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Sunday, Aug. 13, 2006

MEDIA MIX

High-school baseball pitches the way of the samurai


It's said that even Japanese people who don't like baseball still get caught up in the annual summer high-school baseball tournament, which happens to be taking place right now at Koshien Stadium in Hyogo Prefecture. Apparently, this same paradox applies to at least one American. On the Internet message board for the documentary "Kokoyakyu (High School Baseball)," which was aired by the U.S. public broadcaster PBS on July 4, a viewer stated that he or she hates baseball but found the film totally uplifting.

Alex Shear and Kenneth Eng, the two Americans who made the documentary, say on the PBS Web site that they thought the idea of a film about koko yakyu would provide "a great window into Japanese culture." Certainly, one of the best ways to compare mores and attitudes is to choose a point of convergence, and baseball provides a perfect one for Japan and the United States.

But the Koshien tournament, as everyone points out, is about much more than baseball. Former Japan Times sports columnist Marty Kuehnert says in an interview available on the "Kokoyakyu" Web site that Koshien is considered "the last bastion of amateurism," an event that isn't tainted by money or personal ambition. It's about "the love of the game."

The narration-less documentary follows two teams, Osaka's Tennoji High School and Wakayama's Chiben Academy, during the 2004 tournament up through their elimination in the prefectural preliminaries. The doc doesn't actually cover the finals in Koshien Stadium, which it mistakenly locates in Osaka, except for a montage of images at the end. In a brief interview after the program, Shear says he wanted to contrast a public-school (Tennoji) team with a private-school (Chiben) team.

The differences, however, are limited to the coaches' attitudes -- the Tennoji coach is fatherly and idealistic while Chiben's is frank and practical. Together, their comments provide an excellent summation of the koko yakyu philosophy, which, to me at least, says that a winning team requires strong character and that character is built through suffering. Koko yakyu, as many have observed, is not about having fun. It's about military-style self-sacrifice. Shear and Eng break their explanation down into chapters that they preface with kanji characters on the screen -- kokoro (heart), konjo (fighting spirit), seishun (youth), doryoku (effort). These abstractions romanticize koko yakyu culture by stressing its relationship to martial arts while at the same time glossing over its problematic elements.

Much is made on the Web site about how difficult it was for the two filmmakers to get permission to cover the two teams. That may explain the relatively sanitized presentation. The Japan High School Baseball Federation is probably not too keen on having overseas audiences know about koko yakyu's reputation for teacher-on-player and player-on-player violence, a facet that many fans tacitly accept as a necessary part of the system. Shukan Shincho recently reported several high-school baseball-related incidents involving beatings and improper behavior and the JHSBF's inconsistent response to them.

Interviews available on the Web site, but which aren't included in the one-hour doc, provide some balance. In addition to Kuehnert, there are also comments from best-selling author Robert Whiting, who mentions the strict senpai-kohai (senior-junior) relationship; Daily Yomiuri writer Jim Allen, who discusses Japan's fascination with "epic failure"; and baseball historian Kazuo Sayama, who briefly traces the development of baseball in Japan.

The most interesting comments come from sportswriter Masayuki Tamaki, who lays into the tournament's theatrical emotionalism. Likening the full-team crying jags that end every game to "group hysteria," Tamaki doubts the genuineness of the tears. "It's just a tradition," he says. This is tantamount to blasphemy in the church of Japanese sports.

As outsiders, Shear and Eng could be expected to be more receptive to Tama-ki's brand of skepticism, but they appear to be as caught up in the drama of koko yakyu as the players and cheerleaders are. If you blink, you'll miss the only hint of Koshien's mercenary aspect, when one of the Chiben players reveals that he is a transfer student and that he moved from another prefecture to play on the school's baseball team. The majority of the schools that make it to Koshien are private and spend lots of money on baseball as a way of promoting their name. If you're a good player from a prefecture that has too many good teams your chances of going to Koshien are better if you transfer to one of these "baseball schools" in a less populous prefecture. These schools waive tuition for promising athletes and, as Kuehnert has publicly pointed out, often requirements for scholastic achievement as well. So much for the purity of amateurism.

The Web site also includes an interview with New York Yankee slugger and Koshien alumnus Hideki Matsui, who reinforces the character-building truisms associated with koko yakyu in his usual bland, matter-of-fact way. However, when the interviewer asks him about the connection between Japanese baseball and the samurai code of Bushido, a connection emphasized by the coaches in the documentary, Matsui laughs and says in English, "I don't know about Bushido."

Whiting and others have documented this historical connection in detail. In fact, the preternaturally cool Matsui probably embodies Bushido better than any other player. The Americans understandably see him as an exotic ideal, forged in the crucible of koko yakyu, while Matsui sees himself as just another Major Leaguer. Given the enormous popularity of high-school baseball in Japan and despite the hypocrisy and overdone discipline involved, it's obvious everybody sees what they want to see.



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