Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Baseball, As Japanese As Okaa-San And Red Bean Pie

I just finished reading You Gotta Have Wa, Japan-based American journalist Robert Whiting’s 1989 non-fiction book on baseball in Japan, and for anyone interested in sociological and cultural differences between Japan and the west, it’s a fascinating read. The way the game fits into the cultural fabric of the U.S., the way it fits into the cultural fabric of Japan, and the differences therein provide a fascinating insight into deeper cultural differences even if you’re not a baseball fan.

We Americans tend to think of baseball as a quintessentially American game, not only in terms of its origins and place in popular culture, but spiritually as well. Over the decades, sportswriters have spilled gallons of ink waxing poetic about the game, about its pastoral, rural origins that supposedly hearken back to a time when America was a more innocent place, its unique nature as a timeless game that’s not over until the last man is out, its capacity to generate quintessentially American larger-than-life characters like Babe Ruth and Pete Rose. It has been thought of as a key bridge between generations of American fathers and sons – just think of Ray Kinsella and his father having a catch at the end of Field of Dreams – and our great teacher of life lessons about defeat, sportsmanship, and perseverance (cf. “Casey At The Bat”, or The Natural). More so than any other sport, it has been considered a barometer of the nation’s social condition; when the Black Sox threw the 1919 World Series, it was so widely considered indicative of a moral rot at the heart of the culture that F. Scott Fitzgerald would use the incident in The Great Gatsby to symbolize the corruption of the American Dream that in his view defined the Roaring Twenties, and when Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947, it was viewed as one of the first great victories of the Civil Rights Movement. And it’s often been taken as a sign that newly arrived ethnic immigrant communities have truly integrated when they produce their first great ballplayer – as with Joe DiMaggio and Yogi Berra for the Italians, or Carl Yastrzemski for the Poles. Scandals and disappointments like the 1994 players’ strike and the Steroid Era may have tainted the game’s aura of purity, and faster, more telegenic sports may be catching up to it (or, in the case of football, have already passed it) in terms of popularity, but nevertheless, it retains a unique place in our mythology – the saying remains, after all, that something is “as American as baseball and apple pie."

What Whiting’s book does is show how the same sport has achieved a similarly mythic status in an entirely different cultural context. One Japanese writer quoted in the book states that “if Americans hadn’t invented baseball, we Japanese would have”, and after reading it, one can see why that he would have that sentiment. As a team sport, baseball of course appeals to the Japanese values of teamwork and self-sacrifice for the good of the group. But unlike other team sports, baseball is broken into a series of discrete actions rather consisting of continuous, flowing play. As such, it is neatly amenable to the philosophy of the martial arts, in which personal improvement results directly from devoting one’s self to perfecting a given technique through diligence, focus, spiritual discipline, and lots and lots of repetitive practice. The great Japanese slugger Sadaharu Oh perfected his swing by slicing at a strip of paper hanging from the ceiling with a sword, trying with each stroke to shave off as narrow a piece from the bottom of the strip as he could. It’s the kind of exercise you find being written about in military training manuals and treatises on bushido written by Edo-era samurai, but the control necessary to deliver an exact, powerful sword stroke and the control necessary to hit a professional breaking pitch flush on the fat of the bat being similar skills, it was easily transferred to baseball. Other fundamentals of the game – throwing a curveball, fielding a grounder, turning a double-play – require a similar mastery of technique. To become an outstanding player in soccer, hockey, or basketball (all of which have professional profiles in Japan, albeit ones much lower than that of baseball), requires creativity and an ability to adapt to new and different situations on the fly, things which any foreigner who’s spent time in Japan (and many Japanese, for that matter) will tell you are not Japanese strengths. This, more than lack of size or ability, is the reason in my opinion the Japanese do not tend to excel at other team sports (which, with the exception of basketball, do not necessarily even require physical stature as a prerequisite for success). Go to any high school soccer or basketball game in Japan, and you’ll see some physically talented players, but precious few who have developed the instincts to play the game at full speed mentally. But baseball, rather than quick thinking, requires perfecting a set of well-defined skills, and that is something the Japanese are very good at. Thus for them baseball provides a sort of validation of their cultural values.

There's also the matter of gattsu (guts) and damashi (fighting spirit). These have always been prized qualities in the Japanese conception of masculinity, first in the codes of the country’s martial arts and later in the sports they spawned. In traditional Japanese competitions like kendo and karate, the ability to endure pain and fight through exhaustion are considered as or more important than speed or power, and the training they require as disciplines tends to reflect that – rather than focus on helping an athlete achieve his or her peak physical performance, it focuses on ensuring that he or she can continue to fight on even under very adverse conditions. Physical toughness is thought of as something that can be developed, rather than merely an inborn trait, and training methods often border on sadistic. More old-school Japanese managers adapted this approach to baseball, putting their players through grueling training regimens that push them to their physical limits. Fielders field hundreds or even thousands of grounders each day, pitchers throw hundreds of practice pitches even on days when they’re supposedly “resting”, and everyone runs and does lots of other conditioning drills. Many of the American players who’ve played in Japan interviewed for the book find this training grueling and self-defeating, since it exhausts the players and leaves them at less than their full capacity for the actual games, but for the Japanese, being at full capacity isn’t the point – being able to win when you’re at less than full capacity is.

Whiting also goes into a great deal of fascinating detail about how other cultural concepts central to the Japanese worldview, such as “wa” (group harmony) and the relationship between senpai (mentors, upperclassmen) and kohai (protégés, underclassmen) are expressed in the context of baseball, though in those cases the nature of the sport itself matters less. He discusses the modernization of Japan (and the change in Japanese values that has come with it) in the context of the game, finding in iconoclastic younger players like three time Triple Crown winner Hiromitsu Ochiai (who was referred to by the Japanese press as "the gaijin who speaks Japanese" due to his colorful, anti-authoritarian personality) avatars of the “shinjinrui”, or “new breed of humanity”, a postwar generation who supposedly represent the Japan's shift toward a more individualistic and less refined culture. He also tackles the less savory side of the sport – not just the machinations of professional teams and the big businesses that own and operate them, but the troubled institutions of Japanese amateur baseball as well. There’s a particularly fascinating chapter on Koshien, the annual high school baseball tournament that grips the nation every summer, and is something like big-time college sports in the U.S., with the same myths of purity, amateurism, and fair competition between scholar-athletes, and the same realities of big-time money making, exploitation, and academic, recruiting, and gambling scandals behind them. It’s a book that shatters myths as well as explains them, and demonstrates the bad as well as the good things that sports shows us we all have in common.

It is, in short, an excellent book, for lovers of the sport of baseball and lovers of the country of Japan equally. In my observation, some things have changed in the twenty years since the book's publication - I think the old school Japanese approach to life and baseball has been adulterated more than ever by influences from abroad - but some cultural gaps remain as wide as ever, and Whiting has a great gift for illustrating and explaining such disconnects.

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