Japan’s favorite game

Shogo Akiyama, center, appears set to follow teammate Kazuo Matsui (left) to the majors.

Shogo Akiyama demonstrated Monday that he knows the game, not baseball, but Japan’s tradition of avoiding what you mean so that others will imply your intent without the necessity of being blunt or confrontational.

“All I can say (about playing in the major leagues in 2020) is that the possibility is not zero.”

–Seibu Lions center fielder Shogo Akiyama

This linguistic genre, known as “tatemae” is akin to lip service on steroids. It would be an exaggeration to say that Japan runs on tatemae, but not by much.

When Akiyama’s Seibu Lions teammate, Yusei Kikuchi was asked on Oct. 21 what he planned to do after the Lions announced they would post the pitcher, Kikuchi stuck his hands in his pockets and said, “Shucks guys. I’ve never given much thought to playing in the majors,” or something to that extent.

Despite this disclaimer, a source close to Akiyama has since disclosed that the lefty had been planning the move for years. This effort includes studying English every week, testing out a two-seam fastball in 2016, and hiring a pitching analysis company this year to help him improve his pitches in anticipation of such a move.

On Dec. 3 Akiyama refused a long term deal with the Lions that would have kept him in Japan’s Pacific League through 2021 and prevented him from exercising his option to file for international free agency next autumn. Since then, it has been a kind of open secret that he has the majors in his sights.

And though it appeared Akiyama might avoid the issue altogether, he proved in the end that he might too blunt to remain in Japan, when he clarified his position directly.

“I’ll need to put up decent numbers or its no dice. If I have something left to prove here, then I can’t really go to the majors,” he said.

My favorite story of Japan’s of linguistic two step is from 1999, when Kazuhiro Sasaki spoke to reporters at the Yokohama BayStars’ minor league facility in the waning days of the season. It was widely expected that Japan’s leading closer would file for free agency and bolt for the majors at the first opportunity — which he did.

“How do you respond when scouts say you could be the best closer in baseball,” I asked Sasaki, who answered that he was happy to hear such talk but had never given free agency a thought.

“It’s something I’ll have to think about going forward,” he said.

Two days later, the front page of Japan’s Nikkan Sports said, “Sasaki to be free agent.” The day after, it was “Sasaki headed for majors.”

A year ago, I asked Hiroshima Carp second baseman Yusei Kikuchi if he had any interest in the majors. His answer, “I’m not the kind of player who succeeds over there.”

This summer I asked the same question.

“Oh yes. I’d like to go. I’ve been training in America in the offseason, and I can’t wait.”

So I don’t want to say Akiyama IS going, but I will say the chance of his staying is not quite zero.

Jim Allen

sports editor for a wire service in Tokyo

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