Saturday, May 6, 2017

You Gotta Have Wa by Robert Whiting

Why I Read It: Always up for a baseball book.

Summary: The experiences of American baseball players playing in Japan (as of the late 1980s).

My Thoughts: The cultural divide between the United States and Japan is enormous, and I applaud those folks who travel either way to forge a new life.

For baseball players - keep in mind this book was written in the late 1980s - the experience has been, simply put, testing. The Japanese at that time had a deeply strong belief that they were all middle class, but that no matter what the circumstances, they were better people than any gaijin, or foreigner, treading on their soil.

Their sacred traditions of respect and "face," as well as the bushido code, the realm of the ancient samurai, all play roles in the Japanese baseball world. They train until they can barely move, throw fastballs until their arms no longer work, even through injury, and run antiquated stamina drills because history mandates that they do so. Managers and owners make decisions based on how they look to other people rather than on sound baseball strategy. Pitchers will intentionally walk American batters numerous times to avoid the shame of giving up home runs, especially when a gaijin is chasing a record held by a Japanese star, and even when the bases are already full.

And then there's wa. The Japanese believe in team harmony, whole American teams have won World Series riding "25 players in 25 cabs." Anything that disrupts wa can be seen as a hindrance on the pathway to a championship. Many times that disruption has been an American in a Japanese uniform, living as an individual, as Americans do.

Some Americans have fared well under these circumstances, others have completely fizzled out. Some have challenged those sacred records (like Saduhara Oh's all-time home run title; Oh, by the way, was half-Chinese, and never fully respected by the Japanese). They've become the greatest American baseball players of whom we've barely heard.

Robert Whiting brings us through everything from the American perspective to the Japanese. He tells us what the umpires think, how the managers - both Japanese and Americans heading up Japanese teams - deal with the owners, and gives us a straight history of the Japanese game from the start of the Meiji Restoration in the middle of the 19th century to the late 1980s. Purists who follow the American game will shake their heads as they read, much like Japanese fans shake their heads at the American version.

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