How star baseballer’s US success changed postwar Japan

LIFE

Ichiro Suzuki’s career helped overcome ‘national inferiority complex’ ROBERT WHITING, Contributing writer, APRIL 05, 2019 14:30 JST

Ichiro Suzuki: One of the greatest baseball players the world has ever seen.   © MLB Photos/Getty Images

TOKYO — Ichiro Suzuki retired from professional baseball on March 21 at the Tokyo Dome, in an emotional ceremony that capped a remarkable career. Lauded by New York Yankees General Manager Brian Cashman as “one of the greatest baseball players the world has ever seen,” he is expected to become the first Japanese player to enter the American baseball Hall of Fame.

In 19 years with the Seattle Mariners, New York Yankees and Miami Marlins, the fleet-footed outfielder set a single season record for hits with 262 — a mark that some say will never be broken. He achieved more than 200 hits per season for 10 seasons in a row, another all-time record, and more than 3,000 lifetime hits — only the 30th person in the 150-year history of MLB to join that exclusive club.

But there is a broader meaning to his considerable achievements that highlights his impact on the Japanese psyche: he helped to eliminate Japan’s inferiority complex in relation to the U.S., which had developed in the wake of World War II and the American occupation of the country.

The 1964 Tokyo Olympics and Japan’s booming trade-based economy of the 1970s and 1980s had boosted the country’s national ego, as had the baseball star Hideo Nomo, who in 1995 signed a contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers, blazing a trail for other Japanese players.

It was Suzuki, however, who demolished the belief in American baseball that Japan could produce only pitchers, and that Japanese batters were too small and fragile to succeed.

By the midway point of his first season, Suzuki had become an American icon, featured on magazine covers and in TV specials. Americans could not name Japan’s prime minister, emperor, top singers or actors. But everybody in the U.S. knew the name Ichiro Suzuki.

All this had special significance for prize-winning Tokyo-based journalist Midori Masujima. “We’ve never been a member of the world community, not in the Edo period, not in the Meiji era and not today,” she wrote in a widely-read magazine essay. Japan could produce world-class products, but not humans who were able to prevail in international competitions — apart from occasional triumphs in judo or the marathon, she noted. (Japan’s dominance in figure skating and high-level presence in professional tennis was still years away.)

This dearth of international champions, in Masujima’s eyes, created a great craving among Japanese for overseas approval. The sudden and unforeseen success of Suzuki and others answered that craving and appeared to disprove the notion that Japanese people were not “physically or experientially ready for world competition,” she said. It amounted to a vindication of Japan itself.

This in turn was a source of great pride back home. Every game Suzuki played was broadcast nationwide in Japan, sometimes twice a day, morning and evening. He saturated the airwaves. For a large part of the population, watching major league games in the early morning, sometimes at 4 a.m., before going to work became a daily ritual.

Some 25 million people watched Suzuki break the single season hits record in 2004, and one in two watched him lead Samurai Japan to victory in the final game of the inaugural World Baseball Classic played in San Diego in March 2006. Water pressure in Tokyo dropped by 25% each time fans made bathroom runs between innings.

My next door neighbor in Kamakura, near Tokyo, a kimono-clad Japanese woman in her 80s, could cite Suzuki’s statistics by heart. “Don’t you think he is wonderful, Whiting-san,” she would say. “He is like a god.”

Suzuki was followed by other Japanese stars in the U.S. baseball game. Hideki Matsui, a former Yomiuri Giants star, led the New York Yankees to a World Series championship in 2009, and was chosen most valuable player of that series. And in 2018 Shohei Ohtani became the first player since Babe Ruth in 1919 to bat and pitch successfully for a major league team, hitting home runs as a batter and striking out opponents with 160 kilometer-per-hour fastballs as a member of the Los Angeles Angels.

Having been named Japan’s most popular sports figure in 2018 in an annual survey published by Central Research Services, a position Suzuki had occupied for nearly two decades, 24-year-old Ohtani is poised to dominate sports media coverage in Japan for years to come. Suzuki, who has transitioned to an advisory position with the Seattle Mariners, was second on the list, followed by two-time figure skating Olympic gold medalist Yuzuru Hanyu.

Someone will eventually come along to replace Ohtani. No matter who that is, though, it is clear that Japan’s inferiority complex has gone — and with it, the pressure of carrying a whole country’s sense of self-pride. For that, the country can in large part thank Ichiro Suzuki.

Robert Whiting is a Tokyo-based journalist and author of books including “You Gotta Have Wa,” and “Tokyo Underworld: The Fast Times and Hard Life of an American Gangster in Japan.”

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