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…

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