Japanese culture and U.S. baseball madness

Cultural Insights — By on December 15, 2006 at 11:46 am

Well, I wrote about a Japanese topic yesterday, but it’s hard not to post about the surge of interest in Daisuke Matsuzaka.  In case you haven’t heard, this Japanese baseball star agreed to a contract yesterday with the Boston Red Sox and a recent search at Google News turned up nearly 2,000 media articles about the signing.  This isn’t peace in the Middle East, but people are obviously talking.

Most of the articles are about the baseball or the money, of course, but there are also numerous cultural aspects that are being discussed.  Here is a sampling:

Just before the signing was announced, the International Herald Tribune noted that the hardball negotiating tactics being used were not so common in Japan.

… many Japanese are worried that what they perceived as American hardball negotiating tactics, by both the Red Sox and Matsuzaka’s agent, Scott Boras, which are being reported in great detail by Japanese, could result in the pitcher coming back home with a loss of face and a lack of souvenirs.

On Japanese TV, the baseball talks are bigger news than the six-party negotiations with North Korea. Commentators on morning shows normally devoted to corporate scandals analyze the nuance of every non-Japanese move made by Boras or the Red Sox general manager, Theo Epstein, and its president, Larry Lucchino.  This is not how Toyota or Mitsubishi would recruit a potential employee.

Ron Borges of MSNBC also touched on the topics of money and face in Japan.

What Matsuzaka understood was what Boras never could, which was that unbridled greed would not set well in Japanese society. If he returned to Tokyo without having signed with the Sox after asking to be posted, he would not have been well received. Greed may be in in America, but it has its limits in Japanese baseball circles and Matsuzaka hit it at around $9 million a year.

Jackie MacMullan of the Boston Globe, meanwhile, mused about the cultural difficulties Matsuzaka will face in adjusting to the U.S.

He is about to immerse himself in a community that is as foreign to him as the streets of Tokyo would be to us. People born in this country have enough trouble learning the quirky ways of New Englanders. Factor in a language barrier, a cultural divide, and a little matter of having to perform on one of the most discerning — not to mention relentless — stages in baseball, and you hope this young pitcher can keep on smiling. …

“I want to make sure this young man with his extraordinary ability can transfer that ability to this country,” Boras said. “That’s not an easy step.  The most concerning part was, and still is, the often difficult and important transition to a new culture.”

There were a few other interesting takes on the story, as well:

–  The Boston Globe reported that Japanese tourism to Boston is likely to surge as a result of the signing.

–  And a blitz of coverage by the Japanese media is kicking up the already intense coverage of the Red Sox another notch or two.

–  My favorite unusual angle, however, was the story in yesterday’s NY Times that reported how some Japanese baseball fans are convinced that a player’s blood type contributes to his success or failure.  In fact, it is believed that one’s blood type can help predict a person’s character. Matsuzaka’s blood type, by the way, is O, which labels him as a “warrior.”

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