For this gaijin, the great enigma of Japan has long been how its people can so readily adopt so much from others and yet remain unmistakably Japanese in spirit. Americans may be pragmatic enough to adopt things foreign, but they do so only reluctantly and with a sense of defeat.
Not so the Japanese. They readily embrace things foreign with not the least embarrassment or sense of loss. It all seems more graceful and reasonable than my own country’s way. Not only is it more graceful, but it somehow enables the Japanese to put their own unique stamp on what not too long before was entirely foreign.
This is a wonder to me, and no doubt feeds my never-ending interest in Japan and its culture, modern and ancient. Over the years of living in and visiting Japan, questioning and reading, I have failed to fully understand, though at times I have had glimpses of how the process works, and often in the strangest of places.
My first glimmerings of understanding emerged almost thirty years ago on a perfect Sunday afternoon in Tokyo. Aside from the scrap of insight that day brought, it was indeed beautiful. The sun shone. The deep blue sky had just the right number of high white clouds to make a pleasing contrast. The air was clear without a trace of Tokyo’s usual humidity.
I met my friend and work colleague, Yoshi I called him, in the lobby of the New Otani Hotel where I was staying. He had promised to take me out for what he described as “a treat.” We were going to watch a high school baseball tournament in one of the city parks, the name of which now escapes me. He rushed up to me at the appointed time. He seemed eager, but then he always did. After a quick hello, we were in a cab and headed off to the games.
As soon as the cab came to a stop, Yoshi leapt out and led me deeper into the park. I could see the teams forming, the boys throwing balls to each other and laughing with good humor at any error. He turned to me. “Do you have this sort of thing in America? It is, after all. your national sport, too.” I did not look at baseball as Japan’s national sport, but clearly, he did. I answered that yes, we did things very much like it, but I had not watched in many years. I reassured him that I was sure it would be a lot of fun. He was sure, too.
Several games were taking place simultaneously. He chose one in particular. I assumed that he had some affiliation with one of the teams. I never asked but happily took my seat to watch what I could see were teams of talented and well-trained young men, glad for the chance to display their skill. I scanned the audience. There were no westerners. It made me feel select.
All these people had come out to play and enjoy America’s game, and I was American. I do not know what I expected, certainly not admiring glances, but somehow, I wanted some sort of acknowledgement. It was not forthcoming. For the briefest of moments, I felt let down.
Then I felt embarrassed in front to myself, glad that Yoshi had not noticed. Soon my feelings were subsumed by the display of skill, the exciting moments, and the perfect weather. It was, after all, the same game I played as a child and knew well.
The afternoon passed by quickly, and the teams dispersed. We left the park and headed to our planned dinner in Roppongi. In the cab, I reflected on the afternoon. I had enjoyed it more than I expected to, more than I would have at the same sort of arrangement in the States, considerably more, in fact. I turned to my companion and thanked him, adding: “This was a wonderful idea, a glimpse of Japan at home, or rather at play.” Then, to make my point more forcefully I added, “better than the Ginza.”
“I thought you would enjoy it,” he responded, clearly gratified at how well his idea had worked out. “I know that you like baseball, and I think you like Japan.”
I reassured him with an, “I do!”
“But you see Japan as feminine,” he strangely asserted.
This remark took me aback. Maybe this was why he had taken me out to watch the athletic young men. “Why do you say that?” I asked. “I don’t see Japan as particularly feminine, or masculine for that matter.”
“You always refer to Japan as ‘she’ and talk of ‘her attributes.’”
“That is not feminine,” I said a little too forcefully. “In the West, we use feminine associations as a sign of affection. Sailors refer to their ships as ‘she,’ hunters give their rifles or shotguns women’s names. That stuff isn’t feminine.”
“So, you must like Japan a lot,” he concluded with a satisfied smile.
“I suppose I do,” I replied, wondering where he was going with this line of conversation.
Emboldened by this atypically personal exchange and perhaps as a way of deflecting the possibility of an awkward exchange, I decided to ask Yoshi about my brief feeling of disappointment at the game. After describing my feelings, admittedly in an offhand way, I asked: “Don’t they know that baseball is an American game?”
He paused to think. “Of course they do. If they have any education, they know that it came over with American teaches right after the Meiji Restoration. I can even tell you the American who first brought bats and balls to Japan. His name was Horace Wilson. Japanese once referred to baseball as Mr. Wilson’s game. But baseball is Japanese, too, though perhaps not as Japanese as sumo,” he added with a smile.
Then he shocked me. “It is so Japanese,” he announced, “that we played it all through the Second World War, even when that government banned all things western.” With this, I felt an uncomfortable level of emotion. Japanese do not readily talk about the war.
For the sake of our evening, I decided that it would be best to back off. “I see,” was all I said. Then I began to talk about what lovely weather we had for our afternoon and how good the food was at the Roppongi recreation of Italy where we planned to dine.
The truth was that I did not “see” at all how baseball could be both Japanese and American. Next day, I decided to verify where this all came from. After work, I went straight to the Kodansha store’s English language section and came away with more than a few history books. I began my quest in my hotel room right after dinner.
There, as Yoshi had informed me, I found Horace Wilson in the 1870s, teaching at Tokyo’s prestigious Ichiko School – a precursor to Tokyo University — and introducing his eager young charges to baseball. He wanted the boys to have a pleasant break from their rigorous study schedule.
He had played in camp as a union soldier during American Civil War and knew it was a way to keep troubles at bay. But the boys had different ideas. Japan at that time had just come through its own civil war. It had brought the Mikado to power, and also imperatives that gave the game a different feeling than it had for Americans.
The Restoration had embraced western ways not, as westerners thought, out of admiration but rather to gain for Japan the power to stand as a peer to the America and Europe. Wilson was there as a part of that continuing effort. The schoolboys at Ichiko had also embraced that effort and saw as part of their duty to Japan the need to master all things western, including Mr. Wilson’s game. No doubt they enjoyed the play, but their patriotic duty to Japan made their approach to practice and the game itself something entirely different in kind to Wilson’s intent.
I imaged poor Horace Wilson watching his boys relentlessly drilling themselves to achieve perfection at what he meant as a break, a pleasant pastime. Though the moves and rules he saw in the boys were those he had learned in the States, he surely must have felt that something very alien was happening on the makeshift field he had devised.
I could hear the American telling the boys to “take it easy,” or using some late nineteenth century expression with the same meaning. His charges, in their turn, must have doubted his motivation. It must have seemed to them that he wanted to hold them back. “Why,” they may have asked themselves, “would he want to do that?”
While the boys at the Ichiko School and others like them at schools and clubs across Japan did their duty to society by perfecting skill at among other things baseball, the cultural tide changed. Intellectuals who had previously endorsed efforts to acquire things western, began to have doubts that the trend was going too far.
The great linguist and early western adopter, Fukuzawa Yukichi, warned Japan than it was taking everything from the West but its best ideas. He reminded Japanese of the value of their ancient culture. Shortly after, another scholar, Naka Chomin, translator of Rousseau’s Social Contract from the original French into Japanese, made similar warnings in his best-selling satire of those who followed the West in every way, A Discourse of Three Drunks on Government. Shortly after clubs and magazines emerged to remind Japanese of their heritage and the dangers of accepting all that was western to the exclusion of everything else. In short order, the Meiji government began to back away from its previously unreserved pro-western push.
The new environment could have gone badly for baseball, but bats and balls had already become Japanese, had even anticipated the new intellectual climate. After all, the boys at the Ichiko Schools and many like them elsewhere in the country had approached the game very differently from the Americans who had brought the equipment and the rule book to Japan.
Indeed, as the nation’s writers and thinkers were beginning to rediscover the virtues of Japan’s ancient samurai society, these baseball teams could claim that they had long since applied venerable samurai attitudes and disciplines to their training. Of course, the youth involved provided no commentary to explain what they had done, but it was evident to any who watched them. The proof came at the ideal moment in the late nineteenth century.
For some years, the American teachers affiliated with the Ichiko School had tried to arrange a tournament between that school’s baseball team and the American expatriates at the exclusive Yokohama Cricket and Athletic Club (YCAC).
At first, the Americans refused to play a Japanese team. They reminded the Ichiko School that non-westerners were forbidden entry to the club, even for a visit. To add to the insulting condescension, they claimed that the game would hardly be fair, since the westerners were so much larger and, they claimed, more athletic than Japanese.
The YCAC’s repeated response could not help but recall the humiliations brought with Commodore Perry’s “black ships” and why Japan was making its great effort in the first place. Rather than sulk, the Ichiko School pressed its challenge until a YCAC yielded. The game date was set for May 23, 1896.
Eyewitness accounts, all American and European, describe the day as sunny with high clouds, much like the day Yoshi and I enjoyed watching the high school boys play at the Tokyo park. The Ichiko team had special permission to enter the exclusive precincts of the YCAC. Western observers describe with disapproval of the rude arrogance of the American team, which is saying something, because their descriptions betray considerable arrogance on their part.
They comment on the diminutive physiques of the Japanese players and mistake their discipline for a lack of energy. Against all western expectations, whether civilly expressed or not, these observers nonetheless describe a route. At the end of nine innings, the score was Ichiko 29 runs, Americans 4. One would hardly describe it as a pitchers’ duel, but it was decisive.
The Americans immediately demanded a rematch. While that was arranged, the headlines went out across all Japan. Whatever the game’s origins, it had served Japan well. The boys had shown that Japan’s way would triumph. The Ichiko School team drove the point home again at the June 5 rematch, at which the boys emerged victorious with a score of 32 runs to the Americans’ 9. At a third game, the Americans reinforced themselves with players from the American fleet anchored in Yokohama harbor and still lost. It was as if the boys and their classic Japanese approach had driven away Perry’s “black ships.”
It was quite a story. By the time I stowed these books in my suitcase for the trip back home, I had a greater understanding of what seemed like a contradiction in Yoshi’s perspective – in the perspectives of Japanese people in general. I certainly looked back on that day in the park differently than I had when I asked my question at dinner. I also had a vague notion of why Japanese men in Savile Row suits feels neither in costume nor as if they are betraying their culture.
I could even see why the Japanese I met once in Wyoming, all in wild-west gear, felt nothing strange about their enthusiasm nor any distance from their Japanese spirit, if that is the right term. Back at work, I had little time for such reflections, but such thoughts did return when I returned to Japan later that summer.
High summer in Tokyo is not my favourite season. I prefer the air conditioning to heat and humidity, but I acquiesced to an invitation to from Yoshi and several other office colleagues to join them at Yokohama stadium. Our little knot of salarymen settled in and gossiped about the office before play began. Since that conversation was in Japanese and at too fast a pace for me, I held myself apart and looked down at the field in bright sunlight.
It was a familiar scene, the perfect grass, the diamond of the baseline, not like the modern fields but with the wide arching expanse of tan earth between first base and third. I thought of my boyhood looking down with excitement at Yankee Stadium’s field and seeing it as a kind of sacred plot. But I knew where I was, and soon all thoughts of the Bronx left me.
Despite the familiarity of the layout, I found myself looking at something entirely foreign. My eye was taking in a Japanese rock garden. The baseline took on the look for all that carefully manicured sand and the bases, safe spaces, took the place of the rocks. Like those wonderful gardens, the scene quickly lost proportionality.
I was simultaneously viewing a kind of bonsai and a baseball diamond and then in seconds, an expanse of the Pacific dotted with three distinct islands. I laughed at myself. If I brought this up to my colleagues, they surely would laugh at me, too. I wondered nonetheless, through my embarrassment, if the diamond does not have this effect on Japanese, subliminally perhaps, that also makes them see the game as more theirs.
My reverie broke when the teams took the field. Then it was all hits and errors, runs and outs. I reengaged colleagues and thoughts of rock gardens and their strange, otherworldly tranquility left for the rest of the day. Indeed, such feelings left for the rest of my busy stay in Japan, bouncing from Tokyo to Osaka to Kobe and back.
Such embarrassing thoughts about baseball and the remarkable power of the Japanese to be what they are waited some years to return, this time at a most unlikely spot. Business had brought me back to Japan in spring, my favourite season. My firm, like so many others, had a little camp near the Imperial Palace for staff to enjoy sake, each other, and, of course, the cherry blossoms. Nothing could be more Japanese. Even though our camp seemed mostly to include the younger staff, I went over to enjoy the blossoms and, I confess, the attentions of the young women as they called attention to themselves by making a fuss over the gaijin.
Perhaps one too many cups of sake made me dreamy again, and I dwelt on how strange this festival is. Here next to the massive and timeless walls of the Imperial Palace we gathered to enjoy one of the most short-lived flashes of beauty on the face of the earth. I was reminded of all the Japanese literature I had read, sadly in translation, and how sensitive it is to the passage of time and its usually debilitating effects on everything. Maybe the contrast of the blossoms and the walls had a special appeal to such a people.
There, next to that ephemeral beauty was something that could almost stop the clock. I recall laughing at myself out loud at that moment. I was glad the “sophisticated” youth around me could not read my thoughts, because they had returned again to baseball. Unlike so many other sports, baseball banishes the clock.
For a time on a sunny afternoon, minutes and seconds, even hours mean nothing. The game paces itself in its own way, measuring time in outs and innings. Theoretically, it could end in less than an hour or take four hours or more. Everyone finds relief in the leisurely pace, but it occurred to me that relief might well be more profound for Japanese than for others. Perhaps here was another reason for baseball’s appeal and for Japanese claims that it belongs more to them than to others.
Life moves on, as is so evident in so much Japanese literature. I visit Japan less frequently these days and have lost touch with Yoshi. I also watch baseball less than I once did and gave up playing a long time before I watched the high-school boys on that brilliant Tokyo afternoon.
Yet I catch a glimpse on TV from time to time or in one or the other New York parks where I take an old man’s walk. And when I do, I think of Japanese baseball at least as much as I remember my own youthful enthusiasms. I can see that important as the game is to us Americans, it is perhaps still more important and meaningful to the Japanese.
And well it should be. If it gives its sense obliquely it nonetheless seems to capture so much of Japan’s past and its people’s spirit. It also has given me an answer, admittedly a vague one, of how the Japanese can use adopted activities to reassert and reaffirm their confidence in the Japanese way.
Bio: Milton Ezrati, intrigued by Japan since his first visit decades ago, is author of Kawari: How Japan’s Economic and Cultural Transformation Will Alter the Balance of Power Among Nations and most recently, Thirty Tomorrows: The Next Three Decades of Demographics, Globalization, and How We Will Live.