Monday, September 18, 2006

Baseball Bunka

I return from Osaka after a nice long weekend of sightseeing, sampling of local cuisine, and contemplating the role of baseball as a part of Japanese society. My short stay in Japan's most free and individualistic city turned up more than a few glimpses of the intersection between baseball and traditional culture. I'll present a snapshot of my trip, with a special emphasis on the baseball moments that I enjoyed.

Osaka is Japan's 3rd largest city, with a population of just under 3 million people. It is a metropolis by any definition of the word, and the people enjoy the benefits of big city life. They also suffer from some of the typical pitfalls of urban excess. My impression of this vibrant community is similar to my affection for my native New York. It's a place where good food, good drink, and colorful characters are found at every turn. The local sports culture is rabid, and the fans take their Hanshin Tigers very seriously. The cheering section of that club is as loud and boisterous as any found anywhere in the world. The Spring Sumo Tournament is held in Osaka during March and draws a very supportive and passionate audience as well.

Sampling the famous local cuisine was, of course, a highlight of the trip. I ate "okonomiyaki" which is like a pancake made in front of you on a teppanyaki grill. It's filled with various things depending on your preference, and the name actually means "whatever you like, cooked-up". I shared a seafood pancake and a cheese pancake with my wife on my first night in town. Good stuff with a frosty mug of beer.

I also made my way to the highly entertaining section of the city called "Dotonbori" where neon is used like it's going out of style, and the wackiest elements of Osaka culture are out in force. It's a place famous for crab, ramen, and takoyaki. Takoyaki are basically balls of batter and octopus fried into a kind of dumpling. If you've ever had a New England crabcake, replace the crab with octopus, and voila...takoyaki.

There's a lot going on in Dotonbori. Icons of Japanese popular culture are both created and celebrated in the flashy environs of the street malls. It was here that I photographed the most gigantic version of the NTT (Nippon Telephone and Telegraph) ad campaign, spanning the entire height of a building. The recent campaign touts the high speed broadband that NTT uses to provide reliable and clear service to anywhere. Ichiro Suzuki is the poster boy, in full Mariners regalia, and has his ultra-cool poster boy face in effect. My wife noted as we stared at the giant hommage to Ichiro that he's always concerned with appearances, including his endorsements, while Hideki Matsui is always playful and at ease in pajamas, traditional summer robes, or serious in his Yankee uniform.

That was hardly my only brush with baseball during the weekend. I have to backtrack to when the whole trip began to tell the story.....

From the plane I looked down on a glimmering night scene, with both neon splendor and the gentle glow of homes and apartments in the middle of the city. My eyes immediately were drawn to Osaka-jo (pictured above), or Osaka Castle as it's called in English. The castle is one of the centerpieces of the city and a national cultural treasure that is often used in tourism promotions and the like. It has an important role in the unification of feudal Japan, and the Osakans revere the traditional grounds with great respect. The interesting point to this story, is that the illuminated castle was flanked on 3 sides by illuminated baseball fields. It was at that moment that I knew my 1st day's itinerary.

Touring the castle and its grounds was fascinating. I'm a history buff, and I felt connected to the events of history that took place on the very ground I was standing. As I learned more, I realized that some of the most important battles in the unification of Japan were fought on the soil upon which I tread, and the blood that was shed, in some way, was responsible for the current order of things. The castle itself is beautiful and one is treated to a display of artwork, architecture, and history on each of the 8 stories of the stronghold. From the 8th story observation deck I circled around to the West to find the baseball field that I had seen from the sky the night before. It was quite large for a public park, and I could clearly make out that it was something of a huge sandlot. The juxtaposition of the ancient castle ornaments and the baseball grounds in the distance made a nice photo.

From the castle I bolted for the field. I wanted to see what was going on there, and what kind of facility the city of Osaka had provided for its citizens to enjoy the great game of baseball. To my surprise it was quite spartan and bombed with graffiti. There was the requisite X-rated graffiti featuring male genitals, and there was also a poor rendition of Mickey Mouse on another concrete wall. Go figure. I wasn't sure what to make of the riff-raff that was hanging around outside the grounds. There was a mix of moms with their little children, chain-smoking salarymen with big dark circles under their eyes, and even more suspicious looking characters in yellowing golf shirts kind of moping about. I stopped to take in the practice that was going on just inside the walls. There were kind of portholes cut out of the concrete backstop, and it was apparent that they were the best views in the house for the loitering fans. The guys taking batting practice against live pitching seemed to be part of a local amateur team just out for a little sunshine and some exercise.

I made my way around to the far side of the stadium to get a clearer look at the practice from the opening in the left field fence. It was there that I got my best view of Osaka Castle in the background, looming as the players took their reps. A handful of junior high school players, in their uniforms, were waiting around on their bicycles for their coach to arrive and start their afternoon practice. I approached them and asked if they practiced here everyday. They replied that their practices always took place on the grounds, and that they in fact played everyday in the shadow of the castle. I thought it was a powerful metaphor for the game that unified Japan on the grounds of the bloody war that defined the course of that same nation. Could any of those warlords, or any of their soldiers, have imagined that the battlefield where they lost their lives and struggled for ultimate control of the riches of Japan would one day be a symbol of populist life, and an arena dedicated to a game brought to Japan by missionaries centuries later.

In the end, my short stay in Osaka did not include a professional baseball game, as the home team was out of town. It was more a complete cultural experience with a lot of exploring on the menu. Baseball was hardly the main attraction of the time in the vibrant city, but it was also something impossible to escape. If the people of Osaka, and other cities all over Japan, nestle their sandlots and stadiums in the heart of their most important cultural zones, it's not difficult to imagine how much the game means to the identity of the Japanese. It's also one of the reasons I feel so at home here despite the octopus cakes and typhoons. Long live baseball!!


At 1:09 AM, Anonymous Gary Garland said...

Just to correct a factual error: the current Japanese pro league setup was assembled in late 1935. There weren't any pro leagues before then and only a few abortive attempts to setup pro teams. However, corporate ball goes back further than pro ball, as, for example, Mainichi had a dynamite industrial nine before the inception of league play in Japan. Before that, high school and college ball were both huge.

On why more Japanese players don't come right out of high school or college to major league organizations, it has nothing to do with scouts being unwilling to sign them and more to do with a combination of Japanese players inferiority complex vis a vis American players, having all the comforts of home as well as some prestige attached to even playing in the minors in Japan compared with that in the U.S., and much bigger starting salaries for average draftees (anywhere from %40-70,000) plus some nice signing bonuses for the 1-5 guys that ranges anywhere from $200-700,000. The Dodgers have tried to sign a number of Japanese high schoolers and collegians, but no luck due to the aforementioned factors.

I'm looking forward to seeing what you will do with this. Canyon of Heroes kicks ass, so I will be linking to this site when I revise my links section in very late December or early January.

Gambatte kudasai.


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