The Meaning of Ichiro
A rifle for an arm. A gazelle's
speed. A locomotive's power. Indeed, the scouting report on
Captain in his minor league days was impressive. The Hall
of Fame never came calling, however, as the bottle was easier
to hit than the strike zone.
later the Captain finds himself throwing strikes against one
of Japan's most respected foreign authors, Robert Whiting,
and his new book The Meaning of Ichiro. So don't get too comfortable
in the box, the Captain is coming with some serious heat high
As the only foreigner working
in a Japanese company in the '70s, author Robert Whiting was
puzzled by a number of peculiarities: unpaid overtime, 60-hour
work weeks, daily meetings with nothing to discuss, and unions
that never went on strike.
Soon Whiting realized that similar anomalies
existed in Japanese baseball as well. "Baseball teams
had something called 'voluntary training' that was compulsory,"
he explained last week during a speech for his latest book
The Meaning of Ichiro at the Foreign Correspondents' Club
It was soon after that he discovered that his
complaints to management at his company on these issues were
the same as those American baseball players made to their
Japanese managers and coaches. The responses both parties
received were identical as well: you don't understand anything
about Japanese wa, or group harmony.
Chrysanthemum and the Bat, which was initially
turned down by thirteen publishers before its release in 1977,
was Whiting's first attempt at using the baseball and bat
to explain foreigners' endless battles in understanding the
concept of wa.
Nearly three decades - and three books - later
he's still swinging for the fences. The Meaning of Ichiro
documents Japan's recent baseball pioneers who have defected
to the major leagues. The meaning of which, Whiting argues,
has been the tremendous sense of local pride instilled in
the Japanese people and the narrowing of the gap of understanding
between Japan and America.
"An electric grip on the United States"
is how Whiting described Ichiro Suzuki's amazing first year
with the Seattle Mariners in 2001, a season in which he batted
.350 on his way to winning the American League MVP and Rookie
of the Year awards.
The slick right fielder, who was also awarded
a Gold Glove, became the first everyday player to achieve
success in the major leagues, capping a Japanese movement
that essentially began with pitcher Hideo Nomo's spectacular
Rookie of the Year campaign in 1995.
As a result, Whiting said, "there is a
new-found respect, a new type of respect for Japanese as individuals,
as human beings. People have stopped looking at Japanese as
creators of products."
The initial chapters of Ichiro focus on the
making of Ichiro, from the relentless training imposed upon
him by his father on up through his debut in the big leagues.
His father's upbringing of his son is provided
in all of its intensity: there is Ichiro taking 250 swings
at the Nagoya "Airport Batting Center" until 11
p.m. each night from the age of seven; there is the "life
or death" drill in which Ichiro was required to hit balls
to the right or left of his father as he delivered pitches
from a mere six feet away; and there is the story of his father
angrily firing baseballs at Ichiro as he sat on the diamond
in protest of the excessive work load.
Interviewing Ichiro was a challenge, Whiting
remembered. Finding out as much about his subject beforehand
was vital. "By the time I was ready to talk to him I
knew more about him than he did," Whiting said of his
prep work, which in addition to reading most of the 30 books
written on his subject involved talking to beat writers who
covered Ichiro's former Orix Blue Wave team and visiting the
museum dedicated to Ichiro near his hometown in Nagoya. "I
really had him down cold."
First there was the matter of gaining access
to this notoriously unapproachable star, which Whiting accomplished
by pulling a number of strings within his media contacts.
Then there was the intimidation. Of Ichiro's traveling entourage,
he said, "interviewing him was like interviewing Elvis."
When Whiting mentioned to Ichiro in Japanese
(as his interviews were conducted) how his father in his autobiography
described their training sessions as being simply father-son
bonding, Whiting said that Ichiro responded in English: "He's
a liar." Then he added in Japanese: "That bordered
on child abuse."
Ichiro provides lesser-known highlights and
scandals of Ichiro's first season as well. Who knew, for example,
that Ichiro was thought by some to have used steroids just
prior to his first season in Seattle?
Some aspects of the book, however, are a bit
difficult to completely digest. Of the impact of Ichiro's
first season, Whiting writes: "Twenty years earlier,
most Seattleites had not even known what sushi
was. Now they were eating it at the ballpark and shouting
'gambare,' along with other demotic Japanese phrases of encouragement.
It was no small achievement."
While perhaps true to some extent, such broad strokes make for skeptical
reading. As well, the retelling of the rigors of the Japanese
baseball training programs, which comprised a large part of
Whiting's earlier work You Gotta Have Wa, seems excessive.
Even though perspective is necessary to demonstrate that Japanese
players are trained by different means (the philosophy of
bushido, or the way of the samurai) as opposed to their Western
counterparts, the same tales of the overworking of the players
- like the "Thousand Fungo Drill" - are all here
for the reader to relive again. The same is true of the inclusion of recent examples of foreign players struggling to adjust to Japan's wa-based culture. While interesting, this theme has been presented before and does not help Whiting develop the premise of this book.
These small faults can be overlooked because
Ichiro shines in its revelations. The chapter on the ultimate
wa-buster, Hideo Nomo, and his agent Don Nomura, who exploited
a contract loophole that allowed Nomo to leave Japan, is truly
The ragged beginnings in the United States
of Don Nomura, who was born in Japan to a Japanese mother
and American father, as an employee in a dodgy Los Angeles
hotel and eventually a minor-league team owner in Salinas,
California are supplied in colorful detail. (It was this minor
league team that would be used for training Japanese players
like Mac Suzuki.)
Though Ichiro garners the book's title, Whiting
acknowledged that Nomo is the true pioneer of this movement.
"Without him there wouldn't be an Ichiro," Whiting
said of Nomo's bold move nearly a decade ago. "I think
they should build a statue of him at Narita Airport."
Tigers fan himself, the New
Jersey-born Whiting evenly tempers the book with positives
and negatives with regard to the way the game is played on
both sides of the Pacific. The Epilogue touches upon the difficulty
the Japanese game is facing in light of its recent decrease
popularity, with departing stars being a major factor. (A
merger between the Pacific League's Orix Blue Wave and Kintetsu
Buffaloes is currently being discussed.)
To Whiting, if it continues, the owners of
the teams only have themselves to blame. Given that there
are 4,000 high schools across Japan playing baseball, the
major problems are the fact that only single-team farm systems
exist for all clubs and teams are operated more for promotional
benefit of the controlling company's name rather than with
any long-term profit as a goal.
"The fundamental problem with Japanese
baseball is that it is not run as a business," Whiting
said, citing the New York Yankees as a team that uses its
money to buy players and invest in a farm system. With only
30 players on a single farm team and half of them are sitting
on the bench, finding a replacement for a Matsui or an Ichiro
can be daunting. "If they had really sophisticated farm
systems," Whiting explained, "then it wouldn't matter
so much if they lost a star; they'd have a lot of players
coming out of the hopper."
Major-league managers like the Japanese players
because of their work ethic. "Japan is crawling with
major league scouts who want more Japanese players,"
A lack of greed on the part of the Japanese
is an inducement as well. Whiting noted that Hideki
Matsui turned down a 64 million-dollar, 6-year contract
to sign with New York for 21 million dollars over 3 years.
"He wanted to test himself," Whiting said. "Ichiro
turned down 35 million dollars worth of endorsements in his
first two years because he said they would either detract
from his image or take away from his concentration on baseball."
But the movement to the majors is only in its
infancy. "This is only the beginning," Whiting predicted.