Hitting from Outside the Box with Japan in Mind

Reactions losing high school baseball game Japan 396378

“My understanding is that the elderly demographic has increased dramatically in Japan, and that many old folks are so desperately lonely because of the radical social changes which have taken place that some have resorted to getting themselves arrested and put in jail in order to have human contact. They’re going to have to really think outside the box in Nippon now.”  — Richard Martin Oxman, drawing upon a recent report

“…the batter is expected to keep at least one foot inside the box throughout his time at bat.” — from the Major League Baseball rule book.

Thirty years ago this month I left Osaka, Japan, after teaching ESL to Ministry of Finance students, and workers at Mitsubishi, Sumitomo and many other corporations for two years. I can remember clearly going to lunch with five women from Nippon a week before my departure, and observing them ordering… patiently waiting through their hesitations, as they dealt with their individual insecurities. None of them felt comfortable ordering without knowing what the others were going to have for lunch first.

It all reminded me of the Japanese saying, “The nail that sticks out will get hammered down.” A frown came to my face, I’m sure, and they must have noticed because they finally made their individual decisions — three ordering the same dish, the other two sharing something else on the menu — enabling me to place my order before I starved.

Seriously, group think in Japan is still very much in vogue. [Pause.] I should say, in the blood and bones of one and all… causing all kinds of problems these days. [Pause.] And it’s no fun writing about, believe me. It’s scary, in fact. The inclination to think collectively in Nippon extends to all aspects of life, but — for the purposes of this article — I’m going to address how it manifests in sports.

Until recently, baseball has been the most popular sporting import in Japan — and a perfect example of Japan’s expertise at cultural absorption. The Japanese have played baseball since 1873, the country fielded its first professional league in 1936, and since the American occupation at the end of the Second World War, it has overwhelmingly been the country’s favorite sport, amazingly toppling even Sumo wrestling.

Baseball may be an American game, but the Japanese have transformed it into something completely their own… as they usually do with just about everything it borrows from abroad. After playing for the Yakult Swallows in 1987, Bob Horner said, “I don’t know if the Japanese system is good or not. I just don’t understand it.” I heard that sort of thing a lot from Westerners back in the day.

The fundamental disconnect Horner and other Westerners attempting to play in Japan have grappled with is this: sport in Japan has really never been about having fun. It has always been a tool for education and cultural indoctrination. According to Suishu Tobita, the early twentieth-century godfather of Japanese baseball, “Baseball is more than just a game. It has eternal value. Through it, one learns the beautiful and noble spirit of Japan.” Japanese baseball has never been a mere pastime with which to waste away lazy summer afternoons; it’s a method of learning and expressing perseverance, self-discipline and other national virtues. [Actually, U.S. sports function — to a great degree — along the same lines… with an emphasis on preparation for the support of militarism.]

With militarism outlawed after the Second World War, baseball became a crucial part of Japan’s postwar reconstruction. It was the best available means for teaching youngsters Bushido — the way of the warrior. In practice sessions, coaches still emphasize samurai virtues of loyalty and selflessness and respect, self-control and stoicism. High school, minor league and even Japan’s top level professional teams undergo punishing workout schedules, subscribing to the belief that strength is forged only through extreme suffering.

The “no pain, no gain” mantra is now serving some strange bedfellows. Don’t think for a minute that the psychological dynamic which — these days — allows for both torture and living with fabricated limbs for a patriotic cause is not related to serving the national agenda mindlessly… on automatic… manifesting unquestioning obeisance to self-serving secular abominations.

I’m talking about how the thrust of Japanese baseball has definitely prepared the nation to contravene (the anti-war) Article 9 of its constitution …so that it can fall into line as a proper little bulldog (in the capacity that the UK already serves) respecting the U.S.A.’s agenda for full spectrum dominance.

Baseball’s militarism-by-other-means proved ideal training for young men destined to join the suit-and-tie ranks responsible for Japan’s postwar economic miracle. Filled with a sense of mission, Japan’s top university graduates headed straight for government bureaucracies, big banks and export manufacturers to become foot soldiers in the nation’s economic reconstruction.

The sacrifices they made were tremendous. Every day, middle managers at the Ministry of Finance, Mitsubishi Heavy, Sumitomo Trading and thousands of similar concerns would awake at dawn in their tiny suburban homes and ride to work for an hour or an hour and a half. Once there, they would sing the company song, do the company exercises and put in a ten- or twelve-hour day in fluorescent-lit offices where the desks were crammed side by side, from wall to wall. All very much in the spirit that Americans sing the national anthem at ballparks. With chills running up and down the spine, in some cases.

The two years I was in Osaka, Kobe and Tokyo, workers (my students) — after business hours — would drink late into the night with coworkers, catch the last train home at around midnight, and get a few hours sleeping before waking up at dawn to do it all over again. In return, Japan’s blue-suited sararimen, as they are still known, were guaranteed lifetime employment, annual raises, a comfortable pension and the prestige of being a member of the most efficient economic machine the world has ever seen. And for a long time, that was enough. Even blocked out, it seemed, how the U.S. had so recently blocked out the Sun.

On weekends and evenings, the salaryman was expected to root for one of the nation’s twelve professional baseball teams. Often he would join his favorite team’s oendan, or cheering groups. At first sight, oendan are impressive for their seemingly unbridled enthusiasm and highly coordinated cheers, songs and bleacher dances. But they also can be stultifyingly regimented: there are leaders and lieutenants, seating is ordered by rank and seniority, dress codes are enforced and tardiness punished. Anal retentive hot dogs, anyone?

On the field, meanwhile, the “salaryman” sees a person not so different from himself since Japanese ballplayers are not much more than salarymen themselves. Japanese teams are owned by giant corporations, as major sports teams are throughout the rest of the world. But in Japan, baseball clubs are not expected to make money. They serve primarily as advertising and publicity vehicles. For that reason, teams like the Giants are generally named not after their hometowns (in this case, Tokyo) but for their owner (Yomiuri, Japan’s largest newspaper). Other teams include the Orix Buffaloes (financial services), the Hanshin Tigers (railways), the Yakult Swallows (beverages) and the Nippon Ham Fighters (meat packers).

But something horrible happened on Japan’s way to the twenty-first-century global economic domination. After decades of world-leading growth, the Japanese money engine slowed to a sputter in the early 1990s. Stock prices plummeted and property values cratered. The Japanese Bubble didn’t so much deflate as explode and then vanish into thin air.

The country has only now — relatively recently — emerged from economic stagnation, its stock market remaining far off its all-time high, its government bonds less creditworthy than Botswana’s at times, and the lifetime employment that was once considered a Japanese birthright has been replaced by routine layoffs and chronic job insecurity midst a myriad of unprecedented social ills and environmental challenges that are, arguably, the most daunting in world history.

Soccer is well on its way to becoming a sign of a rejuvenated and dynamic Japan — a symbol for the new as potent as baseball is for the increasingly old and tired way of Japan, Inc.– for, it is argued, an era that’s a lot more uncertain and plenty scary, but also far looser, more creative and a lot more fun.

But, no. Let’s not play games right now. The Situation begs us to be honest. Much more honest than Nippon’s lying leaders who have been covering up the truth about Fukushima with the complicity of U.S. politicians and corporations. I won’t give you a link to the ongoing abomination that is Fukushima; I ask you to research that thoroughly, though. For I want you, at this particular moment, to take the little time you (may) have (left) to consider that if Japan militarizes fully — let alone secures nuclear weapons! — the ballgame will be over. Daunting odds, wild pitches coming your way daily.

Just remember that it’s your turn at bat, and everything’s riding on your next shot. [Pause.] Maybe you’re going to have to hit — really nail it! — from outside the box.

Valleria Ruselli is a member of the Oxman Collective. She can be reached at [email protected].


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