Category Archives: History

articles about Japanese baseball history

Recorded history

Truth is a bitch, and while good history tries to uncover it and clarify, what is often passed off as history is actually just an effort to cover up inconvenient realities.

I had an issue with headlines this week touting the brilliant Teruaki Sato’s 19th home run as tying an NPB record. It’s not that it isn’t a record of sorts, but that the purpose of calling it a record was not to illuminate the truth but to mislead.

We like to think of Japan as being hyper-organized and at some levels it is, but the lousy way NPB presents its data only encourages media charlatans to pick and choose records at will.

If you look at NPB’s records web page, for example, you’ll see that there are no career leaders for on-base percentage. We KNOW the career leader would be Sadaharu Oh’s .446 because we can go back and calculate it retroactively, but NPB doesn’t.

No. 2 on the list now–although likely to fall to No. 3 behind current No. 3 Hiromitsu Ochiai by the time his career ends– is SoftBank Hawks star Yuki Yanagita, but you can’t learn that by asking NPB, since it doesn’t publish a career leaders list.

The problem with Sato’s “record” is not that it isn’t a record, but that it is misrepresented. His 19th home run tied him with former Giant Yoshinobu Takahashi for the most among left-handed-hitting first-year pros–not all first-year players, and not even left-handed-hitting rookies.

Until 1965, only first-year pros were considered rookies. From 1966 to 1975, rookies were players who had never played in a first-team game prior to that season. Since 1976, rookies have been players with less than six years as a pro, with 60 or fewer plate appearances and 30 or fewer innings pitched. Conditions change, but media stubborness doesn’t.

The Japanese media won’t refer to anyone other than a first-year pro as a rookie. Second- and third-year pros win lots of Rookie of the Year Awards — because they’re eligible, but the media will never ever refer to those guys as “shinjin” (rookies), even after they’ve won the award.

It’s not life and death, but the point of having records is to know what happened. Unfortunately, playing fast and loose with the definitions does the opposite. Ninety-nine percent of the time the sole reason for reporting records in the media is to sell newspapers, get page views or clicks rather than inform.

Such was last year’s propaganda campaign surrounding Tomoyuki Sugano, for the longest streak of consecutive winning decisions from the start of the season — by a pitcher who pitched on Opening Day. It’s not the dumbest record I’ve ever heard of, but it probably got more play in the media than any dumb record in a long time.

I love Sato, and he has an excellent chance of setting the rookie home run record this year, but in order to say he tied a record, the headline writers had to exclude right-handed hitters and all players who were technically rookies but not first-year pros, but that didn’t stop them.

Good history, the attempt to get at the real human side of the story, is simply too inconvenient for people who demand things in black and white and who will take easy shortcuts to fulfill that need.

Japan is no different from other countries in its dislike of good history since the truth depicts countries as being populated by fallible individuals who can be swayed by self-interest, and not just by courageous civic-minded heroic folk.

When I interviewed for my sports desk job on the Yomiuri Shimbun’s English-language desk in 1998, I told the suits at the interview that I’d studied Japanese history, focusing on the end of the Tokugawa Shogunate and the Meiji restoration. They surprised me by asking which of the two predominant views I held of the restoration.

This is a loaded question because “official” Japanese history has changed to suit the geopolitical goals of Japan and the United States. After the communists won the Chinese Civil War in 1949, the U.S. ambassador to Japan, historian Edwin O. Reischauer, led the way in creating a new history to combat the threat of communist expansion. This changed the view of the restoration from an authoritarian military coup into a proto democratic revolution.

This was necessary for the U.S. since it had just restored Japan’s autocratic oligarchs to power in order to combat communism, and it wouldn’t do to call the government fundamentally anti-democratic.

So I told the interviewers from the rightward-leaning Yomiuri that both sides had merits, instead of speaking my mind that they were eagerly serving as tools of antidemocratic authoritarian oligarchs. I had enough of those battles ahead of me, and it wouldn’t do to let them block me before I could get in the company door and occupy a strong defensive position.

Now, since the Reischauer-inspired alternate truth view is “official” every study that reaches a different conclusion is heresy, which is the look I get from Japanese journalists when I ask why they don’t call rookies what they are.

Sometimes the truth is just a pain in the ass.

It’s 1940 all over again

When the coronavirus pandemic hit and talk started of postponing the Olympics in February 2020, at least one Japanese politician, Adolph Hitler fan boy Taro Aso I believe, said, “These are the cursed Olympics of the 40-year cycle.”

He was referring to the 1980 Moscow games, boycotted by Japan and other U.S. allies to protest Russia’s invasion of Afghanistan, and the 1940 Tokyo — and later Helsinki — games that were interrupted by World War II. He was particularly upset that Tokyo should lose two Olympics due to causes beyond its control, although Japan actually gave up the 1940 games in 1939 because it wanted to use its resources for its war on the continent.

But what really brings us back to 1940, is not the games that didn’t happen but the war that did. Japan at that time was busy exploiting Manchuria, relocating excess population there in order to relocate the region’s natural resources. That of course led to escalation and war with China and trade sanctions.

When those trade sanctions were expanded to include crude oil, Japan was faced with a national defense time bomb. Without more oil, the Imperial Navy was counting the number days before it could no longer defend the nation. The answer, was of course a negotiated settlement, but that would require the Imperial Army to stand down.

The army already knew it was overextended in China and threatened by Russia in Manchuria but wanted to earn political points at the expense of the navy by having the navy’s cowardice become the public excuse for ending the conflict.

Neither the army or the navy had any doubts about the outcome of a war with the United States, so the navy was as certain the army would cooperate to avoid that calamity as the army was that the navy would go lose face rather than fight an unwinnable war.

Both sides miscalculated and sat there like truculent children at every Imperial conference, hoping the young Emperor would save them from themselves, but he didn’t and the thing everyone wanted to avoid the most came to pass.

Japan now finds itself at a similar crossroads.

It can cut its losses and move forward or it can press through with the Tokyo Olympics that nobody really thinks is a good idea. The ones who pulled the plug 14 months ago, the national federations of the United States, are good to go, because their interests — the health of their athletes — have been secured by the IOC.

Sure, overseas federations may be worried about the burden the games are going to place on the Japanese public, but that concern rightly belongs to the decision makers in Tokyo. If it were unsafe, the federations’ leaders think, Japan would pull the plug to protect its residents.

In case you’re wondering, people have asked the Japanese government if it could cancel, and the government, like it did when asked a year ago if it could take stronger proactive measures against the coronavirus, said it was not possible. “It’s against the law,” the lawmakers said.

Now, these same hacks say, “The Olympics don’t belong to us. They belong to the IOC and only the IOC can cancel them.”

But that’s the Imperial Navy asking the Imperial Army to help it out of a jam, when the Imperial Army, or in this case, IOC President Thomas Bach, has no interest in doing so.

No. There is absolutely no chance a Japanese government will stand up and do what’s right, and zero chance that Bach will help them do what’s right. The only thing that’s going to save Japan from itself is for Japanese citizens to appeal not to their own government but to appeal to those who can ACTUALLY make a difference, America’s powerful swimming and athletics federations.

Without them, there is no U.S. TV money and no Olympics. Why should the U.S. sports federations care about Japan’s citizens. They shouldn’t really, but given the government’s actions here so far, it would be hard to imagine anyone cares less for Japan’s residents than its own government does. So we beg you America, once more do the Japanese people a huge favor and save them from their own government.