On Tuesday, Japan’s media said Munetaka Murakami’s 52nd home run tied him for second most in the race for the “record” by a Japanese person, which it isn’t. In the U.S., MLB network broadcast a panel discussing MLB’s “real home run records” and not Barry Bonds’ 73 home run season like MAGA Republicans discussing the 2020 presidential election Donald Trump lost.
In both cases, the answer is probably not outright racism or identity politics, but the need to promote already deserving story lines to make an even bigger splash, because reality and truth never seems enough anymore.
So, if there is no “record” within reach, why not manipulate the list of individual accomplishments by excluding some or adding others to make it a better story?
In Murakami’s case, Japan does both with ambiguous language to define players. Japan is secretive about its players’ citizenship, which it should be, because many players are Korean nationals, or have Korean heritage since Koreans are routinely discriminated against here.
The expression “Japanese player” tells us only that an athlete turned pro out of Japanese amateur ball, regardless of citizenship, or is a Japanese citizen.
This makes non-Japanese such as Taiwan’s Sadaharu Oh or the late Chen Ta-feng – known in Japan as Yasuaki Taiho – and longtime former Fighters and Giants outfielder Yang Dai-kang, and former Tigers outfielder Lin Wei-chu, “Japanese players” not because of citizenship or birthplace – although Oh was born in Japan – but because they played amateur ball here before turning pro.
Murakami’s 52nd home run ranked his season total in a tie with Katsuya Nomura and Hiromitsu Ochiai as sixth best all time. No Japanese person has ever hit more, but the Japanese media has adopted Oh as Japanese, and to be honest he’s about as Japanese as one can be, and was registered as a domestic player. He hit a then-record 55 in 1964, and is tied for second now with Alex Cabrera (2001) and Tuffy Rhodes (2002).
Next up the list for Murakami in his pursuit of Wladimir Balentien’s single-season record of 60 is the 54 Randy Bass hit for Hanshin in 1985, but the focus is now on Oh – because “Japaneseness” sells.
While some of the more meticulous outlets said Murakami’s home run tied him for second most among players “identified with Japan” using the word “日本勢” (nihonzei), the Hochi Shimbun said his home runs were second most by a Japanese person “日本人” (nihonjin).
This implies Oh’s a Japanese citizen, and overlooks the truth that children of Japanese mothers were not able to receive citizenship at birth until about 30 years ago.
The media means to honor Oh by calling him Japanese, and it’s meant in the best way, but it’s also a lie and denies the complexity of who he really is as someone who was a witness to discrimination because of his Chinese father. To me, that is a better story, but not one that’s easy to write headlines about, and “easy” is apparently part of the equation.
It’s no surprise that this headline was published by the Hochi Shimbun, owned by Yomiuri, whose Giants used to themselves as “100 percent Japanese” despite having Oh and at least one Korean star, pitcher Masaichi Kaneda on their roster – but no foreign registered players after Hawaiian star Wally Yonamine was banished.
The point is, the media is not about the truth. If I were to write at the day job, “Oh is Japanese,” it would be factually incorrect but no one would care because the Japanese media writes the same thing.
Japan’s push for better headlines creates what I call trivia records, like the one that got so much play in 2020, when Tomoyuki Sugano opened the season by winning 13 straight decisions.
In 2013, Masahiro Tanaka went 24-0, the record for consecutive winning decisions from the start of the season, but in order for Sugano’s accomplishment to make a bigger splash, it was treated as a record as “The longest winning streak starting on Opening Day.”
By the end of the 2013 season, Tanaka had won 28 straight decisions dating back to the summer of 2012, but because he missed Opening Day in 2013 after playing in the WBC, it created a loophole for headlines and the trivia was treated like a real thing, so much so that I was taken to task at the day job for not making a big deal about Sugano’s “record,” and for writing that it wasn’t actually a record.
So, the next time I make a factual error, I might have to ask why it’s so important now when people are urging us to write things that are patently false because it sells and everybody else is doing it.
In the case of Judge, discussing the conditions under which Babe Ruth set his record, against all-white opposition, and Roger Maris set his with the help of tiny expansion ballparks, and Barry Bonds set his are all interesting and valid, but saying “This number is real and this one isn’t?” my goodness.
What I want to know is when did the world become run by 5-year-olds?