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Baseball Samurai Style

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Baseball Samurai Style

by Robert Whiting (Apr 15, 1978)

In Japan, they call it beisuboru. The rules are the same as in our beloved national game, but that's about where the comparison ends. The Japanese have turned our game into outdoor kabuki, a stylized ritual with set roles. They play it, and train for it, with all the intensity and dedication of a samurai warrior. In a new book, The Chrysanthemum and the Bat (Dodd, Mead and Co, New York, and Permanent press, Tokyo, $5.75) American author Robert Whiting delves into the mysteries of Japanese baseball – and touches on some of the mysteries of Japan itself. Here, reprinted with the author's permission, is a chapter from Robert Whiting's book.

The batter knocked the dirt from his spikes and stepped back into the box to a count of three and two. Taking his stance, he eyed the pitcher evenly. It was a tense moment: In the stands the fans craned their necks to see whether a fit, or even a walk, might help lift the home team out of its dismal slump. Play for the past few weeks had been so uninspired that the night before the club owner had seen fit to comment about the team's poor performance to the manager.

The pitcher went into his windup and fired a fast ball. Thousands of fans sighed in relief as it sailed past the plate, high and outside, and the umpire called "ball four." Then something incredible happened. Dropping his bat, the batter broke into a sprint down the first base line and slid headlong into the bag amid a could of dust.

Had the batter mistaken the last pitch for a called third strike? Had the summer heat gone to his head? No, he was merely following orders. At the pre-game meeting, the manager, after delivering a sound verbal thrashing about responsibilities to the fans and the club ownership, ordered every player to slide head first into every base into the team regained its fighting spirit.

Headfirst slides are just one of the many extreme demands that may be made on a Japanese player under a set of strict unwritten rules that might be called the Samurai Code of Conduct for Baseball Players.

This code has roots in Bushido, a warriors' mode of behavior dating from the 13th century. Bushido means the "Way of the Samurai." referring to the armed retainers who did battle in the service of the great daimyo, or feudal lords.

The Samurai Code of Conduct for Baseball Players has been refined and developed over the years – even to accommodate the influx of Western ideas. Although it is not always strictly adhered to (especially by members of the younger generation) it has nevertheless had a profound influence on the game of baseball. Strict, demanding, and believed to be full of wisdom, this code, though unwritten, is understood by everyone.

Its preamble stresses duty, honor, and the value of being a "team player" – summed up in another proverb: "The nail will be hammered down." And the various articles then extend over those rules a Japanese player is expected to observe on and off the field.

Article 1. The player must be a total team member. In America a player is on his own from early October to the middle of February, but the Japanese ballplayer has far less time to himself. The official opening date for spring training in Japan is February first, but the Code suggests a player would be wise to report for "voluntary training: one or two weeks in advance. Failure to do so will brand him as not serious about his job even though training in advance to get a head start is against league rules.

Article 2. The player must follow established procedure. In America, many batters step up to the plate and swing away without regard to form or style.

Not so in Japan, where the rule of established procedure is supreme. The canons of baseball form are drummed into ever player;s head from his little league days on. The Code teaches that the "masters" of baseball, just like the high-ranking master of judo, karate, or swordsmanship, know the best way to prepare the player for combat. They are older, wiser, and more experienced.

According to the batting masters, for example, the batter must stand at the plate with his elbows close to his body and his feet not too far apart. He must have a sharp, even swing that just meets the ball as it comes over the plate. He must never "ball out," or swing from the heels like barry Bonds, Dave Kingman, and many American long ball hitters. That leads to too many strikeouts. Making contact is the most important thing. Swing only at strikes, work the count, and try for a base hit.

The pitching canon dictates that the pitcher throw with a deliberate uniform motion and a balanced follow-through which leaves him ready for fielding. Speed is sacrificed for control. Strikeouts are dramatic, but it is better to let a batter hit the ball than it is to walk him.

This obsession with form has its basis in the Japanese belief that form has a reality of its own. There is a right and wrong way to attack an opponent with a sword, to arrange flowers in a vase, to construct a garden, to make and serve a cup of green tea and to throw a curve ball. The correct form, which is the most economical way of doing anything, has been discovered and refined sometimes through the centuries by the great masters of the past. A good player is one who can merge his own movements with the correct form; everything else will follow in time.

In America, excellence is equated with getting results no matter how unorthodox the form. In Japan, it is more important to conform to the set way of doing things. The batter who looks good striking out is praiseworthy, while the stubborn individualist who insists "I know what's best for me" is not tolerated.

Article 3. The player must undergo hard training. This means practice, practice, and more practice.

American players report to camp in mid-February and spend an average of three hours or less at the park each day, a schedule that leaves plenty of time to bask in the Florida or Arizona sun. In Japan, players are on the field anywhere from five to nine hours a day, often in near freezing temperatures. Coaches, who huddle over bonfires to ward off the cold, conduct punishing drills reminiscent of Marine Boot Camp. One team, for example, starts the day at 8:30 with a five-mile run. Between normal baseball drills, the players will run up and down the 275 steps leading to a nearby shrine several times and then do 20 laps around the quarter mile track. Later, a second five-mile run will conclude the day's training (although pitchers may also be required to run the ten miles from camp back to the hotel). Another team makes its pitchers run up and down the stadium steps with 50-pound sacks strapped to their backs.

Like the ancient swordsman who stood blindfolded on a high pedestal for hours to develop his balance, the Japanese ballplayer spends endless time in the batting cage. A typical day might see him taking 50 swings against a right-handed pitcher, 50 against a left-hander, another 50 against breaking pitchers, 50 in the toss batting circle, and final 50 against the pitcher machine. Later at the hotel he will find time for another 100 shadow swings. (Just try swinging a bat as hard as you can 40 times to see how tiring this can be.) Some batters start training each morning with an incredible 500 shadow swings, while others flail into a heavy sandbag.

Pitchers train with equal zeal, throwing as many as 300 pitches a day. American pitchers claim this to be bad for the arm, but the Japanese feel it helps make control razor sharp.

Hard training goes beyond the physical level, for masters of the martial arts taught that with sufficient powers of concentration, the mind can make the body do almost anything. Consequently, a player's mental health is regarded just as important as his physical shape. During the off-season it is not unusual for players to study at a Zen temple, where they develop through meditation and rigorous spiritual discipline, the calm to help them in a tight game. Purified and strengthened through spiritual practice, the mind can easily order the body to pull every outside low pitch or punch every inside delivery to the opposite field.

Article 4. The player must play "For The Team." The Code says that the player must not concern himself with individual records such as batting averages, home runs, wins, or saves.

Players should also not dwell on personal illness or fatigue. Those who are tired or injured must do their best to play at peak efficiency anyway, for nothing is as important as the success of the team.

Article 5. The player must demonstrate fighting spirit.

Now matter how tough the pinch you're in

You will not give up or lose heart

The will to win the title always in your breast

You will seize and hold fast the pennant flag.

Fighting nobly unto death
Yea, even in death you will stand firm
With a strategy keen as a glittering gem
Thirty thousand clapping hands will blossom

Your back to the wall, about to breathe your last
A sayonara home run turns the tide
In the corners of every fan's eyes
Hot tears will glisten again.

Dragons. Dragons. Dragons.
Chunichi. Chunichi. Chunichi.
Guts! Thrust and advance with guts!*

*The Chunichi Song by Masanosuke Yamato. 1974 Toshiba Records.

This rousing fight song, written for the Chunichi Dragons, illustrates the importance the Japanese place on "fighting spirit," the quality most admired in a baseball player.

According to the Baseball Code, a mediocre player with fighting spirit can become a good player, and a good player with fighting spirit can become a great one. For a player with fighting spirit has more than just his ability and ordinary hustle. He has a will to win and a spiritual strength that enables him to perform at top level, regardless of his physical condition. An outfielder may be taped from his ankle to his thigh, but if he has fighting spirit, he will chase down and catch that long fly ball. An overworked pitcher may lose physical strength and speed on his fastball, but if he has fighting spirit, he will rise to the occasion and defeat the opposition. A player's will is considered supreme to his infinitely teachable body.

The ability to overcome bodily discomfort comes only with much practice and discipline. The samurai, for example, used to fast for days walking around with toothpicks in their mouths to look as if they had just eaten. They were practicing to overcome hunger.

Accordingly, "suffering: is an integral part of a Japanese baseball player's training and to this end the Japanese have designed the "1,000 fungo drill," a diabolical exercise in which a coach or crew of coaches hit ground balls to a player – first to his left, then to his right before he has a chance to resume his position, and then back to his left again – perhaps 300 times or until the player drops of exhaustion.

Still another variation is what some call the "Ole Infielder's Drill" - named for young infielders who are prone to jump out of the way of wicked line-drives, matador style. In this drill, a coach will stand the player on the third base line about twenty feet away and begin to hit bullet-hard line shots at him. Thirty minutes later the player's body is black and blue, and more often than not, he is on the verge of tears.

These drills are not to improve fielding. The Japanese refer to them as "Guts" drills. And they are intended in the main to the show the younger player that baseball will not be an easy game.

Article 6. The player must behave like a gentleman on the field. In America, beanballs, collision on the basepaths and the resulting sprains, bruises, and broken bones are all an integral part of the game. In Japan, such injuries are rare. The Baseball Code of Conduct prohibits the brushback pitch and the spikes-high slide. The are not <i>fea pure</i> – "fair play." If a Japanese pitcher should accidentally hit a batter, he will more often than not tip his cap and bow in apology. Similarly, if a baserunner should knock a fielder down, he will say excuse me.

The code also prohibits displays of temper on the field. It is bad manners to break bats or helmets or to argue with the umpire. Expressions of anger and sorrow are considered un-Japanese. In addition, it is poor taste to spit or chew gum at the plate.

However, although violence is forbidden by the Code, occasionally tempers flare and things get out of hand. When this happens, Japanese players will lash out with and intensity seldom seen in American ballparks. Angered at an accidental brushback pitch, a player once attacked the pitcher with his bat. While an irate team manager responded in like fashion when a cup of sake was pour on him by a hostile fan. And there have been numerous times when players suddenly enraged by an adverse call, had ripped off an umpires mask and actually punched him.

In cases like these, the player apologizes profusely after regaining his composure and the league officials are surprisingly lenient. The penalty is typically a small fine or one or two hundred dollars and a stern lecture – with an apology to the fans from the league commissioner for the disruption of the game. A value system that places such a premium on oppression of rage does not seem to grade degrees of violence. Bumping an umpire is almost as serious as putting him in the hospital. Violence just isn't supposed to happen in Japan.

Article 7. The player must not be materialistic. The article is usually invoked at contract time. The player must enter into negotiations in the spirit of compromise and not make unruly demands. The Japanese have traditionally viewed themselves as poverty-stricken people. Even today, they are likely to remark that "Japan is a poor country." It is much easier to understand these views if on realizes that even in modern Japan, the notion of poverty retains traditional historical virtues. Poor people are believed to be hard-working and honest. Materialism somehow clouds the purity of the spirit.

The Code explains that money is the least measure of a man's worth. Money cannot give man stature and respect. Only his family name, his school, or his profession can bring that.

Thus the player usually winds up taking whatever the club feels like giving him. In 1966, for example, the Taiyo Whales had financial problems and the players accepted twenty percent across the board salary cuts. The front office may plead a bad year at the gate or money problems in the parent organization. "This is all we can give you. We're sorry. We know you are worth more than this. Please understand." And all the Japanese player can do is bow and sign his contract.

The minimum wage for a major-league baseball player in Japan is $7,200 (it's $18,000 in the United States) and only a handful of players per team make as much as $30,000 a year. Approximately half the players on each team make less than the average "salary man" who, in inflation-ridden Japan, earns somewhere in the neighborhood of $10,000 annually, including bonuses. Yet holdouts are nonexistent. The player who hasn't signed his contract by December 31 (like all Japanese organizations, the team tries to have its business taken care of before the New Year) is a rarity indeed. Pressures to conform and sign are simply too great.

Article 8. The player must be careful in his comments to the press. Players in the U.S. are inclined to speak out. In the great American tradition of "telling it like it is." they will often make public their feelings about anyone or anything they don't happen to like: "I'd have a better ERA if it weren't for the clowns at short and second." "The general manager knows as much about baseball as my seven-month-old kid." "The owner is a menace to the game."

In Japan such talk is socially unacceptable. It not only disrupts team harmony but also upsets the fans. A player should never criticize his comrades, his coaches, his owner, the organization he plays for, or even the game of baseball.

Here are a few comments, only too familiar to fans in America, that would be found unacceptable in Japan.

      1. Play me or trade me

      2. I'm tired of sitting on the bench

      3. The owner is a cheapskate.

      4. I'm sick of playing baseball. There are other, more important things in life.

      5. I know better than anyone else how to get myself into shape.

      6. Either he goes or I go. (Alternate: This team isn't big enough for the both of us.)

      7. I hate Cleveland, Chicago, etc.

      8. I'm only playing for the money.

      9. No one talks to me like that. I don't care if he is the manager.

      10. For the life of me I can't understand why he took me out. Sometimes the decisions he makes are ridiculous.

      11. Sore feet, my ass. The guy is jaking it.

Article 9. The player must follow the role of sameness. This flows from the wisdom that states: "The nail that sticks will be hammered down." Thus such "colorful" players as the the American who used to take his pet chicken to games only makes waves.

A Japanese who reports to camp with a handle bar mustache and hair down to his shoulders would immediately be accused by the manager of having an "unsportsmanlike appearance" and ordered to report to the nearest barber shop post-haste.

Article 10. The player must behave like a good Japanese off the field. What a player does off the field reflects upon his ball club. He is expected to conduct himself with the dignity befitting his status, and as article 17 of the Japanese Uniform Baseball Player's Contract requires: "...exert his best efforts in his personal conduct, fair play and sportsmanship so as to be an example for the Japanese as a whole." This means among other things that there should be no carousing at night in bars and cabarets, no fooling with girls, and no gambling. Players who get into street fights or cause traffic accidents can be expected to be fined and suspended.

The player must bear in mind that he is being watched by the youth of the nation. He is expected to lead a model life. He should be a faithful, obedient son to his parents and remember his high school teachers.

Furthermore, the player must love baseball, love his team, and, above all, love Japan. This is so important to some clubs that they will conduct "character" investigations of the new players they have drafted just as a precautionary measure.

Article 11. The player must recognize and respect the team pecking order. Like most organizations, baseball teams in Japan are characterized by an ordered vertical structure. Everyone on the team from owner to batboy has a well-defined position. One's "rank" in this hierarchy depends on age and experience with the team.

At the top of the pyramid is the other – the chief of staff – who oversees the whole operation. He is not as accessible to the players on the team as his American counterpart, but his presence is strongly felt. Most japanese owners don't know much about baseball but that does not stop some of them from trying to run the team. One owner, known as "The Trumpet," had a telephone installed in the dugout and would call the manager an average of twenty times a game to offer his advice. A second sat in the stands and religiously noted which infielders failed to attend the conferences on the mound, which batters spat on the plate, and so forth.

The manager is the general who runs the overall campaign. In addition to these responsibilities mentioned earlier, he conducts strategy sessions. And this he does with a vengeance. The Japanese are noted for their love of meetings. Their penchant for endless discussion, consulting, conferring and achieving group consensus before the man at the top hands down his "decision" is well-known.

Managing by inspiration is another characteristic of the Japanese. In one game, for example, a manager elected to remove his starting pitcher who was leading 3-0 with two out in the 9th inning. This, after he had struck out the two previous batters. The manager apparently "saw: something that no one else did and called on his ace to garner the final out.

Here a coach elaborates on an unusual managerial insight he witnessed in another game:

For a week prior to our 1971 Japan Series our team was sequestered in a hotel. We were totally secluded. No one was allowed to go out. No one was allowed to see his wife. The managers and the coaches went through stacks of manuscripts with the players dealing with the strengths and weakness of the Giants. We saw countless movies and video tapes. One of the things the manager emphasized time and time again was that no one steals with the Giant ace Horiuchi on the mound. He had too good a move to first and Mori, their catcher, had too strong an arm. Yet, in the 9th inning of the first game trailing 1-0, with one out, a man on first and Horiuchi pitching, the manager gave the steal sign. The runner was thrown out and we lost the game because the manager had had an inspiration.

The coaches are the staff officers. Their duty is to impart the wisdom of batting, fielding, and pitching masters to the players, to run them ragged in training, to check up on their private lives to make sure they're behaving, to advise the manager at the many strategy meetings, and to "take action" when players fail to perform.

The coach also helps maintain discipline off the field. A young player on the Yakult Atoms (now the Swallows), once made the mistake of appearing in the dining hall clad only in a towel. A coach gave him a savage slapping for this indiscretion in front of the rest of the team. The player offered no resistance. He took his beating, bowed and apologized to everyone, and went to put his clothes on. Such is the power of a Japanese coach, for Japan is a country where age and rank must be served.

Next in the pecking order comes senior players. The older the player on a Japanese team, the more deference and respect he is given. Senior veterans are the non-commissioned officers and are usually allowed to take it a little easier in practice (although most won't).

A rookie in Japan is equivalent to the basic trainee and, of course, life is hardest for him. He has to be first on the field and the last to leave. He must fetch the balls and carry the equipment. He is the last in line to use the team bath. If the team bus is scheduled to leave at 9:00 in the morning, the rookie must be on it by 8:40. He also has to bow a lot and keep his mouth shut.

Article 12. The player must strive for team harmony and unity.  According to the Code, a team can operate at maximum efficiency only when all concerned know their jobs and function together as one harmonious unit.

Emotional types has no place on a Japanese team. Those who get into fights in the clubhouse or enjoy practical jokes may be "relieving tension" on an American team, but are only contributing to it in Japan. The good Japanese team is composed of players who never argue, never complain, and never criticize others. Leave that to the coaching staff.

The good team is like a beautiful Japanese garden. Every tree, every rock, every blade of grass has its place. The smallest part ever so slightly out of place destroys the beauty of the whole. The rocks and trees viewed individually might be pleasing to look at, but, when organized properly, the garden becomes more than just the sum of its parts. It becomes a work of art. It becomes perfection.

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