Japanese - US Baseball: The Meaning of Ichiro

The New Wave From Japan and the Transformation of our National Pastime by Robert Whiting

Book tickets to Japanese baseball games

Brad Quinn

After two books on baseball in Japan, The Chrysanthemum and the Bat and the classic You Gotta Have Wa, Japan-based, American author Robert Whiting shifts his focus to Japanese playing baseball in the American Major Leagues.

Like Whiting's other books, The Meaning of Ichiro succeeds as a sports history, a cross-cultural study and as pure entertainment.

Whiting's stated intention is to give readers a sense of the Japanese Major Leaguers as individuals. As he says, outside of Japan, little is known about these players other than their batting averages or ERAs.

And while some players profiled still remain somewhat elusive - especially the press-wary Nomo - a clear picture of the obstacles these players face in getting to the Major Leagues emerges.

Whiting also has a knack for digging up entertaining gossip, and while the bad behavior of Japanese ballplayers is mild in comparison to their American counterparts, the book's dirt-dishing helps to create well-rounded profiles.

Japanese Baseball Players in the USA

Among other fascinating tattle, the reader is treated to Ichiro's extra-marital liaisons in the U.S., including one broadcast via cell phone; Matsui Hideki's adult video trading habit; Sasaki Kazuhiro's womanizing, copious beer consumption and two-pack-a-day cigarette habit; Ishii Kasuhisa's general ambivalence towards baseball and three-pack-a-day cigarette habit, and Irabu Hideki's drinking binges and bust-ups with the press.

Of course there is much more to the book than dirt. There are informative chapters detailing the boyhoods and careers of Nomo, Matsui, and Irabu as well as more general chapters on foreign managers in Japan and the philosophical and cultural differences between baseball in Japan and America. But as the title suggests, the central figure here is Ichiro.

As Whiting makes clear, Ichiro is more than just a great Japanese player who has made a successful leap to the Major Leagues. Considering the often difficult relationship between the US and Japan, Ichiro represents something that had at one time seemed inconceivable to generations of Japanese, a full-fledged hero who was idolized by Americans themselves.

Despite his extraordinary impact, Ichiro was of course not the first Japanese player to make the Major Leagues, nor was Nomo. And in one of the book's most fascinating chapters, Whiting looks at the curious career of Japan's original Major League pioneer, Nankai Hawks/San Francisco Giants pitcher Murakami Masanori.

According to Whiting, there had been Major League interest in Japanese players at least as far back as 1935 when the Pittsburgh Pirates tried unsuccessfully to sign pitching legend Sawamura Eiji while the Tokyo Giants were on a tour of the US. But it wasn't until 1964 when a player exchange between the San Francisco Giants and the Nankai Hawks brought Murakami to the Majors.

Masanori Murakami

Murakami had been an unproven pitcher in the Japanese minor leagues when he was sent to train in the San Francisco Giants' farm system. However, in America Murakami excelled: He not only made the big league club in 1964 but was offered a contract for 1965, having become one of the Giants' best pitchers. Murakami eagerly signed with the National League team, but when he returned to Japan in the fall, he was persuaded by family and the Hawks to stay home.

The Giants claimed that Murakami was contractually obligated to come back, the Hawks maintained otherwise. After some international ill-will and some cultural bruising on both sides, eventually a compromise was struck where Murakami returned to San Francisco for the last part of 1966 before returning to Japan for good. A mediocre career awaited Murakami in Japan, and the one-time Major-Leaguer would later lament letting others determine the fate of his baseball career.

Bobby Valentine

As the chapter on Murakami illustrates, Whiting excels at finding pivotal moments of cultural miscommunication between America and Japan. And in what could be an addendum to You Gotta Have Wa, Whiting relates the colossal struggles former New York Mets manager Bobby Valentine's faced as a manager of the Lotte Marines of Japan's Pacific League.

From the start Valentine put up with constant front-office meddling and a coaching staff and team reluctant to adapt to an American practice style. In Valentine's view, three hours a day was practice enough. In the Japanese view, players should practice so hard that they urinated blood. Valentine felt, as have many American managers, that if over-practiced, teams would run out of steam before the season ended. In Japan, the only remedy for fatigue was more practice.

Despite leading a perennial last place team to a strong second-place finish, Valentine's contract was not renewed for the next year, with some in the organization saying that they had succeeded in spite of their American manager, not because of him. Many Lotte players, however, enjoyed playing for Valentine, saying that he made playing the game fun, a surprisingly novel concept in Japanese baseball. With strengthened relations between the Major Leagues and Japan's National Professional Baseball league (NPB), it remains to be asked why it took 30 years for someone to follow in Murakami's footsteps.

You Gotta Have Wa.

Whiting raises the possibility that there was little interest in Japanese players, who simply weren't regarded as good enough. He also considers that the Major Leagues may have feared losing players in a bidding war with the NPB during Japan's bubble economy. But most convincingly he says that it may be more a matter of the attitudes of the players themselves. It's not that Japanese players have suddenly become good enough to play in the U.S., rather that in light of a more internationalized Japan, they now have ambitions to play there.

It is hard to imagine what the Major Leagues will look like 30 years from now. Will there be as many Japanese players in the league as Latin American ones? Will there be a backlash against Japanese players defecting to the US? It is reasonable to think, considering the linguistic and cultural difficulties, that many Japanese players will be content just to play their national game. After all, Japanese baseball players can make quite a good living at home. Will baseball become a truly international game? Whiting mentions the intriguing possibility that an Asian champion, culled from a playoff between Japan, Taiwan and Korea, could enter into the Major League playoff system.

Whatever that developments in baseball over the next few years, hopefully Whiting will be back with another book on the Japanese game. As engaging as The Meaning of Ichiro is, you'll be ready for Whiting's next one as soon as you start it. It takes little longer to read than a certain Seattle right fielder takes to get out of the batter's box.

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