Where EAST meets the Northwest
ICHIROMANIA. Ichiro Suzuki of the Seattle Mariners bats during the third
inning of a spring training baseball game against the Oakland Athletics in
Peoria, Arizona. Jerry Dipoto’s first introduction to the world of Ichiro was
only a small taste compared to what the Seattle Mariners are about to experience
when they open the season in Tokyo with a pair of games against Oakland. The
most decorated player ever to export his talents from Japan to the major leagues
is returning home for what could be a farewell to his Hall of Fame career on
both sides of the Pacific. His teammates can’t wait. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel,
From The Asian Reporter, V29, #06 (March 18, 2019), pages 7 & 13.
Ichiromania returns to Japan: Will he retire, or won’t he?
By Stephen Wade
AP Sports Writer
TOKYO — There’s an adage in Japanese that translates easily to English.
Deru kugi wa utareru.
The nail that sticks up gets hammered down.
Ichiro Suzuki has been the nail in a culture that values formality, caution,
and deference to authority. Doing it his way, he’s developed into Japan’s
greatest baseball player and arguably its best athlete.
"At such a young age he already had his own mind," said Keizo Konishi, a
reporter with the Japanese news agency Kyodo. "The older generation tells young
people what they should do. Particularly in the structured baseball world."
Ichiro has played 2,651 major league games since joining the Seattle Mariners
in 2001. Konishi has seen almost every one; from Seattle to New York, then to
Miami, and back to Seattle. Add on hundreds before that with the Orix BlueWave.
The odyssey returns him to Japan where Ichiro is expected to play in a
two-game series when the Mariners and the Oakland A’s open the season March
20-21 at the Tokyo Dome.
Afterward, who knows? Some Japanese want the 45-year-old to finally retire,
and the Mariners have said they want to go with youth.
One thing is certain in Tokyo: Ichiromania rules.
He’s a source of national pride; the first position player to make it big in
the majors, countering the perception that the country produced only pitchers,
and players like Ichiro were too small. He’s revered for breaking through, for
his fashion sense, and his zen-like training. He’ll be the first Japanese player
inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, almost surely on the first ballot.
He can also be aloof and arrogant, known to disdain interviews, and often
evasive with a habit of turning his back on reporters and disparaging questions
he doesn’t like. Japanese journalists have often been targets, and organizers
say just over 1,000 are accredited for the two games.
"On so many occasions he’s given me very interesting answers," Konishi said
in an interview with The Associated Press. "But he can give me a hard time. He
tries for perfect preparation. So he also requires me to be perfect, which is
The baseball editor at Kyodo, Takashi Yamakawa, described two Ichiros.
"He’s acting, I think. He’s playing Ichiro," Yamakawa said. "There are two
different aspects. There’s the very normal, polite Japanese man. And there’s
maybe the real Ichiro breaking the rules, fighting for himself. He’s always
thinking in a different way."
If Ichiro is the seldom-bending nail, his father, Nobuyuki, was the hammer
who put his son through rigorous, well-documented daily baseball training from
"It bordered on hazing and I suffered a lot. But I also couldn’t say no to
him," American Robert Whiting quoted Ichiro saying in his book The Samurai
Way of Baseball. The book was first sold under the title The Meaning of
Whiting points out that Ichiro means "most cheerful boy" in Japanese. He
writes he "was not always so cheerful about practicing, especially during the
harsh winter days of central Japan, when his fingers grew so numb from the
frigid air that he could not button his shirt."
Whiting has spent much of his life in Japan writing about baseball and
Japanese culture. He speculated that because of World War II and the American
occupation, Japan developed an inferiority complex in relation to the United
States. Tokyo’s 1964 Olympics and the booming economy of the 1970s and ’80s
remedied much of that, and Ichiro and pitcher Hideo Nomo further boosted morale.
"The athletic field has a different kind of symbolism," Whiting said in an
interview with The AP. "No American could name a famous Japanese; not a top
singer or the prime minister or even the emperor after Hirohito. The Japanese
were simply known as people who could make things. But everybody could name Nomo
and Ichiro. It had a huge impact on the country’s psyche."
From its beginning in Japan about 150 years ago, baseball — known as yakyu
(field ball) — has been viewed as a moral discipline and linked to the
martial arts and relentless training. Whiting recounts how the first game
between Japan and the U.S. took place in Yokohama in 1898. Japan won 29-4, and
many of those players were members of Samurai families.
"Basically, Japanese baseball involves an insane amount of practice," Whiting
said. "The whole idea of self-sacrifice and the development of spirit. Japanese
baseball starts voluntary training right after the new year and camp started
February 1. American spring training looks like a three-week vacation at the
Fontainebleau Hotel in Florida."
Whiting called Ichiro "transformational" with five times the buzz that Nomo
created just a few years before.
"He shocked everybody by how good he was. He is an everyday Japanese position
player — not a pitcher — who had what it took to be a big star. It was something
people didn’t imagine before."
Ichiro was must-see TV when he joined the Mariners. Large-screen video
displays in central Tokyo played — and replayed — every game as the Mariners won
116 times in the regular season. Ichiro won the American League batting title
and was the league’s Rookie of the Year and MVP.
An electrical engineer and a weekend baseball umpire and coach, Iwao Fukushi
recalls getting up to watch the Mariners on TV in Gunma prefecture, just
northwest of Tokyo, and then heading to work between innings.
"I would go to the office and then watch on the coffee break — just five
minutes," he said with a snicker, suggesting it might have been longer. "We saw
him every day, and he seemed to always have one or two hits."
Fukushi said he believes Ichiro will continue playing after the opening
games, or become a coach. Others think he should stop now.
Some on social media in Japan say he’s being used mostly to sell merchandise,
suggesting his value now is largely commercial.
"For me, he should quit here," said Takashi Yamakawa, the baseball editor.
"Perfect. It’s a beautiful story."
"Whatever he does, take your sunglasses," Whiting added. "Because when he
comes to bat, everybody in the stadium will be shooting a flash camera or an
iPhone with a flash."
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