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Monday, Oct. 17, 2005

JAPANESE PERSPECTIVES

Murakami, baseball and the pitfalls of Japanese managers


Financier Yoshiaki Murakami's bid to influence the Hanshin Tigers after recently becoming their parent firm's top shareholder has drawn public attention not only to his acquisitions, but also to the way that Japan's professional baseball teams are being run.

The baseball season has entered its final phase in both Japan and the United States, and some of the Japanese players in Major League Baseball are making headlines as their teams try to get into the World Series. People in Japan are waiting to see who will emerge from the Pacific League to face the Hanshin Tigers in the Japan Series.

It seems many Japanese baseball fans have long held the impression that U.S. baseball is fundamentally different from Japanese baseball. I believe this impression has been reinforced in recent years by the showing of MLB games here via satellite.

Recently, I had a chance to talk to a friend of mine whose son went through tryouts for pro baseball teams in both the U.S. and Japan. His story seemed indicative of how Japanese and American teams differ both in management and fan support.

In the MLB tryout, former star players were on the coaching staff and took very good care of all participants, the friend said. Their kindness was remarkable, even though some may have been particularly gentle to those who came from outside the U.S., he added.

The applicants were all tested on baseball's key aspects -- batting, fielding and running. Even if they weren't interested in the applicants, however, the coaches made it a point to emphasize the strong points of each one by saying, for example, that they were fast, or good at batting.

In Japan, on the other hand, participants must first run the 50-meter dash and perform a long throw. Those who can't run fast enough or have weak arms are immediately rejected and will not be given a chance to display their batting or fielding skills.

Under this system, players who may be exceptionally good at batting, fielding or base running -- even though they may be below average at the 50-meter dash or long throw -- will not be hired.

I'm afraid some of the rejected participants are left wondering whether they were tested as track and field athletes instead of baseball players.

The applicants must be trying out because they love baseball and are fans of the team. If they are treated fairly, they will love the team, and that love may spread to their relatives and friends.

The differences between the Japanese and U.S. tryout systems, however, seem to be offering us a glimpse at the way they differ in their approach to education as well.

U.S. elementary school teachers tend to point out something good about each student, such as their mathematics ability or tennis skills. Some readers may have been graced by the experience of a teacher telling you that your kids are "gifted children" and turning the entire family into true believers.

Japanese teachers, on the other hand, seem to put more emphasis on what the average score of their students is instead of encouraging them to focus on what they are good at.

Yoshio Nakamura is an acting director general of the Japan Business Federation (Nippon Keidanren).


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