In Japan, the New Year’s holiday is the granddaddy of them all, with endless rituals, new years cards, greeting the year with a visit to the shrine, a thorough house cleaning, special new years food, and an endless supply of the most annoying television programming imaginable.
In addition to the annual movie marathons, and Kohaku song festival and boxing matches, the special flavor of this year’s new years season was Shohei Ohtani. Every major network has had at least one Ohtani special explaining his 2021 career season with the Angels.
One program which was actually pretty good caught my attention, largely because of its title: “The Shohei Ohtani and Daisuke Matsuzaka Revolutions.”
The program capitalized on the confluence of Ohtani having a career year, and Matsuzaka retiring. Most of the air time was spent on three players, Matsuzaka, Tsuyoshi Wada and Kyuji Fujikawa,
The trio, who like Ohtani all had Tommy John surgery after moving to the majors, analyzed Ohtani’s success, with Wada and Fujikawa also talking about the impact Matsuzaka had on them in high school and in their pro careers.
Because Fujikawa and Wada are two of the most interesting guys I’ve interviewed, and I absolutely love talking with them, it was pretty interesting. But as much as I enjoyed the program, I still can’t get my head around the ridiculous title.
Simply put, there hasn’t been anything like either an Ohtani or Matsuzaka revolution.
What Ohtani has done has been revolutionary, and Matsuzaka’s signing with the Boston Red Sox in 2007 was a watershed moment between Japan’s major leagues and America’s, but a real revolution? where ideas are spread and acted upon? Sorry, but Japan isn’t really the country for that.
The history of change in Japan has generally been a history of change from the top, of regime change by a coup.
Up until World War II, the most overarching changes have been brought about by dissatisfied elites. That was the case with the Meiji restoration. Although now touted by the right as a proto-democratic revolution, it was a coup carried out by reactionary forces dissatisfied with the chaos of Japan’s collapsing feudal order that wished to establish better ways to subject the population.
After World War II, Japan underwent what was called “a revolution without revolutionaries” as the occupation rammed reforms down the throats of a government it controlled, including writing its constitution.
But revolution as in changing the way people think about fundamental issues? That’s not really Japan’s thing.
Take Matsuzaka for instance.
Because of his high school exploits, pro baseball players who graduated from high school in March 1999, were known collectively as the “Matsuzaka generation.”
Japan made a hero out of a young man who was strong, athletic and diligent with an extraordinarily thick and durable ulnar collateral ligament that allowed that talent to survive workloads that would have destroyed the arms of 95 percent of the youngsters trying to emulate him.
Matsuzaka was more reactionary standard-bearer than revolutionary, an affirmation of Japan’s system of nurturing quality pro pitching arms by destroying most of them before they finish high school, while the Ohtani revolution if it happens, will come to Japan the same way Japan’s constitution courtesy of the U.S.
Japanese may be amazed at what Ohtani is doing in the States and are thrilled to death that he makes Japanese baseball look good in the eyes of the world, but while Japanese fans, like American fans, would really, really want to see more two-way players, Japanese baseball people are fighting that trend as hard as they can.
Although Japan has a reputation for engineering innovation, innovation is so often a matter of refining the heck out of something beyond what was thought possible, taking an accepted notion and making it work. But Ohtani made a mockery of the tired dogma that success can only come through excessive refinement in either pitching or hitting.
At first, those who publicly invested in that dogma said it was impossible. When Ohtani proved them wrong, they insisted he could only reach his true ceiling by doing one or the other.
I swear there were people in Japan who this year said, “But what if he only focused on hitting, how much better could he be?”
If he comes close to repeating what he did in 2021, the chorus will shift to “no one can do it but Ohtani.”
Japanese baseball loves innovation but prefers it to be quiet and come hand in hand with an explanation that it is an extension of the old teachings and not a direct contradiction of them.
The real Ohtani revolution, if it comes to Japan, will be because MLB teams figure out how to develop and sustain two-way players as regulars. Once that happens, a Japanese manager will say, “I don’t believe in two-way players, but it was our only solution to the problem we faced.
When it succeeds, more and more will try because it’s used in the U.S. until the old prohibition, like the dogged belief in having starters finish games after throwing excessive numbers of pitches, will just fade away.