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THE PAIN OF PERFECTION
Robert Whiting
May 15, 1989
The Japanese have transformed America's pastime into a game that mirrors their obsession with hard work and harmony. The consequences are often alarming
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May 15, 1989

The Pain Of Perfection

The Japanese have transformed America's pastime into a game that mirrors their obsession with hard work and harmony. The consequences are often alarming

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The gap between Japanese and American thinking on this point is not easily bridged. To the American criticism that Hara was over-coached, the Japanese would invariably retort, "Just think what a truly great player Ripken could be if a coach could iron out those flaws in his form."

The concept and practice of group harmony, or wa, is what most dramatically differentiates Japanese baseball from the American game. It is the connecting thread running through all Japanese life. While "Do your own thing" is a motto of contemporary American society, the Japanese credo is most accurately expressed in the well-worn proverb, "The nail that sticks up shall be hammered down." It is practically a national slogan.

In keeping with this attitude, holdouts are rare in Japan. A player usually takes what the club deigns to give him, and that's that. Demanding more money is evidence that a player is putting his own interests before those of his team.

The players may not like this state of affairs, especially as the minimum salary is only about one third of what it is in the U.S. major leagues, but social pressure is strong in Japan, and the media are vigilant. When Giants pitcher Suguru Egawa asked for a 10% raise one year after slipping from 16 wins to 15, a leading sports daily published the gaudy headline: EGAWA! YOU GREEDY S.O.B.!

A players' union was formally established in 1985, but the union's leader, Kiyoshi Nakahata of the Giants, quickly declared on nationwide television, "We'd never act like the U.S. major leaguers. A strike would be going too far." Indeed, in a subsequent survey taken by the Asahi Shimbun, only 28% of the players said they would agree to a walkout.

The lengths to which Japanese team officials will go to preserve their team's wa can be alarming—as journeyman pitcher Takanori Emoto can attest. Emoto had a wicked slider, which he used to win 113 games in 11 years. But he was the nail that stuck up in more ways than one, from his 6'4" bamboo shoot of a frame to his defiant attitude, which frequently got him into hot water. Playing for the Hanshin Tigers in 1981, Emoto bridled at the way manager Futoshi Nakanishi kept shifting him back and forth between starting and relief. One August night, after being yanked from a game in which he had been pitching well, Emoto stalked back to the dugout and into the runway, where reporters heard him complain angrily, "I can't pitch with this kind of stupid managing."

The next morning the Emoto Rebellion was front-page news, and Emoto found himself the target of much editorial wrath for his willful conduct. Emoto announced his "voluntary retirement" from the Tigers to "accept responsibility" for the incident. Later, Emoto's retirement proved to be not so voluntary when the Tigers, who continued to own the rights to Emoto, rejected trade offers from other teams.

If Emoto expected his fellow players to come to his defense, he was sadly disappointed. Said Yamamoto, then head of the players' association, "It's too bad Emoto had to go and commit hara-kiri like that."

"I didn't want to quit then," said Emoto, an un-chastened pariah. "I felt I had a couple of more years and even thought about going to America to try my luck. But the Tigers wouldn't even allow that. I was completely blackballed."

Adversity sometimes has its blessings, however. Emoto went on to write a series of books about behind-the-scenes life in pro baseball, which became major bestsellers in Japan. His candid revelations, including a description of Oh's penis, which he had supposedly espied in the dressing room before an All-Star Game, made Emoto a TV celebrity and a very wealthy man.

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