Baseball: Big in Japan… AND America

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The ever helpful Emmett O’Connell thought he had written the perfect pitch: a dash of baseball, a touch of cultural intermingling, a news peg, some good guest suggestions… and the Red Sox. He thought it would be irresistable to the Open Source machine. And of course it was:

It is high time that ROS did a baseball show. And, the one I think you guys should do is a Japan/US baseball show.

The Red Sox (#$&%*!… groan) are in the middle of negotiations with the highest priced player ever to come out of Japan. Ichiro is now considered to be a veteran of the American Leagues and no longer a new thing, but he’s still a mystery. And, its been almost a year after the “Team of the Rising Sun” won the world baseball classic.

Emmett O’Connell in a comment to Open Source

There was a follow-up:

I started reading The Meaning of Ichiro last night and a few things popped up.

1. Baseball is the most American of the games we play, at least emotionally. It is the game we Americans most connect with our national personae. At the same time, it is the most international of our major sports, in terms of participation by foreign born players.

2. Baseball in Japan dates back to the 1870s and 1900s in Korea. High school baseball in Japan is more important than high school football in Texas, if you know what I mean. It wasn’t until after WWII that professional baseball in Japan became important.

3. Ichiro’s father bought him his first baseball glove not to teach him a game, but rather: “It’s a tool to teach him the value of things” in the Buddhist sense of the “value of things.”

Emmett O’Connell in a comment to Open Source
Japanese box score

If you’re scoring at home… [Chrischang / Flickr]

Daisuke Matsuzaka has taught us all — on both sides of the Pacific — a new way to calculate the “value of things.” One hundred and three million ways, really, half to him and half to his old team. Despite Open Source‘s proximity to Matsuzaka’s new home, we’re not so focused on this recent news as much as on the larger, longer story of player and managerial back-and-forths, of what happens when a transplanted sport in an ancient land is increasingly imported back to its original soil.

I’ve been in contact with Bobby Valentine, who led my Mets to the National League pennant in 2000. More significantly, he was the first American to manage a Japanese baseball team, back in the mid-90s. And he’s at it again, having taken the Chiba Lotte Marines to a Japan Series championship in 2005.

Robert Whiting, the American in Japan who has written the seminal books about this subject seems eager to play ball with us as well.

A question for our community (bonus points if you write in from Japan): How is this cross-pollination changing Japanese baseball? And what about baseball here?

Bobby Valentine

Manager, Chiba Lotte Marines

Ex-manager, New York Mets

Blogger, Bobby’s Way

Robert Whiting

Author, The Meaning of Ichiro: The New Wave from Japan and the Transformation of Our National Pastime and You Gotta Have Wa

Masayoshi Niwa

Seattle-based baseball reporter, Sports Yeah!,, and Nikkei Shinbun (all based in Tokyo)

Extra Credit Reading

Robert Whiting, You Gotta Have Wa,, Vintage Books, USA, October 1990.

Tommy Lasorda, WBC: World Blogging Classic, Tommy Lasorda’s World, March 7, 2006: “I can remember going to Japan in 1965 on an assignment from Walter O’Malley. I was to work with the Tokyo Giants for three weeks of their spring training. While there we covered every fundamental of the game. Now, the Tokyo Giants have quite a few players that are more than able to play in Major League Baseball.”

Mike Plugh, Feeding the Monster, Japundit, May 16, 2006: “The interesting part of the coverage has been the focus on fan reaction. Sales of Matsui jerseys has gone way up as people show support for the fallen warrior, and as a result his name and number are far more visible on the backs of Americans entering the Stadium and watching the game. The Japanese media are impressed by that show of solidarity, and it appears that U.S.-Japanese relations are stronger, on some level, for the great fan reaction to the injury.”

Mike Plugh, The Future Meaning of Ichiro, Baseball Japan, November 14, 2006: “I can remember going to Japan in 1965 on an assignment from Walter O’Malley. I was to work with the Tokyo Giants for three weeks of their spring training. While there we covered every fundamental of the game. Now, the Tokyo Giants have quite a few players that are more than able to play in Major League Baseball.”

Brian Walsh, Has Japan Become America’s Next Farm Team? (In Baseball, That Is), Time, December 14, 2006: “”We’ll lose our best,” Katsuya Nomura, manager of the Rakuten Eagles, told the Mainichi Shimbun last month. “It means the decline of Japanese professional baseball.””

Gordon, An American Baseball Fan in Japan, FTTW, November 24, 2006: “Other than that, baseball is baseball. There are the same overblown egos, outsized paychecks, and massive disparities between the big-market teams and the small market teams, and more marketing than you can shake an official Chunichi noisemaking stick at. The play tends to run along conservative lines…lots of pulling up short and lots and lots of bunting. There are some teams styled after American League slugfest teams…big hitters and pisspoor defense, but at the moment they are the exception, not the norm.”

Dana Brand, The Mets of Japan, Mets Fan Blog, November 9, 2006: “The Yakult Swallows were a Tokyo team, but they were a little obscure compared to the big Tokyo team, the Yomiuri Giants, who are often called the Yankees of Japan and who have won far more championships than any other team. The Swallows, Murakami explained, are not normally very good, and they are not as popular as the Giants. But their fans are famous for being particularly fanatical die-hards. They don’t expect to win, as fans of the Giants expect to win. But when the Swallows do win, their fans really enjoy it. And when they don’t win, they enjoy their sense of defiance. They enjoy their sense that they are loyal to the Swallows and that they are not among the throngs cheering for the Giants.”

Mike Plugh, Welcome to America, Matsuzaka Watch, December 15, 2006: “I’m in the difficult position of wanting Matsuzaka to win every start he makes, but not at the expense of the Yankees winning the division.”

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  • loki

    When in Japan, I saw Baseball. It seemed as if the Japanese could stieal and slide into a base without getting diret all ove rthem selves.( I,also, wento Toyko Disney World,saw Martial Arts and visited monasteries. Baseball was the most impressive. Every world competition seems to pit Japan against Cuba. What if during the baseball strike in the US-Ted Turner filmes Japanese and Cuban Baseball!

  • plnelson

    Loki sez: When in Japan, I saw Baseball. It seemed as if the Japanese could stieal and slide into a base without getting diret all ove rthem selves.

    I don’t think that’s true. I was there, too, and I just think they have cleaner dirt. Don’t you remember the taxi’s in Tokyo? The drivers wear white gloves and the back seats have little white doilies on them. The outside of the cars are clean, too. They have to be – cars in Tokyo streets squeeze by each other with such a tiny fraction of an inch of clearance that an extra layer of dirt would cause a collision! (ba-dum!)

    But back to the topic – On other threads here we have political liberals complaining about the growing gap between rich and poor, and how “overcompensated” corporate execs are. But traditionally baseball is a blue-collar man’s game and yet many baseball stars are now paid lavish salaries. Look at the Boston Red Sox’ recent deal for Daisuke Matsuzaka, for example. Should someone “do something” about that, too?

  • plnelson

    Brendan: When will you add some editing features to this $%#@! board?

  • rc21

    Baseball is capitalism at it’s finest. Where else can an immigrant who does not even speak english go and make 8 million a year to play a game.

  • I’ve never been to Japan but I have seen Ichiro do his Tantric Zen thing. Pinesol compares baseball players to overpaid corporate execs. I think they are more like prima ballarinas. I’m not saying some of them aren’t overpaid but unlike overpaid corporate execs where it is just pure stupid unadulterated talentless planet killing greed there is a game, some might even say an art, involved.

  • plnelson

    PeggySue sez: I’m not saying some of them aren’t overpaid but unlike overpaid corporate execs where it is just pure stupid unadulterated talentless planet killing greed there is a game, some might even say an art, involved.

    Since I’ve worked in both US and European corporations for 30 years, and the sheer ignorance of life in the business world displayed by the above comment is amazing.

  • Let’s get away from the evils of capitalism for this show. There are plenty of more interesting baseball-related issues at stake.

  • plnelson

    Let’s get away from the evils of capitalism for this show. There are plenty of more interesting baseball-related issues at stake.

    You would never know that to read the sports pages. The main reason why I lost interest in MLB, which I loved as a kid, was because so much of “baseball” today is “played” on the business pages or by lawyers. The whole game is about money, not the pastoral pastime I grew up with in the 1950’s and ’60’s. Nowadays I think the closest thing to real baseball is played in the minor leagues – the more minor the better.

    But OK, to bring it back to Japan – what role do minor leagues play in Japanese baseball?

  • plnelson: what role do minor leagues play in Japanese baseball?

    Nearly none. Each team has one farm team, compared to at least five for American teams (AAA, AA, A, short season A and rookie), which doesn’t include the independent minor leagues, the semi-pro collegiate leagues and major college. There is an “industrial league” where some players (most famously Hideo Nomo) can advance from, but one affiliated minor league team is it in Japan. So, high school and college ball is typically used as a way of “player development” there.

    This shallow system has been used an excuse for the reason why Japanese pro players are subject to much harsher practices and pre-season drilling than American players. Compare the 1030a to 1p spring training schedule in Arizona and Florida to the 1,000 fungo drill.

  • pinesol sez: “Since I’ve worked in both US and European corporations for 30 years, and the sheer ignorance of life in the business world displayed by the above comment is amazing.”

    This is very interesting sentence structure but I will refrain from calling it ignorant because I don’t want to violate the commenting guidelines.

  • Peggysue and plnelson: enough.

  • My one question for the show would be the situation with the Tokyo Giants. One of the reasons I can’t take Japanese baseball seriously is the dominance the Giants have over the game, that no other team has the television presence they do, so no other team can compete with them in revenue.

    Its like you took the Yankees, gave them a Braves-esque super station and only played baseball in the midwest. Having one dominant team is not healthy.

    Is there anything happening, like revenue sharing or television package reform, that will level out the playing field for other Japanese teams? Is there even a desire among the other teams to bring the Giants down a notch off the diamond?

  • zeke

    In addition to discussing the factors which influence Japanese players’ experience in MLB, it might be interesting to look at the (decidedly mixed) experience of major leaguers who play in Japan.

  • DorianBenkoil

    As a correspondent for the Japanese edition of Newsweek in the late 1980s, I had the luck to interview iconic baseball manager Sparky Anderson. Anderson eloquently explained the reason the Major Leagues lead the world in baseball: They are the major leagues. Not the American or U.S. leagues. Major League Baseball invites anyone of any background and requires only the pinnacle of performance, the ability to play at the highest levels. Japanese, by contrast, did not tolerate teams on which more than three of the players were “foreigners.”

    Sure, Americans like Warren Cromartie – a former Montreal Expo whom I interviewed in the Tokyo Dome – and the manager Bobby Valentine have professed their love of Japan and all they have learned. But I have never heard them say the level of baseball there is anything approaching a match for what we have in North America.

    Dorian Benkoil, New York (editorial director,

  • DorianBenkoil: Valentine (as quoted in “Meaning of Ichiro” said “Take 90 percent of the starting pitchers and the top relievers in the NPB and they could make a big league roster in some capacity.” Though, I agree with your point that Japanese baseball is much more protective than American baseball is inclusive. Despite the record power era immediately preceding Ichiro, when he showed up, people noticed how good he was, in part because he was different.

    It seems that the Japanese leagues are much prouder of how they play baseball, not whether they are any good at it.

  • DavidLet’s get away from the evils of capitalism for this show. There are plenty of more interesting baseball-related issues at stake.

    David, why the need to censor the conversation? Stepping in to remind posters to follow the guidelines and avoid personal attacks IS welcomed, but telling posters how they should or should not address a topic IS NOT!

    Pro baseball in Japan and the US is a lot about profit and excess, as Plnelson points out above. Just because it has been said before should not exclude someone from raising it as a point again.

    The very amateur quality of Japanese high school baseball is one of its great appeals to this nation. It is inspiring to see players commit themselves to their teammates and fans and play their hearts out for simply the pride and joy of their school and their love of the game.

    But the glory of the summer tournament should not silence observation that the training and behaviour of teams is often militaristic and that tribal worship can get out of hand.

    Nor should we avoid the fact that pro ball on either side of the pond while artful and inspiring can disgust with its ego and greed.

  • Sidewalker: “Nor should we avoid the fact that pro ball on either side of the pond while artful and inspiring can disgust with its ego and greed”

    Which side in your opinion is the worse offender? Japanese owners who for decades have kept their players in indentured servitude? American players, who arguably have abused their rights by driving the price of baseball into the atmosphere?

  • Sidewalker: I meant the “evils of capitalism” in and of themselves — divorced from baseball.

  • nother

    After 8 innings of good pitching I can pat a guy on the butt in any language. This is how Terry Francona the manager of the Red Sox responded to the communication question. It all boils down to language, not the conflict of Japanese vs. English, but the commonality of a plain yet refined language – baseball.

    Look no further then Boston Red Sox catcher Jason Varitek, the best in baseball at his position (I could be little bias) he has caught many games by Japanese pitchers including Nomo’s No-No in Boston (Hideki Nomo’s no-hitter). He is widely regarded as the most prepared catcher and a master at dealing with his pitching staff. He recently said his Japanese is terrible but it doesn’t matter, he said they speak the same language- baseball.

    I love this idea of a common baseball language, “common” being a meeting place for all peoples. This diamond shaped common is generally devoid of the contention of politics, ideology, religion, and race – it’s an oasis. As a liberal I can have long conversations with conservatives about the game and come away feeling closer to that person. A friend of my father’s heard me talking baseball with my dad and this gruff gentlemen relayed to me after a long pause, that he and his father were closest in their life when talking baseball. My dad moved out when I was 7 and we talk infrequently, but when we do talk, the awkwardness disappears when we discuss baseball, all of a sudden we raise our voices, inject inflection, and display passion – a much needed passion.

    By the way, how would we translate “Cowboy up” in Japanese? How about “Samurai up!”

  • nother

    One of the beauties of watching the World Cup in Soccer is the different style of play displayed by the different countries. For instance the South Americans are better passers, which comes from playing in hot temperatures – you just can’t run with the ball all day. Whereas in Europe, the players are more apt to run with the ball and exert more energy with aggression. I hope your guests will break down the differences in play in relation to culture, environment, or physicality – From the Dominicans to the Americans, to the Japanese.

  • nother: Awesome point. A lot of what I’ve read about differences in the game came from differences in coaching, management or the impact of outside culture. Relationships between players, outside of influence of coaches, is pretty smooth. They like each other.

    On the other hand, Jason Varitek is an overrated player. Probably one of the worst at his position. Otherwise, why would’ve the Mariners traded him… (sigh).

  • carolina

    nother, “it’s an oasis” O, nice! And another O for Daisuke Matsuzaka’s blood type; type O = warrior, I hear.

  • rc21

    Nother ,good points. sports usually transcends politics. Many of my best friends are raging liberals, but we all love the sox. By the way you are correct about Varitek. No catcher can call a game as well as him. Emmet is all wet on this one.

  • zmuckers

    It’s gratifying that many MLB superstars hail from island nations: Japan, the DR.

    I’ve not visited Japan; I have been to the DR. From the shoeshine box have come Miguel Tejada, Vladimire Guerrero, Bartolo Colon.

    Let’s celebrate that narrative and emulate that ethos.

  • rc21

    Why is it gratifying that so many stars hail from island nations? I dont get your point. Would you be less happy if they came from mainland Cina or Brazil?

    Personally if they can play the game well I could not care less where they came from. If the Sox could sign a 20 game winner from Algeria I would be delirious with joy.

  • DorianBenkoil

    Emmett: Thanks. You got my point, and for that I’m grateful.

  • quiensabe

    First, thanks for your great radio show. It’s amazing — in the old-fashioned usage of the word. Every time I listen, I feel better about this country. Even though the program may well be unique, the fact that it continues and remains fresh, challenging, literate, and courteous is heartening. I listen at 1:00 a.m. on KQED-radio (San Francisco), and it’s well worth staying up for. I miss having it to listen to on weekends.

    I don’t know much about baseball (all I do know was taught to me during the course of one Red Sox game by a friend from Boston who took me to see his Sox when they were playing in SF some years ago), but I did live in Japan from the end of 1984 to the middle of 1992, so the first thing that struck me about this show was that I didn’t have to be embarrassed by listening to fellow Americans who don’t take the trouble to at least attempt to pronounce Japanese correctly. ( I was also pleased to hear Niwa-san speaking English so well.)

    As Niwa said, Japanese baseball players who come here (already constituting a class quite separate from those who don’t or won’t) may have distinctive personalities, though how to describe their differences must be, as he said, difficult — at least for a Japanese speaking in public and wishing to remain within the boundaries of Japanese courtesy. I appreciated his delicacy in giving credit to individual players without seeming to rate them one against the other.

    It was interesting to me when I lived in Japan to discover that one way ordinary Japanese express their individuality is through their choice of the team they support. Men comfortable in the corporate world seemed to support the Giants, while those who chafed under the system were likely to be Tiger fans. I remember that a popular news anchor showed his loyalty by shaving his head and promising not to let his hair grow back until the Tigers won. (He was bald for a long time.) Another man shaved all but a topiary patch on the back of his head, where the character “tiger” appeared. Naturally the average person couldn’t go to such extremes. Girls got crushes on certain baseball players to express themselves.

    I was touched to read in the blog that Ichiro’s father had given him his first baseball glove to teach the boy the (Buddhist) value of things. I found that kind of serious attention to children to be typical of adults in Japan. And that brings me to a suggestion.

    Some years back, when it was popular to hold up the Japanese as an economic model, you could sometimes hear public discussion of the Japanese system of education. It’s changing because it was argued that kids didn’t have enough free time. Certainly the senior year of high school and “examination hell” as preparation for application to universities was extreme, yet the experience taught young people how to persevere in whatever they did in later life. (I think Niwa used the word patience to describe this.) Many people told me when I was there that it’s very important to continue. That meant not only not to give up in the face of difficulties but also simply to dedicate oneself to becoming better at things. For chilidren it also meant showing gratitude to one’s family, who have paid — often at great sacrifice — for any education beyond junior high school as well as for after-school cram classes. It’s true that not every family can give its children the education they would wish, but those children may enter an apprenticeship for, say, becoming a potter or a sushi chef. The typical period of apprenticeship is ten years. And I never found anyone to be without a “hobby,” which might mean pursuing one of the Japanese arts such as flower arranging, studying a foreign language, playing tennis, mountain climbing, skiing, painting, or playing a musical instrument. (Maybe even memorizing baseball stats and collecting cards.) People did what they could afford, or nearly afford, and still were able to be generous to each other. Could be worse.

    Since I left Japan, apparently homeless people can be found in the large cities, but it may be still generally true that people expect to become productive citizens without depending on a formal welfare system. Of course there is crime, but, at least when I was there, public expressions of teenage and young-adult violence ran to things like speeding on empty streets at night in cars without mufflers, not to driveby shootings. What was more annoying than the speeders was the noise of sound trucks used by right wingers who drove slowly up and down the streets in the daytime during conferences of left-wing groups such as teachers, playing at top volume the martial music of imperial days to interrupt the meetings. (As they approached, the traffic police at intersections literally turned their backs.)

    So how about a show comparing the advantages and disadvantages of the Japanese and American systems of education — with emphasis on the kind and extent of parents’ involvement — and the results that can be expected from each. We don’t seem to be able to figure out how to fix our system, so maybe we should do as the Japanese would: first identify countries where education seems to be successful, then study those systems thoroughly, and, finally, send teams of investigators to study the systems on the spot and consult with teachers and politicians. Is Japan one of the examples of success? Would its system work in a multicultural society like ours? Would anyone support funding the (almost murdered) Department of Education to carry out such a study? Is it too late?

    Again, thanks for a continuously interesting and varied hour. This one program almost makes up for all that’s been lost at NPR.

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