I will be the first to admit that I have absolutely no interest in baseball. However, my older brother loved the sport and often forced me to play. This would have been in my elementary years when we lived on a military base in Japan. But I did enjoy watching the sport back then with my brother and we would often root for the home team, the Yomiuri Giants. One of my fondest memories was seeing an actual game between the Yomiuri Giants and the Hanshin Tigers at Korakuen Stadium.
As an adult, I moved back to Japan and saw how baseball is still popular as ever, maybe even more popular than the traditional Japanese sport of sumo. That is when I came upon Robert Whiting’s book which renewed my interest in finding out more about how the game became so popular in Japan.
Robert Whiting writes an interesting story about the history of baseball in Japan. How Japan took an American sport and made it into their own national pastime. In order to really enjoy this book, you need to understand what wa is. To put it simply, wa is a Japanese word that means unity or harmony. It’s a concept whereby a team or group of people act as a whole and where individualism is frowned upon.
This book was first published in 1988, more than thirty years ago but is still relevant today. It is not so much about baseball as it is about Japanese culture as seen through the sport. A culture that is very resistant to change. The concept of wa isn’t limited to professional baseball players but to high school and university players as well and in most businesses too.
This is what Reggie Smith, a former Major League Baseball player had to say about playing for the Yomiuri Giants in Japan for two seasons, “This isn’t baseball….it only looks like it.” Those sentiments were shared by other American players and even some Japanese players as well.
Suishu Tobita, considered to be the “god of baseball” said, “Student baseball must be the baseball of self-discipline. It must be much more than a hobby. In many cases, it must be a baseball of pain and baseball practice of savage treatment.”
From this American’s perspective, their training seems to be very intense verging on abusive. Choji Murata, who played for the Tokyo Lotte Orions, which changed their name to the Chiba Lotte Marines followed the strict regimen and believes that “pitchers should pitch until their arms fall off”. He threw over a hundred pitches during practice and even more during a game. He then continued to pitch with a torn ligament in his elbow for a year and a half. I don’t know if that’s dedication. It seems more like he was brainwashed into believing it was the right thing to do,
I think Japan has been making progress though. I recently read a news piece about a high school baseball manager who benched his star pitcher, Roki Sasaki, for the final in a tournament game because the player had threw 129 pitches the day before. The team would lose ending their chances of going to the prestigious Koshien tournament which is the World Series of Japanese High School Baseball. The manager was criticized by many for thinking about the pitcher’s health instead of focusing on winning. Current Major League Baseball player Yu Darvish of the Texas Rangers praised the manager’s decision saying, “In my opinion, those people saying things like why he (Sasaki) didn’t pitch are not giving a single thought to the kids.”
Even if you are not a fan of baseball, Whiting will make you interested. You will be fascinated by the history of Japanese baseball and of the cultural comparisons between Japan and the U.S. The book has made me appreciate Japanese baseball more but not enough for me to become an actual fan of the sport. ~Ernie Hoyt