CULTURAL CONUNDRUMS / If the discourse fits: The way of the samurai and baseball
June 03, 2017 By Kate Elwood, professor of English at Waseda University’s School of Commerce / Special to The Japan News by The Yomiuri

I recently had a special opportunity to teach a course titled “Identity, Heritage and Globalization” for one semester at Venice International University. The 12 students were from Europe, North America and Asia and of eight nationalities, making for interesting discussions. There were many moments of discovery as students shared their knowledge, experiences and “take” on various issues, but among all of these, one particular moment stands out in my mind.
We had been talking about sports as heritage, particularly in light of Michael Robidoux’s fascinating article “Historical Interpretations of First Nations Masculinity and its Influence on Canada’s Sport Heritage,” in which Robidoux argues the Canadian national identity was shaped in large part by the early French Canadians’ engagement in a number of indigenous sports.
In the discussion of sports heritage, a Japanese student brought up the cultural importance in Japan of the annual national high school baseball championship at Koshien Stadium. “Japanese people play baseball?” asked one Italian student incredulously.
The Europeans in the class considered baseball an American sport — pure and simple. The notion that baseball could be linked to anything to do with the Japanese identity seemed inconceivable.
The story of how baseball came to be played in Japan, starting near the end of the 19th century, is interesting enough, but the ways baseball has been linked to the Japanese national character, and especially to bushido, “the way of the samurai,” is even more intriguing. Sports ethnographer Yuka Nakamura observes that during outfielder Ichiro Suzuki’s first season as a major leaguer, The Seattle Times referred to Ichiro’s signature pre-batting ritual of pointing his bat at the pitcher as “that whole samurai archer move with the bat,” called Ichiro’s calisthenics “Zen knee bends” and even compared him to a Zen master.
For its part, a Japanese sports newspaper viewed Ichiro’s continuation of his bat-pointing custom after his move to the United States (where the sportswriter suggested it might be seen as aggressive) as evidence of Ichiro’s samurai spirit (bushidamashii). Samurai-ing Ichiro served in one case as a way of exoticizing the other, and for Japan, a means of reclaiming Ichiro as its own, despite his move from the Japanese game.
The association of Japanese baseball players with samurai is almost as old as the sport’s history in Japan. Japanese baseball scholars point to the 1900 publication of Inazo Nitobe’s “Bushido: The Soul of Japan” as the origin of the samurai baseball discourse. And yet the whole identification of baseball with bushido is on wobbly ground.
To begin with, Japanese students were playing baseball before Nitobe’s book came out. And as with any newly emerging endeavor, Japanese baseball developed along various tracks. Social anthropologist William Kelly points out the early baseball organizations were run by students, with a horizontal power structure. Then a vertical structure with adult managers emerged in the early 20th century.
Subsequently, in Tokyo there were coachless teams with, once more, a horizontal composition. From the second half of the 20th century, things got more top-down, particularly with the introduction of “kanri yakyu” (managed baseball) by the Giants. Even then though, things were not cut and dried. Kelly notes that Giants manager Tetsuharu Kawakami, who was particularly associated with kanri yakyu, gave his players greater rein behind the scenes. Pointing to the transmitted samurai spirit — whatever that might be: loyalty to one’s master? fidelity to oneself? Zen knee bends? — among all this variation is no easy matter, and it certainly makes it fiddly to view the Japanese baseball player as the unswerving embodiment of a centuries-old code of ethical behavior.
Which, by the way, may not have been centuries old. Nitobe was a Christian and wrote his book in English while living in California. He was highly influenced by Western concepts of chivalry, and while drawing on stories of samurai, Nitobe freely fashioned bushido to suit his own understanding of the values of rectitude, courage, benevolence, politeness, veracity, honor, loyalty and self-control. As such, his account of bushido has been labeled by some as “invented tradition.” It was, nonetheless, taken up wholeheartedly by the Japanese government, which after some decades of Westernization, sought a reiteration of Japanese identity applicable to contemporary society. Nitobe’s book appeared at an opportune moment.
Baseball was a good starting point for application of the bushido viewpoint. But as is so often the case with fashionable concepts, bushido was used to bolster both sides of arguments regarding the value of the sport, and it appeared malleable enough to do this.
Sociologist Thomas Blackwood draws attention to the “evils of baseball” debates in a Japanese newspaper in 1911. Against those who argued against baseball on the grounds that it was commercial and encouraged unruliness among fans, supporters cited baseball as the quintessence of bushido values.
On the opposing side, Nitobe himself weighed in. He had never intended his treatise to be applied to the sport, and he contended that “stealing” bases went against the samurai code of ethics. Since then, samurai references have appeared in the discourse of Japanese baseball every now and then, to express various aims and aspirations for the sport and its players. As Yankees legend Yogi Berra would say, “It’s like deja vu all over again.”
(The next installment will appear July 1.)