Japan doesn’t have a CBA, but it does have a charter, the “Pro Yakyu Kyoyaku,” approved by the 12 teams, that establishes its operating rules. Japan’s players’ union has the right — thanks to Japan’s fairly liberal labor laws — as opposed to its often draconian labor customs — to approve changes to their working conditions.
Years ago, former NPB star Leon Lee grumbled how hard it was in his then job as a scout for the Chicago Cubs to sign hungry Japanese players, and a large reason for that, he said, are the good working conditions of Japanese pro ballplayers — even those who are not yet ready for action at the top level.
Taking care of the kids
There are three tiers of NPB players. The lowest tier is comprised of players on non-roster developmental or “ikusei” contracts. These have a minimum salary of 2.4 million yen ($21,000) a year, cannot be activated to play in first-team Pacific and Central league games but can play in official minor league games in the Eastern and Western leagues. These players do not count against each team’s 70-man organizational roster.
They can, however, be signed to a uniform NPB contract with a 4.4 million yen ($40,000) minimum salary, where they can be activated to the first team, but do count against the 70-man roster. Teams can only reserve players on developmental contracts for three years.
Each team can also have up to 29 players on its first team active roster – although only 25 are game usable on any given day. These players’ salary – if under 14.3 million yen ($128,000) are raised to that amount every day they are on the active roster. In 2020, that goes up to 16 million yen ($144,000).
In addition to living wages, young players have access to room and board at team dormitories, weight rooms and training facilities.
No need to sugar coat it
The Nippon Ham Fighters easily secured the negotiating rights to Shohei Ohtani at NPB’s 2012 amateur draft because the 11 other teams assumed he would sign his first pro contract with a major league team.
So five years before a host of MLB teams mapped out plans to secure Ohtani’s services, the Fighters did the same. A huge part of that was an explanation of what it meant to sign a minor league contract with a major league team, the pay, the working conditions and the cultural difficulties. The club also pointed out the relatively poor record of Japanese athletes who had turned pro overseas.
The Fighters approach, which included an opportunity to pitch and hit, and supposedly an offer to be made available to the majors via the posting system, eventually swayed him.
For a young Japanese player of exceptional talent, the advantages of turning pro here are numerous, since you can make a side deal with teams that is not made public and could include about anything under the sun as long as it does not violate the game’s fundamental rules.
The Japanese way
In MLB, minor league salaries and major league minimums are strictly monitored to make sure clubs don’t engage in private deals that would violate the terms of the CBA that limit the bargaining power of amateurs.
Japan has similar rules for first-year players, but after that teams can pay their players whatever they like. First-year players coming out of the draft are limited to:
- 100 million yen signing bonus ($900,000) *
- 50 million yen in incentives *
- 16 million yen in salary
*-The signing bonus and incentive caps are limits agreed to by the teams that have not been formally added to the baseball charter and thus are not technically “rules.”
Until recently, it was customary for teams to exceed the signing bonus limits by paying cash under the table. In 2006, then Lotte Marines manager Bobby Valentine hit out at teams violating these “guidelines.” Shigeru Murata, then secretary general of the Pacific League estimated at the average first-round draft pick in NPB was getting in the neighborhood of $2.5 million under the table.
See also “NPB under the table.”
Players ineligible to enter through the draft, primarily foreign nationals who have not played amateur ball in Japan, have no salary restrictions. This allowed the SoftBank Hawks to sign Carter Stewart Jr to a six-year $6 million deal last summer.
Under-the-table deals and private personal-service contracts are how NPB teams do business with players. These can even include a promise to be posted to the big leagues in the future. All multiyear deals follow this pattern in that they only specify the ways in which the official salaries will be calculated in future one-year official contracts filed with NPB.
Because these deals are not spoken about, it is common for top executives at teams to be unaware of their details. And because annual salaries are reported only to NPB and the players union — for union members — the estimates in the media are simply what reporters are told by the teams or the players and often don’t reflect reality.
The sky’s the limit
Once players are under contract, however, the teams are allowed to raise their salaries as much as possible. This being Japan, teams are expected to reward big seasons by players on one-year contracts with large pay raises and no one asks questions.
The Central League’s 2019 rookie of the year, slugging first baseman Munetaka Murakami, entered last season under the first-team minimum, making 8 million yen ($72,000). His 2020 salary has been reported at 45 million ($405,000), well more than double the first-team minimum.
— For another take on this phenomenon, see “Marvin Miller’s legacy and Japan.”
The only limitations on salaries have to do with pay cuts and minimum salaries.
Players earning 100 million yen ($900,000) can be forced to take pay cuts up to 25 percent, while those earning more than 100 million yen can be forced to accept 40 percent pay cuts. Players offered pay cuts in excess of those figures can opt to be released so they can sign with another team.
Japanese players have the option of arbitration as early as their second pro contract provided he and the team have been unable to agree on a figure for the following year.
The commissioner must form an arbitration committee upon receipt of a request. The player signs a blank contract and is considered signed, with the amount to be filled in within 30 days of receiving the request for arbitration. The player and team each submit a figure and after hearing from one representative from each side the committee submits its decision.
In the seven arbitration hearing since the Hanshin Tigers’ Leon McFadden became the first filer after the 1972 season, the team’s figure was accepted four times. The committee once selected a figure closer to the team’s, and twice slightly closer to the player’s. No figure submitted for a player has been approved.
While Ryozo Kato will forever be known as the commissioner who lost his job because a disloyal subordinate secretly orchestrated changes to NPB’s official balls in 2013, the teams were eager to get rid of him after he introduced third-party arbitrators in the hearing for Seibu Lions pitcher Hideaki Wakui.
While the Lions didn’t actually lose, Wakui’s final salary was far closer to the one he’d requested than any in history. The Lions lost because outsiders listening to Seibu’s unsupported statement “Wakui pitched poorly down the stretch,” looked at the evidence and determined the claim was without merit.
The Lions could have argued that Wakui’s performance had dropped off from his previous norms, but instead they pulled something out of their butts and Japan’s owners were dumbstruck when non-baseball people rejected the unsubstantiated claims of baseball insiders.