Kuriyama tip toes through Japan’s history minefield

Fighters manager Hideki Kuriyama scratched the surface of baseball history on Wednesday with his 527th victory with the Nippon Ham Fighters.

In the Nikkan Sports online edition for May 8, Daisuke Yamashita used Kuriyama’s achievement to provide some insight into history’s web as he moved past Hall of Fame manager Shigeru Mizuhara as No. 2 in career wins with the franchise.

The original story in Japanese is HERE.

While Yamashita does a good job of explaining Kuriyama’s appreciation of Mizuhara’s legacy, the whole exercise represents another example of Japan’s difficult relationship with history and tradition.

In itself, Kuriyama’s achievement is akin to passing Babe Ruth on the Red Sox’s all-time home run list, because Mizuhara is better known as the man who laid the foundation’s for the most successful period in the history of the Yomiuri Giants.

The franchise that from 1954 to 1972 was known as the Toei Flyers, whose principle owner was the Toei movie studio, was taken over by Nippon Ham in 1974.

Mizuhara quit the Giants after Yomiuri’s founder, Matsutaro Shoriki said the skipper had brought shame on the Giants in 1960 for losing the Central League pennant after five-straight championships. Extra credit to you if that sentence summons an image of former Giants owner Tsuneo Watanabe and Hall of Fame manager Tatsunori Hara.

Unlike Hara, who waited for a second chance with Yomiuri, Mizuhara jumped to the Pacific League’s flyers in 1961, managed them to their second consecutive runner-up finish before winning the franchise’s first title the following year.

To return to the present, Kuriyama spoke of Mizuhara and his great rival, Osamu Mihara, who never managed the franchise, but who was the team’s first president under Nippon Ham in 1974. Mihara had been supplanted as Giants manager by Mizuhara, and who – after building the Nishitetsu Lions into a PL powerhouse – sparked Mizuhara’s Yomiuri exodus in 1960 by winning the CL pennant with the unheralded Taiyo Whales.

“They were baseball’s founding fathers. I think of them together, Mr. Mihara and Mr. Mizuhara, as belonging to that one era,” Yamashita quoted Kuriyama as saying after Wednesday’s 1-0 win over the Orix Buffaloes.

According to Yamashita, Kuriyama, a lover of history, spent time over the offseason reading Japanese classic history texts, the “Kojiki” and the “Nihon Shoki.”

“Pretty much everything that happens is something someone has experienced in the past. Things really don’t change that much. I’m going looking in those texts,” Kuriyama has said according to Yamashita.

The best part of the story is that while the word “history” is often dragged out as a tired excuse for doing something unimaginative, Kuriyama has shown he is not terribly interested in defending old ways. The same man who conceived of – or at least takes credit for – the idea that Shohei Ohtani might both hit and pitch, is this season adopting extreme defensive shifts and experimenting with different starting pitching and relieving assignments.

In referencing both Mihara and Mizuhara, Kuriyama both speaks to his own nature while still paying his respects to Japanese baseball’s creed that eliminating negatives equals a positive.

Mizuhara, an unrelenting perfectionist, in ways represents the popular notion that zero defects is perfection, while Mihara, a brash innovator, represents, I think, more of Kuriyama’s true nature as someone who strives to be an early adaptor on the cutting edge.

It’s a difficult balance to strike in Japan, because innovation carries the possibility of an implied criticism of how things were done before by the game’s greats.

Less-established innovators who fail to pay lip service to their esteemed predecessors by kissing dogma’s ass, often end up being cast out for their trouble. The trick is to do things differently, while making excuses for it, and not appearing to be too proud about having coming up with something different and giving everyone else credit. So far, it’s been working for Kuriyama.

Jim Allen

sports editor for a wire service in Tokyo

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