You Gotta Have Wa

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  • Edition: Original
  • Format: Trade Paper
  • Copyright: 2009-03-24
  • Publisher: Vintage
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An important element in Japanese baseball is wa--group harmony--embodied in the proverb "The nail that sticks up shall be hammered down." But what if the nail is a visiting American player? Here's a look at Japanese baseball, as seen by baffled Americans.

Author Biography

Robert Whiting is the author of You Gotta Have Wa and is one of the very few Westerners to write a regular column in the Japanese press. He has appeared as a commentator in documentaries about Japan and on such shows as Larry King Live and The MacNeil-Lehrer Newshour. He has also written for The New York Times, Sports Illustrated, Smithsonian, Newsweek, U.S. News and World Report, and Time, among other publications. He lives in Tokyo.



The Visitation

I don't know whether the Japanese system is good or not. I just don't understand it.
—Bob Horner

He walked off the plane at Narita Airport, wearied by his long flight, blinking in confusion at the waiting crush of cameras, lights, and microphones. Reporters on the scene that warm April afternoon remarked that no foreign visitor to Japan had ever received such a tremendous welcome—not Ronald Reagan, not Princess Diana, not even Michael Jackson.

The visitor was not a head of state or a movie star. He was only an American baseball player. Nevertheless, to many Japanese, his appearance in their country was an event of national proportions and historical significance.

Japan was at the height of its economic muscle. Japanese interests owned 54 percent of all the cash in the world's banks, 65 percent of all Manhattan real estate, and 3 per cent of the entire U.S. national debt. A staid Japanese insurance company had paid 39 million dollars for Van Gogh's painting Sunflower.

And now, in what one TV commentator had called the pièce de résistance, a Japanese baseball team had outbid the American major leagues for a prime American player: James Robert Horner.

Bsubru was unquestionably the country's national sport. It was the most talked about subject amongst Japanese after the weather, the yen-dollar rate, and sex. And while imported sluggers were by no means new to Japan—name players like Frank Howard, Dick Stuart, and Reggie Smith had all emigrated to the Land of the Rising Sun after their own suns set in the West—no one in Horner's class had ever deigned to come over.

Horner had hit 215 home runs in nine seasons with the Atlanta Braves. A player of All-Star proportions, at twenty-nine, he was at his peak. After decades of benchwarmers and faded stars, here, finally, was an American product worth paying for.

Horner had snob appeal among people who were notoriously finicky about buying foreign goods. The Japanese preferred only brand-name imports and did not care how much they cost. A bottle of Napoleon brandy sold for two hundred dollars after going through Japan's infamous, complex distribution system. A BMW cost a hundred thousand dollars, and a packet of glacial ice cubes went for twenty bucks. Yet there was never any lack of buyers because possessing such items brought one prestige.

To the Japanese, this bona fide major leaguer from Atlanta was the ultimate status symbol, for he gave their game a credibility it lacked and, at two million dollars a year, was also by far the most expensive player they had ever acquired.

That Horner had come to Japan was a simple matter of economics. After a reasonably good season with the Braves in 1986, in which he had hit .273, with 27 home runs and 87 RBIs, Horner tested his worth in the free-agent market.

When no club met his asking price of two million dollars, Horner turned to the Yakult Swallows of Japan's Central League, who did—at least for one season. It was the fattest single-year contract in the history of Japanese professional baseball, more than twice what the highest-paid Japanese star was getting. His signing was such gigantic news that the pilot of the JAL flight that carried him to Japan had personally requested his autograph.

The Swallows were based in Tokyo, a city of tremendous energy and enthusiasm for baseball. However, nearly all of its 12 million residents were fans of Yakult's crosstown neighbor, the Yomiuri Giants, Japan's oldest professional team, winner of thirty-three CL pennants, sixteen Japan Series titles, and something of a national institution.

The Swallows, with but one championship in their thirty-seven-year history, drew around twenty-seven thousand fans a game, far behind the Giants' nightly average of nearly fifty thousand.

Their owner, Hisami Matsuzono, was a flamboyant entrepr

Excerpted from You Gotta Have Wa by Robert Whiting
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