East Meets West in the Japanese Game of Besuboru
by Robert Whiting (Sep 15, 1986)
Digitized by Jessica Suchman and Catherine Nissley.
It looks much the same on the surface, but in the land of samurai and sumo baseball takes on a whole new dimension.
No leisure activity occupies the Japanese as much as besuboru – that’s baseball in American. Last year, 16 million fans flocked to see the 12 teams of Japan’s Central and Pacific professional leagues, while millions more tuned in to the nightly prime-time nationwide telecasts and read the results in the country’s seven sports dailies. A recent survey found that one of every two of the nation’s 120 million citizens is a besuboru fan, including the Prime Minister and the Emperor.
The leading attraction is the Tokyo Yomiuri Giants, the oldest and winningest team in the land, who draw standing-room only crowds throughout the 130-game season lasting from April to October. When the Giants play their traditional rivals from Osaka, the Hanshin Tigers, the ticket lines form 24 hours in advance. At Koshien Stadium, the Tigers’ 60,000-seat home park, a barbed-wire fence keeps the spectators off the field. Riot police patrol the bleachers.
Last season, when the Tigers won their first pennant in 21 years, a wave of Tiger-mania swept the land; it prompted a flood of souvenirs like Tiger beer, Tiger soap and Tiger underwear, which, combined with admission fees, service revenue and other related costs, generated nearly half a billion dollars worth of income in the Osaka area alone. At year’s end a poll of Japanese newspaper readers picked the outbreak of Tiger fever as one of the top ten domestic news stories of 1985.
No mere copy of its American cousin, the Japanese game is imbued with a distinct flavor all its own. Spring training, for example, begins in mid-winter. During the season, even pregame “warm-ups” are grueling displays of fighting spirit. Home-run hitters willingly bunt. Ace pitchers relieve. And there are so many on-field strategy sessions that contests last more than three hours – longer, on the average, than in the United States.
Standard features at every game are the highly organized cheering groups, who yell and chant nonstop to a deafening beat of trumpets, whistles and drums for nine solid innings. In the press box, commentators use sophisticated computer studies to evaluate each player’s ability, then blithely cite his blood type in the popular belief that it somehow affects his performance.
It all adds up to something that aficionados of the American game find difficult to comprehend. As Reggie Smith, the former Los Angeles Dodger star who played in Japan put it, “It looks like baseball, but it’s something else entirely.”
Baseball’s roots in Japan can be traced back to 1873, when a visiting American professor named Horace Wilson taught his students at Kaisei School (now the University of Tokyo) how to play the game. From the start, baseball was well liked. The Japanese found the one-on-one battle between pitcher and batter similar in psychology to sumo wrestling and the martial arts. As such, the sport was deemed good for the development of the spirit and, hence, the national character. Soon there were several high school and college teams in the Tokyo area.
It wasn’t until 1896, however, that the popularity of the game began to soar. That year, the First Higher School in Tokyo beat a team of Americans living in Yokohama, 29-4, in a game that made headlines across the land. As one Japanese historian has written, “Foreigners could not hope to understand the emotional impact of this victory, but it helped Japan, struggling toward modernization after centuries of isolation, overcome a tremendous inferiority complex it felt toward the West.”
Pitcher Kotaru Moriyama, who later pitched a shut-out against the same American team, became a hero of such proportions that he inspired a popular saying: “To be hit by Moriyama’s fastball is an honor exceeded only by being crushed under the wheels of the Imperial carriage.”
By the turn of the century, intercollegiate baseball was the country’s major sport and leading universities like Keio, Waseda and Meiji were playing overseas competition. Warring student cheer groups had become such a problem – their ranks often swelled by members of their school judo clubs – that play was suspended on more than one occasion.
Not everyone was overjoyed with the popularity of this alien sport. In 1911, the influential conservative daily, Asahi Shimbun, ran an editorial series entitled “The Evil of Baseball,” quoting several leading educators who opposed the game. Critic Inazo Nitobe, for example, called baseball “a pickpocket’s sport, in which players try to swindle their opponents…to steal a base…” A University of Tokyo physician claimed it was bad for the development of the brain because of “mental pressure” placed on ballplayers to win for the honor of their school – adding that throwing a baseball all the time caused lopsided body development.
Baseball survived the assault, thanks in part to support by a rival paper that argued forcefully the game’s value as a tool of education to develop a spirit. In fact, the Asahi Shimbun later went on to sponsor the annual National High School Baseball Summer Tournament, which today is the biggest amateur sporting event in the land. College baseball also thrived, and in 1935 the nation’s first professional baseball team was formed, following a highly successful tour of Japan the previous year by a U.S. major-league all-star team that featured Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. The Americans were undefeated, but an 18-year-old high school student named Eiji Sawamura thrilled the nation by striking out Charlie Gehringer, Ruth, Jimmy Foxx, and Gehrig in succession, in a memorable 1-0 game.
Matsutaro Shoriki, owner of the Yomiuri Shimbun, which sponsored the tour, was so encouraged by this display of talent that he established the Yomiuri Giants, quickly signing up Sawamura and other top Japanese stars. Hanshin Railway and six other firms followed suit, and in 1936 the Japanese Professional League began play. Its charter stressed fair play and improvement of the national spirit. Yet many feared that playing ball for money would dilute the purity of the sport. Sawamura himself wanted passionately to remain an amateur and play for Waseda University. It was only after his debt-ridden father had committed him to a Yomiuri Giants contract without his knowledge, securing a hefty loan in the process, that he agreed to turn pro.
Pro baseball struggled in its early years. One stadium, built on the least expensive real estate that could be found, was so close to Tokyo Bay that incoming tides often flooded the field. During the war, American baseball terminology was banned (besuboru became yakyu or “field ball”), as was the hidden-ball trick, a symbol of American chicanery. Players were referred to as “soldiers” or “warriors” and games were often preceded by hand-grenade-throwing contests. In 1945, play was suspended altogether; when the war was over, 72 players had lost their lives, including Sawamura, whose ship was torpedoed in the East China Sea.
Baseball resumed in peacetime Japan and with an unusual salute to the country’s new institution of demokurashi, one team in 1946 actually chose its manager by player vote. In 1949, a visit by the minor-league San Francisco Seals, who won all their games against Japanese teams, helped re-stimulate interest. By 1950, the present two-league setup was established, with pennant winners meeting in the Japan Series. Most clubs were financed by large corporations for promotional purposes. The Taiyo Whales, for example, existed solely to promote the sales of whale meat and other products of the Taiyo Fishery Company.
Pro baseball’s postwar growth paralleled that of Japan’s skyrocketing gross national product. By 1985, the Most Valuable Player award had grown from a barrel of shoyu (soy sauce) awarded in 1950 to an expensive new car and several thousand dollars’ worth of prizes. The Yomiuri Giants had won 16 Japan Series, including nine in a row from 1965 to 1973, becoming, in the process, a national institution. And a Giants first baseman named Sadaharu Oh had hit 868 home runs in a 22-year career (1958-80), more than anyone else, including Babe Ruth and Han Aaron.
Baseball’s grip on the national psyche is due, ultimately, to the fact that it suits the national character. Introduced to a people whose very identities were rooted in the group, but who, oddly enough, had no group sport of their own – only one-on-one competitions like judo and sumo – baseball provided the Japanese with an opportunity to express their group proclivities on an athletic field. Over the years it has been the team aspects of the game – the sacrifice bunt, the squeeze, the hit-and-run, that have come to characterize Japanese baseball, despite Oh’s home runs.
Unlike other groups sports, baseball also comes with a built-in individual confrontation – a test of wills – which, as we have seen, gave it its initial appeal to fans of the martial arts and sumo. The “get-set” ritual in sumo, for example, with its squatting, stamping and fierce glaring has its equivalent in the war of nerves the pitcher and the batter wage, which involves delaying tactics like calling time and cleaning spikes.
Perhaps another reason for baseball’s attraction for the Japanese is its relatively slow pace. As any Western businessman familiar with Japan will agree, the Japanese are a cautious people. They like to fully discuss and analyze a problem before reaching a decision. On a baseball field, the natural break between pitches and innings allows ample time for this, which is one reason why Japanese pro games – like Japanese business meetings – seem interminable.
Japanese baseball has, on occasion, even invited comparisons with Kabuki, a traditional Japanese form of theater in which performances last four to five hours. The leisurely pitch-by-pitch format of the game, many Japanese say, is not without its similarities to a Kabuki dialogue, which depends on the dramatic use of ma (pauses). An admirer of a top relief pitcher who recently retired explained his success by saying, “He was good because he knew how to use the ma. He waited for just the right moment – a momentary lapse of concentration by the batter – to deliver his pitch.”
Finally, baseball seems ideally suited to the well-known statistical bent of the Japanese. An abundance of data are available in Japan’s sports dailies – ten-column box scores, batter-by-batter accounts of every game, and complex player-ranking formulas.
Having celebrated its 50th anniversary, pro baseball in Japan has become a mirror of the fabled Japanese virtues of hard work and group effort. Said American Steve Ontiveros, a former Chicago Cub who played in Japan for almost six years, “I’ve never seen anything like a Japanese training camp. In the American majors, we were on the field from 10 till 2 every day and we were ready to start the season in three weeks. In Japan, we’re all out there from January, seven to eight hours a day, with lectures and indoor workouts in the evening. It’s incredible.”
The Japanese believe that good players are made, not born, and that only through endless training, strictly supervised by coaches, can one achieve the unity of mind and body necessary to excel. Home-run star Koji Yamamoto of the Hiroshima Carp signs his autographs with the word doryoku (effort). So does Sadaharu Oh, who now manages the Giants.
The emphasis on wa, or team harmony, is another distinguishing characteristic of Japanese baseball. The Japanese have a saying, “The nail that sticks up will be hammered down,” and in baseball they take it quite seriously. When the Giants’ top pitcher Takashi Nishimoto ignored the advice of a coach in practice last summer, the coach punched him between the eyes. Nishimoto was also forced to apologize and pay a $500 fine.
Excessive concern over money is considered particularly harmful. In 1984, when the Chunichi Dragons’ top batter, Yasushi Tao, hit .352 and asked for a big raise, he was traded. Praiseworthy are the players like a Seibu Lions outfielder who, in the same year, refused a raise offered by his club because he had missed too many games as the result of an injury.
Not all the players are overjoyed with this state of affairs (especially since the minimum salary is only $18,000), but in Japan social pressure is strong and the media are vigilant. When Nishimoto’s teammate Suguru Egawa asked for a ten percent raise one year after slipping from 16 wins to 15, the Nikkan Sports, a leading daily, ran the headline, “Egawa! You Greedy SOB!”
A players’ union was formally established in 1985, but an American-style strike would be hard to imagine. As a players’ representative put it, “We’d never act like the U.S. major leaguers. A strike would be going too far.” In a recent Asahi Shimbun survey, only 28 percent of the players polled said they would ever agree to a walkout.
Tetsuharu Kawakami (p.110), who before his retirement managed the Giants to nine straight Japanese titles, occasionally lectures business groups around the country on his managerial principles. Some of them are: “Most players are lazy. It’s the manager’s responsibility to make them train hard”; “Courteous players make for a strong team. It’s a manager’s responsibility to teach them proper manners”; “Leaders who are thought of as ‘nice people’ will fail”; “Lone wolves are the cancer of the team.”
Kawakami’s system has come to be known as kanri yakyu (controlled baseball), because he controlled all phases of his players’ lives. He even forbade them to read comic books in public for fear it would spoil the team image. Today, the foremost practitioner of kanri yakyu is Tatsuro Hirooka, a lean and hard disciplinarian who managed the Seibu Lions to three pennants in the past four years before temporarily retiring due to illness. He has given the term new meaning.
Hirooka puts his teams on a strict natural-foods diet – fish, soybeans, brown rice, tofu salad. He calls his players each night to make sure they’re in bed by his midnight curfew. More than once, he has confined his squad to quarters while on the road as punishment for bad play, and one season he went four straight months without allowing his charges a single day off.
Two years ago, Hirooka ran an “autumn camo” for his entire squad, veterans and rookies alike, that surely qualified for the Guinness Book of World Records. Lasting 59 days, from season’s end to late December (a time when most American ballplayers are relaxing in front of television), it consisted of nine hours of daily drills, including 600 swings a day for each batter, 430 pitches a day for each pitcher, as well as swimming and aikido (martial arts) sessions. Last winter, he sent the Lions’ star shortstop to any icy mountain river, hoping an act of self-immersion would strengthen the player’s spirit and help make him a better leader.
Foreign ballplayers, mostly refugees from the American major leagues, have been part of Japanese baseball for years (there is currently a limit of two per team). Yet, their presence has been met with mixed emotions by their hosts. The gaijin (foreigner, outsider), as he is called, demands several times the pay of his Japanese counterpart. (Gaijin receive about $75,000 minimum to play in the starting lineup.) Still, he is often unable to adjust to the unusual style of play, which includes a different strike zone, breaking-ball pitching and a Spartan philosophy. Roughly half of all new gaijin recruits each year are not invited back. “I was in a daze for six months,” says one American of his initial season. In 1983, a former major-league all-star, Bump Wills, signed a four-year contract with the Hankyu Braves for a total of $1.6 million. By the middle of his second season, Wills was sitting on the farm-team bench with a batting average in the low .200s, awaiting his release.
The individualistic attitude of the American player is a particular sore point, for it invariably clashes with that of his group-oriented hosts. Reggie Smith received a million dollars from Yomiuri in 1983, the highest figure ever paid to a foreign player and nearly twice that of any Japanese player. He hit 28 home runs and led his team to a pennant. Even so, Smith insisted on his own pregame practice routine, which was considerably lighter than that of his teammates and a major source of consternation to coaches and sports writers alike. Noting that Smith never participated in the repetitive and exhausting fly-ball sessions that other Giants outfielders went through daily, one television commentator said, “Smith should take more fielding practice in the interest of team harmony.”
Smith’s response was typical of a player who had spent years in the American major leagues. “I have my own system,” he said, “and it’s the game that’s important. Besides, I already know how to catch the ball.” What seemed to upset some Japanese was that Smith succeeded too easily. In one game, he even hit a home run and a double without taking any batting practice at all – something that happens occasionally in the United States but never in Japan where hard pregame workouts for everyone are the norm. “People who behave like Smith,” complained one longtime Giants fan, “make a mockery of the whole system.”
The 1984 season was particularly frustrating in regard to recalcitrant Americans. Three of them quit in midseason. One was Jim Tracy, who walked out on the Taiyo Whales in protest over being precipitously removed from a game. Another was Don Money, the onetime Milwaukee star who left because, among other things, he didn’t like his apartment or the aging facilities used by his team, the Kintetsu Buffaloes. “It looks like a bomb hit it,” said Money of the clubhouse.
The differences between the Japanese and Americans are so great that the official team interpreter often winds up playing the role of peacemaker. The tale is told of the time Tony Solaita, an American-Samoan who played for the Nippon Ham Fighters, used his interpreter to warn an opposing pitcher about throwing consecutive beanballs. “Tell him that if he ever does that again,” he said in his most solemn tones, “I’ll *&$#@! kill him.” The interpreter’s diplomatic translation – “He asks that you please don’t throw at his head anymore because it makes his wife and children worry” – prompted a sympathetic apology from the pitcher and averted future trouble between the two.
At times, however, interpreters’ lack of skill in English has caused additional problems. When one American told a television interviewer that he was no longer mad at an opposing player with whom he had had an altercation, an interpreter solemnly explained to the viewing audience that the gaijin was no longer insane. Another interpreter confessed to the two Americans on his team that he didn’t always understand what they were saying and sometimes made up answers to please the coaches.
Not every American becomes embroiled in controversy. A soft-spoken Oklahoman named Randy Bass came as close to being a national hero as any gaijin ballplayer ever has. Bass, who has spent more than four years in Japan, won the Central League triple crown in 1985, leading the Tigers to the pennant. A Hanshin Tigers cheer-group chant went, “God…Buddha…and Bass.”
Bass tries hard to do things the Japanese way, yet even he has his detractors. Critics recalled, in particular, his temporarily leaving the team in midseason 1984 (albeit with permission), to be at his father’s deathbed. His conduct was compared unfavorably with Oh’s who, in true Japanese fashion, missed not a single inning when his father died last September.
Americans, for their part, say that nothing they can do will ever make them fully accepted. They complain of an insular mentality on the part of the Japanese and of barriers erected to keep them out. For example, restrictions on foreigners have kept many qualified players out of annual midseason all-star competition, including one who was leading the Pacific League in batting last year at the halfway point. Randy Bass went into the last game of the 1985 season, against the Giants, with 54 home runs, one shy of Oh’s record, and was fed a steady diet of unhittable pitches, well outside the strike zone. Oh sat back in his manager’s seat and watched it all happen.
Said the editor of Number, Japan’s leading sports magazine, “The results might have been different if Bass were a Japanese.”
“You go 0-5, and it’s Yankee go home”
Warren Cromartie, the Giants’ American outfielder, expressed the feelings of many Americans when he said. “You’re an outcast, period. You go 0-5, and it’s Yankee go home. You go 5-5 and nobody pays attention to you. Bass was an exception, but if he had broken the home-run record, the Japanese would hate him.”
The question of the gaijin player in Japanese baseball has been much debated over the years. An Asahi Shimbun survey taken at the end of 1985 asked the question, “Are foreigners necessary?” Of those polled, 56 percent of the fans said yes. But only ten percent of the players – and none of the managers – agreed.
The Japanese pro-baseball executive committee recently voted – unanimously – to eventually phase out the gaijin, arguing that they are overpaid, underproductive and generally irritating. Said one official, “It’s not right that a player no longer wanted in the United States is the key member of a Japanese team. Besides, it’s ideal that Japanese baseball be played by Japanese alone.” Oh, despite the fact that he is half Chinese, lent his support, saying, “A real world series between Japan and the United States would be impossible with foreign players on our teams.”
The Japanese hope that the dynamics which made them an economic power will make them a baseball champion as well. On a postseason goodwill tour of Japan in 1984, the Baltimore Orioles fumbled their way to a record of 8-5-1 against a variety of professional teams. Their less-than-awe-inspiring performance prompted one Japanese manager to remark, “It might be just a vacation for them, but they still have nothing to offer us. They’re just bigger, that’s all.”
Whether a real world series with the United States ever actually happens or not, the Japanese passion for baseball is not likely to abate. Nor is their game likely to lose its “Japaneseness” to any appreciable degree.
There are, to be sure, young players who scoff at terms like “fighting spirit,” in the fashion of many young Japanese company employees nowadays who have no compunction about leaving the office at 5 o’clock or even changing jobs. Lotte Orions star Hiromitsu Ochiai, 32, who has won two triple crowns in his career, and whose annual salary of $600,000 is tops among Japanese ballplayers, is their hero. In a preseason interview this year, he said, “It’s better not to practice at all than to practice too much,” followed by the equally blasphemous “I’d play for any club as long as they paid me enough.”
But tradition dies hard. Hanshin Tigers relief ace Kazuyuki Yamamoto declared last year, at age 35, that he would try his hand at U.S. major-league baseball – a long-held dream. As soon as he announced this intention, however, pressure to make him stay was applied from several quarters, including petitions from fans, newspaper editorials and a public plea from his mother. “Don’t go, my son!” ran an emotional headline in one major sports daily; “Think of what you owe the team.”
It took one week for Yamamoto to change his mind.