Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Ryo Shinkawa: Interpreting the MLB

This story originally appeared in Baseball Reflections.

Sapporo, a city in the Japanese archipelago's northernmost island of Hokkaido, is more than five thousand miles from Minneapolis, but to Ryo Shinkawa the two places will be forever entwined. An internship in the former eventually led to his current position in the latter, as the interpreter for Minnesota Twins second baseman and 10-time NPB All-Star Tsuyoshi Nishioka.

Shinkawa's stint as Interpreter Intern with the Nippon Ham Fighters of NPB was brief - a mere ten days - but it gave him valuable insight into Japanese baseball. Wanting a job in the sports industry, Shinkawa saw his time with the Fighters as a window into professional baseball - on either side of the Pacific. "I felt this opportunity would allow me to get a better understanding of the Japanese players coming to the MLB as well," says Shinkawa via e-mail.

Shinkawa left his native Japan to attend Baldwin-Wallace College, where he worked as a student assistant in the sports information office. The school's proximity to Cleveland allowed Shinkawa the opportunity to intern with the Indians' PR department during the 2008 and 2009 seasons. In this position Shinkawa worked in the press box and assembled clips and minor league reports, but his fluency in Japanese was his biggest asset. At the time the Indians had a Japanese pitcher named Masa Kobayashi, and although as a college junior Shinkawa couldn’t travel with the team and work full time, he was able to interpret for and assist the Japanese media in Cleveland. "I appreciate the people with the Indians [for] allowing me to get my foot in the door and gain experience interpreting," says Shinkawa.

That experience led to interpreting for Boston Red Sox reliever Hideki Okajima last season. As Nishioka's interpreter, Shinkawa has a different mindset than with Okajima. “I approached this job differently being [Nishioka’s] first year in the major leagues and living in the United States [for the first time],” says Shinkawa. Plus, he says, “Interpreting for a pitcher compared to a position player is a completely different world.”

Shinkawa (center) with Nishioka (right) at spring training. Courtesy Ryo Shinkawa.

The nuances of practice and the daily routine for an infielder are not like that of a pitcher. “Working with a pitcher in the bullpen compared to being behind the batting cages with a position player brings a different atmosphere and longer days,” says Shinkawa.

Shinkawa (foreground) watches Nishioka during Twins' Photo Day. Courtesy Ryo Shinkawa.

“During the season it’s quite different being in the dugout compared to the bullpen . . . Although every team can be different, my experience of going through the major league season once from spring training allows me to visualize the flow and prepare for what may come.”

Yet Shinkawa and the Twins may not have been prepared for what happened early this season. On April 7 Shinkawa helped Nishioka off the field at Yankee Stadium after Nick Swisher slid into the Japanese star while breaking up a double play. X-rays revealed a fractured left fibula, and the second baseman has been on the DL ever since. While the Twins don't have a firm date for Nishioka's return, the 2010 Pacific League batting champion has been rehabbing at Target Field and, more recently, at the team's spring training facility in Florida.

Yankees outfielder Nick Swisher (33) slides into 2nd base, breaking Nishioka's leg. Google Images.

Despite the setback of the injury, Shinkawa still has a routine with Nishioka. “The job I do might be a little different as he’s not playing in the games, but how I approach my job hasn’t changed due to that.”

The interpreter says he focuses on the “people element” of his interpretation. “ . . . It’s more of dealing with different personalities and characters within the clubhouse, front office, and the individual players,” than simply translating a sentence from English into Japanese.

Shinkawa is also mindful of the cultural aspects of interpreting. “When you’re with an NPB team your main language and culture is Japanese, and when you’re working for an MLB team your main language is English inside the American culture. Everything is the opposite, and you need to learn to be flexible having that American side of you work in Japan and the Japanese side of you working in the United States.”

Both cultures came together after the devastating earthquake and tsunami ripped through northeastern Japan, with the Twins organization making a $25,000 donation to Minnesota-based non-profit Feed My Starving Children.

“The Twins have been great trying to support the relief fund in Japan,” says Shinkawa. As a former contributor to the website NPB Tracker, Shinkawa still follows Japanese baseball online and thinks the game is important as the Japanese move forward from this tragedy. “Baseball has always been a big part of Japanese culture, and I definitely think it could play a role [in healing the nation],” he says.

And that’s important in any language.

In related NPB news, the Rakuten Golden Eagles returned to their stadium in Sendai on April 29 for their first home game after Kleenex Miyagi Stadium sustained damage as a result of the earthquake and tsunami. The Eagles defeated the Orix Buffaloes 3-1, an emotional win for starting pitcher Masahiro Tanaka and his teammates.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Nothing's a Secret on the Internet

I've been working on a new website that focuses completely on Japanese events, restaurants, art exhibits, and more in New York City. I wasn't quite ready to launch, but my friends at the Japan Society found the site after I tested an automatic Twitter plugin. The next day, the Japan Society graciously posted a link to the site's Events page on its Facebook page, garnering the site more than 200 hits.

Well, guess the cat's out of the bag! So, here it is . . . tada!

JapanCulture•NYC! It's still very much a work in progress, but I'm pleased with the look right now. Of course, I'll be tweaking things as I get used to how the applications work, and I'll expand the content as well. 

The site is based on my writing as the New York Japanese Culture Examiner for Examiner.com. My goal is to create a stand-alone community focused solely on Japanese culture in the city. I'll be doing more in-depth features, spotlighting the people who are making a difference in the Japanese community in New York – without all of those annoying pop-ups. :) Right now I'm posting stories in both Examiner & JapanCulture•NYC, so if you follow both, you'll see some repetition for the time being.

Having this site will make it much easier to support upcoming events. You can see thumbnails of where to go and what to do at the bottom of the page . . .

. . . or by clicking a date on the calendar, you can see all of the events happening that day.

Eventually I'll have restaurant reviews, book reviews, and all different kinds of reviews, too. Stand by for picture galleries and videos. When I figure that out.

Oh yeah, please follow the Twitter account as well: @JapanCultureNYC.

Shrinecastle will remain my blog, where I post quirky things about Japan and other miscellaneous stuff that's more on the lighter side.

Please take a look at japanculture-nyc.com and feel free to provide feedback. It's in its infancy, but it should be growing up soon.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

I'm a Winner in the Great Tokyo Tako Help Japan Giveaway!

Last Monday I entered a giveaway on an adorable Japanese culture blog called Tokyo Tako. I wanted to win one of the "Help Japan" buttons Allie, a lover of Tokyo and cute things from Japan, was giving away online. It was part of "The Great Tokyo Tako Help Japan Giveaway!" (Yes, I know I'm in my forties.) I mean, look at the prizes:

From Tokyo Tako

Well, I found out tonight that I WON! I'm truly excited. Now, I wanted the Manekineko on the top left, but I was told that I won #5. I'm not sure which one that is, but I'm assuming it's the bottom right. Which is fine because I love all of them!

I know you're jealous, but you, too, can have a button of your own. HOPE JAPAN, a non-profit group of artists, designed a bunch of pins for sale, all profits of which go to the Japan Society's Japan Earthquake Relief Fund. The buttons are only $3 each, a small price to pay to send some hope and love to Japan.

Celebrating Asian American Heritage

May is American-Pacific American Heritage Month, and to celebrate, I attended the 32nd Asian American & Pacific Islander Heritage Festival at Union Square on Mother’s Day. It was organized in New York by the Coalition of Asian Pacific Americans (CAPA), who amassed an eclectic representation of the many Asian cultures found in the city.

The theme of the day focused on the journeys our ancestors took from all corners of Asia and the Pacific to have successful lives in America. They became Americans, but they never let go of the rich cultural traditions of their native lands.


Of course, a huge attraction at any festival is food, and there was no shortage of that here.

Here is a line for okonomiyaki, a popular Japanese comfort food. It’s usually described as a Japanese pizza or savory pancake.

The style of okonomiyaki being cooked here is from Hiroshima and contains soba noodles.

Popular West Village eatery Hakata Ton Ton serves up “Shake Salad Ramen.”

Umi no Ie, a restaurant in the East Village, sold food as well.

There was even a yard sale to raise money for Japan relief.

In addition to cultural performances and cuisine, many political and civic groups were represented, including three I found particularly interesting:

       Asian American Arts Alliance – A service organization dedicated to providing a community and resources to Asian American artists

       Asian American Journalists Association – A non-profit educational organization for Asian American and Pacific Islander journalists

       Japanese American Citizens League – An advocacy group that fights discrimination against people with Japanese ancestry, provides education about the Japanese American experience, and preserves the cultural heritage of Japanese Americans

I joined all three groups within days of the festival, and I look forward to contributing to each.

Brunch with the SoHo Host Club

Question: "Why don't we have an event that focuses on just chill, beautiful atmosphere, and time together?"

Answer: Sunday Brunch and Beyond

The Question was posed by Alexandra Honigsberg, the president of the SoHo Host Club, the chivalrous group of young men who specialize in mingling and engaging people in conversation at parties started last July by Honigsberg and her cohort Kim Kindya. For the Answer, Honigsberg and the SoHo Host Club teamed up with John Wong of 1 Event Plan for a Sunday Brunch at Bun Soho, New York City's only 4-star Vietnamese restaurant.

Bun Soho

Venturing away from its home base of the SoHo Gallery for Digital Art, the SoHo Host Club held its first event with alcohol – normally the hosts serve tea to guests. Honigsberg had toyed with the idea of an affair for the the 21-and-over crowd, and through Wong's connections, she chose the relaxed environment of the well appointed Bun Soho, where they offered a savory prix fixe menu and a sake tasting flight.

Bun Soho interior

Buddhas at Bun Soho

There was a bit of confusion over exactly what the prix of the prix fixe menu actually was, but once that was settled Bun Soho's waitstaff seemed to relax. Since the four hosts in attendance weren't serving tea, they almost seemed unsure of what to do at first. But with the J-rock tunes of Gackt, Hyde, and Buck Tick playing in the background, they remembered that conversation is their forte.

Hosts (from left) Andy, Sal, and Alex

"The guests always say that their favorite part of our events . . . is the time they get to spend with each other and the hosts," says Honigsberg, who used the occasion to introduce a new host, Timothy Focking Floro.

It was an intimate gathering, as most of the SoHo Host Club's regular guests weren't there due to either the rain or the AIDS Walk. The handful of guest who did attend enjoyed chatting with the hosts while noshing on the tasting menu that included nem of lamb, pork rib, beef salad, and pho.

From the tasting menu

The afternoon also turned into an impromptu anime lesson, as Honigsberg, Asian Pop Culture Examiner May S. Young, and host Andy Seto gave yours truly pointers on what to watch. Honigsberg favors Bleach, Death Note, and Full Metal Alchemist, while Young recommends Samurai Champloo and the absurdist comedy found in Cromartie High School and Crayon Shin-Chan. Seto, an architect, doesn't watch a particular anime for its storyline; he's more into the structure and architecture of the animation.

Good food, good music, and good conversation amongst new and old friends. Seems as if Honigsberg found the right Answer.

Andy talks with AREA Japan's Julie Azuma