included postponing the merger, forming a special committee to discuss merger issues, and allowing Kintetsu to sell naming rights, which the league also had dismissed without seeming to give the idea serious consideration….

That’s when Yomiuri owner Watanabe made his second mistake, and perhaps the biggest mistake of his career. Asked what he thought about the players’ opposition to the merger, he sneered, “Taka ga senshu.” (They’re nothing more than players, after all.) Watanable couldn’t possibly have chosen three more ill-advised words. The condescension oozing from this comment not only summed up the attitude of the owners toward their employees, the players, but encapsulated their belief that sole authority for the course of Japanese baseball resided with them, regardless of how it affected their employees and on-field performers, and the consumers, or the fans. In fact, it symbolized perfectly the attitude of the power structure in the old Japan.

Strike One

The Japanese players’ union felt so strongly, they threatened to hold a baseball strike, which had never happened in Japan before. They had collected 1.2 million signatures from Japanese baseball fans to prevent the elimination of one team, but were given the cold shoulder by Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB), the organization governing the sport….

The owners seemed intent on joining hands and walking off the cliff together. They held a meeting two days after the players voted to go on strike and formally approved the Kintetsu-Orix merger. Perhaps they thought they were calling the players’ bluff, but if so they badly misread the situation. The vote was 11-0 in favor of contraction, with the abstention of the Hiroshima Carp [my perennial underdog, old-hometown, Central League favorites]. The Hiroshima team thought it stood to lose too much fan support because of local opposition to the owners’ plan to eliminate one team….

The other Pacific League teams wanted the Fukuoka Daiei Hawks [my former Pacific League favorites], a successful and popular team with financially struggling owners, to merge with the Chiba Lotte Marines, but Daiei insisted they wanted to retain ownership of the Hawks and to keep it a separate entity.

The Dust Settles

After more than three months of preliminaries, charges, countercharges, threats of a strike, negotiations, and unnecessary turmoil caused by the owner intransigence, the weekend strike by the players caused the owners to rapidly focus on the problem. It didn’t take them long to figure out that they held a losing hand no matter how they tried to play it.

Thus, only a day or two into the negotiations following the strike, the owners quickly caved in to the players’ demands and agreed to allow a new team to be established to take the place of the one being eliminated through the Kintetsu and Orix merger….

The Sendai fans said in a survey that they wanted Livedoor instead of Rakuten to run the new franchise there, though Rakuten was thought to have more business stability. In fact, that’s why they were ultimately selected. A new team will incur losses early on, and Rakuten had the edge in in pretax profit as well as total assets and sales. The new team became known as the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles, or the Rakuten Eagles for short.

Finally, the last glaring problem with Japanese baseball ownership was rectified when the league approved the purchase of the Fukuoka Daiei Hawks by Softbank Corp., an Internet service provider headed by President Masayoshi Son, an ethnic Korean. Unlike the troubled Kintetsu Buffaloes, who could not draw a million fans, the Hawks drew three million and were recent winners of the Japan Series. “My task is to make a team loved by a huge number of fans into a more decent one,” Son said at a press conference in Fukuoka.

Thus, four months after the crisis began, the hidebound element of Japanese baseball was gone in disgrace, the Kintetsu Buffaloes had merged with another team, bailing out the troubled ownership, another financially troubled owner had found a purchaser with deep pockets, and a new team was created with a young, ambitious owner….

Team ownership was relinquished by old-fashioned, old-line businesses with no ideas how to get Japanese baseball out of its downward spiral and placed in the hands of bright, young, energetic entrepreneurs from the Internet industry brimming with new ideas for the sport.

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Escape from Kwangju, 29 May 1980

I did not write any field notes for May 29, 1980, so I cannot recheck my memory of leaving Kwangju as the most frightening experience of my life. The day before, May 28, things had eased up a bit, and it was possible to go out. I went out to look at the cleanup operation. Soldiers with shovels were cleaning up piles of trash and refuse. There were cordons around some buildings, ID checks at a few places, and still no telephone calls or bus transportation outside the city. In the afternoon I went to visit friends and also to the Kwangju District Court, where the judges were at work, but I learned it would be the next week before I could resume my research. Downtown I had met up with Don Baker, a fellow graduate student and former Peace Corps Volunteer in Kwangju, who had come down from Seoul to check on his wife’s relatives. He stayed with my family that night, and the next day I decided to go along with him back to Seoul.

We set out in the late morning on Thursday, May 29. The streets were full, taxis were running, and the city bus system had just resumed operation. We took a taxi to Songjong-ni, at the edge of town. Others were having to get out of their taxis and walk over a bridge, through lines of troops, to get to the suburban taxis waiting on the other side, but somehow we were allowed to ride through. A tout was yelling, “To Seoul by bus for 10,000 W!”–about five times the usual price, but we hopped into his cab for the ride to the Songjong-ni station.

The station was packed, and we sat in a hot bus for forty-five minutes while, amid confusion and heckling from other exasperated passengers, the driver waited until the bus was full (to overflowing–a seat in the aisle went for a discounted 8,000 W).

We were actually on a local express bus (chikhaeng), supposedly destined for a nearby county. So initially we headed there through the countryside. The normal five-hour trip to Seoul took over eight hours, the first four spent on back roads to Chongup, where we could get on the expressway to Seoul. As we quickly learned, the highway was closed in South Cholla Province; getting to Seoul first involved eluding various roadblocks and military checkpoints to get out of the province.

We were stopped eight or ten times, each a slightly different experience. Soldiers would board the bus, sometimes with guns and bayonets at the ready, once only with pistols. Sometimes they were polite, but more often, surly. They asked for citizens’ ID cards and inspected our faces closely. Once, all the male passengers were ordered off, with their luggage, for a thorough search. (The men immediately took the opportunity to wander off to relieve themselves, to the distress of the soldiers.) “What do you do?” they would interrogate some young man. “You visited your brother? His name? Your employer? Phone number?” The first time, some unemployed youth said that they had gone to Kwangju “to play.” When the bus pulled out again, their fellow passengers advised them, “Don’t say that! Say you are a farmer or a minister.” At the next roadblock, one of them tried it out, replying that he was a minister. He was hauled off the bus and detained. As we went on without him, the passengers agreed he should have said he was a priest instead.

At one stop, we were ordered to turn around; a soldier got on the bus and said we had all been “taken” by the driver. Only the persistence of a white-collar worker (who outtalked the soldier) got us going again. Occasionally we were hailed by farmers standing beside the road who thought we really were a country bus heading where our sign said “This presents a problem” (kunil natta) muttered the bus driver, letting the people on, then dropping them off as soon as we were out of sight of soldiers and other onlookers.

Finally, we reached the expressway and picked up speed on our way to Seoul. As a suburban bus with South Cholla Province plates, we were rather conspicuous. Twice our bus was stopped by patrolling cops. “How much did you pay him?” came a voice from the back as we pulled away from the first such incident. We were all nervous when at 10 P.M. we approached the tollbooth just before Seoul. All vehicles were being checked, but we got special treatment. A soldier pointing a gun at all of us and saying, “Don’t move!” directed the driver across several lanes of traffic. We were boarded by eight men, one in civilian clothes. People were pulled off for questioning, then allowed back on. “What is this, checkpoint eight or nine?” grumbled one passenger. From outside, a soldier replied, “You should have been checked at least fifteen times!” The stop was short but tense. When we were finally allowed on our way, everyone cheered, and one man ventured the opinion, “At 10,000 W, this was cheap!”

They unloaded us in a hurry in front of the new express bus terminal in Kangnam at 10:15 P.M., less than two hours before curfew. As a country bus with the wrong markings, the best the driver could do was pull in with a lot of city buses and hope no one would notice. At that time, the bus terminal was in the middle of nowhere, and even getting a taxi was a problem. I went to a telephone booth and starting calling friends to see who could put me up for the night.

SOURCE: Laying Claim to the Memory of May: A Look Back at the 1980 Kwangju Uprising, by Linda S. Lewis (U. Hawai‘i Press, 2002), pp. 56-58

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Interviews with NK Defectors in Seoul

NKZone has a second post about interviews with North Korean defectors in Seoul. (The earlier post is here.) The group interviews were conducted by Brendan Brown, an Australian national who teaches English to North Korean refugees in Seoul. The introduction notes that SK’s “Unification Ministry has asked Brendan to act as an informal consultant on North Koreans’ views, since the refugees are apparently less trusting of the South Korean government.” The reasons show up in response to question 7.

7) Do the North Korean people still want re-unification with the South? What do most North Koreans think of the South Korean government and people?

Mixed bag of responses here. Of course their greater desire is for North Korea in its present form to disappear forever. Nearly all want to return to their hometowns in a free democratic North Korea.

As for re-unification and their feelings toward the South Korean government and people, the longer one has lived in South Korea the less favourably he considers re-unification and South Koreans. At first, after arriving in South Korea they are appreciative to be in a free and plentiful country and wish for immediate re-unification. However their initials feelings of gratitude eventually turn to disappointment and even resentment of their status in the eyes of South Koreans.

Many South Koreans are openly patronizing of the North Koreans in their dealings with them. Asking what it is like to eat leaves and barks or frogs at a first meeting isn’t a way to win North Koreans over. Neither is asking if any family members have starved to death or are imprisoned in North Korea (perhaps because of their own defection). North Koreans don’t welcome the bringing up of bitter memories by unknown people, yet many South Koreans ask these type of questions as if enquireing about the weather.

As a North Korea expert I once worked for used to suggest, Unification-era Korea will resemble the Reconstruction-era South in the newly re-United States, with South Koreans playing the role of imperious Yankee carpetbaggers, and North Koreans playing the role of resentful Southern tenant farmers.

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