Ballplayer's homecoming stirs conflict for Japanese

Some see Yankee as hero

others fear U.S. dominance

March 29, 2004|By Gady A. Epstein | Gady A. Epstein,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

TOKYO - Japanese children swinging at the batting cages pretend they're him, the news photographers at the ballpark act as if there's no one here besides him, and when the newspaper headlines scream his nickname, "Godzilla," the exclamation marks are taken for granted.

That's the public story of New York Yankee Hideki Matsui's triumphant homecoming, Japan's most beloved baseball slugger returning to a unified display of adulation from a proud nation. He came back for major-league baseball's regular-season opener here tomorrow night, and for an exhibition yesterday against his old team, Tokyo's Yomiuri Giants.

But Japanese society, perhaps more than any other, is one of public stories shared and private feelings masked, a social peculiarity characterized by the Japanese terms tatemae and honne. The happy tale of Godzilla's return is certainly an authentic one, more than just a facade of tatemae, but it also has a complicated inner honne, a concealed anxiety about the surging popularity of major-league baseball and the declining state of the Japanese pastime he left behind.

Matsui ensured that the public homecoming story would be a good one. He hit a home run yesterday in his first at-bat to earn a standing ovation from a sellout crowd of 55,000 at the Tokyo Dome. The fans chanted "Home run, home run, Matsui!" every time he went to the plate and booed in disappointment when he was walked. Even when he was just standing in the outfield, television cameras regularly made sure the viewers at home saw him waiting for the next batted ball.

His fans seemed satisfied enough as he helped his Yankees beat the hometown Giants 6-2, but some might also reflect on how Japan defines success.

"In the world of baseball and other American sports, players must go to America to become the world's best. This is an imperialistic act, promoting the American way of sports to the world," Masayuki Tamaki, a sportswriter and author of the book What Is Sports?, said in an interview. "This American colonization can be seen behind Major League Baseball's strategy for the Japanese market."


This is the flip side of a phenomenon viewed favorably by many fans here, the "Japanification" of major-league baseball in the past decade.

Three of Japan's best players are successful stars in the United States - Hideo Nomo of the Los Angeles Dodgers, Ichiro Suzuki of the Seattle Mariners and now Matsui - creating a huge following among fans here. They get up early in the morning to watch their heroes' games on television or buy travel packages to see them in person. And this year, hopes are high for another star, New York Mets shortstop Kazuo Matsui, or "Little Matsui," who is not related to Hideki Matsui.

Last year, the league's 272 games on broadcast and satellite television in Japan drew an average audience of 1.5 million people, according to league officials, and one of every six households watched Game 1 of last year's World Series, featuring Matsui's Yankees. Even players who struggle in the United States can produce a spike in viewership here, so long as they are in the lineup or on the pitching mound.

"Japanification" has begun to accomplish what major-league baseball owners want, increasing fan recognition here of teams with Japanese players, especially the Yankees, and building a "brand" for their television broadcasts, sponsorships and Americana merchandising. The league earned an estimated $60 million in revenues from Japan last year, more than from all other foreign countries combined. More than 300 games will be televised this year, the first of a reported six-year, $275 million television deal. The league opened an office in Tokyo last year and is planning a baseball World Cup event, possibly as soon as next year, to extend its reach here and elsewhere.

But it is not clear whether all this will help develop or undermine Japan's proud baseball tradition, which dates to at least 1872, when an American teacher in Tokyo, Horace Wilson, introduced the game to his students at what would become Tokyo University. Since then, Japanese baseball has produced the world's home-run king, Sadaharu Oh, who hit 868 home runs; one of history's best left-handed pitchers, Masaichi Kaneda, who won 400 games and struck out 4,490 batters; and early pitching legend Eiji Sawamura, who struck out Babe Ruth, Jimmie Foxx and Lou Gehrig in succession in a 1-0 loss in 1934 to a visiting All-Star team.

This history is recorded in Japan's Baseball Hall of Fame, a mini-Cooperstown with plaques for its 149 inductees. A separate bronze plaque set in marble commemorates Oh's 756th home run hit Sept. 3, 1977, the day Hank Aaron's home run record became, at least here, only second-best.

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