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You've Gotta Have 'Wa'
Robert Whiting
September 24, 1979
"Wa" is the Japanese ideal of unity, team play and no individual heroes—a concept that ex-U.S. major-leaguers playing in Japan have had a lot of trouble grasping
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September 24, 1979

You've Gotta Have 'wa'

"Wa" is the Japanese ideal of unity, team play and no individual heroes—a concept that ex-U.S. major-leaguers playing in Japan have had a lot of trouble grasping

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I don't know what it is they play here," grumbled former California Angel Clyde Wright after his first season as a Tokyo Giant. "All I know is, it ain't baseball." Wright had learned what many expatriates in the Land of the Rising Sun had known for years: baseball, Japanese-style, is not the same game that's played in the U.S. Since adopting the sport, the Japanese have changed it around to incorporate the values of samurai discipline, respect for authority and devotion to the group. The result is a uniquely Japanese game, one that offers perhaps the clearest expression among all sports of Japan's national character.

Like the American game, the Nippon version is played with a bat and ball. The same rulebook is also used, but that's where resemblance between the two ends. Training, for example, is nearly a religion in Japan. Baseball players in the U.S. start spring training in March and take no more than five or six weeks to prepare for the season. They spend three to four hours on the field each day and then head for the nearest golf course or swimming pool.

Japanese teams begin training in the freezing cold of mid-January. Each day they're on the field for a numbing eight hours, and then it's off to the dormitory for an evening of strategy sessions and still more workouts indoors. Players run 10 miles every day, and one team, the Taiyo Whales, periodically performs the "Death Climb," 20 sprints up and down the 275 steps of a nearby Shinto shrine.

That's only the beginning. The average Japanese game is more like a board meeting at Mitsubishi than an athletic event. As each new situation arises, there is so much discussion on the field among the manager, coaches and players that most games last three hours.

Unlike their counterparts in the States, losing managers in Japan are seldom fired outright. Instead, they go through an elaborate, time-consuming ritual designed to save face all around. It culminates with a public apology by the deposed skipper, his resignation and, often, an all-expenses-paid trip to the U.S. for him to "study baseball."

Such phenomena are the tip of the iceberg. Below the waterline are the concept and practice of group harmony, or wa. It is this concept that most dramatically differentiates Japanese baseball from the American game.

The U.S. is a land where the stubborn individualist is honored and where "doing your own thing" is a motto of contemporary society. In Japan, kojinshugi, the term for individualism, is almost a dirty word. In place of "doing your own thing," the Japanese have a proverb: "The nail that sticks up shall be hammered down." It is practically a national slogan.

In Japan, holdouts are rare. A player takes what the club gives him and that's that. Demanding more money is kojinshugi at its worst, because it shows the player has put his own interests before those of the team. Katsuya Nomura, the Nankai Hawk catcher who has hit 652 home runs in his career, said, upon quietly accepting a minuscule raise after winning yet another of his numerous home-run titles, "If I had asked for more money, the other players would have thought I was greedy."

The U.S. player lives by the rule: "I know what's best for me." In Japan, the only ones who know what's best are the manager and coaches. They have the virtues Orientals most respect going for them—age and experience, hence, knowledge. Their word is law. In the interest of team harmony, they demand that everyone do everything the same way. Superstar Sadaharu Oh must endure the same pregame grind as the lowliest first-year player. At 38 Shinichi Eto, a three-time batting champion and a 10-year All-Star, found that 40 minutes of jogging and wind sprints before each game left him exhausted by game time. He asked to be allowed to train at his own pace. "You've been a great player, Etosan," he was told, "but there are no exceptions on this club. You'll do things according to the rules." Eto lost weight, his batting average dropped, he spent the second half of the season on the bench and then reluctantly announced his retirement. Irrational? Perhaps, but any games lost because Eto was dog-tired were not as important as the example he set.

In the pressure-cooker world of U.S. pro sports, temper outbursts are considered acceptable, and at times even regarded as a salutary show of spirit. Unreleased frustrations, the reasoning goes, might negatively affect a player's concentration. Japanese players are expected to follow Sadaharu Oh's example. "When he strikes out," says an admirer, "he breaks into a smile and trots back to the bench." Oh has been known to be glum during a batting slump, but temper tantrums—along with practical joking, bickering, complaining and other norms of American clubhouse life—are viewed in Japan as unwelcome incursions into the team's collective peace of mind. They offend the finer sensitivities of the Japanese, and as many American players have learned the hard way, Japanese sensitivities are finer.

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