[A version of this piece was published on Japan Focus (April 4, 2007)]
Baseball fans, lovers of a good fight, and those who are curious about how we go about understanding
Pretty heavy stuff – as the cliché has it, “life is a metaphor for baseball.” Peter C. Bjarkman’s essay “American Baseball Imperialism, Clashing National Cultures, and the Future of Samurai Besuboru” quickly makes the case for larger significance.  Looking at baseball in
Is the difference between the original Yankee baseball and the game in other counties the difference between the real thing and a knock off or between the narrowly conceived original and new versions creatively adapted? Is baseball franchised around the world like MacDonald’s? After all, “a Big Mac is a Big Mac is a Big Mac,” so isn’t baseball just baseball? The dispute over baseball in
Samurai Baseball vs. Baseball in
On one side is Robert Whiting. His books are classics of sports writing and hugely influential.  His first book, The Chrysanthemum and the Bat (1977) begins by stating that Japanese baseball “appears to be the same game played in the
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
Whiting goes on to describe the game as “outdoor kabuki” rather than an athletic competition, for in a most un-American way, the game can end in a tie. The chapter “Baseball Samurai Style,” illustrated with a photo of Sadharu Oh posing with a samurai sword, derives a “set of strict unwritten rules that might be called Samurai Code of Conduct for Baseball Players” which “has roots in Bushido, a warriors’ mode of behavior dating from the 13th century.” (p. 37) These rules show how Japanese national character differs from American. In
The good team is like a beautiful Japanese garden. Every tree, every rock, every blade of grass has its place. The smallest part ever so slightly out of place destroys the beauty of the whole.... When each player’s ego detaches itself and joins twenty five others to become one giant ego, something magical happens. All the efforts and sacrifices the players have made at last become worthwhile. For they are now a perfect functioning unit. (p. 67)
Whiting’s eye and effective style have insured that this way of framing the differences between American and Japanese ball has passed into media lore.  The 1994 documentary, “Baseball in
Because of its slow pace, baseball fits the Japanese character perfectly. The conservative play mirrors the Japanese conservative and deliberate approach to life. Managers and coaches view baseball as a tool to teach loyalty and moral discipline – the same type of loyalty and discipline feudal Japanese lords expected from their soldiers and subjects. This samurai discipline requires endless hours of training, self-denial, and an emphasis on spirituality. So goes the Japanese approach to baseball. 
But others frame matters differently. These include Yale anthropologist William Kelly. Kelly’s first book was on Tokugawa irrigation practices, so he knows feudal
In his Yale class lecture “Professional Baseball,” Kelly agrees that some professional baseball in
Why did baseball in
This summary does not do justice to Kelly’s detailed argument, but should show that he does not rely on “national character.” He charges that “national character” is misleading because it “essentializes a population,” that is, explains its actions in terms of fixed codes which govern everyone rather than history or political choices; applies ethnocentric standards of judgment; and homogenizes the varieties of everyday lives.
Some critics, Whiting continued, objected to the appellation “samurai baseball” as too simplistic, but he replied that he did not claim that Japanese big leaguers wear top knots, carry swords, or commit seppuku: “samurai baseball” is just a metaphor. The metaphor may not be perfect, but “metaphor means resemblance, and so we must consider the ways in which it does fit.” The word “samurai” is used to highlight the “very real similarities and the grounding that the game has in budo or bugei, the martial arts of old, and its relationship to bushido with its lessons about dedication, self-perfection, submergence of ego and development of inner strength.” “Samurai baseball” does indeed reflect the Japanese national character since the lessons have been “passed down from generation to generation by fathers, teachers, coaches and, in adulthood, corporate bosses, right to the present day.”
National character studies can be abused, Whiting agrees, but denies implying that Japanese behavior is instinctive, unique or without internal contradictions. In the end, however, “to suggest that there is nothing different about the way that the average Japanese and average American see the world... is to deny reality and throw the baby out with the bathwater.” Whiting charges Kelly with believing that “there is nothing different about the way that the average Japanese and the average American sees the world.”
The Professor and the Journalist: Or, Wa’s Up, Doc?
The clash here is not merely personal but between generations, the cultures of professions, ways of telling a story, and standards of evidence.
Someone once remarked that each new generation stands on the shoulders and sometimes on the faces of previous ones. If so, Whiting must feel footprints all over his face. In spite of his many awards – in 1990, for instance, the translation of The Chrysanthemum and the Bat was named one of the one hundred most important Japanese books of all time – he has not been given his props by American academics. In return, he shows impatience and lack of sympathy with academic modes. To establish his bona fides, he explains that after he first went to Japan in 1962 as a military intelligence analyst and began his life long addiction to besuboru, he majored in Japanese politics at Sophia University in Tokyo and read the works of Ruth Benedict, Hugh Patrick, and Edwin O. Reischauer (though he does not mention that American scholars were then rejecting this style of scholarship). “These were all distinguished by pages of intelligent but dense, dry exposition and a total lack of passion.” When he then tried to write about the Liberal Democratic Party and such, there was zero interest. It was only when he started writing that there was a “magical home run hitter” who honed his skills with a samurai sword, or that “there were star pitchers who would pitch three or four days in a row without concern for the obvious potential damage to the arm, or that spring training began in the freezing cold of mid-winter, that people started paying attention.” 
Whiting masterfully framed what he saw at the ball park in terms which the American public could understand at a time, before the book of the 1980s, when
Kelly’s professional socialization was different. When he started his baseball fieldwork, he found himself working in what he called the “direct shadow” of his predecessor, Whiting. Japanese baseball people pegged him according to how close they thought his views were to Whiting’s and most readers both outside the academy and inside it had read and often been persuaded by Whiting’s portraits. What Kelly indelicately called his “Whiting problem” was then how to be appreciative of the older man’s “much longer experience with the game, respectful of the evocative power of his prose, yet staunchly critical of his explanatory logic...” 
The two men explain the way they work and illustrate the clash between academic and popular modes. The two modes differ in question setting, in standards of evidence and argument, of form, and in target audience. Whiting takes the difference personally, while Kelly is philosophical though not entirely reconciled. Kelly describes how local sports reporters were generous and helpful in the beginning of his fieldwork, and the two sides “recognized uncomfortable affinities.” But the journalists and the professor emphasized different parts of the story. When the manager of the team was fired, for instance, the journalists moved “from the details of the incident to the motivation of the actors and to the consequences for future actions,” while the anthropologist was “more inclined to move from the same details to exploring the premises, the process of decision-making, the alternative courses of action available, the forms of disengagement,” that is, “working against the grain of the daily routine.” 
Whiting’s ambition is to let the American public know what it was like to be there; he takes explanations of the actors more or less at face value. Kelly wants his colleagues and students to understand the deep structure and relevance of what happened, which you can’t always do in layman’s language, and to relate his observations to the systematic debate in the field, which is structured by theory.
What’s the Difference?
Decide for yourself who comes out on top. But the deeper challenge remains: how do we account for difference? Difference is everywhere: they say no two snowflakes are alike, and if you’ve wondered how they know – did somebody actually look at them? – now a
“Different” is not the same as “unique.” A Japanese official in the 1990s wanted to restrict the importation of American skis on the grounds that Japanese snow was unique – essentialism on the slopes! True, he may only have been trying to keep American skis out of the Japanese market, but the choice of arguments is important and shows that Japanese are often involved in self-essentialization.
Nor does “different” need to mean “opposite” or “incompatible.” On the one hand, Americans like to say “we’re are all the same when we’ve got our skins off.” But what if that really means is that Americans think everyone is “just like us”? The Disney historical films, for instance, proclaim multi-cultural themes but when we get back to 12th century
The opposite mistake is to portray others as unique and beyond explanation: “not like us.” In his lecture “Zen Aesthetes and ‘Economic Animals: The Perils of National Character” Kelly lays into the idea that
To say “samurai baseball” implies that we have to appeal to unique Japaneseness to explain the differences but do not have to characterize American baseball in a similar way.
The Anthropologist and the Sword
“Samurai” is now an all purpose synonym for “intense” – the Sunday New York Times has a column on fashionable drinks called “Samurai Sipper.” Jim Jarmusch’s 1999 Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai incorporates references to samurai, bushido, and French movies in a way that floats above mere historical accuracy. Yet many Japanese – ball players, executives, the Japanese Army in World War II, and even “kamikaze” pilots – also point to samurai ethics as an all purpose explanation for Japanese behavior and call themselves followers of bushido.
Karl Friday debunks idea of explaining modern conduct by reference to historical samurai in “Bushido or Bull? A Medieval Historian’s Perspective on the Japanese Warrior Tradition. “Hanging the label of ‘bushidō’ on either the ideology of the Imperial Army or the warrior ethic of medieval
Whiting’s The Chrysanthemum and the Bat, of course, plays off the title of Ruth Benedict's wartime classic, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword (Houghton Mifflin 1945), but does not use its insights. Benedict’s school of anthropology rejected nineteenth century “scientific racism” as a way to explain human difference, and saw cultures as the weaving of universal human threads into distinctive national patterns: “We fear irreconcilable differences when the trouble is only between Tweedledum and Tweedledee.” (p. 13) Although she looks to Japanese history herself for explanations, she remarks somewhat tartly that “bushido” is a “publicist’s inspiration” which “became a slogan of the nationalists and militarists” in the 1930s (p. 175), that is, in Kelly’s view, just when “samurai baseball” became set in concrete.
Anthropologists and historians do not deny that some Japanese sincerely believe these myths. Ted Bestor did an ethnographic history of another Japanese institution, the great
Full Circle: Sushi Baseball?
The conformity shoe is now on the other foot, but still it’s hard for a sports writer to avoid the Japanese touch: “Matsuzaka’s pitching motion is an elegant haiku, beauty captured in three parts separated by two pauses ....” Americans, Verducci goes on, want to pitch like Roger Clemens: “The compact ‘tall and fall’ is technically sound, a Sousa march with no wasted elements. Matsuzaka’s free-flowing, drop-and-drive delivery is improvisational, like live jazz. Matsuzaka is coloring outside the lines...” (p. 62)
Now will somebody please explain why we call the October classic the “World” Series? I would like to know, because my team, the Chicago Cubs, haven’t won one of them in more than a century, and next year is going be our year.
 Baseball has long been fodder for international history: Richard C. Crepeau, “
 The Chrysanthemum and the Bat: Baseball Samurai Style (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1977); You Gotta Have Wa: When Two Cultures Collide on the Baseball Diamond (Macmillan 1989); The Meaning of Ichiro: The New Wave from Japan and the Transformation of Our National Pastme (Warner Books, 2004; retitled for the 2005 paperback to The Samurai Way of Baseball).
 The film clip “Samurai Baseball“ presents Japanese baseball as a different game in about two minutes. The PBS Frontline program “American Game, Japanese Rules,” (PBS Video, 1990) has more talking heads. “Mr. Baseball” (1990) stars Tom Selleck as an aging hitter who goes to
 Kelly’s paper for the East Lansing conference is not included in the online conference volume but the website for his Yale course, “Japan: The Anthropology of an Alternate Modernity (2002)” and his home page, William Kelly, make some of his essays available on line.
 William Kelly, "Caught in the Spin Cycle: An Anthropological Observer at the Sites of Japanese Professional Baseball," in Susan O. Long, ed., Moving Targets: Ethnographies of Self and Community in
 Whiting’s talk, The Samurai Way of Baseball and the National Character Debate, was also published on Japan Focus (September 29, 2006), with an introduction by Jeff Kingston, who teaches contemporary Japanese politics at