In Monday's post, I mentioned that I sometimes found Japanese baseball hard to understand. While the rules and fundamentals are the same, it's a little hard to follow some of the differences. Where we know the New York Yankees play in New York...the most visible Japanese team is the Yomiuri Giants (the team that Sadaharu Oh played with in the 1960s and 70s), and they play in Tokyo. Rather than the city/team designation we use here, the Japanese baseball teams are named after corporate sponsors. So, the Tokyo team is named after the Yomiuri media conglomerate. It would be the same as the pre-Steinbrenner Yankee team being referred to as the CBS Yankees.
Since the best-known team in the league is owned by a large media conglomerate, it's safe to say that information about them is manipulated to fit whatever image the corporation wants to project. In the United States, sportswriters covering teams have an influence because they can write whatever they want; in Japan, that behavior can lead to being banned from the park. Therefore, much of what is available about the game in Japan is close to propaganda.
As part of gaining a better understanding, I picked up the following book:
I also mentioned in Monday's post that the book's author (Robert Fitts) is an old card trading buddy of mine from several years ago. He sent me a copy of his book for two reasons. First, after I asked him about this card I posted here in June, I said I'd love to find out some more information about that part of the game. Second, as a guy who writes a blog, he likely figured I'd let others know what I found.
Rather than writing a book about the history of the game in Japan, Fitts presents the book as an oral history, as told by 25 former players, managers and executives from the NPB (Japan's major league). Some of the people were Japanese natives, while others were American players who went over. By giving several interviews and weaving the answers together, the result is a narrative that tells about a game that is similar to us, but surrounded by a different culture halfway around the world. In essence, the story stretches from the weariness of a war-torn nation around 1950 to the late 1990s, the period where Japanese players could make their way to the United States to play. The first few stories mention how things were after the war, while the last one mentions Ichiro.
There were several stories about getting used to a different culture. Some American players told about how Japanese umpires used different strike zones with them than they did with Japanese players. Some explained how different managers' styles were. Many explained fighting homesickness. A few, especially at the beginning, explained that there was a general lack of trust; understandable, considering the fact that just a few years before that, these same people were bitter enemies. However, there's a measure of respect as well. Many eagerly named which Japanese players could have made it in the major leagues. Most had a very favorable opinion of their time there.
Remembering Japanese Baseball is a good place to gain some understanding about the men who played the sport. It's not being presented as a full report, or even as a "tell-all" story like the ones that frequently come out about the American game.While it sometimes seems as if it's a nostalgic trip taken by when old-timers begin telling their old Army stories, in a way it's also a glimpse of what it's like to be immersed in a culture that is totally alien; the rules are the same but the pace, the practice, the work ethic and the crowds are very different.
Should you get a desire to raed more about Japanese baseball, here's another book worth picking up:
You Gotta Have Wa was written in 1980 by Robert Whiting (who also wrote the forward for Remembering Japanese Baseball). Wa is team spirit, which some Japanese critics say is lacking in the American game. The book gives a broader history of the game in Japan and perhaps a better understanding of the Japanese way of playing. That said, consider adding both of these books to your reading list.