From Ruth to Ohtani: How Japan-US Relations Hit A Home Run
Baseball is a very niche sport, yet, baseball has served as one of the most effective tools of diplomacy since even before the days of Ping Pong Diplomacy. In this essay, Albert Julio retold and reflected on how baseball is able to organically grow as a tool of diplomacy between Japan and the USA.
It is a magnificent premise that Japan and the United States remain very close in people-to-people relations. Considering the US dropped the nuclear bomb on Japan, one would imagine the two countries harbor great hate for each other. Instead, the two countries are often still linked with one another, each in awe of the other’s culture. It is completely fascinating that this all stems from the love of a certain game, that is, baseball. I find it fascinating if we start giving a more serious thought about sports diplomacy, mirroring the success of US-Japan baseball diplomacy. This writing serves to show the history of such a relationship, its strength, and a little writer’s reflection.
Baseball is a niche sport, but when it hits its target market, that’s a home run. No truer sentiments can be shared than the fact that the audience counter hit 63 million people when Japan faced South Korea in the 2023 World Baseball Classic (Suvanto,2023). It was so niche, in fact, that it was introduced as a fun school activity at first in Japan in 1872. (Staples, 2008, 15) It was not until exchange students who went to the US saw how big the game really was, it is indeed “America’s Favorite Pastime.” (Edelman, 2020, 206) Just past half a century later in 1934, baseball became a professional sport and Japan just walked out of the League of Nations. It is truly unthinkable that anyone would think that a US-Japan baseball game will ever happen, yet media mogul Masutaro Shoriki made it happen. (Wisensale, 2022)
Perhaps you’ve heard of Babe Ruth, the legendary player often called the “Greatest of All Time” in baseball. Shoriki got Ruth in an 18 game tour, as he swats 13 home runs and tried on many kimonos on the way, more and more Japanese hearts melted. Their fascination with Ruth gave them hope for a peaceful relationship between them and their Western counterparts. Yet, as much as hope rises for an anti-war sentiment, Pearl Harbor happened seven years after. (Ibid.) To make matters worse, the Japan-US war took the life of famed Japanese pitcher, Eiji Sawamura, after his submarine was torpedoed at sea. (Kurihara, 2021)
Japanese cynicism was at an all-time high during the post-war recovery situations in Japan. As homes were slowly built, rice was scarce, and troops were insensitive, the Japanese ire grew larger and larger. At that moment, the Japanese could switch to communism at a glance, but Douglas MacArthur realized that to heal a broken bond, the US needed to remind them of how they used to bond. (Kawai, 1951, 27) Of course, the great Babe Ruth has died, but the US took on the second best thing, to call on the man who created professional baseball leagues in Japan. That man, Lefty O’Doul, was asked by Macarthur to bring his minor league team (junior team) to have a tour of 10 games in Japan. What would be the sound of hundreds of rumbling stomachs turned to cheers as home runs were hit and O’Doul restored the parity of the relationship between Japan and the United States. (Wisensale, 2022)
Years passed by and it was now the Japanese turn to send people to the United States. It started with a rowdy pitcher named Hideo Nomo who found a loophole that allowed him to play for the Los Angeles Dodgers in the US. His manipulation led to an official regulation of sending a player from Japan to the US, called the posting system. This opened up chances for Japanese people to carve a career in the US officially. Post 1995, when Nomo made his debut, there was an abundance of Japanese stars in Major League Baseball (MLB). Players such as Ichiro Suzuki, Hideki “Godzilla” Matsui, Masahiro Tanaka, Yu Darvish, and so many more. However, none have had given the same impact as the most recent star, Shohei Ohtani.
With his pitching appearance in the 2023 WBC Final last inning where he struck out Los Angeles Angels teammate, Mike Trout, Ohtani has turned the baseball agenda around. Japan, a country that used to be very excited to play against foreigners, is now becoming a team that the foreigners want to play against. With players such as Mike Trout and Mookie Betts expressing happiness having played in the Classic. It has also sparked a renewed interest in Japanese players, such as the case of the New York Mets signing of Kodai Senga and the high media coverage of Japan stars like Munetaka Murakami, Yoshinobu Yamamoto, and Roki Sasaki.
Until now, Ohtani dominates the discussions in the American media. He is perhaps the most famous Japanese person since Shinzo Abe in recent times. It really looks like as long as Ohtani is pitching (and hitting), Japan and the US’s relationship is going to be just fine. In the grandiose term of irony, the final loss in WBC sparked more friendship as the victory finally attained Japan recognition from their American counterpart. The organic growth from such popularity of a sport has made it possible for a hegemonic nation to concede defeat at something they are good at. As it turns from a school physical activity into an international game, cynic sentiments turn to friendships.
In a country where sports and fandom are filled with violence, perhaps we need to learn from the Japanese and Americans. Sports are a valuable tool that should be used to spread peace. Taking notes to the Christmas Truce of 1914, where British and German soldiers stopped war efforts to play a simple game of football, one could dream of a world where the truce happens and everyday is Christmastime. The sound of cheers when a batter hits a ball so hard quiets the horrified screaming of the nuclear terror. As when the bat is swung and the ball is thrown, there is simply no time for war. Truly, America’s Favorite Pastime is slowly becoming Everyone’s Favorite Pastime. I shall end this essay with two words: Play Ball!
Edelman, R. (2020). Oxford Handbook of Sports History. Oxford: Oxford Univ Press US.
Kawai, K. (1951). “American Influence on Japanese Thinking.” The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 278, no. 1 (1951): 23–31. https://doi.org/10.1177/000271625127800104.
Kurihara, T. (2021, May 3) “The Story of Eiji Sawamura, the Japan Baseball Ace Lost in Sunk WWII Transport Ship.” retrieved from The Mainichi. https://mainichi.jp/english/articles/20210501/p2a/00m/0na/015000c.
Staples, B. (2011) Kenichi Zenimura, Japanese American baseball pioneer. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co.
Suvanto, L. (2023, March 20) “When Is the World Baseball Classic Final? Date, Start Time, and TV Listings.” retrieved from Sportskeeda. https://www.sportskeeda.com/baseball/news-when-world-baseball-classic-final-date-start-time-tv-listings.
Wisensale, S. (2022, September 15) “Babe Ruth in a Kimono: How Baseball Diplomacy Has Fortified Japan-US Relations.” retrieved from The Conversation. https://theconversation.com/babe-ruth-in-a-kimono-how-baseball-diplomacy-has-fortified-japan-us-relations-93629.