The term wa (group harmony), some Japanese will tell you, is one of the most fundamental concepts of Japan's moral system. It arose, some say, out of Japan's agricultural past, when cooperation between farmers was imperative in order to maintain the irrigation systems necessary to grow rice and other crops. Since Japan was a mountainous island country with few natural resources and little available land for farming and living, people had to work together to survive. In the seventh century, when Prince Shotoku Taishi issued Japan's first constitution, he decreed in Article 1 that wa was to occupy a premier place in the value system, stressing the word several times in the document.
The spirit of wa was pursued over the centuries with fluctuating degrees of enthusiasm, and success, from the halcyon peace of the Heian Era (794-1185) to the bloody internal wars of the 16th century. It was tempered through a millennium of Buddhism, Confucianism and feudalism (where behavior was dictated right down to the food a person could eat and the clothing he could wear).
Although feudal rule was abolished with the advent of the Meiji Era (1868-1912), the emphasis on the unity of the group remained central to the Japanese way of thinking, influenced, it was said, by feudal family and apprenticeship systems which had made the sense of belonging to a group important. After the Second World War and the establishment of a new democratic constitution, the concept and pursuit of individual rights was not always paramount as the nation went about the task of rebuilding the war-shattered economy with renewed konjo [enthusiasm]. Every aspect of the corporate culture was infused with wa from consensus-based decision-making to promotions and even to elevator etiquette. The emphasis on loyalty, cooperation and trust was cited in many circles as a main reason for Japan's eventual success on the world economic stage.
Wa was reflected in yakyu [baseball] in other ways, like uniform playing styles, a mostly conciliatory players' union and the paucity of player agents and heated salary disputes, even though players' salaries were typically one-fifth to one-sixth of those of their North American counterparts. With the exception of a weekend walkout in September 2004 over the proposed merger of two teams, there has never been a baseball strike in Japan.
One might also mention the long history of pitchers who throw without proper rest, sacrificing longevity in their careers for their teams. Most notable was Tadashi Sugiura, who pitched all four games of the 1959 Japan Series and was forced out of baseball with a bad arm at age 30. Or Katsuhisa "Iron Man" Inao, a contemporary of Sugiura's, who won 42 games in one season and also suffered a shortened career. Although such abuses diminished in succeeding decades, starting pitchers in Japan still tended to throw more than their U.S. counterparts, due to pressure from their managers, causing comparatively early retirements.
Then there was the high number of sacrifice bunts (two to three times as many as in the major leagues). As longtime coach Shozo Eto put it, "The Japanese love to sacrifice for the team. It's considered an honor." In 2003 when Tokyo Giants infielder Masahiro Kawai set an all-time record for career sacrifice bunts with 514, it was greeted with as much fanfare as if he had surpassed the home-run record. There were fireworks on the Tokyo Dome electronic scoreboard and a flowery ceremony involving Kawai's wife and children, accompanied by tears of joy all around.
It was the dream of every young player who aspired to a professional career to play in the national summer tourney at Koshien, a single-elimination affair involving the 49 regional winners across Japan. This Holy Grail of amateur sports was televised nationwide every day for the two weeks it lasted, attracting huge crowds as well as pro scouts from all the teams in Japan's two professional leagues, the Central and Pacific. Parents of boys with baseball potential chose high schools with the same care that their counterparts in the United States did when selecting colleges for their sons. A youth who starred on a team that made it all the way to the Koshien tournament was virtually guaranteed a pro contract. (Indeed, any athlete who played in Koshien was considered a prime candidate for employment with Japan's largest corporations because high school baseball at that level was considered the supreme character builder.)
The school that eventually selected Ichiro ... was Nagoya's Aidodai Meiden Kokko, one of the top baseball schools in the country, and a frequent Koshien participant; Meiden had a proven track record of sending its best athletes to the pros.
Ichiro thus became one of 51 players on the team, all of whom were required to live in the Meiden baseball dormitory year-round, except for the month of January, when they were allowed to go home to visit their parents. He gaped in amazement at the gleaming three-story ferro-concrete building, compared by many to a modern hotel. On the first floor was a huge kitchen and laundry room area, on the second were rows of bunk beds and on the third a huge, cavernous tatami room used for weight-lifting and shadow-swings before bedtime. The ballpark, a short bus ride away, measured 350 feet to center and had equipment that rivaled that of many professional teams. A large indoor-training facility, for use on rainy days, stood nearby.
At Meiden the game of baseball was approached with the same intense dedication that characterized most other big-time sports in high schools in Japan. That meant practice every day, from 3:30 to 8:00 and then, after a break for dinner, special batting practice from 9 p.m. There would be no more late-evening trips to the Airport Batting Center. From March to December, Meiden played a game every single Sunday.
The spiritual voice of high school baseball was personified in a famous college baseball manager and columnist, Suishu Tobita, who compared athletics to bushido, the way of the samurai, where one could overcome natural limitations by sheer force of will and where only those who excelled morally could excel on the field. "The purpose of training," he wrote, "is the forging of the soul. If the players do not try so hard as to vomit blood in practice, they cannot hope to win games. One must suffer to be good."
And so suffer Ichiro did.
Only the top 17 players at Meiden were granted the honor of being allowed to practice every day, while the rest, usually underclassmen and Ichiro was included in this group were required to spend their time doing menial character-building chores such as raking the field and picking up the balls. It was a time for them to learn humility, to learn how to speak and show respect towards their superiors. They had to earn the right to touch a ball.
Thus, while other boys his age in American high schools were driving cars and going on dates with their girlfriends after practice, Ichiro and his confreres were enduring a routine that was more befitting a military boot camp. Ichiro later called it "the hardest thing I have ever experienced."
When practice was over, for example, they would make the dinner and start the bath. Then while the lucky 17 were taking their evening batting practice, they were consigned to scrubbing the dormitory floors and doing all the dirty laundry, often enduring long waits to use the limited number of washing machines and dryers installed in the building. Rather than waste precious time, Ichiro would sneak off to a nearby tennis court to practice shadow-swinging a bat by himself. Then at 3 a.m. he would get up to do the wash.
There was no small amount of hazing to be endured. Underclassmen who said the wrong thing or offended seniors in some other way, such as letting the rice cooker boil over, had to be punished. A common and extremely painful form of punishment was being made to sit atop a garbage can in the seiza position legs tucked underneath the hips with all the body weight bearing down on the heels and calves until the pain became too acute to bear.
Ichiro became a regular in his junior year and his daily chores were replaced by miles of running each day along with a plethora of exhausting baseball drills. Among the esoteric muscle-enhancing maneuvers required of him were hurling automobile tires and attempting to hit Wiffle balls with a heavy industrial shovel this is where Ichiro is said to have first begun developing his now famous strong wrists and hips.
Excerpted with permission from The Meaning of Ichiro: The New Wave from Japan and the Transformation of Our National Pastime by Robert Whiting, pp8-10, 65, 67. Time Warner Books, © 2004.
Fans and Cheering Groups
There are a lot of extraordinary things about Japan's national sport of baseball. Bands that play Mahler and Beethoven in opening-day ceremonies. Umpires that practice their strike- and ball-calling form in pregame warm-ups. And commentators who use sophisticated computer studies to evaluate a player's ability, then blithely cite his blood type in the popular belief that it somehow affects performance. (Types A and O purportedly make good batters, type B makes good pitchers, and so forth.) But perhaps most unusual of all is the Japanese fan himself, who is a fascinating study in contrasts.
Generally speaking, Japanese people are reserved and tend to concentrate all their energy inside. They are shy, low-key and only occasionally are they given to eruption, like the volcanic mountains that dot their island country. It takes several drinks after work, for example, before the Japanese sarariman [salaryman] loses his inhibitions and reveals his other, boisterous self.
Nowhere is this dichotomy more apparent than at the ballpark. Observing fan conduct there is akin to taking a crash course in Japanese psychology. The typical fan, left alone and to his own devices, will sit quietly through a nine-inning game, behaving with proverbial Japanese decorum, eschewing the sort of loud and vulgar conduct common in many U.S. major league ballparks. He will even politely return foul balls to the stadium ushers, as prescribed by long-held custom in Japanese baseball.
Yet, put him in one of the highly organized cheering groups, or oendan, that can be found at all baseball stadiums in Japan, and he quickly sheds his traditional restraint. Spurred on by energetic cheerleaders and the pounding rhythm of taiko drums, horns, whistles and other noisemakers, he becomes a veritable wildman, yelling and screaming nonstop for nine solid innings.
Said one New York television producer after spending an entire game in the midst of the several-thousand-member Yomiuri Giants oendan, "These people are lunatics! There is more noise here than the World Series and the Army-Navy game combined. How do they keep it up?"
Oendan exist at every level of Japanese sport, from amateur to professional, and date back to the nineteenth century, when they were a major presence at college baseball games highly organized, extremely loud and more than a little militant. Participating in the oendan was considered a way of demonstrating school loyalty, and postgame confrontations between rival cheering groups were a vivid adjunct to the athletic activity on the field.
Excerpted with permission from You Gotta Have Wa by Robert Whiting. pp 113-114. Random House, © 1990.
Robert Whiting is the author of several highly acclaimed books on Japanese culture and is one of the few Westerners to write a regular column in the Japanese press. He lives in Tokyo.