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Samurai of Swat

Slugging It Out in Japan: An American Major Leaguer in the Tokyo Outfield

by Warren Cromartie, with Robert Whiting
Kodansha, 277 pp., $19.95

Few Japanese—if any—have forgotten that dark day in October 1964, when Anton Geesink beat the Japanese judo champion Kaminaga Akio to win the Olympic gold medal in Tokyo. The Dutch giant—six foot six inches, 267 pounds—didn’t just beat Kaminaga, he flattened him. And the nation wept, quite literally. Grown men, pressed against shop windows to see the fight on television sets especially provided for this purpose all over Tokyo, collapsed in tears. Geesink told reporters that coping with the Japanese crowds after the fight had been tougher than the fight itself.

Judo had been introduced that year for the first time in the history of the Olympic Games by special request of the Japanese hosts. Judo was not just a national sport; it symbolized the Japanese way—spiritual, disciplined, infinitely subtle; a way in which crude Western brawn would inevitably lose to superior Oriental spirit. And here, in Tokyo, a big, blond foreigner had humiliated Japan in front of the entire world. It was as though the ancestral Sun Goddess had been raped in public by a gang of alien demons. The disaster was blamed on Geesink’s bulk, of course, but that rather left one wondering about this business of spirit versus brawn.

Sport, like sex, cuts where it hurts most: that soft spot where national virility is at stake. Nowhere is it more sensitive than in Japan, the peripheral nation, always on the outside edge of greater powers, always panting to catch up with the foreign metropolis: Chang-an, Peking, Paris, London, New York. And at no time was it more delicate than in the 1960s, when the nation was beginning to crawl away from the shadow of the greatest humiliation of all: defeat in war and subsequent occupation by a superior foreign power. The Tokyo Olympics were supposed to have put the seal on all that. The revival of national virility, already boosted by the accelerating economic boom, was at hand; the Judo Open Weight gold medal was meant to have clinched it; the shame of defeat would be wiped out and Japanese face would finally be restored.

The writer Nosaka Akiyuki described exactly what it was all about in a wonderful novella, published in 1972, entitled American Seaweed. A Japanese man is visited in Tokyo by an American acquaintance who had served in Japan during the occupation. For his entertainment, the American guest is taken to a live sex show, where Japan’s “Number One Male” is to perform. On this occasion, however, Number One, possibly distracted by the American in the audience, fails. The Japanese host is as embarrassed as the star performer but understands his predicament:

As soon as those jeeps started racing through his mind, cries of ‘come on everybody’ rang in his ears, and sad memories of brilliant skies over burnt-out bomb sites returned, he was rendered impotent…

Strong measures, in such humiliating circumstances, were called for. And in the late 1950s national virility was redeemed somewhat in the spectacular shape of Riki Dozan, a large and very virile wrestler who specialized in beating big, blond Americans—often wearing cowboy hats—to the mat. Riki Dozan was the perfect Japanese macho man: he had fighting spirit to burn. But he always spoke fondly, even tearfully, of his mother, was benevolent to his juniors, and fought fairly. The outsize Americans, on the other hand, fought dirty. But despite the hidden knuckle-dusters and other weaponry suddenly produced by these dastardly foreigners, Riki Dozan’s fighting spirit would invariably prevail. In comic-book versions of his career, this indomitable spirit was inspired by frequent visions of Mount Fuji. Few men in the history of modern Japan have been more popular. That he was actually born a Korean, like so many other Japanese sporting heroes, was something people preferred to ignore. Hence when he was stabbed to death in a Tokyo nightclub a year before the Tokyo Olympics, only one national newspaper cared to mention this unfortunate blot on his otherwise exemplary biography.

Given all this, Anton Geesink’s victory was deeply shocking. Yet to say that he was not respected in Japan would be untrue. Despite the national shame of Kaminaga’s defeat and the common air of contempt for big, blond (not to mention black) foreigners, Geesink’s power was held in awe. He was a bit like the demon guardians of hell that stand by the gates to Japanese temples, to be approached with a proper sense of trepidation. But as soon as the great Judoka’s powers began to flag, and he was foolish enough to appear in degrading wrestling exhibitions, awe and trepidation swiftly changed to ridicule. Once Samson is shorn of his locks, the Japanese show little mercy. Geesink’s position in Japan was typical of the way in which foreign demons have traditionally been treated by the Japanese: worshiped one day, despised the next, all according to the state of their virility.

Too much foreign virility, however, is not a good thing either. It upsets the natural, that is to say, the Japanese order of things; it upsets harmony, or wa. The fascinating story of Warren Cromartie, the black American baseball player, formerly of the Montreal Expos, is typical of that ups and downs to which the foreign demon is subjected in Japan. In 1983 he was offered a three-year contract by the Tokyo Giants to play for $600,000 a year, roughly ten times what most Japanese players made. He was met at Narita Airport by the general manager of the Giants, who stuck out his hand, bowed, and said: “Welcome to Japan, Mr. Cromartie, you are our messiah.”

Five years later, with a .313 batting average and 160 home runs to his name, his picture was missing from the Giants’ Gallery of Stars outside the team’s home park. Nor was he asked to endorse products, like his Japanese colleagues. Nor was his name mentioned by the club’s dignitaries in their celebration speeches, after he had helped win the championship pennant. Instead, the Japanese players were exhorted to play better than the imported “gaijin,” or foreigner. And when the team went through hard times, the gaijin would be blamed for his lack of spirit, his greedy materialism, and his selfish ways, which upset the wa of the team. In Cromartie’s own words, quoted by Robert Whiting, who helped write the autobiography and has written two excellent books on Japanese baseball himself: “You’re an outcast no matter what you do. You go 5-for-5 and you’re ignored. You go 0-for-5 and it’s ‘Fuck you. Yankee go home.”’1

The case of Randy Bass, described in Whiting’s book You Gotta Have Wa, is even more remarkable. Bass, a lefthanded power hitter from Oklahoma, started playing for the Hanshin Tigers in 1983. He, too, was greeted as the Messiah. He even got to do endorsements on Japanese television—as more than one Japanese politician has hinted in the past, the Japanese tend to prefer blonds to blacks. So Bass was doing all right. Then he threatened to break the home-run record, established in 1964 by Oh Sadaharu, who hit fifty-five homers in one season. When Bass got to number fifty-four, with two games left, the Japanese closed ranks. He hardly had a chance to hit another ball and was forced to walk in almost every inning. The record remained in local hands. Wa was preserved. If this was upsetting enough to Bass, worse was to follow.

After going from strength to strength and winning virtually every trophy there was to win, after becoming the most popular gaijin player in Japan, after being offered bigger and bigger contracts, after beating Harimoto Isao’s single season average of .383 (eliciting Harimoto’s remark that Asian baseball should be for Asians only—Harimoto, like Riki Dozan, was a Korean), after hitting thirty-seven homers in 1987, with a bad back, after all that, Bass’s eight-year-old son was discovered to have a brain tumor, and Bass flew to San Francisco to be by his side. While he was still in the US, the Tigers decided to drop him. Bass was accused of selfishness, of lacking team spirit, of putting his private affairs before those of his club, of not understanding wa. “Foreign players are just not a good example for young people,” wrote Harimoto, the man who was often taunted by Japanese young people with cries of “garlic belly,” because of his Korean birth.

Cromartie’s book could so easily have been a litany of gaijin complaints, the sort of thing that can make expatriate conversations so deadly. It is actually much better than that, for he is not bitter about the country that provided him with so much anguish as well as cash. His own background gave him an interesting perspective on the gaijin experience: “I’ve always been a gaijin, you might say. I grew up in Liberty City, the poor black section of Miami, where most people were lifetime outsiders….” And, in fact, the life of the gaijin ballplayer had some notable perks, not the least of which were the many opportunities to get laid. Cromartie is discreet on this score, though there are coy references to what “the guys tell me,” but he does reveal that he had some “real relationships, not one-night stands.” Which means that he actually bothered to get to know people, which is more than many expatriates do. It shows in his observations, which are both sharp and affectionate.

He is careful to distinguish between the many Japanese individuals, players as well as non-players, who were friendly and supportive, and the officials and their lackeys in the popular press, who made life a misery for foreigners as well as Japanese. Some of the most moving passages in the book concern Cromartie’s friendship with the Giants’ former manager and batting star, Oh Sadaharu, the half-Taiwanese who was forever trying to prove to his Japanese compatriots that he had the true samurai spirit in spite of his Chinese blood.

Cromartie’s most important insight is one that many complaining gaijin tend to overlook, and one which can be applied far more widely than to the sporting world alone: the main victims of the bigoted, exclusive, rigid, racist, authoritarian ways of Japanese officialdom are not the foreigners, even though they are at times its most convenient targets, but the rank and file of the Japanese themselves. The pampered foreigner, brought in to lend power to the Japanese baseball scene, but exempted from many of the rigors of Japanese discipline, is not just a convenient scapegoat to save Japanese face when things go wrong, but also a kind of anti-Christ to keep the Japanese in line. If Japanese players should balk at being kicked around, underpaid, and overdisciplined, their frustration can be neatly channeled toward the overpaid, underdisciplined, greedy, selfish foreigner. “The Japanese,” writes Cromartie,

always complained that we gaijin were overpaid. The commissioner of Japanese baseball in fact was always urging a complete ban on foreigners, saying it was degrading to Japanese baseball to have to pay big money to Americans who were washed up in the U.S.

The reality, however, was that the Japanese were getting screwed.

  1. 1

    This quote is from You Gotta Have Wa (Macmillan, 1989), p. 262. Whiting’s first book on Japanese baseball is The Chrysanthemum and the Bat (Dodd, Mead, 1977).

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