Japan from the inside out

Kageura to hang up his spikes

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, April 26, 2009

IT’S OFFICIAL: Kageura Yasutake (62) will retire from the Japanese major leagues at the end of the current season, bringing to an end the longest baseball career in Japanese history at 37 years. Mr. Kageura will have played all 37 of those seasons with the Hawks’ franchise, first for the Nankai Hawks in the Osaka area, and now for the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks in Fukuoka City.

L-R: Kageura, Mizushima

L-R: Kageura, Mizushima

Kageura was signed as an undrafted free agent in 1972 and his career began as a pinch-hitter nonpareil. He is known for using an extra long bat dubbed the monohoshizao (clothesline pole), as well as his love of Japanese sake. He is so pickled from his nightly drinking expeditions, the story goes, that he sends up a spray of sake whenever he hits the ball.

He became one of the starting nine after the franchise moved to Fukuoka City and emerged as the team’s premier slugger, winning the Triple Crown three years in a row. He enjoys the rare distinction of playing with his son, a pitcher, on the same team this year. His uniform number, 90, is expected to be unofficially retired.

The player’s taste for the grape—or in this case, rice—began during his high school days. Appearing in a regional high school championship game, he used garlic to hide the smell of liquor on his breath, and despite a mammoth hangover, hit a mammoth, 508 ft. walk-off home run. While circling the bases after his winning hit, however, he vomited on the field. The smell of sake was so overpowering the umpires (this being high school) disqualified him and removed the runs from the scoreboard.

Mr. Kageura announced his decision to retire while having a drink at the bar run by his father-in-law. It was made public in the 860th installment of the comic Abusan in the 5 April edition of Big Comic Original published by Shogakkan. (The publication is known as a comic book for adults. That does not mean they run X-rated content; rather, it means that the book publishes comic stories for adults rather than children.)

Abusan is Kageura’s nickname and is derived from the Japanese pronunciation for absinthe. (Some people mistakenly write it as Abu-san, which works in Japanese as Mr. Horsefly.) The comic was created and is still written and drawn by Mizushima Shinji. Familiar even to contemporary college students, the series is known for incorporating actual events in Japanese baseball into the story and the appearance of current players, managers, and team owners. It is so widely known that a new manager of the Fukuoka Hawks joked that his first comment after looking over his roster of players was, “What happened to Kageura?”

Some say one reason for the comic’s popularity is that Japanese salarymen identified with his character, particularly in the 1970s. He played for a team in the less popular Pacific League during the age of supremacy of the Central League’s Tokyo Yomiuri Giants, his role as a pinch hitter rather than as a star endowed him with an Everyman quality, and he was a serious drinker.

Abusan and his batting title award

Abusan and his batting title award

Ordinarily, I might not have brought this story up, except that there’s a real-life connection—I’m casually acquainted with the former pro ballplayer who is the model for Abusan. That’s Nagabuchi Yozo, an outfielder, DH, and briefly a relief pitcher for the Kintetsu Buffaloes and Nippon Ham Fighters. Mr. Nagabuchi won the batting title in 1969, his first full year in the major leagues, with a .333 average.

Here are his career statistics for those of you who read Japanese. He usually batted third and played right field, and wound up with a lifetime batting average of .278. Mr. Nagabuchi was very much the contact hitter: he seldom struck out or walked, and even better, rarely hit into double plays.

The real Abusan once described his motivation for playing major league baseball:

“When I played for Toshiba (as a Toshiba employee in the company leagues), my monthly salary was 30,000 yen, but I had an outstanding bar bill of 200,000 yen. There was no way I could pay that off, so I thought the only thing to do was to sign a pro contract. I figured it would be enough if I played for just a year or two, so I signed for a low (annual salary of) 3.3 million yen.”

Most of that is probably true, except that Kintetsu drafted him in the second round that year, and he had already flunked one pro tryout two years before that.

Mr. Nagabuchi is still a legend in Japanese baseball for his drinking exploits. He usually went drinking after every game and often played the next day with a hangover. There is even a story that he, like Abusan, threw up on the field during a game, although he was playing in the outfield at the time.

After his career ended, he returned to Saga and opened a yakitori shop that he and his wife still operate. It’s about a 10-minute walk from my house, and I was last there for a party in January. I came to Japan as an English teacher, and his daughter Kaori was in the first class I taught on my first day on the job. Kaori later married one of the other students in that class, and I attended their wedding reception.

The real Abusan is a relaxed, personable fellow who is very easy to strike up a conversation with. It’s no surprise that he’s very sharp about baseball, even the way the game is played in the United States. Before Nomo Hideo blazed the trail for modern Japanese players in the American major leagues, many Japanese fans had the mistaken impression that the American game was not really a team sport but played mano-a-mano between pitcher and hitter. I’ve heard Mr. Nagabuchi gently correct his customers on that score on more than one occasion.

Here’s something else that will come as no surprise: The name of his yakitori is Abusan. And most nights after he closes up about 11:00 p.m., he and his wife take a five-minute stroll down the street and around the corner to a koryori-ya (a traditional Japanese eating and drinking place), where he sits at the bar and drinks sake straight out of a glass.


All the Japanese sources have his name pronounced as Nagabuchi, but I could have sworn that the family pronounces it as Nagafuchi (I was his daughter’s teacher, after all.) Then again, most people refer to him as Abusan, so I haven’t heard anyone use his family name in a while.

This discrepancy would not be unusual for Kyushu. It’s a little difficult to explain to people not familiar with the Japanese language, but there is a tendency, at least here in Saga, for people to dispense with the dakuon in their family names. For example, I know a man who insists that the proper pronunciation of his family name is Takaki. Everyone else in Japan says Takagi, so he lets it go without comment. I also know a man who pronounces his family name as Shinotsuka, rather than using the more common Shinozuka.

I’ve always been a bit disappointed that the Americans adopted the expression “walk-off home run” for a round-tripper that ends the game either in the bottom of the ninth or in extra innings. It’s actually a relatively new expression there. (I never heard it during my youth, and I watched and played a lot of baseball.)

I would have loved it had they adopted the Japanese term, which is “sayonara home run”. It’s something that everyone in the U.S. would immediately understand, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they understood it in the Spanish-speaking Caribbean countries that play baseball, too.

Too bad!

One Response to “Kageura to hang up his spikes”

  1. akagenoan said

    Great stuff ya got here. I enjoy sports on a level not many would expect, so whenever I get to hear about stuff like this it always brings a smile to my face. “Sayonara home run” I gotta remember that one

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