Frog in a Well contributor Charles W. Hayford has posted a long and interesting essay on differing perceptions of Japanese baseball entitled Samurai Baseball: Off Base or Safe at Home? An earlier version appeared in Japan Focus under the title Samurai Baseball vs. Baseball in Japan. Here are few inducements to read the whole thing.
Is the difference between the original Yankee baseball and the game in other counties the difference between the real thing and a knock off or between the narrowly conceived original and new versions creatively adapted? Is baseball franchised around the world like MacDonald’s? After all, “a Big Mac is a Big Mac is a Big Mac,” so isn’t baseball just baseball? The dispute over baseball in Japan vs. Japanese baseball involves more than whether the bats are heavier, balls smaller, and training more strenuous. Do these differences represent differences within a system or between systems? Depends on who you ask.
On one side is Robert Whiting. His books are classics of sports writing and hugely influential.
His first book, The Chrysanthemum and the Bat (1977) begins by stating that Japanese baseball “appears to be the same game played in the U.S. – but it isn’t”…
In his Yale class lecture “Professional Baseball,” [Willam] Kelly agrees that some professional baseball in Japan does fit the “samurai” stereotype: “not entirely, not convincingly, not uniquely, but enough to feed the press mills and the front offices and the television analysts.” In fact, he says, this “spin” is part of the game. Our job is “not to dismiss this commentary as misguided (though much of it clearly is)” but to ask who is putting these ideas about, who is believing them, and why they are appealing: “The myths are essential to the reality….” Japanese baseball is “not a window onto a homogenous and unchanging national character, but is a fascinating site for seeing how these national debates and concerns play out – just as in the United States.”
Why did baseball in Japan develop this “samurai” self-image? Baseball in Japan was shaped by the important elements of the nation in the early twentieth century – education, industry, middle class life, the government, and above all the national project. Since baseball was an American sport but Japan was not a colony, baseball in Japan was a way of declaring independence, defiance, and creativity. From early in the century, the middle schools and colleges adopted a “fighting spirit” in athletics (recall that Teddy Roosevelt called for the abolition of college football in the United States when violence had become the hallmark of the game). In the 1930s the newly formed professional leagues adopted that spirit, which styled itself “samurai.” The government, which stepped in to shape local social institutions, used sport to train and manage its citizenry both spiritually and physically; major business corporations turned to college teams to recruit loyal executives; large commercial newspapers competed for readers by telling more and more nationalistic sports stories; transport companies bought professional teams. The Japanese public and media demanded “Japanese style” in sports to distinguish themselves from the foreigners and set models for self-sacrificing workers and citizens….
Karl Friday debunks idea of explaining modern conduct by reference to historical samurai in “Bushido or Bull? A Medieval Historian’s Perspective on the Japanese Warrior Tradition. “Hanging the label of ‘bushidō’ on either the ideology of the Imperial Army or the warrior ethic of medieval Japan,” he says, “involves some fairly overt historian’s sleight-of-hand.” Much of the modern version of bushido was “at odds with the apparent behavioral norms of the actual warrior tradition.” Even the term “bushidō” is the invention of a twentieth century Japanese, Nitobe Inazo (1862-1933), who wrote in English. Ironically, Whiting, without mentioning his role in the invention of the bushido tradition, includes in his history of the game Nitobe 1905 charge that baseball was a “pickpocket’s sport” in which players tried to swindle their opponents and steal bases. In fact, these samurai traditions are contradictory and could be equally well used to explain either “samurai” group ethic or “samurai” individualism, submission to authority or rebellion against it, innovation or traditionalism.
At the same time Kyushu-resident blogger Ampontan posted a lengthy essay on Japanese major leaguers: Now as American as apple pie, with his usual caustic take on American media reporting.
Major League Baseball’s 2007 season got underway last week, and while the media focused on Boston’s 50 million dollar man, Daisuke Matsuzaka, the real story is that there are now 14 Japanese players on major league rosters in such places as Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay instead of the geographically convenient Seattle or LA, or deep pocket teams like the Yankees or Mets.
While Ichiro Suzuki is headed for the Hall of Fame after batting titles, hitting records, and gold gloves, Hideki Matsui is the toast of New York, and modern Japanese pioneer Hideo Nomo is the part-owner of an American minor league team, relatively anonymous players such as So Taguchi of St. Louis and Tadahito Iguchi of the White Sox are the guys with the World Series rings, relief pitcher Shigetoshi Hasegawa has retired after a respectable but unheralded nine-year career in the States, and burnt out former Yomiuri Giants’ star Masumi Kuwata wants to hear one last hurrah, this time for the Pirates….
And here’s an article that originally appeared in the New York Times about Japanese players and their perpetual shadows—their personal interpreters. The focus here is on the Yankees and their two Japanese players: Hideki Matsui, with his interpreter Roger Kahlon, and their new import, Kei Igawa (roundly booed in his Bronx debut Saturday after a bashing by the Baltimore Orioles) with Yumi Watanabe, his interpreter.
Of particular interest is Watanabe’s bloodline. His father was another pioneer in reverse: Takamiyama, the Hawaiian who became the first American to win a Japanese sumo tournament. Before being hired as an interpreter at an annual salary of $300,000 (roughly the minimum salary for a major league rookie) Watanabe had been a Yankee security guard. Now that’s upward mobility. The idea that a person can jump from ID checker to interpreter is probably making all the professional conference interpreters feel faint.
I got the distinct impression reading this article, however, that Japanese players are being treated as if they were a new kind of royalty. The Americans seem to think everyone needs an interpreter, and that part of an interpreter’s job is being a personal assistant and valet….
Every Japanese player in the US has had six years of English by the time they graduate from high school. I’ve made that trip in reverse and acquired a driver’s license, rented an apartment, and opened a bank account in Japan. Even if those players weren’t serious students, there’s no question every one of them knows enough English to handle the daily chores of living.
I remember watching one of Ichiro Suzuki’s first games in the States on TV. He was on second base and the other team decided to change pitchers. During that break in the action, Ichiro struck up a conversation with the other team’s shortstop, a native of Venezuela. They had a high old time laughing and talking with one other, and it’s a good bet they weren’t speaking Spanish or Japanese.