The Hero Inside

Fans of Major League Baseball in the U.S. no longer blink when a talented Japanese player arrives and makes an immediate impact on the game. Ichiro Suzuki is a record-setting, first-ballot Hall of Famer who became a fan favorite in Seattle. Hideki Matsui was a superb all-around player who helped the New York Yankees win the 2009 World Series. Koji Uehara is a lights-out closer who played a key role in the Boston Red Sox World Series victory in 2013. Yu Darvish and Masahiro Tanaka are young pitchers with immense talent and nasty fastballs. In all, a dozen Japanese players compete in the major leagues today.

If not for heavily restrictive free-agent rules in Japan, there would undoubtedly be more.  The long-held belief that Japanese players were less talented than their American counterparts has been supplanted by respect for the quality of Japanese baseball.  And yet, some of the cultural aspects of the Japanese game remain entrenched.

Like twins separated at birth, Japanese baseball and American baseball share many traits.  Both emerged in the late 19th century in their respective countries — born in the U.S.A. and transplanted to Japan by American educators living in Tokyo.  Both gained popularity during a period of industrialization and urban growth. The game itself, mesmerizingly complex, graceful and replete with bursts of exciting action spaced between strategic and sometimes achingly slow intervals of inaction, held a tantalizing allure for fans in both countries. Played on open green fields under wide blue skies, surrounded by grandstands filled with cheering men, women and children, baseball took on a profundity that spurred deep allegiances, impassioned excitement, literary tributes and a hold on the players and the watchers that defied simple explanations.

The American love affair with baseball has been well documented. Less well known is the Japanese obsession with the game, which many observers and scholars point out is perfectly suited to a culture that has long praised baseball’s martial arts – like discipline, its selfless spirit and moral code, and its bright illumination of humility and dedication.

The game and its basic tenets were the same, but at the end of the 19th century, these two baseball ideologies took divergent paths.  In America, professional leagues emerged in the late 1800s, and baseball quickly became the national pastime, revered in cities east of the Mississippi and populated with players who became fan idols. Stars like Cy Young, Ty Cobb and Honus Wagner emerged as baseball prospered, and their worship became a foundational element of the American game. The team mattered, and winning was paramount, but the individual players had a unique stage on which to display their skills and bask in success. Owners trying to cultivate fan interest understood the attraction and influence of these star players and did everything to encourage their distinctive popularity.

Conversely, in Japan, the game, like the nation’s culture, embodied collectivism over individualism, and discipline and loyalty instead of wealth and celebrity.  In Japan, professional baseball leagues didn’t appear until 1935.  Until then, the game was confined to high school and college teams and local industrial leagues.

According to Sayuri Guthrie Shimizu, a history professor at Rice University and author of “Transpacific Field of Dreams: How Baseball Linked the United States and Japan in Peace and War,” Japanese collegiate teams began touring Hawaii and the U.S. mainland in the early 20th century. And because the Japanese game developed as a school and company sport, “it was very firmly based on a regimented structure, and the emphasis was on the group accomplishment as opposed to individual stars.”

Indeed, high school baseball, while an integral part of America’s game, is not remotely as popular as its Japanese counterpart. The annual Koshien high school tournament, played each August before packed stadiums of often weeping fans, has been described, in terms of popularity, as a combination of the World Series and the Super Bowl. While the games are being played, more than 60 percent of Japan’s TV sets will be tuned in.

When the pro leagues began, Japan had its stars, but the philosophy and execution of the game bespoke a vastly different cultural attitude. In Japan, the game came to mirror the national identity and moral philosophy inextricably tied to Japan’s pride in itself.

It’s All About Harmony

Robert Whiting, an American writer who has lived in Japan for much of the past four decades, has written extensively about Japanese baseball and has authored several books on the subject, including the 1989 best-seller “You Gotta Have Wa.”

Whiting’s insight into the Japanese game is widely admired. In “You Gotta Have Wa,” he pointed out, “The United States and Japan have had a long relationship marked by a clash of values: American individualism on the one side, the Japanese focus on wa, or harmony, on the other, as well as a contrasting work ethic.”

Over time, in a culture where the group supersedes the individual in so many aspects of life, Japanese baseball came to epitomize many tenets that the Japanese hold dear.  In Japan, the saying goes, “the tallest nail gets hammered first,” and on a baseball diamond, there was little room or tolerance for the kind of individualism displayed by Americans like Dizzy Dean or Barry Bonds.  Selflessness, discipline, backbreaking hard work and practice, respect for the team and the manager, the deep belief in saving face — all are woven into the tapestry of Japanese baseball, even to this day.

Given Japan’s geography and history, its cultural identity is tied to mores built upon centuries of isolation, homogeneity and a large population living in limited space. Japan, an archipelago made up of four main islands, is home to 126 million people. But more than 80 percent of the archipelago is mountainous and uninhabitable. So the population inhabits just 4 percent of the land area, which means a population density of 850 people per square mile, compared to 58 people per square mile in the U.S. Forced to live in congested urban areas, the Japanese long ago learned that harmony was based upon cooperation and conformity.  Despite its isolation, Japan became adept at importing foreign culture after Commodore Perry pushed open the closed Japanese markets in 1854.  In so doing, the nation was able to industrialize and adopt such foreign passions as baseball.

In fact, Japanese collectivism may well have arisen from simple pragmatism. For example, a recent University of Virginia study published this year in Science found that people from rice-growing regions such as Japan “think in more interdependent and holistic ways than do those from wheat-growing areas.”  According to the study, “it takes much more cooperation and overall effort to grow rice than wheat. To successfully plant and harvest rice, farmers must work together to build complex irrigation systems and set up labor exchanges. Over time, this need for teamwork fosters an interdependent and collectivist psychology.  East Asian nations like Japan and South Korea have a long history of rice-growing, and their populations are more interdependent and less individualistic than those of other countries with comparable wealth.”

According to Fred E. Jandt in “An Introduction to Intercultural Communications,” “The Japanese do not have the same perception of self as an individual that is typical in the United States; instead, the Japanese feel most comfortable with others who empathize. To be completely understood, people have to cooperate in the same context, and in doing so, there can be no differentiation of individuals. In such an extremely homogeneous society, you are not seen as an individual, nor do you regard individualism as a positive trait.”

If selflessness was born in the rice fields, it was on the baseball field that it came to be exemplified.  While the cultural foundation of its people surely had some role in shaping Japanese baseball and its team-first view, the game had its own philosopher/managers who played a role in its development.

According to Whiting, for example, Suishu Tobita helped crystallize such thinking in Japanese baseball when he became coach of the Waseda University team in 1919. Tobita “believed that players should love their teams in the way that one loved one’s hometown or one’s country, that they should show total allegiance and obedience to their manager and that they should never, ever complain,” Whiting wrote. “He compared baseball to Bushido, the way of the Samurai in which only morally correct athletes could excel, and saw Zen ramifications in the sport.”

Tobita himself said, “The purpose of training is not health but the forging of the soul, and a strong soul is only born from strong practice. Student baseball must be the baseball of self-discipline, or trying to attain the truth, just as in Zen Buddhism.”

In order to attain this truth, Japanese baseball became known for its draconian work ethic. High school players must practice for hours every day, year round. Not long ago, errors in a game were penalized with corporal punishment, and losing teams would endure hours of exhausting post-game drills. Professional players arrive at spring training in late January and engage in intense drills from dawn to dusk. After a brief dinner break, they reassemble for evening workouts.  Marathon drills, known as nagekomi, require pitchers to throw hundreds of pitches each day. Similarly, batters are expected to take a minimum of 1,000 swings each day. In high school, the regimen can be even more intense.

In last year’s Koshien tournament, for example, a 16-year-old star pitcher named Tomohiro Anraku pitched every game in leading his team to the championship. That amounted to 772 pitches over five games in nine days!  Some observers called this treatment “child abuse,” but Anraku is a budding star for whom the highest expectations are held. Not surprisingly, many young pitchers suffer career-ending arm and shoulder injuries, but the Japanese believe that intense practice regimens are the key to success.  The Japanese are quick to point out that there have been far fewer Tommy John (UCL reconstruction) surgeries for their pitchers than for hurlers in the U.S.

One dedicated practitioner of such tactics was Tetsuharu Kawakami, a star player in his own right in post-war Japan and later the legendary manager of the Yomiuri Giants, Japan’s answer to the New York Yankees. Under Kawakami, the Giants won 11 Japan Series championships in 14 years, including nine in a row from 1965 to 1973. According to Whiting, Kawakami created a widely copied managerial philosophy called kanri yakyu (controlled or managed baseball) that combined Zen Buddhist principles with Machiavellian tactics.

As a manager, Kawakami took over his players’ lives, on and off the field. He instructed players’ wives what to cook and feed their husbands and told them to shut off the TV sets in the evening so they would get enough sleep.

“In spring camp, he established a taxing dawn-to-dusk regimen of practice, including at its extreme 1,000-fungo drills, 100-fly drills and marathon runs,” Whiting wrote. “It was an approach that was termed karada de oboeru (learn by the body) in Japanese, designed to teach muscle memory through constant repetition, but also to build fighting spirit by teaching players to reach and surpass their physical limits.”

Kawakami believed in corporal punishment, and discourteous players were hit on the back and legs with bamboo sticks. Deeply influenced by Zen teachings, he instituted pre-game meetings and post-game hansei-kai (self-reflection conferences) “where criticism and fines were handed out and extra practice ordered next morning for those players who had done particularly badly during the day’s game,” Whiting explained.

And it was through Zen that Kawakami viewed his place in the world. “Through Zen I was able to see myself and the world in a different perspective,” he told Whiting. “It helped me realize how insignificant I was as an individual and how much I was indebted to others.”

Indeed, under Kawakami, everything was connected, and he believed that even such a star player as Japanese homerun king Sadaharu Oh could perform at such a high level only because of his teammates, who helped him by getting on base and by bunting (a popular tactic in Japanese baseball) runners into scoring position for Oh.  Oh bought into Kawakami’s philosophy and liked to sign his autographs with the word doryoku, which means effort.

American players who journeyed to Japan at the end of their careers to make a bit more money and continue playing were often overwhelmed by such a culture and environment. Most failed to adapt and returned to the U.S.  The few gaijin (foreigners — each team is now allowed four gaijin on its roster) who found success struggled with the harsh regimen.

Sportswriter Kennichi Ishida wrote that Americans simply didn’t understand the true ramifications of the heavy workload. “They are purely mental,” Ishida wrote. “Yes, they do wear a player out but that is necessary in order to develop his spirit. Athletics is essentially an act of will. You can always do more than you think you are capable of.”

The More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same

According to Don Nomura, a former player in Japan and now an agent for Japanese players, the 12 teams in Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball league have evolved over time, but “nothing has really changed.”  Players remain under intense pressure to adhere to the Japanese game’s traditions, and the owners, in essence, each representing a big corporation, retain tremendous control over the players’ lives (see sidebar).

Meanwhile, the attention and excitement focused on Japanese players in the U.S. remains at a fever pitch. Some see great irony in this development.

Shihoko Goto, the senior Northeast Asia associate at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, spoke about the paradox. “It’s interesting,” she said. “If you watch the nighttime news in Japan, what gets featured in the sports segments are the Japanese players in the U.S. So the Japanese are actually celebrating the individual who took the risk, left the culture, the food and family behind to go the U.S., and did well. It’s been a source of tremendous pride in Japan.”

Goto suggested that the nation’s long period of economic decline over the past two decades after the go-go “Japan Inc.” decade of the 1980s has had a significant impact on Japanese attitudes about traditional values. “The Japanese have had a lot of introspection about what it means to be Japanese,” Goto said. “Baseball defines what it means to be an excellent Japanese. It’s often not the collective but the individual who takes a risk and challenges the orthodoxy.”

Though plenty of Japanese “salarymen” still put in 70- and 80-hour workweeks, younger Japanese have begun to question the status quo.  Global communications, the Internet, social media, the influx of Western entertainment and ideas, and the inevitable impact all this has had on a new generation of Japanese are causing some tremors in Japanese society. “Unless Japanese values are changed and risk takers are rewarded and success is redefined, then Japan is not going to be competitive at all,” Goto stated.

In longstanding traditional arenas like baseball, however, social revolutions are tougher to unleash. The highest paid Japanese player makes less than $6 million a year, a pittance compared to the highest paid stars in the U.S.  The average salary is around $380,000, which is $120,000 less than the major league minimum salary in the U.S. Though Whiting acknowledges that there are talented players in Japan who could fit well in the American game, they remain restricted. The time period for international free agency is nine years. A “posting” system was established within the past decade to allow U.S. teams to pay large sums to Japanese teams for the right to negotiate with their players, but the team owner has to be willing to let that player leave.

As in the U.S., there is a players union in Japanese baseball, but according to Nomura, “the players association is impotent. It has never fought against ownership, never negotiated a labor agreement.”  The only players’ strike took place in 2004 and lasted two days.  It was such a shameful display of selfishness in the players’ own eyes that they couldn’t endure it.

“With all the changes over the years, there hasn’t been another strike,” Whiting said. “The players still don’t have the right to their own image; the team owns that. The team arranges endorsements for the players and takes a cut.”

Though it remains widely popular, there is evidence, not unlike in the U.S., that baseball’s allure is fraying a bit at the edges. More Japanese watch satellite broadcasts of MLB games with Japanese stars than those of local teams. Baseball is no longer the de facto water cooler topic every morning.  “The younger generation thinks baseball is too slow,” Whiting said. “They’re more into video games.”

But one thing that has not changed in Japanese baseball is the culture of selflessness. As Whiting wrote, “A player’s behavior is considered just as important as his batting average, and untoward behavior is viewed as bad for team morale and detrimental to the organization’s image. In Japan, a ‘real man’ is one who keeps his emotions to himself and thinks instead of others’ feelings.”

Baseball’s Bridge Builder

At 57, Don Nomura knows something about the Japanese game. Nomura grew up in Japan, the son of an American father and Japanese mother, and he played high-school baseball there. Nomura traveled to the United States for college, where he continued playing ball, and then returned to Japan, where he played for several years for the Yakult Swallows.

Nomura moved to Los Angeles in 1982, and, after a rash of career changes, eventually became a sports agent with a focus on Japanese players. But Nomura was astounded by the draconian reserve system that essentially bound Japanese players to their teams for a minimum of nine years. Fear of losing its elite players to America caused Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) to find ways to keep their top athletes at home. Though the bonds have loosened somewhat, it remains difficult for a Japanese star to emigrate.

In 1994, however, it seemed impossible. A pitcher named Masanori Murakami had played for two seasons for the San Francisco Giants in the early 1960s, but he was forced to return to Japan. It would be 30 years before another Japanese player changed into a Major League Baseball uniform.

Hideo Nomo, an ace pitcher for the Kintetsu Buffaloes, decided he had had enough. He wanted a chance to pitch against the elite players in the U.S. and earn the riches promised by the American game. He decided to challenge the Japanese system. He hired Nomura to be his agent, and Nomura uncovered a loophole in the reserve system that allowed a voluntarily retired player to go the U.S. At Nomura’s advice, Nomo, who had six more years before he could become eligible for a new deal, demanded a six-year $30 million package from the Buffaloes. Nomura was kicked out of the meeting. Agents are anathema to Japanese baseball, and in the mid-1990s, it was nearly heresy to show up with an agent by your side. Squabbling over contracts was simply not tolerated. But he and Nomo kept coming back with the same demand. Finally, the owner of the Buffaloes got fed up and told Nomo he could retire.

Nomo immediately signed with the Los Angeles Dodgers, and the Japanese media along with the public erupted with vitriol. Nomo was labeled a traitor who disrupted the harmony of the game. Detractors said Nomo was doomed to fail. But he had a strong will, and the criticism only made him more determined to succeed, which he did — spectacularly.

“Nomo was the right person at the right time,” Nomura said. “He showed a lot of guts going against the grain, and he was very strong-minded.”

And a funny thing happened. Nomo, using his signature corkscrew delivery and forkball, went 13 and 6 and won Rookie of the Year honors in 1995. And in Japan, the anger suddenly metamorphosed into nationalistic pride. Here was one of their own, showing he could compete and win against the vaunted Americans, and the Japanese loved nothing more than showing up the Americans. Fans in Tokyo gathered under giant Jumbotron screens to watch his games. Nomo went on to a successful 13-year career in which he led the National League in strikeouts in 1995 and pitched two no-hitters.

Authors

  • Glenn Rifkin

    Managing Editor, Korn Ferry Briefings