"Besuboru"         page 3

  The Japanese attitude toward practice also reflects a different cultural approach. Japanese teams are allowed a maximum of two Westerners (gaijin, or "outsiders," not necessarily a derogatory label). Most American ballplayers are literally in for a rude awakening when they begin practice, Japanese style. Beginning at dawn and continuing till dark, workouts resemble a Marine Corps drill instructor's most sadistic fantasy of Boot Camp Hell. Commonly referred to as death or gattsu (guts) drills, these exercises in marathon running, fielding (a thousand ground balls in succession), and batting allow the player to demonstrate effort (doryoku) and fighting spirit.

These highly prized attributes are an extension of the samurai concept of bushido, the way of the warrior. This work ethic is reflected in all aspects of society: each and every sarariman (salaryman--worker) is expected to have it. The Japanese don't play baseball, they work it.

American ballplayers consider this approach foolhardy. Practicing while tired is thought to produce bad habits and increase the risk of injury. They go out to the field, stretch, warm up for forty-five minutes, knock the ball around for a while and then go out and have a few beers with the guys. To them, baseball is not designed to test one's loyalty, self-control, moral discipline, and selflessness. What Westerners call a pastime becomes, in the hands of the Japanese, a rigorous spiritual form. Needless to say, most gaijin ballplayers in Japan don't last long.

I recently attended a ballgame outside of Osaka. Initially, my attention was drawn to the fans. In the more expensive box seats, people were seated quietly, watched the goings-on in the field with the same detachment and reserve typical of Japanese social demeanor. But in the cheap seats along the first- and third-base lines, a different atmosphere prevailed. Five or six oendan, or fan clubs, were cheering on the hometown Kintetsu Buffaloes. Each group was trying to outdo the others. Huge banners were being waved, and the aisles were clogged with rows of bright happi-coated cheerleaders with samurai headbands and megaphones. They were exhorting the fans to yell and chant together, and to drum their plastic megaphones in a never-ending rhythm. The whole stadium pulsed with energy.

In many Japanese stadiums, fans spur their team on with whistles, gongs, taiko drums, even frying pans. The fervor and cumulative sound is not to be believed. One New York television producer described a long afternoon spent in the middle of a Yomiuri Giants' oendan:  "These people are lunatics! There's more noise here than the World Series and the Army-Navy game combined. How do they keep it up?"

The fan clubs point out another function of baseball in Japanese society. The average sarariman works hard, and is expected to hide his true feelings and desires during the business day in deference to the company. And when alone or in a small group, this attitude continues (as in the case of the small, quiet groups of fans). But the oendan is a perfect escape valve for the internalized emotions and pressures of daily life. There is nothing better than to get together with other like-minded fanatics and sing, say, the Tokyo Giants' fight song at the top of one's collective lungs:

To the sky with fighting soul,
The ball soars and soars with burning flames.
Aah...Giants. Ever proud of the name
Their courage lights up the field. Giants...Giants...
Go...Go...Giants Troop.

Like literature, art, music, and theater, sport can reveal a lot about a nation's cultural identity. Jacques Barzun once said,  "Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball."  And Suishu Tobitsa sums it up pretty well, too: "Baseball is more than just a game. It has eternal value. Through it one learns the beautiful and noble spirit of Japan."


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