AMPONTAN

Japan from the inside out

From embassy row to a box seat

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, June 1, 2008

THIS MIGHT BE NEWS even for many Japanese, but the country’s ambassador to the United States, Kato Ryozo, stepped down from his post this week to take up a new assignment later this month: the commissioner of Japanese baseball.

Let's count to three and levitate!

Washington Post sports columnist Thomas Boswell has a piece on Mr. Kato that depicts the diplomat as a true seamhead. Mr. Kato saw the New York Yankees play in 1955 when they came for a post-season tour of Japan, and had already seen the minor-league San Francisco Seals six years before that.

He also has a mischievous sense of humor:

“When I am asked if I love baseball more than my wife, I say, ‘I met baseball first,’ ” Kato said.

Mr. Kato is going to have his work cut out for him in his new job. Perhaps it comes from being posted to the U.S. for nearly seven years, but he seems to have forgotten a lot about Japan and the game here.

What Kato may miss most as he leaves the United States are trips to Camden Yards and now Nationals Park, the symbols of what Japan does not have and is unlikely to get soon — modern parks where, as he said, the public’s shortened attention span is placated with “a picnic atmosphere for everyone.”

“Even America’s old parks like Fenway and Wrigley have their own exquisite taste,” Kato said. “Our infrastructure is old. We have four indoor stadiums. There’s nothing like America’s Opening Day — the blue sky, the national anthem, a president’s first pitch and the jets fly over. All of a sudden we feel the weight of history.”

Let’s start at the end and work backward.

Baseball is not the national sport of Japan, official or unofficial—sumo is. The tenno (emperor) attends the first tournament every year in January. As befitting royalty, he watches from his private box, rather than climbing into the ring.

Some people in Japan think that playing the national anthem at any event whatsoever, even at public schools, is dangerously nationalistic, and the same people would think a flyover by jets is militaristic. Combining both for baseball’s opening day here, no matter how innocent the intent, would result in dire warnings about a revival of Imperial Japan, followed by a tongue-swallowing fit.

They’re not interested in feeling the weight of history, thank you.

The Weather

Most American baseball fans, and I’m one of them, prefer watching the game outdoors played on natural grass. But there’s an excellent reason Japan has six indoor stadiums (not four) and moves are afoot to build another: the weather in the country is not conducive to outdoor relaxation during baseball season.

Ask Japanese which is their favorite season for sports, and most will answer fall. Schools traditionally hold intramural sports festivals in October because Japanese summers are very wet, hot, and muggy. The rainy season is now about to arrive in most of the country, and it will last into July. Even when there aren’t torrential rains, drizzles, or mists, a walk outside has all the ambience of a sauna. That’s also the reason few people in Japan drive convertibles.

My Japanese wife and I took our first trip together to the U.S. in the summer of 1987, and one of the places we visited was Washington DC, where Mr. Kato has been watching his baseball games lately. We spent one particularly hot day outside, as the locals wilted, bought out beverage stands, and sought the shade. A few people passed out from the heat. My wife, in contrast, didn’t understand the fuss. She thought the weather was unremarkable.

Then there’s the April climate in Sendai and Sapporo, where two teams are located. The average daily temperature in Sendai in April is 10.1º C (50.8º F), and it gets much colder at night. It’s even more frigid in Sapporo, and it’s likely that some games would be called on account of snow in both places.

If either Mr. Kato or Mr. Boswell had kept their wits about them, they would have remembered that the ballparks in cold-weather Minnesota and Toronto are both domed stadiums. They also would have remembered that Chase Field in Phoenix, the home of the Arizona Diamondbacks, has a retractable roof, just like the home field of the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks. According to the Chase Field website, “nearly 15 million baseball fans have enjoyed the opportunity to watch the Arizona Diamondbacks without worrying about Phoenix’s summer heat or monsoon storms.”

Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Florida, the home park of the Tampa Bay Rays, is also a domed stadium for the same reason.

The Parks

Mr. Kato thinks the infrastructure is old? When the new facility in Hiroshima opens next year, seven of Japan’s 12 major league ballparks will date from at least 1990. In addition, the original park for the Seibu Dome was built in 1979; a dome was added in 1999, and they just finished a major refurbishment last year. The oldest park is Meiji Jingu Kyujo, home of the Yakult Swallows (Yakult is a beverage company), which was built in 1925. A total of 1.5 billion yen (more than US$ 14.2 million) was spent on its renovation last year.

Unlike the supposedly picturesque older parks in the United States, Meiji Jingu does not have a second deck. That means it does not have the structural columns of the older American parks that block spectator views.

Japan’s most famous baseball stadium, Koshien Kyujo, is about the same age, and it has been rebuilt and modernized several times. It is currently undergoing another renovation that is slated to be finished next year. The park may not have the ivy-covered walls of Wrigley Field or the huge left field wall of Boston’s Fenway Park (required because there was a city street and sidewalk immediately on the other side) that give those venues their atmosphere, but Koshien, the site of two national high school baseball tournaments in addition to the home games of the Hanshin Tigers, is every bit as familiar and famous here.

Take a look at Japan’s baseball infrastructure for yourself at the website for the Sapporo Dome, built in 1998. The local weather and the facilities might make it difficult to create a “picnic atmosphere” for everyone, but there’s a playground called Kid’s Park on the third level where children can play and watch the game at the same time.

Drugs

Mr. Boswell also writes:

(O)f course, Kato may be stymied by a popular but somewhat stagnant game in Japan that copes with old ballparks, (and) a denial of the need for drug testing…

And American baseball never had any problems instituting drug testing for steroids? Those tests didn’t start in the U.S. until 2002, and players caught cheating weren’t subject to suspension until 2005.

In fact, here’s what the same journalist wrote just last December:

If you conclude that the whole sport (in the U.S.), from the union, commissioner and owners through GMs and managers, has been deeply aware of its steroid epidemic for many years, but didn’t have the guts to confront it, then you’re correct again.

Baseball has lived a lie since the late ’80s, then stonewalled throughout the ’90s, as a corrupting “code of silence,” as the Mitchell report calls it, dragged the game to the bottom rung of the moral-authority ladder in American sports.

Those backward Japanese!

That’s not to say there wasn’t or isn’t a steroid problem here. There was a suspicious jump in offensive statistics from 2001 to 2005, but the numbers have since fallen back to early 90s levels. (Offense is down in the U.S. this season, too) Many fingers pointed in the direction of slugger Kiyohara Kazuhiro; at the end of his career he had unusually good stats for a player his age, he started having the same injury problems as steroid users, and his head was just as grotesquely swollen as that of Barry Bonds’ during the years the latter was suspected of juicing. (Kiyohara, by the way, is one of only six Japanese players to have 2,000 hits, 500 home runs, and 1,500 RBIs over his career. He probably would have been successful playing in the United States.)

Money

Mr. Boswell also talks about the talent drain to the U.S.:

Last year, Matsuzaka and his old team in Japan each received about $50 million when he signed with the Boston Red Sox. For a league with 12 teams that average crowds of 25,000 in a 140-game season, such windfall cash is welcome.

No one turns up his nose at $50 million, but that does overlook a pertinent fact: Matsuzaka’s team was the Seibu Lions. Seibu is not the name of a city, but rather that of the owner–a business conglomerate that includes railroad, hotel, real estate, and mass merchandising operations. All Japanese baseball teams are the property of corporations, and for those corporations, the teams are a glorified advertising medium. When Matsuzaka Daisuke plays in the U.S., either Boston or Red Sox is written on the uniform shirt front. When he played in Japan, it was Seibu.

It’s not as if the Lions were having trouble meeting the payroll before the Boston money arrived.

The Post article on Mr. Kato is enjoyable, but in the end, it’s like every other article about Japan published overseas in the popular press: filled with false impressions and inaccuracies. This time, the faulty memory of a Japanese is just as much to blame as incompetent journalism.

Photo: L-R, U.S. American to Japan Thomas Schieffer, Oh Sadaharu, Hank Aaron, and Japanese Ambassador Kato Ryozo.

19 Responses to “From embassy row to a box seat”

  1. Topcat said

    Just for your info.

    http://komoriy.iza.ne.jp/blog/entry/592672/

  2. Overthinker said

    “Some people in Japan think that playing the national anthem at any event whatsoever, even at public schools, is dangerously nationalistic”

    Even?

  3. koichi said

    wow, now it’s time to replace America’s commissioner of baseball. I’m a huge fan of American baseball, and a luke-warm fan of Japanese baseball. I’ve got to follow this more, seems like things are getting interesting. Thanks for sharing 🙂

  4. Garrett said

    Ampontan,
    While it’s good to see a critical analysis of the views propounded by NPB officials (it’s not done often enough), I think your analysis of the stadium issue may be missing a few important details.

    First and foremost, there’s a big difference between new and modern, especially in terms of facilities. In the context of baseball stadiums, and in the context in which Kato set the issue in the original article, modernity refers to facilities and design, rather than mere age. The Sapporo Dome is home to some engineering marvels, but was originally designed for soccer, and a one-off event at that, and Kids’ Park notwithstanding, lacks the kind of food and relaxation facilities suited to regular attendance and relaxation over a long season. And the Sapporo Dome is rivalled only by Chiba Marine Stadium for modernity within NPB. Chiba has a nice picnic deck behind the bleachers of an open-air stadium, but still leaves many fans hoping for more.

    Aside from those two, facilities and modernity are lacking in most Japanese parks. Jingu’s expensive renovations consisted of a new type of artificial turf, pushing the left and right outfield wall back to 101m, turning it from one of Japan’s smaller parks into one of the bigger ones, and a huge new Jumbotron. Oh, and Baskin-Robbins ice cream. In other words, facilities for the fans were not changed much.

    The Seibu (Goodwill) Dome has some not-particularly nice restaurants around the stadium, but is still bush league in terms of services available within the stadium. (Furthermore, a great many fans count the open-doming of the stadium to be one of the greatest mistakes in stadium construction in Japan, as the setting is gorgeous, but now blocked out by concrete.

    TO be continued. . .

  5. Garrett said

    Sorry about that (and sorry for the long comment), had to switch PCs there.

    Cont.

    Unfortunately, most, if not all NPB stadiums were outdated from the time of their construction. The famous Tokyo Dome, opened in 1987, was modeled on the much-maligned Minneapolis MetroDome, already a relic of a failed age in American stadium construction by the time the designers of the Tokyo Dome decided to imitate it, down to the absurd-for-Tokyo snow-bearing dome.

    The Fukuoka (Yahoo! BB) Dome is in the same boat as the Tokyo Dome in some ways. It copied the Toronto Sky Dome’s impractical retractable dome, then compounded this problem, and doomed the Hawks to playing in a dome due to insufficient preliminary engineering, which positioned the stadiums most open side directly in the path of strong winds coming off the water.

    Yokohama Stadium, although not that old, is an embarrassment. With concessions barely sufficient to a Little League game, no real scoreboard visible to fans in the bleachers (where almost every baseball fan in Japan prefers to sit), speakers blaring into the ears of fans in the bleachers, and all the charm of the claustrophobia-inducing concrete bowl that it is. (It’s only saving grace is an open smoking area just under a TV and next to the concession stand.)

    The weather argument in a feeble justification for Japan’s excessive number of domes. While it is true that Tampa has the domed Tropicana Field, it should be noted that that stadium was built in the hopes of luring an MLB franchise to the area, but with the secondary motivation of an NHL team in mind. Tampa Bay fans often complain about their stadium. It should be noted that the Florida Marlins, in northern Miami-Dade County, play in an open stadium, as do the Atlanta Braves and the Washington Nationals – all places notorious for hot, muggy, rainy summers.

    Why is it that a dome in necessary for the Giants in Suidobashi, but unnecessary for the Swallows, just three train stops away in the Shinanomachi area? Yokohama gets more rain and a lot more wind than central Tokyo, but they do all right in their open stadium.

    The Eagles play in an open stadium up in Sendai. Hiroshima has an open stadium, but a dome is necessary in Nagoya?

    I am in pretty regular attendance at Jingu (and at the Tokyo Dome and Yokohama Stadium when the Swallows are there) and hear fans compain of the domes, but never the openness of the open stadiums. NPB fans appear, anecdotally, to like a nice summer evening outdoors as much as their American counterparts.

    I could go on, but I don’t want to monopolize the thread.

  6. Aceface said

    Do it Garrett.It is I who don’t want monoplozie the threads for all the time.

    I thought Jingu Stadium is owned by Meiji Jingu Gaien,subsidies of Meiji Shrine,and not by Yakult Inc.So I’d imagine MJG is not so concerned about income coming from TV,since they are already getting enough income by being religious out reach.Besides the team song,Tokyo-Ondo,must be sing and danced WITH vinyl umbrellas.Dome would certainly be very umpopular to the hard core Swallows fans.

  7. Garrett said

    On the whole, I think Kato will be a good influence on NPB. Teams need to be run more like businesses. As good as some players are getting, the overall level of play will not approach that of MLB until Japanese teams can attract top-notch players and coaches from overseas to complement the people in the game now, which means Japanese teams will have to be able to compete financially in addition to on the field. The fact of the matter is that Seibu was able to make their payroll only because they signed players and coaches they knew they could pay – it’s a circular argument. As long as top salaries in Japan are on the level of average salaries (for regular players) in the US, NPB will remain AAAA instead of Major League.

    As play becomes better, the league’s financial situation will improve, but first teams need money. Most teams lose money and are treated as advertisements. The Lions have been successful partly because they haven’t been allowed to run in the red for years on end. Stadiums need to be full, not averaging half of capacity or less (as every team but the Tigers and Giants do.)

    Most teams are run at a distance from their fans. Say, for instance that one wishes to procure that staple of the baseball fan – the fitted field model cap. Hard to do in Japan. With most teams, one must join the fan club, wait for the special promotion, then shell out ¥6,000. Why? It’s absurd. What business makes its products hard to obtain?

    The argument is that not many people buy such things in Japan. That’s true for the same reason that not many people in Japan buy Baby Ruth candy bars, viz. they’re not available. Teams are starting to wise up and pay attention to their fans, their customers, but there’s still a long way to go.

    For a start, look at the websites of your favorite team, their respective league, and NPB. Notice that they don’t link to each other. Notice that the Pacific League’s website, in as much as it even exists, is no easier to find than a unicorn.

    If you’re a baseball fan and a married man or in a relationship, think of how often your wife wants to join you at the ballpark. NPB is just not accessible, not welcoming to its fans, convinced that cost-cutting and cute cartoon characters are going to keep it relevant, and under the thumb of one team, Yomiuri. If things don’t change soon, J-League will pass NPB in the near future. Once that happens, the downhill slide begins.

    Kato wasn’t suggesting that “Kimigayo” be sung or that steroids were necessarily a problem (although Kiyohara? Come on. Very little doubt there and, no, he would not have done well in MLB, very long shot there.) Kato was suggesting that NPB has a lot to learn from MLB, which is almost indisputably true. I feel pretty confident in saying that most NPB fans would agree with me there, too. The people who react badly to the suggestion of accepting some things MLB has done as a set of best practices are a lot like people who are opposed to renovating Wrigley or Fenway – the like the idea of it more than the actual thing. And you can safely bet that they aren’t to be found in the stands.

    Aceface, yes, Jingu is owned by the Shrine. Rather reluctant to change, not wiling to spend money, not willing to sell the stadium, not aware of the idea of spending money to make money, a lot like the owners of the team that plays there.

    And, yeah, we like our green umbrellas, but we also realize that domes just plain suck.

  8. Garrett said

    I take one thing back: while not doing well in many relevant Google searches, the Pacific League’s site is here.

  9. Ken said

    I don’t know Garrett, I would have given Kiyohara a shot. I wouldn’t have posted for him because I don’t think he has a Matsui-type swing, but as a free agent, espcially in a cellar-dweller-need-a-DH-real-bad AL team, he could have been a stopgap for a few years.

    I remember opening day this year at Jingu, hearing about the “renovations.” Huh? I guess the Jumbotron is nice and all, but it’s nothing compared to what better seats would have meant (though with Yakult’s pitching staff the fences moving out was good as well). In terms of facilities for the fans, the stadiums I’ve been to have been nowhere near as modern as what one sees in MLB (in general, of course). The actual age of the stadium means nothing.

    NPB is desperately behind the curve in terms of marketing. I wonder how many MBAs are in their marketing division? Garrett’s point about the websites is dead on. There just hasn’t been a coordinated effort to push the league as an entertainment venue on the level that it could be. There are a host of reasons for this, and it may never change, but that’s a shame, because there are fans that care.

  10. Garrett said

    To move on to some of your other criticisms of Kato, Ampontan:

    Even though you selectively quote him, placing his quotes out of context, his meaning, I think, shines through.

    On steroids, Kato didn’t say that MLB had wiped the problem out or even dealt with it as early as it should have, he merely said that there was top to bottom awareness and acknowledgement of the problem. This is not the case in NPB, where there is certainly some steroid use, but merely mentioning this is taboo. There is little, if any acknowledgement of the problem and certainly no attempt to check it.

    On Opening Day: First, as I said above, Kato did not suggest that NPB do the same things as MLB, merely that MLB Opening Day was a spectacle, a festival of sorts, something big.

    Hyperbole about “Kimigayo” is a bit misplaced, though, as it already is frequently played, and sung by the crowd, without event. I personally attended the home openers of the Tokyo Swallows and Yokohama BayStars this year and that of Yomiuri Giants last year. At all of them, “Kimigayo” was performed, live, in an event-like atmosphere similar to the way in which “The Star-Spangled Banner” is performed in the US. (This year, the Swallows even went with an ill-advised lackluster ’80s rock-guitar and chorus rendition.) No one pitched a fit, no tongues swelled up, no editorials were written.

    I’ve also noticed (in six cases firsthand) that the Hinomaru flies over the stands of each and every NPB team, presumably at each and every game. I’ve been in pretty regular attendance at NPB games (primarily at Jingu, but also at all of the stadiums in the Kanto area, and a bit beyond) and have noticed that baseball has little visible in the way of politics. Just as most people in Japan are not vocally patriotic, fewer still are going to use a baseball stadium as a venue for political statement.

    Kato’s point was that fireworks, giveaways, discounts, promotions, showmanship are all part of putting butts in seats and MLB does this much better than NPB does even though NPB faces much less in the way of competition from similar forms of entertainment. (The only quasi-contender would be J-League.)

  11. Aceface said

    One of the culture shock I had at Yankee Stadium way back in 1981 was everyone raised from their chairs and took off baseball caps when the anthem was sung.Yeah,Kimigayo does get played now,but this is pretty recent thing,No? And only in the beginning of the season and not in every game like they do in MLB?

    Flyover by jet was seen in 1964 olympic games in opening ceremony.(Air Self Defense Force Team acrobatic team,Blue Impulse flew over the olympic arena that stands right next to Jingu stadium.)but that is only case as far as I can remember.

  12. Garrett said

    True. I’ve never seen an ASDF flyover and “Kimigayo” is not performed before every game. When I’ve seen it performed, though, very few people didn’t stand and most people took of their hats and sang as well, not all that different from what happens in the US. I don’t know first hand how long that’s been going on.

    I think Kato’s point was not so much that the national anthem need be sung or that jets need to flyover, but that more spectacle would help improve attendance. If it were up to me, I think I’d go with fireworks, cap day, bobble head doll day, cheap beer night – that kind of thing. There are steps being in taken in that direction, to varying degrees, but there’s still a long way to go. Perhaps even more important than bringing non-baseball fans out to the park is getting people who are already interested to show up and making people who go to games want to come back again and again.

    Imagine a setting like the Seibu Dome, with the stupid roof ripped off, as the venue for a fireworks display. People would flock to that on a summer night.

  13. Aceface said

    Garett:

    I have to turn down some of my argument on sports game and anthem,because I attended kids sumo wrestling tournament yesterday because my son was participant and Kimigayo was played with all the audience stood up.Which was in a way shocked me,since that never happened during my own school years and I was actually a supporter,or more exactly a skeptic about diehard anti-kimigayo teachers.(I’ve actually had a debate with Roy Berman and Ken Worsley on this at Mutantfrog about two years ago)
    Frankly speaking I didn’t like listening Kimigayo there.Maybe because of the attendence of the mayor and two locally elected members of the house of representative,or the whole sumo game was organized by Junior Chamber International Japan,an Aso Taro stronghold and supporter of rightwing textbook, publication.I was thinking about sitting through,but my Mongolian wife pulled my arms to stand up.

    RE:Jingu Stadium

    When I was doing a research around the athletic area there for one of the “city reports”,I was told that surronding area of Shoutoku Memorial Museum http://ja.wikipedia.org/wiki/%E8%81%96%E5%BE%B3%E8%A8%98%E5%BF%B5%E7%B5%B5%E7%94%BB%E9%A4%A8
    has construction restriction to maintain the landscape seen from Aoyama Dori.So maybe that’s the reason why they don’t want build gigantic dome.

    RE:Seibu Dome:

    I live in Tokorozawa and glad they stop calling that “Goodwill Dome”.While haven’t been to the stadium ever since they’ve put that roof on,still I couldn’t love that stadium.Maybe it’s out in the woods and not in the city like Korakuen Stadium was?
    I agree about the fire works,and you could still see it over Seibu-En once you step out of the dome.

  14. Ken said

    I wonder if the same teachers who protest Kimigayo at school functions stand for it at ball games?

    Anyway, the talk on national anthems isn’t really relevant. I don’t think Kato was saying Japan necessarily had to go such a route at all – just that there needs to be something that fires up the crowd and interest in the game. He was giving an example of what seems to work in the US. I’d love to hear what he thinks would work in Japan. It just ain’t gonna be this: http://www.clipland.com/Live/video/6156

  15. ampontan said

    I don’t know, Ken, that might work…

    Not long after I came to Japan, I was watching a late-night TV show and a young woman appeared in what I thought was a very tight-fitting Hanshin Tigers uniform (home, with the stripes).

    Turned out it wasn’t a uniform at all. She was nude and the uniform was painted on. That might work even better!

  16. Ken said

    It might work to some degree, but I wonder if the team has done any relevant marketing reasearch on that. Some models tossing out a first pitch might bring more people to the stadium, no doubt. But how many? How much do they spend on the average each on concessions, t-shirts, etc? What price tickets do they buy? Do they come back? Do they become fan club members? Do they bring friends/family members to future games? Most important: Will they bring their own kids to the games while they are still young? And so on…

    I don’t know how much these events are considered as part of an overall marketing strategy. My limited experience with one team in NPB is that they don’t really have one, because there is no one in the front office specialized enough to do it.

    A recent ESPN feature on Yu Darvish was interesting, though I wish they had (or could have had access to)spent more time speaking with NPB reps: http://sports.espn.go.com/espn/eticket/story?page=darvish

  17. Bender said

    I think after 9/11 they started singing “God Bless America” instead of “Take me out to the Ball Game”. Correct me if I’m wrong.

    One game I saw a chorus group started singing “God Bless” at the bottom of the 7th and the fans booed so they switched to “Take me out”…guess what city it was.

  18. ampontan said

    San Francisco?

  19. Bender said

    Yep.

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