AHC #13

Filed under: — K. M. Lawson @ 9:01 pm

The Thirteenth Asian History Carnival is now up over at my personal weblog Muninn! In addition to the usual selection of blog postings I have added a section to the carnival introducing a few online resources or references that might be of use to those with an interest in Asian history.


Asian History Carnival

Filed under: — K. M. Lawson @ 1:35 pm

I will be hosting the thirteenth installment of the Asian History Carnival at Muninn on the evening of April 21st. Please make your submissions by noon the 21st, US Eastern time. See the carnival’s homepage for more information. You can nominate postings here or simply tag them with the Delicious tag: http://del.icio.us/tag/ahcarnival/


Samurai Baseball: Off Base or Safe at Home?

Filed under: — C. W. Hayford @ 10:34 pm

[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 Japan will all welcome “Baseball and Besuboru In Japan and The U.S.” (Studies in Asia online), a group of essays growing out of a conference at Michigan State University last year. Michael Lewis in his Introduction does concede that baseball is a game but is “also a powerful economic force, a ladder for social mobility, a vessel freighted with national symbols, and for many something of a sacred cultural preserve with practices (or is it rituals?) that delineate them from us.” Lewis reports that there was great debate at the conference over “nature versus nurture, or cultural essentialism versus shared solutions to shared problems.” [1]

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. [2] Looking at baseball in Cuba, Japan, Korea, and Taiwan he argues that American Major League Baseball is trying to control and Americanize a lovely, global game and turn it into a cash cow. He quotes a Latin American charge that “El béisbol is the Monroe Doctrine turned into a lineup card, a remembrance of past invasions.” Bjarkman concludes that the American game has been assimilated; besuboru and béisbol are different from “baseball.”

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 Japan vs. Japanese baseball involves more than whether the bats are heavier, balls smaller, and training more strenuous. Do these differences represent differences within a system or between systems? Depends on who you ask.

Samurai Baseball vs. Baseball in Japan

On one side is Robert Whiting. His books are classics of sports writing and hugely influential. [3] His first book, The Chrysanthemum and the Bat (1977) begins by stating that Japanese baseball “appears to be the same game played in the U.S. – but it isn’t”:

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 Japan quickly realize that Baseball Samurai Style is different. (Forward)

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 America, for instance, “excellence is equated with getting results no matter how unorthodox the form,” while in Japan “it is more important to conform to the set way of doing things.” Other articles in the Code provide for rigorous training and self discipline; that “the player must not be materialistic” (a provision invoked especially by management at salary negotiation time); that a player “must follow the rule of sameness”; must “recognize and respect the team pecking order”; and, finally, must strive for wa – “team harmony and unity”:

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. [4] The 1994 documentary, “Baseball in Japan” claims:

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. [5]

But others frame matters differently. These include Yale anthropologist William Kelly. Kelly’s first book was on Tokugawa irrigation practices, so he knows feudal Japan. Kelly criticizes those writers, Whiting among them, who go go back to unexamined ancient traditions rather than look at specific responses in particular historical circumstances. [6]

In his Yale class lecture “Professional Baseball,” Kelly agrees that some professional baseball in Japan does fit the “samurai” stereotype: “not entirely, not convincingly, not uniquely, but enough to feed the press mills and the front offices and the television analysts.” In fact, he says, this “spin” is part of the game. Our job is “not to dismiss this commentary as misguided (though much of it clearly is)” but to ask who is putting these ideas about, who is believing them, and why they are appealing: “The myths are essential to the reality….” Japanese baseball is “not a window onto a homogenous and unchanging national character, but is a fascinating site for seeing how these national debates and concerns play out – just as in the United States.”

Why did baseball in Japan develop this “samurai” self-image? Baseball in Japan was shaped by the important elements of the nation in the early twentieth century – education, industry, middle class life, the government, and above all the national project. Since baseball was an American sport but Japan was not a colony, baseball in Japan was a way of declaring independence, defiance, and creativity. From early in the century, the middle schools and colleges adopted a “fighting spirit” in athletics (recall that Teddy Roosevelt called for the abolition of college football in the United States when violence had become the hallmark of the game). In the 1930s the newly formed professional leagues adopted that spirit, which styled itself “samurai.” The government, which stepped in to shape local social institutions, used sport to train and manage its citizenry both spiritually and physically; major business corporations turned to college teams to recruit loyal executives; large commercial newspapers competed for readers by telling more and more nationalistic sports stories; transport companies bought professional teams. The Japanese public and media demanded “Japanese style” in sports to distinguish themselves from the foreigners and set models for self-sacrificing workers and citizens. [7]

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.

At the Michigan State conference, Whiting went on the counter-attack. [8] Whiting stated that he has lived in Japan since the 1970s, graduated from Sophia University, speaks fluent Japanese, and is immensely peeved that academics use him as a straw man. He pitted his “forty years of watching baseball in Japan” against Kelly’s scholarship: “I admire his effort to put together an academic history of Japanese baseball,” Whiting began, but “I must say that I find some of [Kelly’s] interpretations of the game in Japan uninformed and believe that they undermine Americans’ understanding of it.” To bolster his case, he inserts a few choice specimens of academic jargon.

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.”


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