The Deep Interaction between Japanese and Koreans in Baseball as Embodied in Ichiro Suzuki
While I was watching the 2nd World Baseball Classic (WBC) Championship, which the Samurai Japan team won back in March, the sentiments of Japanese and Korean peoples toward each other were at times so visible that I felt I was sensing anew how complex and deep-rooted they were. I’d like to touch on these sentiments between the two nations, probably the most enthusiastic among the 16 countries taking part, by focusing on Ichiro Suzuki, aged 35. As you fans out there already know, he ended up playing the lead role, the star that he is.
First of all, Ichiro is intensely disliked by many South Koreans as though he is their “national enemy No. 1.” It all goes back to 2006, the year the 1st WBC Championship was held. About to compete in the first world championship of professional baseball against South Korea among other nations, Ichiro spoke out: “We’ve got to thrash them to the point they’ll think it will take them 30 more years to catch up with Japanese baseball.” It’s only baseball but hey, baseball is taken seriously in some quarters. Whether or not he was aware that Imperial Japan’s colonial rule of Korea lasted 35 years up to 1945, the Koreans were incensed by the remark. To them it was tantamount to saying “Korea is 30 years behind Japan.”
Japan won the first WBC by defeating Cuba in the finals, but lost to South Korea twice on the way to the semi-finals, in which it finally defeated the Koreans. In the world of sports, one tries to avoid saying things to provoke the other side before the game. However much Ichiro’s words may have stimulated them, the Koreans were at least up 2-1 in the number of wins.
In this year’s WBC, the two nations played against each other five times. After losing the first game in the first round in Tokyo, the Korean manager complained that “while the Japanese team has five major leaguers, we only have one.” But South Korea went on to take the next two match-ups: their second game in Tokyo and the third in San Diego in the second round. Even from the TV screen, I could feel the energy of the large crowd of fans who came to root for their team from nearby LA, which has the largest Korean community in North America. There were of course Nikkei and Japanese people who came to root for Samurai Japan too, but they seemed overwhelmed by the Korean cheering squads who easily excelled in numbers, organization and sheer vocal power.
It was when Ichiro became the first base runner that I sensed something strange in the Korean supporters’ reaction. Every time the pitcher tried to pick Ichiro off and he would dive head first back to the base, they would roar in appreciation. Over something that is not directly related to the outcome, they were getting excited as if to say: “Make that so-and-so Ichiro grovel again!”
That game South Korea won 2-1, making it two wins and one loss against their arch rival Japan. Both the fans and players were ecstatic. Then an “incident” occurred that is probably unheard of in the history of international baseball. A few Korean players planted a small Korean flag on the pitcher’s mound. The image of a “symbol of their victory over Japan” that they left behind was broadcast to international viewers.
It’s not hard to imagine that the Japanese players were a little upset. “What do they have to do that for,” remarked second baseman Akinori Iwamura (Tampa Bay Rays) to the media. Whether or not the incident motivated team Japan, it won the fourth game 6-0, evening it at two wins apiece. “It’s a matter of pride… can’t lose three in a row,” said Ichiro afterwards.
Their fifth encounter was the WBC final. In the top of the 10th inning, Ichiro hit that line single to the centre, scoring two runners, and Japan went on to win 5-3. After the game, the question the media asked was why did the Korean pitcher confront one of the best hitters head on, instead of walking him. At first the South Korean manager put the blame on the young inexperienced catcher, saying the latter had missed the manager’s signal to walk Ichiro if necessary. But when someone mentioned that his pitcher had been pitching well, he came out with their true sentiment: “We wanted to punish Ichiro.”
To get hung up on that “object of hate Ichiro” in front of them, or to calmly pursue the game . . . It is obvious which path is more likely to lead to victory. Having Japan snatch away the WBC championship once again must have been a gut-wrenching experience. Some in the South Korean media did not even like the fact that Ichiro seemed to slouch during the post-game news conference. “An arrogant attitude unbefitting of a player representing Japan,” they railed.
One Korean-American fan explained it thus on a website: “I myself feel it strange that I get so excited, but when we’re playing against Japan, we can’t help it.” I asked Mr S.J.Kim, an acquaintance who is quite knowledgeable about Japanese and Korean cultures and is also a big sports fan (we also went to the same university in Mitaka outside Tokyo about the same time). “To be egged on by commercial interests and become 100% nationalistic like that somehow doesn’t seem quite normal,” he said. He would like to see them more relaxed and able to enjoy the game, as the Canucks fans around Vancouver might.
As for Ichiro, who described the moment he got the big hit in his unique way—“I felt the spirit come down”—he moved on to an even more fantastic and fascinating “next chapter” in his “involvement with Koreans.”
After a period of recovery from ulcers, he returned to his team, the Seattle Mariners, for their 9th game of the season at Safeco Park. It was on April 15th, the day when all the players wore number 42 to honor Jackie Robinson. Going into the game against the LA Angels, Ichiro was two hits short of 3,085 career hits, the Japanese record held by Isao Harimoto, aged 68, formerly of the Toei Flyers, Yomiuri Giants and Lotte Orions, now a commentator.
Mr. Harimoto, who had come to Seattle with a TV crew to exhort Ichiro and to witness him break the record, was introduced to the fans at Safeco. As his waving figure in the bleachers appeared on the big screen, the good baseball fans of Seattle cheered loudly in tribute. Ichiro, the big star that he is, tied Mr Harimoto’s record of 3,085 hits in style— a grand slam—as the latter watched. After Ichiro broke the record hitting his 3,086th the next day, Mr Harimoto said: “Of course it hurts, but I somehow knew Ichiro would do it.” For old-time fans (that’s me) he is just as big a star as Sadaharu Oh or Shigeo Nagashima, but for the Japanese fans of today, he’s probably just an old commentator who used to be famous.
I wonder, therefore, how many fans in North America, or even Japan nowadays, know that Mr Harimoto is Korean. His mother came over to Japan from the Korean Peninsula with his three elder siblings, and gave birth to Isao in 1940 in Hiroshima. In 1961, Isao Harimoto aged 21 became the leading hitter in the Pacific League, hitting .336. He was to become a leading hitter seven times in his career, a Japanese record matched only by Ichiro.
I mention Mr Harimoto not just because he is of Korean origin. I actually was introduced to him along with my buddies at a class-mate’s birthday party around 1962 when I was still in high-school back in Tokyo. I shook his hand. He looked, in one word, big. It was at a classy Korean restaurant in Roppongi. The parents of one of the girls in my class, who owned that restaurant, must have been among his backers.
In those days, way before they had pro baseball in South Korea, we would often gossip about so-and-so of such-and-such team was probably Korean. If popular singers and baseball players were of Korean origin, the media never reported it, so that made us gossip even more. Mr Harimoto didn’t worry, so he would do things like make his Japanese girlfriend wear the Korean national dress.
Speaking of Koreans, the great pitcher Masaichi Kaneda (aged 75, Kokutetsu Swallows,Yomiuri Giants, Lotte Orions, now commentator) cannot be forgotten. Born to Korean parents in Aichi Prefecture in 1933, he became a naturalized Japanese in 1959. His 400 career wins as a pitcher is such a formidable record in Japan that it will probably never be broken.
Among the many young fans who went crazy during the 2009 WBC Championship, I wonder how many knew about the deep interaction in baseball between Japan and Korea.