Today, I met a friend’s son who went through Japan’s youth baseball culture and lived to tell if not to love baseball. Talking to coaches, doctors and professional ballplayers gives you one perspective. Talking to people who’ve had it impressed into their bodies without superstar talent is another.
The young man in question, Shogo, is the product of an international marriage, a Japanese father and a Chinese mother, who took up playing baseball when his friend tried it in elementary school. Although not a star, baseball punched his ticket to a good high school and a good university. The physical training and discipline made it easy for him to pass the tests needed to beat out a huge number of candidates in order to become a firefighter in Tokyo.
“I didn’t like baseball,” he said. “I didn’t like it when I was in junior high school. I didn’t like it in high school, and I didn’t like it in university,” Shogo said as he described how his investment in the sport contributed to his painting himself into a corner.
“I couldn’t quit because my parents had invested in supporting me. And I wasn’t good at studying. If I quit baseball, I’d have to study hard to get into high school and college. That’s not an easy road for many people who are in baseball.”
He said that when at baseball training camp during the holidays, the players would get a few hours to do their homework, but it wasn’t enough.
“I’d end up doing my homework at school during class,” he said. “I’d be in one class and kind of paying attention and looking like I was taking notes, but at the same time trying to kind of finish my homework for the next class. Sometimes I couldn’t and would have to ask my friends for help.”
Although he was big and able to endure the long hours of physical training at this junior high school-age baseball club and at high school and college, he said a lot of it didn’t make sense to him.
Japanese sports dictate that kids run. By run, I mean a lot: long distances and all year round. It doesn’t matter what sport you’re taking part in. In baseball, one reason for this is that the fields necessary for actually fielding and hitting are scarce and practice hours long, so running becomes an essential element of the routine.
“For hours, we would run around the field,” he said. “They said it was to build up our strength, but weight training would certainly have been more efficient. I could kind of understand the running if baseball were a sport that required constant running. Baseball’s more like a lot of sprints. But we ran and ran.”
Asked about the Japanese custom of teaching fast left-handed-hitting kids to hit the ball on the ground, Shogo said that instruction wasn’t limited to left-handed hitters. He batted right-handed and said he wasn’t particularly fast, but got the same spiel.
“We would get shouted at if we hit the ball in the air,” he said. “The coaches explained it like this: ‘If you hit it on the ground, the defense has to catch it, throw it, and then catch the throw. So they have three chances to make a mistake. If you hit it in the air, you only give them one chance to mess up.'”
“I never liked that because it was a negative approach. Most of our opponents were not strong fielding team so we practiced how to beat those teams. I think that’s a Japanese thing, a strong focus on mistakes. If you make a mistake, you are scolded. Sometimes, of course, I was scolded and understood why it was necessary, but it’s such a part of the routine. You make a mistake and you get yelled at. It’s tiresome.”
No matter what the coaches during his career tried to teach him and his teammates, he said there was very little room for individual exploration.
“We were taught, if this is the situation do this. In that situation do that,” he said. “For myself I just simplified things. If I had the ball, I threw were I could get the out. Throw the ball there, OK. That was usually safe. If the situation that occurred was close enough to what we practiced, I could figure it out.”
“But a lot of my teammates, as soon as you changed things even slightly, they were lost.”
Recently graduated from university, Shogo talked about the changes in the game around the world and how no one would realize the game changed if they watched his college team.
“Right now, everyone’s talking about the flyball revolution. But my university manager, all he ever does is call for the bunt. That’s all we did. That was the answer to everything: bunt.”
One area where he said Japan’s amateur game was improving was the decreasing tolerance for brutality within the teams themselves. Former Chunichi Dragons cleanup hitter Kenichi Yazawa has talked about his days as a freshman at Waseda University, when upperclassmen would punch him if he threatened their spot on the team by hitting the ball farther in practice.
Yazawa said that when he became captain as a senior, he was unable to ban that kind of nonsense, but told the players that no underclassmen could be harassed behind his back.
“That’s one area that’s changed quite a lot,” Shogo said. “Sure some minor stuff happens but nothing like that.”
“I got bullied in my youth club a little, but compared to the shit I went through playing for my elementary school team (for being half Chinese), it was nothing.”