Life is a Metaphor for Baseball

by zunguzungu

So, Japanese baseball is an experience. So is visiting the Hiroshima A-bomb museum. But I’ll start with the baseball.

Five years after that half-bombed out city was turned into the absence of a city, the government decided to start a baseball team in Hiroshima to help rebuild public spirit, and they named it the Hiroshima Carp. For years, the Your Hiroshima Carp really, really sucked, so much so that the central league passed a rule that any team who finished under .300 would be disbanded and merged with another, the Taiyo Whales. The rule was transparently aimed at eliminating the bottom-feeding Carp, but fate intervened, they managed to squeak by and finish at .316, and instead it was the hapless Shochiko Robins who were gutted and sold for parts.

Eventually, the Carp managed to get a corporate sponsor (becoming the Hiroshima Toyo Carp) and with the help of the Japanese Cal Ripken, somehow managed to be good for a while, around the years I was born, even winning some championships. They changed their hat to a C that looks like the Cincinnati reds (instead of an H) and they adopted red pinstripes that look like the Phillies’ uniforms used to.

One of the things you should notice right away when watching a game (but don’t, because it looks normal to your gaijin eyes) is that the uniforms have the player names in Romaji, the roman style script. Maeda, Okuda, Ogata, etc. In Japan, of course, there is nothing unusual about wearing romaji letters on your t-shirt; I would estimate that, about half the Japanese people I’ve seen since I’ve been here were, at the time I saw them, wearing on their body an article of clothing with English words on them. That’s no exaggeration, really; while a few Americans wear Kanji words they don’t understand, as tattoos and on t-shirts and so forth, its nothing like this.

But then most Americans have not been occupied by a foreign power during a period in which their entire society was reconstructed. In contrast to the half-assed (perhaps quarter-assed?) job that our government is doing in Iraq, the MacArthur years in postwar Japan were a time when the military was actually invested in actually winning hearts and minds. If you can make a map of British cultural imperialism by following the spread of cricket, is Japan is a place where the popularity of baseball marks some kind of American imperialist touch?

Maybe; but it turns out that the history is more complicated. Babe Ruth and other American baseball players were touring Japan long before there were marines at Okinawa (Gehrig said they had good fielders and pitchers but no good hitters and there’s a great old picture of Babe Ruth playing in the rain with a dainty Geisha-style umbrella). Heck, there were leagues of Japanese-American baseball players playing Japanese style baseball in California back when it was still specifically against the law for Japanese to become citizens of the US. And although the game was first introduced in Japan by Americans in 1872, that’s long enough ago that at this point the Japanese have basically been playing besuboru pretty much as long as we Americans have playing baseball; someone once said that the Japanese were lucky to have been given the game by Americans, but that if they hadn’t, they would have invented it themselves.

Now why is that? One thing you sure can’t deny is that the Japanese do love them some nine-innings of playing on a field with sticks and leather-bound balls. You know the cheering section at a really pumped soccer game, with its drums, cheerleaders, and constant noise? That’s the whole freaking stadium, for five hours. I’ve never seen an American baseball game with half the raucousness of that crowd as the Bay Stars drubbed the Carp 8-4, neither team particularly good or noteworthy. God help you if you want to get tickets to see the Tokyo Giants.

So a lot of ink has been spilled trying to explain baseball in Japan, for Americans who think that such a thing needs to be explained. Robert Whiting has written a few really well received books about it, You Gotta Have Wa, which I read, and The Chrysanthemum and the Bat, which I’ve only heard about. But I’m highly suspect of a lot of it; The Chrysanthemum and the Bat, for example, takes its title from Ruth Benedict’s book The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, an extremely influential book that, although it continues to be well read, has been quite thoroughly critiqued as an essentializing and basically uninformed collection of WWII mythology about a defeated enemy. Benedict never set foot in Japan and put forward a vision of Japanese culture (constructed by interviews with Japanese informants) that emphasized how totally alien Japanese culture was from American culture, how complete and total the disconnect was, and so the effect of reading it is to constantly be told first what Americans are like and then what Japanese are like: Americans love freedom and are individualistic, while the Japanese just love to be told what to do, to put it most crudely and probably do a disservice to Benedict.

Robert Whiting’s You Gotta Have Wa replicates this basic presumption of essential difference through the lens of baseball. He writes: “The Japanese view of life, stressing group identity, cooperation, hard work, respect for age, seniority and “face” has permeated almost every aspect of the sport. Americans who come to play in Japan quickly realize that Baseball Samurai Style is different.” So the book jumps from vignette to vignette in which polite, respectful, and cold Japanese baseball players are confronted with tempestuous, uninhibited, individualistic Americans, to mutual dismay and incomprehension on all sides. But while there are clearly some differences between how the Japanese game is played and the American (two that I noticed were extremely conservative baserunning and outfielders that are positioned deep to cut off extra base hits but consequently allowing a lot more singles to drop), the thesis of basic and fundamental difference seems to run into the very simple problem that baseball is one game that both countries identify themselves with quite strongly. So although Whiting sometimes seems to be quite Benedictian in his pronouncements, he is also constantly confronting us withmaterial that doesn’t fall neatly into its place. A Japanese baseball player going out drinking and, at the end of the night, taking two hundred practice swings while almost falling down drunk, for example, is interesting precisely because it’s neither hot nor cold, neither what people like Benedict tried to establish as either the American or the Japanese character. The book, quite frankly, is interesting precisely because it doesn’t quite fit a Benedictian thesis: there are American baseball players who seem to fit in quite well, and there are flamboyant Japanese baseball players that fit all the American baseball player standards. Plus, the very fact that there are American baseball players in Japan at all (that Japanese fans really like watching them) seems to indicate that “the Japanese” are of at least two minds about the whole gaijin player experiment.

So, I am much more interested in the approach of a Yale professor, William Kelley, who has suggested that instead of trying to understand how “we” are different than the Japanese, it makes more sense to try to understand why and how the Japanese are different from each other. Because it came to Japan as an American game, playing it “Japanese” style was a way for the Japanese to declare their independence from a West whose long shadow had been looming over Japan ever since Mathew Perry showed up in Japan with a bunch of really nasty, deadly ships and let the Shogunate know that they could either open up their economy or he would burn Tokyo to the ground. As Kelley writes, “Like its American counterpart, Japanese baseball embodies a history; it too has a very consequential institutional structure, and it is full of power struggles and divided interests and paradoxical star players. As we have seen in this course, there is great concern in Japan today about ethnicity, about the aims of education in a competitive age, about dangerous corporate concentrations, and about limiting of demands of the group on the individual. Baseball is not a window onto a homogenous and unchanging national character, but it is a fascinating site for seeing how these national debates and concerns play out—just as it is in the United States.”

And that’s the thing. There is no ”Japanese” culture, except insofar as the Japanese state has been working very hard to make and remake what it means to be Japanese for a long time. The way that white people often believe that such a thing as “white people” exists in any real sense is the same way that the Japanese believe that everyone there is ethnically “Japanese”: they’re wrong in the scientific sense, but the fact that everyone has agreed to be wrong is significant. A lot of work, a lot of political force, and a lot of social engineering (not allowing children to speak their parents’ languages and so forth) had to go into producing a people who thought they were Japanese and had forgotten all the reasons why that might not be true. Ruth Benedict made the cardinal error that a lot of anthropologists fall into, where she asked a few people to tell her what their culture was all about, and when they told her, she forget that the people talking probably had their own agendas (not to mention that her work was sponsored by the state department and had its own agenda). The Japanese culture she wrote down, one in which everyone does what they’re told because they’re loyal servants of the emperor, fearing nothing more than dissent, was exactly what the Japanese state had worked incredibly hard to bring about, and liked to believe they had brought about.

Had they? I sure as hell don’t know. But I do know that they like baseball a lot, and always have, and you don’t have to read too much baseball writing to hear a lot of clichés about how it fits the American character because it’s a basically individualistic sport. So which is it? Individualistic or team-oriented? Maybe what’s most interesting about baseball (and socially significant) is the way it manages to be both.

In the A-bomb museum, there was a map that mentioned something about how, in 1889, Hiroshima was formed out of 16 or so smaller villages and that, to me, is a good emblem of how such things were done: tell people that the way they’ve been thinking of themselves for years is wrong, that they’re actually a part of something much bigger, then fill that big thing with an ideological content: “Hey you there! You’re not a citizen of Tomashin village! You live in Hiroshima! And you’re Japanese! And, to boot, there’s this guy who’s your emperor, and he’s a god! Now lets go kill some Koreans!”

That, as far as my limited understanding of the century-long lead-up to the pacific war (which started for the Koreans and the Chinese much earlier than it did for the people of the United States), is how a peaceful Buddhist people were transformed into a country of insane warmongers. By the time they launched an attack from a captured British colony on an American colony (Hawaii was made a state in 1959), the entirety of the Japanese people (or close enough) had been convinced, by hook and crook, first that they were Japanese people (many, like in Hokkaido, had to be convinced with a great deal of force) and then of the need to acquire colonies just like the West had done. As they expanded into areas controlled by the Dutch and the British in the late thirties (they had taken Korea from the Russians and Taiwan from China years ago), the Japanese military government realized that they were on a collision course with the US, whose alliance with the great European colonial powers would make war inevitable. Both sides, in fact, recognized this at the time. So they bombed the crap out of an American military base on what local nationalists then called (and some still do) occupied Hawaii, and things got busy for a while.

And then, out of the clear blue sky, the Americans bombed Hiroshima in retaliation. That was a very bad thing, and if you want to be convinced of how bad it was, if you want to be numbed into a hushed muteness where it feels like breathing is an affront to the dead, well, there’s a museum in Hiroshima that will cater to your desire.

What the museum will not do so well is explain why they did that. And so, there have been a lot of complaints from Americans affronted by the way the bombing of Hiroshima sullied the Greatest Generation’s good, clean war, and some petulant demands for the Hiroshima museum to explain exactly why they had to drop that bomb. After all, don’t people realize that we had to bomb them back into the stone age, to make the world safe for democracy? Don’t they realize that those crazy Japs, you know, would have just kept fighting unless we did it? It was a merciful thing to do, don’t you know!

Such people, who imagine a ravening mob of Japanese people who will fight to the death because they’re just crazy like that, not coincidentally, tend to like the Ruth Benedict method of thinking about “culture,” where everyone in a culture is basically the same. And such people don’t like to be reminded that, two long years before Germany surrendered, FDR’s people had already been busy making plans for how they would deploy their new toy, had long decided that they weren’t going to use the bomb on German soil against Nazi’s but were going to bomb one of five Japanese cities, Hiroshima and Nagasaki being two of them. Long before any of the strategic considerations that people use to defend the decision to drop the bomb came into play, the decision had been made.

And such people are right to be offended by such museums, because it does put the lie to such claims when you see scorched lunchboxes and pictures of not-yet-dead radiation victims. People who want to use history to make war justified find it a little more difficult to do that when there is blood in the room. Tell someone in Hiroshima that there was anything good about the dropping the A-bomb on their city, that anything good can come of that obscenity. Go ahead. When you’re standing in that room looking at bloody smocks, watches that stopped at 8:15, pieces of scorched hair and fingernails, and all that, you feel the inadequacy, even inappropriateness of language.

Which is not to say that Americans complaining about bad history telling don’t have a point; everyone is reading history selectively and the museum is no exception. The text in the museum likes to emphasize the victims who were schoolchildren, but you can’t help noticing that those children were not dying in schools but had been conscripted into demolition crews because wooden buildings were deemed to be fire hazards for allied bombs. They weren’t in school—they were destroying their schools; they weren’t schoolchildren—they were eight year old soldiers. Whether or not Japanese civilians were going to fight with pitchforks and rocks on the beaches or not is really impossible to know, but a lot of the Japanese government’s efforts to make them do just that got read out of the record.

But the biggest thing that doesn’t get talked about is Japan’s colonial history. The A-bomb just seems to come out of nowhere, a bolt from the heavens hurled down simply because the Americans chose to. And when Ruth Benedict talks about a Japanese culture, she can’t talk about colonialism because the first Japanese colony wasn’t Korea or Taiwan, it was Japan. And although Whiting talks a great deal about intercultural relations between Americans and Japanese, I wish he would make more of the fact that Sadaharu Oh, Japan’s greatest baseball player, was born Wang Chenchih, and that, because he was born to a Chinese father, has never acquired Japanese citizenship.


There’s an article in the New York Times today about the fledgling Brazilian national baseball team. Here’s an excerpt:

“Baseball came here, in contrast to other Latin American countries, not from the United States but from Japan. Brazil has the largest population of Japanese descent of any country outside Japan, about two million people, and baseball has traditionally been played primarily, if not exclusively, in the three states where the bulk of the Japanese community has settled.

“As a result, 16 of the 20 players on the team that will compete in Rio de Janeiro are of Japanese ancestry. But even those with no Japanese blood have learned the game with the names used in Japanese for positions and plays, and whenever Manager Mitsuyoshi Sato talks to the team, his players address him as sensei and bow respectfully when he finishes his remarks.”