Overdose of cultural steroid is undermining quality of our life

Monday, April 10 2006 @ 06:31 AM JST

Contributed by: Y.Yamamoto


From left: Sadaharu Oh, Hideo Nomo, Shizuka Arakawa, Junichiro Koizumi with Arakawa

Traditionally the Japanese people have been abusing two types of cultural steroid - morbid commercialism and odd nationalism - interchangeably as performance-enhancers. But the situation with their addiction to these substances now looks to be undergoing a certain change as cross-boarder interchange increasingly flourishes, especially in sports such as baseball and soccer. Today they are aware that just commercializing sports won't be effective enough for Japanese athletes to compete on par with their foreign counterparts.

I have nothing against commercialism as such because there is no such thing as a market economy without it. But I think Japan's commercialism, typically represented by the Yomiuri media empire, is incurably sick because there is no principle of competition at work there.

One illustrative case of the sick commercialism is the dominance of the Yomiuri Giants over Japan's puro yakyu (professional baseball). The owner of the Giants is the Yomiuri Shimbun, the flagship daily of the Yomiuri media group. It's a natural thing that the Yomiuri Shimbun, its affiliate sports daily Hochi Shimbun, and NTV are promoting the ballclub (Japan's New York Yankees only in terms of standings in total payroll) while giving much less coverage to other 11 teams, no matter whether the Giants are at the top, or at the bottom, of the Central League's standings. But you have difficulty understanding how come other media organizations with nationwide network and circulation, such as Asahi, Sankei and Mainichi, do exactly the same. As Marty Kuehnert, former sports commentator and current General Manager of the Rakuten Eagles, once wrote, the root cause undermining Japan's puro yakyu lies with the fact that it's always revolving around the Yomiuri Giants.

Incidentally, the 1-plus-year-old Eagles are the latest addition to the Pacific League. But the early indications are that the ballclub will be doomed to remain a cellar dweller in the next 5 to 10 years just because it will take a lot of time for the new entrant to become fully assimilated in the cartel called puro yakyu.

Another distinctive thing about Japan's pro baseball is the never-ending craze for the nation's darling Shigeo Nagashima, former third baseman (1957-74) and skipper (1975-80 and 1992-2001) of the Yomiuri Giants. His stats are not really impressive with a career average of .305, 444 homeruns and 1,522 RBIs. And yet Matsutaro Shoriki, then-owner of the Tokyo ballclub, handpicked Nagashima as the one to represent the entire puro yakyu and remain forever on the throne, when he decided to resign as the field manager. That's why he was named "Lifetime Honorary Manager" of the ballclub in 2001. To him playing in the U.S. was out of the question because he was just smart enough to avoid ending up a mediocre major leaguer.

Obviously the primary factor in the Shoriki's pick of the mediocre person was that Nagashima was considered an extremely likable personality and a "telegenic" figure. From a phrenological point of view (I'm a believer in Abraham Lincoln's physiognomy, to be more precise), he is not my type. But just the same, in his prime Nagashima was, and still remain, something more than a national hero. He was/is very close to the Emperor. Since the days when the Japanese economy was going through a double-digit growth year after year, he has served as the symbol of national unity. Every business meeting used to start with a preliminary chat over his performance the night before. We thought that by doing so, a business deal could be expedited most effectively.

All along, the Yomiuri empire, and thus the entire nation, have largely undervalued Sadaharu Oh, former first baseman (1959-80) and manager of the Giants (1984-88) and another ballclub (1995 to present), in favor of Nagashima the Emperor. Actually, Oh's stats by far eclipse Nagashima's with a career average of .301, 868 round-trippers and 2,170 RBIs. The single most important achievement by Oh is his career homerun record which at least parallels with Hank Aaron's 755 even if you discount the smallness of the ballparks of the time. (His, and thus Nagashima's, home turf was only 288-feet long from the plate to the outfield fences.)

Last month in Anaheim, CA., "Team Japan" headed by Oh could capture the championship at the inaugural World Baseball Classic. The Oh's most recent achievement was all the more significant because his squad consisted mostly of mediocre ballplayers including Ichiro Suzuki, Seattle Mariners' right fielder. In the Major Leagues, Ichiro is considered one of the most successful imports from Japan despite the fact he is the most predictable and boring ballplayer in the Majors. He could succeed simply because American baseball fans had grown fed up with these steroid-pumped-up homerun kings such as Mark McGuire by the time he was imported in 2001.

Beware, though, it won't take long until American spectators realize the skinny, sneaky, and yet increasingly big-mouthed guy is just marring the thrills and fascination they expect from the game because what he has brought there is the typical Japanese style of playing the ballgame heavily tainted with the cultural steroid. Actually the beatout artist has nothing to offer to Americans except some statistical significance. A recent rumor has it that the Yomiuri Giants are eyeing at reimporting him when he is used up in Seattle because even then they can still expect a huge commercial value out of this guy. Meritocracy has never meant a thing in this country.

The Yomiuri is also salivating for Hideo Nomo, the 1995 Rookie of the Year, who hurled two no-hitters in his prime. But it's an impossible dream for the Yomiuri because unlike Ichiro, or any other Japanese ballplayers in the Majors, Nomo is a man of dignity and pride. The guy with admirable class and perseverance actually fled puro yakyu and this cartelized culture altogether when he signed with the Los Angeles Dodgers back in 1995.

Getting back to the Oh's part of the story, what impressed me most is the fact that the former homerun king didn't stress at the press conference in Anaheim or Tokyo that his squad represented this nation. He just said he was proud to have headed the winners whereas Ichiro and other guys kept saying they were very proud to be Japanese, and that they did it all for the sake of the "flag", as Nagashima had once put it, and reiterated over and over. Obviously these guys had abused their "love" of home country as a performance-enhancing agent, just like their ancestors had to turn to the stimulant of hinomaru brand when they temporarily overpowered America in the early-1940s. But you can always tell their patriotism is not genuine and spontaneous when it is exaggerated in such an ugly and disgraceful way.

Actually Sadaharu Oh, the 65-year-old man of integrity, has retained a passport issued by the Taiwanese government, all the way through his life because his parents came from that country. Most probably that's why his fame has always been overshadowed by Nagashima's. It's a pity for the Yomiuri that the great Taiwanese had to be substituted for Nagashima as the manager of Team Japan because the pureblooded Japanese had suffered a serious stroke a couple of years ago. In fact Oh was just a fill-in for the managing position.

I think the WBC was where morbid commercialism found out for the first time that without turning to equally sick, and misplaced, nationalism, Japan's homegrown athletes can't fare well in international sporting events. NHK, Japan's only public broadcaster, had started telecasting the MLB games about the time Nomo landed Los Angeles after a longtime feud with puro yakyu. That also coincided with the first signs that the Japanese were losing interest in the Yomiuri-dominated pro baseball. NHK apparently thought that it could take the Yomiuri's place by substituting nationalism, NHK's forte, for commercialism. To that end the public TV broadcaster has ardently made those Japanese exports carry around hinomaru, the national flag, in Seattle, New York, Saint Louis, or Chicago, while most of them are just passable major leaguers who me-too'd after Nomo. (Maybe Hideki Matsui, Kenji Jojima, and Tadahito Iguchi, who passed up the WBC stint for varying reasons, are exceptions.) It's a little sickening to see Ichiro, for instance, lead off the ninth inning with a walk, Adrian Beltre belt a two-run homer to lead the Mariners to a come-from-behind win, and hear the NHK's announcer and commentator insist the "hidden MVP" of the game is Ichiro.

To date NHK hasn't woken up to the fact that this way it's surely undermining people's fascination toward the MLB just like Yomiuri's commercialism caused the nationwide craze for puro yakyu to die down over the last 40 years. But now it looks to have dawned on NHK, as well as commercial media entities, that fanning nationalism is not only a workable alternative to the other stimulant but practically the only way to exhilarate these guys who have long abandoned their pursuit of excellence in the society without competition. That's why we are seeing an overblown nationalism unleashed across the nation lately.

One month earlier than the Oh's feat, figure skater Shizuka Arakawa could save Japan from the "medal draught" in the Winter Olympics in Turin. Actually her performance was breathtakingly powerful and graceful. Her choice of music was "Nessun Dorma" from Giacomo Puccini's "Turandot", one of my favorite arias. But I felt betrayed when Arakawa was humming to Kimigayo, the world's most yawnful national anthem, at the top of the podium because Nessun Dorma had become the shining gold medalist much more than the boresome Kimigayo. When she came home in triumph, the media wasted no time to make up a patriotic heroine out of this Olympian. She even didn't refuse it when Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi invited her to an opera theater. Guess what was going on there on that night. We have seen many times in the past those who could once shine abroad sterilized, neutralized, and assimilated here into this futile "culture". The case with Shizuka Arakawa is yet another successful attempt by the media to tame a person who once wanted to stick out from the groupism which is the optimal hotbed of mediocrity.

It's true that every once in a while we see, with a pleasant surprise, a top-notch athlete emerging from the social milieu where mediocrity is the norm. To me it's something like seeing a miracle. But that's as far as sports are concerned. While competition is more or less inherent to sports, it's a different story when it comes to other areas of the "culture", except sciences and technologies.

You cannot take it for granted that the principle of (fair) competition always, or even sometimes, governs other areas, such as literature, music, movies, and journalism. At least that is not the case with our nation. In the Japanese "culture", which has long been reduced to "Cartels of the Mind" (Ivan P. Hall), the unsound commercialism still can function even without a concomitant administration of nationalism because unlike with sports, you can stick out as a literary magnate, for instance, without a monumental achievement as Oh's. It only takes a couple of influential people, preferably foreigners, who say that you are great, for you to establish yourself in Japan's literary world. So if you are an extraordinarily gifted individual and don't want to have your greatness laundered offshore, the probability is next to zero for you to successfully compete against others to enrich people's inner life in your own way.

Outside of Japan each person has one or more local athletes, musicians, or writers that he/she idolizes so much as to think these figures have made a difference to the quality of life, if it only involves his/her inner life. To my regret, though, I have none at all locally, whereas I think my youth and later life must have been much poorer without Glenn Miller, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Dean Martin, Elvis Presley, the Beatles, the Carpenters, Celine Dion, or even the Dixie Chicks, just to mention some names in the area of popular music.

I don't believe the cultural sterility is attributable to our racial inferiority, though. Instead this is just because of the overdose of the cultural steroid. Bertrand Russell (1872-1970), the prominent British philosopher and mathematician, once wrote to this effect: It's something like arguing there cannot be a perfect crime to say any gifted person should ultimately be able to come out no matter what adversity is in his/her way. My interpretation of his statement is that even in Japan there must be innumerable talents who could potentially excel in their areas of expertise if the entire "culture" wasn't solidly cartelized.

There is a French saying: To one who dislikes tomatoes, people who like them look stupid. But I don't want to say my fellow countrymen are all that foolish. Basically I couldn't care less if my compatriots are fed with rotten tomatoes everyday. I just wanted to tell you, though, not to listen to these Japanophile Orientalists in the West, who claim that they have special ability to appreciate the Japanese "culture", as if Japan has one. They tend to feel they are somehow entitled to determine who to represent this "culture" from among all of us. Actually they cherry-pick and promote everything they think represents it only to defend the vested interests they have at stake here. The fact remains, though, that this "culture" is already dying of the addictive use of the cultural steroid constantly being supplied by the likes of the Yomiuri and NHK.

A culture is there to enrich your life, and for you to enrich it. So the bad news is that we won't have a culture in this nation any more in the not-too-distant future. And the good news is: things can't get any worse unless the Darwinian evolution is a process which is somehow reversible. I am not talking about "Social Darwinism" here.

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