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Sunday, July 22, 2001

SPORTS STARS

Cheers and tears for souvenirs


Staff writer

Akihisa Shirota, 36, clearly remembers the evening of Oct. 14, 1974.

A Yomiuri Giants-Chunichi Dragons pro-baseball game was on television. His father told him to sit in the seiza formal sitting position and watch it. It was baseball superstar Shigeo Nagashima's last game.

(From top) Sadaharu Oh and Shigeo Ngagashima of the Yomiuri Giants; Pro wrestler Rikidozan; The gold-medal Japanese ski-jumping team at the '72 Winer Olympics in SapporoKYODO PHOTOS

"I sensed something really big was happening," recalls Shirota, now a producer at Media Factory Inc., "because my father was shedding tears watching Nagashima retiring, even though he was a Hanshin Tigers fan." The top item covered on that day's main evening news was Nagashima's retirement.

The extent of the impression this made on a little baseball-loving kid was proven 26 years later, when he produced an archive on Nagashima (now the Giants' manager), in the form of three two-hour videos and three 180-page books.

In planning the project featuring Japan's outstanding sports hero of the 20th century, Shirota found that Nagashima retains a matchless popularity among Japanese people, whether or not they are baseball fans. The video-and-book package, despite its 4,440 yen price tag, has sold some 200,000 sets, a record in the sports-video category, according to the company. Besides the Media Factory product, books and videos featuring Nagashima hit the market one after another at the end of the last century.

"It is amazing that a sports hero has retained popularity so long after his retirement," Shirota says. He believes that no second Nagashima will appear in the future.

Some may argue that such outstanding athletes as Seattle Mariners' outfielder Ichiro Suzuki in the U.S. major leagues, or Parma's soccer midfielder Hidetoshi Nakata in the Italian Serie A, could outrank Nagashima. But the difference, Shirota says, is that sports heroes in the '60s were born out of a national need, when Japan was regaining pride and economic prosperity after World War II.

"The public needed heroes," Shirota says. "Not in a fantasy world, but real figures who could meet a challenge, like Nagashima, who connected for a hit when it was needed."

Indeed, Nagashima never betrayed fans' expectations.

In 1959 Emperor Showa attended a pro-baseball game for the first time at Tokyo's Korakuen Stadium, the Giants' home. The game against archrival Hanshin was tied 4-4 in the bottom of the ninth. Nagashima came to bat and slammed the game-ending home run off the Tigers' ace hurler Minoru Murayama.

In his career, Nagashima clinched the Central League titles of leading hitter six times, home run king twice and RBI leader five times. Along with his outstanding teammate Sadaharu Oh, Nagashima boosted the Giants to clinch the league pennants and the Japan Series titles in nine consecutive seasons from 1965 to 1973.

Meanwhile, Oh, who monopolized the league's home-run titles between 1962 and 1977 except for one season, surpassed in 1977 the record of 755 career home runs set by the U.S. major leagues' Hank Aaron.

"Nagashima was undoubtedly a hero, but if he had not had such a great rival as Oh, he might not have achieved such a record in baseball history," Shirota says.

However outstanding his achievements, though, Nagashima was not the only sports star to give courage and self-belief to his nation during the difficult period of postwar economic recovery.

Undoubtedly, the first of those sports superheroes was the sumo wrestler turned pro-wrestler Rikidozan.

In the late '50s and early '60s, when TVs were still too expensive for average consumers, large crowds would gather round black-and-white sets in the street to watch "Riki" in his many bouts with foreign wrestlers, oftentimes showing off his powerful "karate chop" and pinning his opponents down on the mat.

Riki, through his successes, seemed to serve as an added motivator for a people who had lost almost everything to regain confidence. The Japanese masses were especially fascinated and impressed by the fact that Riki beat his Western counterparts.

"My colleagues and I often watched Riki's bouts after work on a street TV in Tokyo's Oimachi district. So many people gathered there," recalls 75-year-old Ken Katayama. "Sipping cheap shochu, I watched his matches. Seeing his fights against foreign wrestlers, I was given energy. His 'karate chop' had such power."

Although Riki's superstardom ended abruptly in 1963 when he was stabbed to death by a young thug, by then postwar Japan was for the first time about to move into the spotlight of the world's sporting stage. In 1964, the Tokyo Olympics -- the first Olympics ever held in Asia -- enthralled the nation and had everyone glued to their TVs, which almost every household had striven to purchase for that event.

During those Games, the second-highest TV rating ever, at 66.8 percent, was registered when Japan defeated the Soviet Union to win gold in the women's volleyball final, according to Video Research. (The highest rating, at 81 percent, was for NHK's year-end "Red-and-White Song Contest" in 1963.)

In a similar way, eight years later another major sports event that created instant national icons was the 1972 Sapporo Winter Olympics. There, Japan's ski-jump team, dubbed "Hinomaru Hikotai (Squadron)" swept the gold, silver and bronze in the 70-meter jump.

Between those two Olympics, however, a boxing hero had come along to grab the hearts of the nation. In 1965, Masahiko "Fighting" Harada clinched the world bantamweight title in a fight against Brazilian Eder Jofre, three years after he scored a knockout in a world flyweight championship fight against Pone Kingpetch of Thailand.

The amazing popularity of Harada, who was Japan's second world boxing champion after flyweight Yoshio Shirai in 1952, is even now clear from Video Research's all-time Japanese TV rankings. In that list, six of Harada's fights are included in the top 23 programs, with his clash with Jofre ranking fourth, at 63.7 percent.

Of course, too, practitioners of Japan's national sport of sumo cannot be lightly overlooked.

Taiho, who was promoted to yokozuna in 1961 at age 21 -- the youngest ever to gain the top rank at the time -- became one of the sport's greatest-ever champions by winning 32 grand tournaments before his retirement in 1971, including six consecutive victories on two occasions.

During his career, he and his archrival Kashiwado, another yokozuna, fought many thrilling contests, and with the impressive record he built up Taiho's popularity among sumo fans of all ages just kept increasing.

So it was that he, the Yomiuri Giants and Japanese omelets, came to be bracketed together as the people's three most favorite things, in the buzzphrase of the '60s, "Kyojin (Yomiuri Giants), Taiho and tamagoyaki."



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