JIN-362 -- Japan Honors Its Teacher: Reflections on Team Japan's WBC Championship

T H E J @ P A N I N C N E W S L E T T E R
Commentary on the Week's Business, Technology and Cultural News

Issue No. 362
Wednesday March 29, 2006 TOKYO

+++ VIEWPOINT: Japan Honors Its Teacher: Reflections on Team Japan's WBC Championship

Conference Announcement
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Date: Sunday, April 2nd, 2006

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+++ VIEWPOINT: Japan Honors Its Teacher: Reflections on Team Japan's WBC Championship

On March 22 the New York Times published an editorial under the headline
"For the Love of Yakyu." Therein it noted that the World Baseball Classic
championship game between Japan and Cuba "should forever erase any idea
that the United States has a monopoly on its national pastime."

Ask Japanese to name their national sport, and most will answer sumo.
Still, yakyu, as baseball is called here, has deep roots and a passionate

Like many Western things, it was introduced through the treaty ports
in the 19th century. A team of Yokohama foreign settlers played a
team of sailors from the "Colorado" in the first documented baseball
game in Japan, on October 30, 1871. A "Japan Punch" illustration of a
game between the settler team and "USS Tennessee" bluejackets on
September 2, 1876, discloses players did not use gloves in those days.

The Japanese were avid students of the sport, receiving instruction
from an American missionary in Tokyo and a repatriated countryman
who founded the Shimbashi Baseball Club. They proved able learners,
as was demonstrated in a game between the Tokyo Higher School and
the Yokohama Country & Athletic Club in the port city on May 23, 1896.
The Tokyo nine gave no quarter, demolishing the Y.C. & A.C. by a
score of 29 to 4. The two teams played a return game, also at
Yokohama. The Tokyo Higher School chalked up a second rout, 32
to 9.

Yet Japan was slow to professionalize the sport. A visit by Major League
all-stars, led by Babe Ruth, proved the catalyst for the formation of
Japan's first professional team.

It was the Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper that invited the Major Leaguers,
sponsoring an all-star series between MLB and Japanese collegiate teams in
the autumn of 1934. Matsutaro Shoriki, the newspaper owner, was so
impressed by the enthusiastic reception among the Japanese public that he
established in December the Great Tokyo Baseball Club, Japan's first
professional team, today the Tokyo Yomiuri Giants. Two years later a
professional league was formed. Ever since the Giants have historically
been Japan's strongest team and beneficiary of the largest fan following.
Not only are Giants games almost always sold out, the Giants are the
only team with full national television coverage.

But Giants' dominance proved the bane of "puro yakyu." The Giants belong
to the Central League, whose other teams have profited from packed-house
games against them, while the other league, the Pacific, played in nearly
empty stadiums. Finally, after the 2004 season, two financially strapped
Pacific League teams--the Oryx Blue Wave and Kintetsu
Buffaloes--announced plans to merge.

Concerned over what an eleven-team league would mean for overall
employment, the players' union argued effectively for the creation of an
additional team and forced baseball leadership into accepting bids for a
new club. The two-league structure was saved. The new team was the
Sendai-based Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles.

Also new in the 2005 season was interleague play. For six weeks beginning
in early May each team played two 3-game series against every team in the
other circuit. The innovation was a great success, generating excitement
and injecting additional revenue into Pacific League coffers.

And now the Japanese are baseball champions of the world.

Team Japan's victory has had several effects.

It has rekindled the national passion for Ichiro Suzuki, who last season
was eclipsed by the stellar batting of the Yankees' Hideki Matsui. Suzuki
served as Team Japan's unofficial captain, exhorting his younger teammates
to victory. His usual cool persona gave way to a fiery passion in the
dugout and on the field and to somber declarations during news
conferences. He cursed, he bellowed, he hugged, he cheered. His was an
emotional makeover, revealing a nationalistic streak. He spoke of the
pride of wearing a uniform emblazoned with the Rising Sun.

And Sadaharu Oh, Team Japan's pilot, stepped out from the shadow of
Shigeo Nagashima. "Mister," the affable, immensely popular former
Giants' star, would have managed team Japan if he were not
recovering from a protracted illness. Oh, Japan's homerun king,
seems aloof in comparison, and some have been reluctant to embrace
him because of his Chinese nationality. But he made only right
decisions in guiding the team to victory. He demonstrated gravitas.
He spoke with authority. He, too, is now viewed in a fresh light
in Japan.

The Japanese victory should help stem professional baseball's erosion in
popularity over the last several years. That was partly due to the surge
of interest in soccer after Japan and South Korea co-hosted the World Cup
in 2002.

Finally, it may even help restore national confidence, shaken ever since
the bubble burst.

The NYT editorial writers sought to assuage American pride by pointing out
that "Japan has had baseball... for essentially as long as we have." It
might also have quoted the first truly American poet. Walt Whitman wrote:

"I am the teacher of athletes,
He that by me spreads a wider breast than my own proves the width
of my own,
He most honors my style who learns under it to destroy the teacher."

Verily did Team Japan honor its teacher.

--Burritt Sabin

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Written by Willhemina Wahlin; edited by Burritt Sabin (editors2@japaninc.com)

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