The Ichiro Factor

Robert Whiting

"I think what I did is help reduce the distance between Japan and America."
   - Ichiro Suzuki

For over a century and a half Americans have been hard at work understanding Japan. We've written mountains of books and doctoral theses about the country and established countless institutes, think tanks, foundations, and academic departments. And just when we're convinced we understand everything there is to know, an unexpected development forces us to revise our way of thinking.

Baseball seems to offer a perfect example of this process in action. Americans introduced the game to Japan in the early Meiji era. But after over a hundred years of interscholastic and professional competition, American observers of the game had pretty much lost hope that Japan would ever produce the kind of world-class player that the MLB seemed to manufacture regularly. Sure there were signs of improvement and even flashes of brilliance - Sawamura vs. Ruth, Oh vs Aaron, Hideo Nomo. But the perceived handicap of physical size and Japan's regimented martial arts approach to the game with its endless training and the gambaru seishin wore players out before their time and led to Americans disdain.

Then along came Ichiro Suzuki to prove them wrong. Ichiro Suzuki was the most versatile, unorthodox, and productive hitter Japan had ever seen. The Major Leagues were interested and willing to give him a shot, but most pundits thought that as the first Japanese position player in the Majors, he would only have a minor career there. Too small. Too slight, they said. The Major League fastball would kill him. But then to the astonishment of the experts and the delight of fans, he defied all predictions.

Joining the Seattle Mariners in 2001 from the Orix Blue Wave, Ichiro, as everyone now knows, did the unthinkable. He won a batting title and the AL MVP in his very first year, becoming the most exciting player on the most exciting team in the Majors, a club that won a record 116 games. His bat proved to be so quick that he could hit any pitch, at any speed, in any location. On the base paths, he was so fast he could leg out ordinary ground balls into base hits. Then there was that astonishing throwing arm, with which he somehow dispatched laser beams from the far reaches of the outfield to nab unsuspecting baserunners. Ichiro surprised Americans in other ways too. Until his arrival, many Americans equated Japanese with the stereotypical Marunouchi salaryman. Yet Ichiro, with his distinctive form, Juliet Oakley sunglasses, and goatee, oozed panache. Said ESPN's Luke Cypher, "I've never seen a Japanese this cool."

Ambassador Schieffer (left) and Chiba Lotte Marines Manager Bobby Valentine (right) enjoy a laugh at a charity baseball game. (Photo: R. Alferez, U.S. Embassy)

Ichiro's remarkable presence helped generate a surge in attendance at the Mariners' Safeco Field, as well as an influx of tourists from Japan that pumped $20 million dollars a year into the Seattle economy that first year.

Compiling over 200 hits in each of five consecutive years (something no other MLB player has ever done), shattering an 80 year-old-record in 2004 when he passed Hall of Famer George Sisler's mark with 262 hits in one season and winning his second batting title by hitting .372 in the process, he became the undisputed center of the Mariners marketing campaign and, arguably, the first Japanese to become a cultural icon in the U.S. He was on the cover of national magazines like Sports Illustrated, the subject of TV documentaries on HBO and ESPN, and a daily fixture in the sports press. Moreover, children all across America were copying his one-of-a-kind swing. Ask an American these days to name one famous Japanese, and Ichiro is probably the name they will come up with. It is recognition that even the Emperor and the Prime Minister of Japan do not enjoy in the United States.

Thanks to Ichiro, other Japanese stars were able to follow. Slugging outfielder Hideki Matsui, who joined the New York Yankees in 2003 after 10 seasons with the Kyojin, had his own distinct effect. He won over hard-to-impress fans in New York with his steady, reliable batting and a personality so accommodating to autograph seekers and journalists alike that People magazine named him one of the "25 Most Lovable People On the Planet." It was like Godzilla had metamorphosed into Barney the Dinosaur. Pulitzer Prize winning journalist David Halberstam, for his part, deemed Matsui a better find than Ichiro and dubbed him a eblue collar, working class hero" in the mold of great workmanlike Yankee outfielders of the past like Hank Bauer and Tommy Heinrich.

Tadahito Iguchi played second base for the 2005 World Champion Chicago White Sox and was his manager's favorite player. Sox manager Ozzie Guillen gave this glowing appraisal: "Iguchi makes more productive outs than anyone in baseball. He's always willing to sacrifice himself for the team, which is something you don't always see in the Majors. To me, he's the real MVP of the team."

With a team-oriented style of play and a superior work ethic (Ichiro's pregame routine is by far the hardest on the team), these players are reminding power-obsessed Americans that there is another way to approach their own national pastime. They have also helped to create vast new markets for Major League Baseball here in Japan, and, more important, they have caused Americans to look at Japan in a whole new light, for no longer are Japanese seen in the U.S. as a "faceless people obsessed with exporting cars and consumer electronics," to quote the Asahi Shimbun.

In Ichiro Kakumei, I cited the remarks of author Shawn Wong, an Asian-American professor of English at the University of Washington, to underscore this change. Wong, who had experienced discrimination growing up in the Northwest, was so moved by the sight of 45,000 people at Safeco Field chanting Ichiro's name and, in particular, a white boy holding up a sign that said "I want to be Ichiro when I grow up" - that he declared the people of Seattle had become global citizens without leaving home. In an essay for the Seattle Times, he wrote, "I'm beginning to think that an entire city can understand how race changes their culture and society and can embrace and even encourage that change."

In 2006, Hideki Matsui's apology to Yankee fans and his teammates for breaking his wrist while diving for ball in the outfield took Americans by surprise and initiated a round of soul-searching in the mainstream American media. Columnist Tom Plate wrote in the Los Angeles Times, "In the age of the coddled, overpaid, agent-protected, totally obnoxious superstar athlete, Matsui from Japan exceeded his greatness as an individual player with great dignity as a human being and as a team player. ... The Matsui 'I'm sorry' rang across America like the ringing of some new liberty bell."

The impact these players have had on their own society has been even more profound. Prize winning journalist Midori Masujima pointed to a "complex" Japanese had stemming from a long inability to prevail in international sports events, referring to the role Ichiro and other athletes had in finally smashing it. In 2002, she wrote:

"We've never really been a member of the world community, not in the Edo period, not in the Meiji era and not today. Though we may have been a guest, or a provisional member, or a member-in-training, we have never been a full-fledged card carrying member. ... I believe that these athletes are not just about athletic talent. I believe that they represent a new way of thinking, a new philosophy that has arisen within Japanese society and that this new philosophy will have a tremendous influence."

Put another way, these accomplished players behave in a self-assured way and altogether are much more secure in their identity as practitioners of a craft. They can handle the pressure and the expectations that come from working in a foreign country and they are comfortable about not having to constantly rank themselves as either superior or inferior. In this sense, they can be seen as models for how other Japanese citizens might behave in their particular international endeavors.

(Photo: Department of State)

If, on the one hand, the American image of Japan has changed, because of the Ichiro factor, one could say the reverse was also true. The Japanese had their own prior assumptions about Americans, among which was the idea that baseball managers from the U.S. could not win a title with a Japanese team because of the fundamental differences in philosophy. For players at many Japanese clubs, praise was rare, and harassment, post-game hansei-kai, and special morning practice for those who performed poorly the night before were part of daily existence. By contrast, the argument went, Americans were just too easy-going.

However, in 2005, the well-known Bobby Valentine surprised everyone when he became the first American baseball manager to win the Japan Series, using a hybrid approach that tried to take the best from Japanese and American methods.

Valentine, who had prior experience in Japan, had become a big fan of Japanese players. He believed they had long been underrated in the U.S. and capitalized on their general willingness to work hard. At the same time, however, he tackled the tendency of most Japanese professional players to run out of gas late in the season by emphasizing proper rest and shorter, snappier practices than were customary in Japan. He also eschewed the authoritarian discipline and negativity that was common at many Japanese clubs and preached that baseball should be fun. Newly liberated, his players responded by playing better than they ever had, winning the Japan Series against the Hanshin Tigers in a four-game sweep.

At the end of the year, Valentine's successful methods were being enthusiastically applauded in some circles. He was the only foreigner listed in one research company's survey on the ideal boss. A newspaper editorial by the president of Nippon Metal called on Japanese firms to curb their tradition of harsh management and overwork and begin treating employees the same way Valentine does. A number of former and current baseball managers offered rare praise for Valentine's methods and suggested that the notion of severe training should be re-examined.

Valentine, who went on to become the center of a huge advertising campaign for a Japanese bank and thoroughly enjoyed being the center of attention ("It's my destiny to be here," he liked to say), further endeared himself to already adoring Lotte fans by brashly declaring that his team was ready to take on the MLB champions in a real World Series.

It might be too early to say, but fundamental change seems to be underway. Take the recently played inaugural World Baseball Classic. The hugely successful (and long overdue) tournament offered an intriguing glimpse at the shape of things to come. It required the cooperation of baseball, governments, league officials, and players to ensure the participation of teams from nations around the globe. The MLB, which brokered the tourney, took especially great pains to persuade Japan, initially reluctant to participate because of the timing, to take part. Neither nationalistic sentiment nor political point scoring was allowed to get in the way of the event.

Japan, of course, won it all in a final played in San Diego that was watched on television by nearly one-half of Japan's entire population. Ironically, in light of Valentine's accomplishments, they did it behind the traditionalist manager Sadaharu Oh, a man whose name is synonymous with backbreaking workouts. The smooth performance of Oh's team caused many Japanese baseball experts to conclude that, after all, their way was best. These were sentiments echoed by hard working Team Japan captain Ichiro Suzuki, who suggested that his Seattle teammates should spend more time on preparation. World champion White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen snootily dismissed Team Japan, saying it would be lucky to win 20 games if it played a full season in the Major Leagues. But Buck Martinez, manager of the raggedy, ill-prepared Team USA, which was eliminated in the second round, also said the American big leagues should copy Japanese methods.

All these events are gradually helping to influence change in our respective societies. Not so long ago, if you asked Americans their impression of Japan, they would speak of trade barriers and "Japan Inc." However, in today's era of satellite TV and the Internet, Americans increasingly talk of their fascination with Japanese films, video games, anime, manga, fashion, design, and Hello Kitty. This summer, for the first time ever, a major U.S. TV network (PBS) is airing a documentary on high school baseball in Japan. Here in Japan, surveys do seem to indicate that 21st century Japanese are more willing than their predecessors to work with, and for, foreigners and let their children marry them.

Baseball has always been a useful prism through which to view U.S.-Japanese relations. As we have seen, the more contact we have through sports, the more we learn from and influence one another. With an increasingly shared cultural landscape, who knows what other new developments may come our way.

Robert Whiting: Born in New Jersey in 1942. Graduated from Japan's Sophia University in 1969 with a degree in Japanese politics. Author of numerous award-winning books in both Japanese and English about baseball, including The Meaning of Ichiro.