MLB J-baseball player Kawasaki Munenori doing his best to speak English to North American media. approves.


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Hi Blog.  While we’re on the subject of sports, here’s something that I found very positive:  A Japanese baseball player for the Toronto Blue Jays named Kawasaki Munenori doing his darnedest to meet the domestic press:


I have written in the past about how certain other Japanese athletes overseas do it differently.  In fact, my very first newspaper column (in the Asahi Evening News — remember when it was titled that?) way back in 1997 was a grumble (what else? I’m Debito) on how J-baseball pioneer Nomo Hideo (remember him?) was skiving in terms of trying to connect with his adoptive community:

I will admit right now that I’m no expert on sports, but from what I’ve seen (and I’m welcome to correction/updates), many of Japan’s athletes overseas don’t bother to publicly learn the language, or connect all that much with their local community. Baseball superstar Ichiro is the immediate example that comes to mind, as AFAIK he assiduously avoids American media; some might justify it by saying he’s all business (i.e., focused on the game) or trying to avoid gaffes.  But I still think it comes off as pretty snobby, since these sportsmen’s lives are being supported by fans, and they should give something back.

If I had a hotline into their brain, I would tell them to go further — exhort them to  countermand the dominant discourse that English is too hard for Japanese to learn well.  And then I would exhort even further:  J sportsmen in the big leagues get treated pretty well (especially salarywise — that’s why they’re no longer playing in Japan!), yet you never hear them speaking up about the shoe on the other foot, on behalf of the often lousy and discriminatory treatment many NJ sportsmen get treated in Japan (imagine if the United States put such stringent foreigner limits on their baseball team rosters, for example; contrast it with how many foreign players (more than a quarter of the total in 2012) MLB actually absorbs!)

Again, sports isn’t quite my field, and if you think I’m being inaccurate or unduly harsh, speak up!  People have in the past:  Here’s an archived discussion we had nearly twenty years ago about Nomo in specific; I daresay that despite all the trailblazing Nomo did, and the wave of Japanese baseball players going overseas to seek fame and fortune, little has changed in terms of giving back.

That’s why Kawasaki is such a lovely exception, doing his level best to connect.  His earnestness is very endearing. gives two thumbs up!  May more follow his example.  Dr. ARUDOU, Debito

26 comments on “MLB J-baseball player Kawasaki Munenori doing his best to speak English to North American media. approves.

  • I heard good things about soccer players learning English or other languages in Europe.
    Nagatomo learns Italian.
    Honda speaks English, for example.

    Maybe it depends on the sport. In golf, maybe players are forced to learn English.
    Maybe some baseball players get spoiled. I do think that players from the Dominican Republic were just forced to learn English and some thought it wasn`t fair that Japanese players had someone to translate for them.

  • Jim Di Griz says:

    Brooks, some fair points, but how many American baseball players see themselves as here ‘forever’? I wouldn’t be surprised if they just looked on it as working in Japan, the same way bankers, or other execs parachuted in on cushy ex-pat deals do; why bother learning the language if it’s not a job requirement? After all, all the time and energy invested in learning Japanese will not give great returns when these players go back to what they maybe still view as their ‘real’ home- the USA.
    I don’t blame them for that.

    Japanese is a dying language, with little global usage, and in 100 years, maybe there won’t even be any Japanese left due to depopulation. English is the international language of business, air traffic control, science….Whilst Japanese is the international language of…hang on….err….nope, nothing. And besides, as we have discussed here on before, surely it’s better to be ‘the stubling, cultural and linguistically challenged Honored Guest NJ’, rather than the ‘despised because he has seen The Man Behind The Curtain NJ who speaks Japanese; please go home now’?

  • I think with Kawasaki, that his time spent in AAA may have helped him play baseball better, and learn English.
    He was in the majors, did not hit, so he got sent down.
    Many players from Japan go straight to the major leagues and are pampered.
    Take Tazawa for example. He pitches for Boston but started out at A level ball in Florida, I think. The experience did help him with learning English.

  • Edward J. Cunningham says:


    Last time I checked, Dominican players are not “forced” to learn English. For example, Vladimir Guerrero never learned English or French when he played with the Montreal Expos. I don’t know if he later learned it when he moved on to the Angels or other teams, but as far as I know he may have chosen to speak only Spanish to the media and never learned English.

    Debito is in a better position to speak of this than me, but I would say that it’s easier for Japanese to learn English than Westerners to learn Japanese because of the writing system. Not only do you have to learn kanji–and two different pronunciations for each kanji depending on the context–but also hirigana and katakana. If Japanese wrote their language exclusively in Roman letters or hirigana, it would be not only equally difficult for both Japanese and Americans to learn each others’ language, it would be slightly easier for Americans because unlike English, Japanese written in hirigana (or katakana) tells you EXACTLY how the words should be pronounced.

    — I don’t think this is an issue of comparative linguistics (all languages have their challenges as L2, and people have different individual aptitudes for learning them). Instead, I’m making the case that it is a matter of trying. And then after trying, doing something with it to make treatment of athletes in the sport better. Kawasaki is definitely trying.

  • Edward J. Cunningham says:

    One more thing—I notice that this article you wrote for the Asahi Evening News credits you as “David Aldwinckle.” Was this before you changed your name to “Arudou Debito”?

    — Yes. I naturalized in 2000 and changed my name then.

  • Loverilakkuma says:

    @JDG, #3

    “Japanese is a dying language, with little global usage,”

    Um, not sure about that. Believe it or not, Japanese language still remains its popularity as one of the main languages in global sphere, following English, Spanish, Chinese, French, German, Korean, Arabic, etc. You can also see people speaking Japanese outside the mainland–i.e., Taiwan, China, Southeast Asia, Hawaii, US(West Coast)and the South America(Brazil, Peru). Sure, de-population could affect the preservation of vernacular language, like many languages spoken by indigenous tribes in North America and elsewhere. But people have a choice for preservation of their culture. I wouldn’t be surprised if some Japanese people would migrate to other countries after they lost hope in an insular ‘Galapagos’ mainland.

  • Edward J. Cunningham says:


    You’re right, it’s the trying part that is important. People all over the globe are naturally resentful of foreigners who live for years in their country but don’t even attempt to learn the language. What is unique about Japan is their refusal to accept people who make the difficult attempt to cross the language barrier, and I suspect that most Japanese are more comfortable with gaijin only speaking English and sticking to their own ghettos than learning the language and attempting to integrate into Japanese society.

    You know a lot more about the Japanese language than I ever will, and it’s important not to miss the forest for the trees.

  • Edward J. Cunningham says:

    Getting back to what you said about trying, do you know why Rusty Staub was one of the most beloved players in Montreal Expos history, even though he wasn’t as good as Gary Carter or Vladimir Guerrero?

    He actually learned (or at least tried to learn) French.

  • Andrew in Saitama says:

    Perhaps equally relevant in this discussion is how the community and media receive attempts at language learning.
    For example, we know that former soccer star Nakata speaks “good” Italian because the Japanese media tells us so.
    Are Japan’s overseas players subject to mockery over their language skills, or lack of them? How about NJ players in Japan?
    I don’t care for most professional sports, but maybe someone else has some insights.

    — FWIW (and I don’t want to discourage others from commenting, of course), my insight (passim from one of my JT columns in 2010) about language learners in Japan was this:

    “Now bring in the vicious circle: “We Japanese can’t speak English.” Many Japanese do survive eigo boot camp, enjoy English, and get good at it. They pop up occasionally as NHK anchors doing overseas interviews, or as celebrities with overseas experience. Yet where are the mentors, the templates, who can make English proficiency look possible? Stifled. Ever notice how the Japanese media keeps voicing over Japanese when they speak English proficiently, or picking apart their performance for comic value? Because eigo is not supposed to be easy — so throw up some hurdles if there’s any threat of it appearing so.”

  • Regarding Ichiro Suzuki, I heard that he is ‘famous’ for avoiding the media in Japan as well. Could this be I reflection of a media-shy personality as opposed to arrogance? Or if he is Snobby, then being equally snobby to the Japanese media may suggest that his behaviour is not discriminatory – he just hates em all. Some fans actually appreciate that.

  • Apparently Ichiro’s English is just fine. In fact, he’s become a bit infamous for a locker room speech he gave at the All Star Game a couple of years ago.–mlb.html

    However, what I read a while ago (I’m sorry, I can’t find the link for this one) was that a number of the Japanese players, even though they could interview in English, choose to go through translators because they don’t want to be misunderstood and possibly be held accountable for any gaffs. When they go through a translator, they maintain the sneaky option to say “oh, the translator erred, that’s not what I said”.

  • Edward J. Cunningham says:

    “Now bring in the vicious circle: “We Japanese can’t speak English.” Many Japanese do survive eigo boot camp, enjoy English, and get good at it. They pop up occasionally as NHK anchors doing overseas interviews, or as celebrities with overseas experience. Yet where are the mentors, the templates, who can make English proficiency look possible? Stifled. Ever notice how the Japanese media keeps voicing over Japanese when they speak English proficiently, or picking apart their performance for comic value? Because eigo is not supposed to be easy — so throw up some hurdles if there’s any threat of it appearing so.”

    Considering how poorly my fellow Americans–and myself–speak foreign languages, I’m not in a position to criticize Japan. Yet from reading your commentary, I suspect that the reason Japan does so poorly teaching their citizens English is a symptom of a deeper problem which you talk about on your blog.

    — I agree that the Americans are pretty bad at learning L2. That said, people are less likely in many parts of America (particularly places with many immigrants) to think somebody is weird or an outlier if they speak a second language (as long as they also speak America’s lingua franca, however accented). In Japan, however, bilinguals are treated as if they have secret powers (singled out and coaxed to display their talents cosmetically in public). Meanwhile, J celebrities with strong L2 skills hardly ever display them in the J media. Why? The narrative is fixed: Japanese without foreign-blood backgrounds cannot learn foreign languages easily and without ridicule.

  • Picking up on #13 et al, throw in the mix of the several Japanese F1/BTCC drivers. Sato for example, speaks near impeccable English, yet where does one see him on TV in Japan? And when he is on TV it is usually via a NJ media; almost suggesting he is being shunned because he can speak another language proficiently.

  • while I applaud Kawasaki’s exuberance (sp?) in English, I wonder if it truly is a desire to learn the language. Or is he playing the class clown who is looking for laughs? Only time will tell.

    — I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt. This amount of bravery before a foreign media is pretty unusual.

  • I got the “see white face, no comprende your fluent Japanese” again last night in a Ramen shop- not from the owners or waiters,they always chat to me in Japanese, but from someone who should know better, a Japanese business Exec who has been posted overseas for 20 years. He absolutely refused to entertain the notion that I could speak Japanese, just spoke to me in his quite crap English. Half way thru he had to play the “you think we are a yellow monkey” card, a bit like the “We Japanese dont speak English” (he also said this), but another self deprecating masochistic cliche brought out when meeting a westerner. All the cliches and prejudices came out while he was admittedly in his cups, “fccking China”, “We Japanese have a secret business model for success” etc.

    I wanted him to get out of my face and let me eat in peace and I think the sho staff picked up on it.

    The punchline is…we were in Hong Kong!

  • I’ve heard from several Japanese friends that Ichiro is rumored to be on the spectrum (some kind of autism), which apparently explains his anti-social tendencies. Anyway, if all he wants to do is play the game, then what’s wrong with that? If I were him, I’d be doing the bare minimum, too.

    And as for the woeful English language education system here: well, if more Japanese people could speak English fluently and confidently, they would probably end up leaving Japan forever … and the government doesn’t want them to do that, does it? It wants them to stay here and hopefully breed more docile, monolingual citizens.

  • Jim di Griz says:

    I think that a lot of posters are on to something with the idea that English ability is actually discouraged and ridiculed by J-society (despite the proclamations of globalization via English from the J-gov and Education Ministry), with an unspoken goal of trapping Japanese in Japan. A lot of the ‘Japan myths’ (safe Japan etc) are also tied up in this.
    I’ve been doing research since the Tohoku earthquake on Japanese leaving Japan, and where they go, and there certainly is a ‘cash drain’ rather than a Brain Drain going on. Those Japanese with the financial means to do are, are taking off for Hawaii, Thailand, and Singapore, and not for a one week vacation. Interestingly, they are going to places where that don’t need to function in English; places where they can use Japanese.

  • @Flyjin,

    What I find fascinating, (perhaps someone can explain why) is that I have had almost the same exact experience as you posted. The same replies, same arrogance etc. Other NJ I have met have also. Is this some sort of society programming? Is the inferiorty complex that severe or is it just a knee jerk type response that many Japanese give when confronted by a foriegner?

  • It’s no unusual thing to limit the number of foreign players. This is quite common for domestic leagues. Look at soccer leagues in Europe–top-flight leagues are open to any players. Many of the lower level domestic leagues limit foreign players. The goal of the leagues is development of domestic talent. Were the higher-paying English domestic leagues to open themselves fully to foreigners, the level of play might rise slightly, but the number of English players who could be accommodated in the league would drop, hurting English football overall.

    Japan’s limitations on foreigners in baseball leagues and on the exits of Japanese players to the Majors is an open admission that Japanese baseball is a second-flight domestic league, not a world-class league like the Majors. The protectionism is an admission of inferiority, but it ensures that more Japanese players have professional opportunities so that baseball stays stronger in Japan. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. If half or more of the professional spots were occupied by foreigners, Japan would have a much harder time fielding strong World Baseball Classic teams, and youth interest might shift increasingly toward other sports that offered more perceived opportunities.

    As for learning the local language, a lot of different players react a lot of different ways. Ichiro apparently does speak English pretty well. He just doesn’t like dealing with the media (Japanese or American), and so he uses a translator to put up an extra barrier for himself. In soccer, most players learn the local language, but not all. Those who don’t tend to be criticized by fans, although such criticisms often stem more from poor play than from the language. Most fans will forgive just about anything if a player is winning for them. Learning the language is often more about currying favor with fans so that they stick by a player when the player isn’t doing as well than it is about anything else. What really matters is being able to communicate on the field. In the Majors, that means learning English, although Spanish could be almost as useful. In soccer, that could mean learning English, Spanish, Italian, German, or half a dozen other languages, but English is probably the most universal. If a player is good enough, teams are happy to shell out for an interpreter. But in the cutthroat world of European soccer, most players are expected to make some effort at the language since a team trying to translate among three or four languages or more is chaos. Baseball has mostly been English and Spanish, with Japanese a recent introduction, so interpreting is manageable. Soccer is a lot more diverse, demanding more players to be able to hold their own in the local language. Can you imagine a Japanese player trying to communicate to a Russian teammate through translators via English or German? It would be tedious chaos. MLB isn’t to that point yet in it’s mix of international players.

  • > Ever notice how the Japanese media keeps voicing over Japanese when they speak English proficiently

    I’ve always found this to be the opposite. Many a times, I’ve seen a foreigner being interviewed in English by a Japanese person on news segments and also NHK’s Close Up Gendai. When the Japanese is asking a question in English, you’ll hear his/her English with subtitles in Japanese. Then when the guest answers in English, the voice is dubbed over! It’s as if they’re saying, ‘No, we don’t want to hear you. We feel more comfortable listening to a Japanese. But hey, isn’t the Japanese person’s English great.’

    I also recall the NHK shows with Michael Sandel and there would be students from USA, China and Japan. Some of the Japanese students spoke Japanese, some spoke in English, but whichever language, their voices were not dubbed over. And of course, when it came to the Americans and Chinese, their voices were dubbed over. I assume the Chinese spoke English (couldn’t hear since we’re not given the choice), but it’s as if the Japanese aren’t really interested in listening to the views of foreigners (or could they just be afraid that the average Chinese student’s level of English is better). This inconsistency has always bugged me, even more than the use of katakana in subtitles when a foreigner makes the effort to speak Japanese.

  • Baudrillard says:

    @ Dean, “when confronted by a foreigner”. Thing is, he came over and sat down at my table- quite in my face, just because I spoke Japanese to the ramen shop owner-who is quite a unique character and exactly the kind of entrepreneur Japan needs, hence he is not doing his business in Japan (lol).

    I think the business exec had had a few drinks and wanted to have fun at the foreigner’s expense (though, as I said, we were in Hong Kong, so he is on “foreign” turf).

    Also weird was despite his faux friendly approach, I passed him in the street the next day and he completely blanked me. Almost as if the previous night had all been a dream. I was probably was just entertainment in his mind, and like the “friends by function in Japan” article Debito wrote a year or two back, the “friends” he makes in the ramen shop stay in the ramen shop, lol.

  • Baudrillard says:

    a bit off topic but @ Blert, “If half or more of the professional spots were occupied by foreigners, Japan would have a much harder time fielding strong World Baseball Classic teams”- this is exactly why the England soccer team are so crap now. Its not such a bad thing.

  • Has anyone seen the Trivago advert, with the blonde caucasian female?

    I wonder whether the TV stations are getting complaints that they don’t understand what the woman is saying because she is not Japanese?!!

    — Youtube video anywhere?

  • John K. Thanks for posting that!! According to her website she studied for three years in Osaka and got that good, damn! Inspiration to us all


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