Thursday, June 25, 2009

You Gotta Have Wa Again

The June 22nd issue of Sports Illustrated contains an article about Charlie Manuel, the manager of the Philadelphia Phillies. The article describes some of Manuel’s experiences as a baseball player in Japan, and it reminded me of You Gotta Have Wa, a chronicle of Japanese professional baseball written by Robert Whiting. My review of You Gotta Have Wa was published in the May edition of Chopsticks NY. Because of word-count restraints and the use of the third person, I decided to rewrite the review for my blog.

Six years ago I rented the movie Mr. Baseball, in which Tom Selleck’s character, a crass American baseball player, experienced culture shock playing in Japan. The premise was interesting, but bad acting, a cheesy ‘80s soundtrack, and an even cheesier mustache made the movie almost unbearable to watch. Still, I was intrigued by the concept of how the game was played in Japan and how Americans conducted themselves as members of Japanese teams. Some time later, I read Robert Whiting’s book You Gotta Have Wa and was reminded of that movie. But more than that, I discovered one of my favorite non-fiction accounts of not only Japanese baseball, but Japanese society.

This year marks the twentieth anniversary of You Gotta Have Wa, and Vintage Books re-released it in March with an updated introduction and afterword. Part baseball guide, part historical reference, part philosophical treatise, You Gotta Have Wa focuses on American players who, like Selleck’s character, were at the end of their MLB careers and couldn’t (or wouldn’t) fit into the Japanese system that sometimes discriminated against them.

Whiting's book isn't just about baseball. It’s about cultural attitudes and the impact of sports on those attitudes. The book is a well-written, easy-to-read look at how baseball went from an American pastime to a defining element of Japanese society. Whiting, an American living in Tokyo, skillfully describes how baseball parallels the uniquely Japanese concept of group harmony, or wa: The group is always more important than the individual. According to my Japanese-English dictionary, the meaning of wa is “peace, harmony (between people).” Sounds simple, but it isn’t if you aren’t Japanese. Whiting’s book recounts what happens when uninformed American athletes showed up in Japan to play ball and had no idea what was in store for them. Wa is at the very core of Japanese society, and, as Whiting explains, it is what holds a team together. It is the essence of the Japanese spirit, and many Japanese think of their society as having parallels in baseball. It was this concept, perhaps more than any other, which baffled the Americans whom Whiting interviewed. The U.S. coddles its stars and gives them freedom while Japanese players, from the youngest bench warmer to the most revered celebrity, work as hard as any corporate sarariman. Through misunderstanding group harmony, many Americans disrupted team harmony. To understand why baseball means so much to Japanese society is to understand Japanese society itself. Whiting takes us through the history of Japanese baseball and how the game compares to the spirit of the people, the essence of their very meaning of existence. It may seem a bit maudlin, but the principles of the game reflect the nation’s very “Japaneseness.”

One criticism of the book is that it is at times redundant. The book is a compilation of Whiting's newspaper and magazine articles, which leads to repetition as he re-introduces people and circumstances that have already been described. Editorially, the first half of the book admonishes American ballplayers who went to Japan to play: whiners and millionaires who didn’t appreciate their hosts. However, the second half of the book does an about-face: more sympathetic toward Americans, critical of Japanese managers who wouldn't work with their “gaijin” players. Yet throughout, Whiting presents the facts of the stories in an engaging style.

Since the book was first published, baseball has undergone many changes. Ichiro is a household name, several Japanese have made significant contributions to World Series teams, and Japan has won both World Baseball Classic titles. If you’re looking for the story of how Ichiro and Dice-K became fixtures on the American baseball landscape, you’re not going to get it in this book. But you will get a great overall look at baseball as a microcosm of Japanese society and hilarious anecdotes about how many situations – even a game of baseball – can get lost in translation, such as moments for an interpreter not knowing baseball terminology, not knowing American slang, not understanding thick regional or ethnic accents, or being stumped by phrases that have culturally Japanese meanings that aren’t easily translated into English.

Although Whiting has ostensibly written a sports book, he does not use excessive amounts of baseball jargon, so even a casual fan of the game will enjoy reading it. He weaves a story about baseball and society around the tangibles of balls, strikes, and batting averages. Even if you don’t like baseball – whether it’s the Major Leagues or the Japanese version – you will still enjoy this book.

As Whiting points out in the afterword of the 20th anniversary addition, the story goes on. American, Korean, Taiwanese and Latin American players continue to enter Japanese baseball and make significant contributions. (In 2008, Alex Ramirez of the Yomiuri Giants became the third Venezuelan to be named a league MVP.) In turn, more Japanese players are becoming household names and helping to win – or almost win – the World Series, most notably Akinori Iwamura of the 2008 World Series runner-up Tampa Bay Rays and Daisuke Matsuzaka and Hideki Okajima of the 2007 World Champion Boston Red Sox.

On a personal and professional level, You Gotta Have Wa as well as Whiting’s other writings (such as 2004's The Meaning of Ichiro) have become a valuable source of information for me. A year after I first read Wa, I was at the Tokyo Dome as part of the television crew that broadcast the Yankees games for the YES Network. I keep it now as a reference guide to Japanese baseball. After I read the Sports Illustrated article on former NPB icon and current MLB manager Charlie Manuel, I realized how much of Manuel’s story I already knew, thanks to You Gotta Have Wa. These days I’m a true fan of Japanese baseball, and I have written about it as readers of this blog will know. I’m going back to Japan in September for the JapanBall tour, and the knowledge I gained from You Gotta Have Wa will enable me to write informed blog entries and articles about what I see, hear, and experience while I’m observing my favorite sporting event.

1 comment:

marc said...

To be fair, at the time, that "cheesy mustache" was probably pretty cool back in the 80s. :-)

Great review of a great book.