The Meaning of Ichiro: The New Wave from Japan and the Transformation of our National Pastime
by Robert Whiting
Warner Books. 272 pp. $25.95
The subtitle of this book conveys the provocative suggestion that Japanese players are taking over American baseball and, in so doing, just possibly bringing about its demise. But there is no need for alarm. Having lived in Japan for decades, Robert Whiting does display an unmistakable preference for both Japanese baseball and Japanese culture. Like the snobbish prep-school boy Carl Luce in The Catcher in the Rye, Whiting “simply happens to find Eastern philosophy more satisfactory than Western.” But his main message to American baseball fans is that it is time to pay notice to the Japanese game, and that message is well worth heeding.
Since 1995, almost two dozen Japanese have made their mark in the major leagues, and many more will surely follow. To explain how this has come about, Whiting undertakes both a history of Japanese baseball and an explanation of the unique philosophy behind it, born (he says) of Japan’s group-oriented culture. He also sets out to explore the consequences—the “meaning”—of the new wave of players, and to shed light on their lives and careers. All these topics are hung on the peg of the dazzling outfielder Ichiro Suzuki, now of the Seattle Mariners, who for Whiting as for millions of American fans is the preeminent symbol of the Japanese game.
Ichiro Suzuki was born in the industrial city of Nagoya. Raised chiefly by his father, a strict Buddhist and passionate baseball fan, the young Ichiro by his own count spent no more than five or six hours a year hanging out with his friends. Instead, his life was devoted to baseball, and this devotion paid off. In his three-year career at Meiden high school (a kind of baseball academy), he batted a sensational .502, striking out only ten times in 536 times at bat. After being drafted into Japan’s professional league, the NPB, he maintained this superb form, winning seven straight batting titles and earning the title “kaibutsu”—monster—from the Japanese press.
Ever since the mid-1990’s, when he destroyed the top American major-league pitchers Randy Johnson and Pedro Martinez in a series of exhibition matches, Ichiro had dreamed of playing in the U.S. In 2001, his wish was fulfilled. Although critics thought him too small for the American game, Ichiro rapidly proved them wrong. In his first year with the Mariners he was named Rookie of the Year and earned the American League’s MVP (most valuable player) award, hitting .350 and nearly toppling George Sisler’s record for the number of hits in a single season.
As Whiting notes, not only did Ichiro inspire the Mariners to achieve their best season ever, he also set off a veritable fever of Ichiro mania in Seattle. With stadium attendance skyrocketing, and Ichiro merchandise selling hand over fist, the wiry, impassive player became a hero to local fans—especially youngsters—who marveled at his deft base-running skills and exotic batting stance. Most important of all, perhaps, Ichiro prompted a change in his team’s playing style, transforming a group of lackadaisical sluggers into a scrappy and effective outfit.
For Whiting, it is hardly insignificant that Ichiro’s extraordinary rise to the top was fueled by something other than demonic ambition: namely, the steady, quiet dedication of a purist. Ichiro never celebrated a home run or a key hit by raising a pumped fist, never shed a tear or broke a bat after a bad night or otherwise loudly betrayed his emotions. In interviews with the press, he was restrained to the point of surliness. A typical response to a reporter’s question might run: “I’m working toward my own inner goals. As for what those goals are, I can’t tell you.”
Ichiro’s rise from homegrown star to major-league MVP is, for Whiting, a natural entry point to an exploration of broad cultural differences. Baseball, he writes, was brought to Japan by American missionaries during the relatively liberal era of the Meiji. At first, the game was admired for its quality of openness—the same quality many Japanese of the time associated with the West in general. Later on, however, and especially with the shift of political winds, it became transformed into a kind of home-style martial art, acquiring a strong emphasis on traditional virtues like developing stamina, improving konjo (fighting spirit), and perfecting orthodox form. Whiting calls this version of the game “bushido ball,” after Japan’s samurai code; it quickly became wildly popular, a sporting illustration of the doctrine that, with hard work and reliance on tradition, Japan could challenge Westerners at their own game.
Making little secret of where his own preferences lie, Whiting crisply summarizes the differences between the American and Japanese styles of baseball. Whereas American players enjoy leisurely practice schedules that allow much time for rest and recuperation, Japanese players train year-round, enduring harsh winters and endless drills. If American ballplayers stand on an almost equal footing with their coaches, deference to authority is key in Japan, where a coach may slap a player in the face for a bad performance. Americans play a loose, aggressive, free-swinging game in which the home run and clutch hit are all-important and the clubhouse philosophy is “whatever it takes to win”; Japanese, by contrast, play “small ball,” a style emphasizing bunting, stealing, sacrifice hitting, and team harmony (“wa”).
Given this state of affairs, it is no wonder that clashes have occurred as Japanese players have entered the American major leagues. Ichiro, for one, though amenable to the comparatively free style of American baseball, has tended at times to regard his teammates like a wealthy man looking down at a parvenu. “Theirs was the practice that made you wonder whether they could really play the game or not,” he once said. He was also shocked by the way the Americans treated equipment: “I couldn’t understand how my teammates could sit down on a glove I’d just cleaned and placed on the bench. . . . Cleaning the glove cleans the heart. It’s all part of a 24-hour process.”
The same sort of thing happens in mirror-image form when American players go to Japan to join the NPB. In one incident reported by Whiting, Darryl May an American pitcher not known for his tranquil temper, left team practice early one day complaining of a sore thigh. Stormed by caviling Japanese reporters who wondered if the soreness might be a fabrication, May spat on a photographer’s camera and unleashed a flurry of fakku words, luridly featured in the next day’s papers.
Anecdotes like these pepper The Meaning of Ichiro, lending credibility to Whiting’s rather broadly drawn contrasts. Still, the question remains: has the entry of Ichiro and his Japanese cohorts “transformed” the American game, as the subtitle insists?
On this crucial point, Whiting’s enthusiasm for Japanese baseball seems to have gotten the better of him. In his racy, colorful style, he vividly conveys how not just Ichiro but other players like Hideki Matsui and Hideo Nomo have turned major-league baseball into a truly international enterprise. But with the exception of Ichiro’s unusually impressive 2001 season, the facts do not suggest anything like a transformation.
By early June of this year, Japanese players considered as a whole were doing respectably but hardly dazzlingly Ichiro was way ahead of the others, batting .338 and leading the American League in hits (76); Hideki Matsui, the Yankees slugger, stood at .320 with nine home runs; and the Dodgers pitcher Hideo Nomo had a disappointing earnedrun average of 7.13 and a win-loss record of 3-5. Meanwhile, Barry Bonds, an exemplar of our easygoing, free-ranging American game, was batting a powerful .365 with fourteen home runs; Scott Rolen was hitting .348 with thirteen home runs and a league-leading 53 runs batted in; and Manny Ramirez, an even looser and more aggressive player than Bonds, stood at .356 with fourteen home runs and 39 runs batted in.
By such measures, the American style of baseball is alive and well. Indeed, if a transformation is going on, one might be equally tempted to propose that it is running in the other direction: Japan’s players are coming to America and learning to play our game, our way. It would require another, subtler book to explain whether that is for better or for worse, or something in between.