HIDEO NOMO APOLOGIA
(Sent to Fukuzawa, ISSHO, and Friends Wed, 2 Apr 1997)
I know this Nomo topic I brought up seems to be a non-issue, but something just doesn't sit well with me. I'd like those who might be interested in issues of fair play to indulge me a bit longer as I flesh out an argument:
Nomo should do more than just do his job and get paid.
SS has already posted a poignant reply, and I've had a chat with others who disagree with me. Thanks. Points I've heard thus far:
a) Nomo is not unusual for an immigrant (if he actually qualifies as one) in lack of language ability,
b) he doesn't need English to do his work (nor does a sumo wrestler need Japanese, but tell that to the Sumo Kyoukai),
c) he's a sportsman, not a diplomat (but sportspeople have great leverage in society--even more so than diplomats),
d) assimilation isn't for everyone--it's stressful, it might take his mind off the game, etc., so different strokes (fair enough), and
e) he's just "an ordinary guy" (as "ordinary" as Jackie Robinson, Lou Gehrig, and other groundbreakers) who's earned the trappings of success through hard work and true talent.
So why get all moralistic and begrudge him?
Okay. Why indeed? Sorry, I have to admit that Nomo still makes my teeth itch. I mean, here's a guy who goes to the US and lives high on the hog--scoring a million-dollar contract (4.3 million, actually, something he could never do at home), while during breaks coming back to Japan to reap kudos and millions more through endorsements. All he has to do is pitch and he can sales pitch. He's the local hero destroying baseball bats on Japanese TV commercials, being bear-hugged by Lasorda, and even seeing banana-boat songs adapted to his name. All of this gets great fanfare in the Japanese press (something which many of you in America cannot witness).
We should all be happy that a Japanese could go overseas and make it big in the Big Leagues (unlike Matsuda Seiko in the pop charts), right? But I'm not.
I shift gears on this issue. The issue isn't really so much about assimilation, and I apologise for framing it as such; assimilation is more for immigrants, and nobody said Nomo is emigrating.
I realize the issue is one of comity. Nomo is enjoying the fruits of a more open-minded society and sports system while doing nothing to improve things. When he could, for example, be helping those of his ilk back in Japan.
Look, it is pretty much common knowledge over here that Japanese baseball is like basic training. Whole generations of crew-cut high schoolers have mortgaged away their education to march onto a playing field and salute (while their molls sob and pray in the bleachers). It's serious stuff, and pro ball is even worse. Books like Robert Whiting's YOU GOTTA HAVE WA and Warren Cromartie's autobiography have chronicled this well. It's evolved from team sport into organized ordeal.
And it's even worse for non-Japanese who play the major leagues over here. Even cursory research reveals harassment both on and off the field by the press, the fans, the umpire, the management, and even the pitcher--in ways that nationals don't have to tolerate. Even the sacred calls of an umpire are no longer so if the umpire is American (The first ump in Japan, Mike DiMuro, has already been slanged by Yakult Swallows' manager Nomura for calling a "balk", causing Yakult to lose a preseason game last weekend. Nomura: "I can understand if its a game between our two countries, but that's not the case so we don't need foreign umpires. Is he going to ump regular seasons games?" (Daily Yomiuri Apr 1, 97 pg 24)).
Try getting away with a statement like that in the US. Conceit with nationality too often supersedes respect for talent here, and it's shameful. "Spot the secret Korean ball player" is a press corps sport. And no gaijin, not even Kinugasa (the African-American Japanese whose longevity record was just toppled by Cal Ripkin) or Sadaharu Oh (Japan's Hank Aaron), has ever escaped his caste to reach the popularity levels that Nomo has in the US.
Worst of all, Nomo knows that.
So why doesn't Nomo do anything about it? I say just doing your job well and getting paid is not enough. How about some payback on his part? Shouldn't he try to improve the lot of fellow foreign players in his own country by showing Japan how the Americans have a more level playing field?
Okay, time out. C'mon, Dave, lighten up--he's just a sportsman, and arguing that sportmen should be spokesmen is a shaky point. He's just doing his job. Isn't that enough?
Uh-uh. One would hope that one who has benefited to Nomo's degree would make some social contribution back--by at least trying to connect better with American fans (through attempts to use English), or even better trying to communicate what he's learned with the Japanese public. Sportsmen just taking the money and running is, in many people's opinion, precisely what's wrong with The Game these days.
One final argument I heard is that Japan is Japan, so there. Sportsmen who come to Japan are getting paid enough to offset the difficulties they face--or else they wouldn't come. America is, after all, the Land of Opportunity, while Japan has never been. So let America play their way, Japan theirs. If it's really so bad, Japan will wind up the big loser as talent drains away (assuming perfect borders, etc.).
Sorry, but that attitude stinks. If getting paid plenty offsets a worker's harassment, then that would rubber-stamp any entertainment which the disparaged entertainer by extension disses whole groups of people. Cultural relics of the American experience: Step and Fetchit, minstrel and "Negro monkey" shows, and caricature Indians in Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show. Nasties like these have been done away with in progressive societies. But not in Japanese baseball; read the sports pages here.
Moreover, if East is East with no twain, foreign educators shouldn't get tenure in Japan because they are not Japanese, although as extranationals they can in America. That would justify academic apartheid.
I don't believe in this much relativity. Something is awry when people can care so little about reciprocation, even if they could help the disadvantaged, and tries to justify it through comparative culture.
Call me moralistic, but Nomo is doing awfully well on his own terms. Too well compared to others in his position. That may be fine for him, but he's in a position to do so much more. Baseball is an enjoyable game in the US precisely because that is all that it is. A game. In Japan it is not. Nomo could do the sport a lot of good by showing Japan how it could be played better.
Okay, like an overargumentative American, I have taken this argument to its logical extremes: even likening Japan's treatment of foreign players to its treatment of foreign educators, and suggesting that a person who could ameliorate things should do so--by connecting with the public in some way instead of just pitching and laughing to the bank. If you've got the gumption, somebody delink this, please. Tell me why I should stop being annoyed by Nomo.
I appreciate your indulgence. Dave Aldwinckle in Sapporo
PS: I still say that anyone who lives and/or works abroad has an obligation at least try to learn the language. I've expounded away from that point in Nomo's case, but to me that rule is so rife with reason that it feels obvious. I must say that I'm perplexed by those who would argue against it.
NB: ANSWERS TO THE ABOVE APOLOGIA AND EPILOGUE
I got more fan mail than hate, but nobody had the gumption to delink the issues. Those that disagreed just did so on principle. Hey, it's his life, so leave him alone. Others were annoyed at my being so Politically Correct (although PC, through its censorship, is more the study of what NOT to do, not what TO do). Not a few Nomo Fans were very unsympathetic towards criticism of a person who carries himself with charm and grace, and shows true talent to boot.
The lesson I learned from all this?
Never take Sports as a topic lightly. I tend to dismiss it as fluff and trivia for people with nothing better to fixate on. But of course it's not that simple. It's the stuff of passion. To some fans, their hero is someone to defend even if he kills somebody.
Okay. Two letters: O.J.
I wound up writing an article on this very topic for the ASAHI EVENING NEWS.
Click here to go to a jpeg of it.