Mediations of Japan: The O-N Series

And so we complete a year in which the “World Series” of baseball was fought between two teams from the same city in the same state of the same country. And after the last bat was thrown, the last finger pointed, after the last towel-clad warrior interviewed, and the last socially-sanctioned public display of male intimacy was recorded, after the last testament to teamwork and perseverance was uttered, and the last magnum of champagne swill left to evaporate on the locker room floor, another pillar had been erected in popular cultural mythology. The most storied team in American sporting history had hoisted yet another banner—it’s twenty-sixth–proclaiming it champion of the baseball world.

“World Series”, did he say? “Champion of the world” he wrote? Curious. For, at the very same moment, an ocean away, in a land significantly smaller in size and much better endowed in the humility department, another baseball championship was being contested. The “Nihon Series“—Japan’s equivalent of America’s autumn classic—pitting the best team from the Pa (Pacific) League against the top squad from the Se (Central) League. And this year, just as in America, Japan’s most storied franchise, the Yomiuri Giants, prevailed—securing their nineteenth overall title.

In the realm of ReDotPop–where social history and values are filtered through the products of popular culture–when it comes to championships, they don’t talk about “world champs”. Instead, they refer to the victor more accurately as “nippon ichi” (Japan One). And without doubt, when it comes to nippon ichi, there is only one team, one franchise, that Japanese could possibly think of: the Giants. Certainly the slew of banners help, but in large part Yomiuri’s grip is due its popular presence, a presence due to the fact that the Tokyo team is owned by a media megalopoly. The “Yomiuri Group” is an image-molding factory capable of saturating Japan–from the southernmost, temperate tip of Kyushu to the northernmost, turgid snow country of Hokkaido–nightly with Giant’s games over an extensive network of TV stations. Yomiuri presides over an information machine capable of according national headlines to the daily travails of its battling (and in recent history, faltering) heroes. Yomiuri is an agenda-setter capable of devoting reams of column inches in its stable of weekly magazines to the private lives of its glamorous, generally unattached stars. And because of such saturation, this unremitting coverage piled up day after day, year after year, the Giants have become the sports team foremost in the consciousness of Taro Q. Public. Whether one loves mighty “kyojin” or hates them (and there are many who do so rabidly), the Giants are “Japan’s team”. The kyojin name, their uniform, colors, mascot, and, above all, their storied history are most deeply ensconced in Japanese sporting culture.

No two players have contributed more to this development (nor been exploited more in facilitating it) than Oh Sadaharu and Nagashima Shigeo; respectively, the Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig of Japanese ball. Like their earlier American counterparts, Oh and Nagashima were teammates for over a decade—bookends at first and third base–during a period in which Kyojin won an unprecedented nine straight titles and eleven out of thirteen. Together, O-N, as they are affectionately called, almost double-handedly shaped Japanese popular cultural mythology. This, in itself, would be worthy of a column, since no other athlete has, via the mere playing of a game, so influenced Japanese society—everything from economics to political values to morality to social behavior. But what makes their story even more deserving of attention is that by one of those wonderful quirks of fate that both reify cultural mythology as well as certify its fascination, Oh and Nagashima ended up on opposite sides of the diamond in this years’ Nihon Series. For a fortnight fans across the nation were atwitter with the spectacle of “The O-N Series”. Many averred that no matter which team won there was cause for happiness: one of Japan’s cultural icons would be elevated that much higher.

To date, neither O nor N has left much of a mark in management. O’s five-year stint at Yomiuri in the mid-eighties netted him a berth in one final, a couple of second place finishes and a third. Over a decade later, relocated in the southern city of Fukuoka, steering the team owned by the national department store chain Daiei, O won a championship. N has fared only slightly better, depending upon the yardstick you employ. In two separate stints at the Yomiuri helm he has reached four finals, but also finished in the baseball equivalent of purgatory or hell in over two thirds of his campaigns. To his credit, he has succeeded in claiming one championship during his ten-year managerial career.

But bench work is not what O and N were ever about; nor what they will be remembered for. It was their exploits on the field that distinguished them, endeared themselves to the public and etching their names in the cultural topography. As just about any baseball fan anywhere must know, Oh is the home run king—not just of Japan, but the world. Over the course of 21 seasons, he hit 868 round-trippers—163 more than his closest rival, America’s Hank Aaron. In Japan, two decades after retirement, Oh is still number one in runs batted in, second in number of games played, first in number of free passes to first base, third in doubles, and 14th in career batting average. Oh was selected to Japan’s yearly “best nine” squad 18 times; he was a league MVP 9 times and a golden glove winner (the best defensive player at his position) 9 times. Pretty impressive C.V., huh?

Yet, despite all of this, Oh—a rather dour, straight-laced man—often feels slighted. He can barely contain his frustration when what he clearly believes is his rightful place in ReDotPop mythology as numero uno, peerless, Nippon ichi sporting icon is continually overshadowed by his former teammate, Shigeo Nagashima. That’s “Mistah” in your daily box score. “MistahMistah what? Try: “Mister Japanese Baseball”. Interesting? Well, it’s the moniker that the media, the marketers and the adoring public attached to old Shigeo years ago. Certainly Yomiuri’s daily headlines went a long way toward training the band. But by now any paper–regardless of corporate affiliation—is content to thump out the beat. A staple 1-4-5 rocker in 4/4 time. “Mistah’s team stumbles,” one informs; “Mistah still optimistic about Kyojin’s chances,” another counters; “Mistah clinches the pennant,” a third bubbles; “Mistah: Nippon ichi once more!” a fourth trumpets.

This Mister thing: it certainly isn’t due to the numbers. Without a doubt, “Mister Baseball” would work for Oh—perhaps even in the case of one or two other players—well before one would start stitching it onto Nagashima’s cap. Yet Shigeo is the one wearing the logo. And, for O that is the bitter irony of this ReDotPop piece; therein lies the rub. Yeah, sure, N was a solid player—more than solid. Today he ranks 11th all-time in home runs—with a tad over half of O’s sum; he ranks 6th in career runs batted in and 5th in doubles. He isn’t even listed among the top 40 strike out victims—which is good (O, by comparison, is ranked 7th–which is not). And, in fact, N’s career batting average is four points higher than O’s, at .305. N was a league MVP 5 times, a two-time gold glover, and he made the best nine squad 17 times. In short, he was a major dude. But he wasn’t at the level of O. And yet… and yet… Mistah has the mystique that O could only wish after. An aura that O is continually being blindside by, a ghost he can never fully lay to rest. A recent fan poll of the greatest Japanese baseballer of all time placed the WORLD home-run leader, O, behind N!

Some of the luster has been media invention—borne of the fact that N (who preceded O into the pros by a year) was stronger, quicker, stylish and more handsome than most of his predecessors. Some of the mystique emanated from that intangible something that only a few public figures have. The Teflon coating, the storybook sparkle, the ineffable panache that turns a hunch and a seat-of-the-pants decision into a sudden windfall, the go-with-the-gut, use-the-force-Luke kind of karma that transforms a bad bounce into a flawless score. N was the guy with the square shoulders, the military buzz cut, the dapper suit, the dashing good lucks, the quick smile and ever-positive demeanor, the mature kid who strode straight out of college and promptly won three straight batting titles. N was the guy who hit the game-ending home run the one day the Emperor chose to grace the masses with his unearthly presence at the ballpark. N was everyone’s wet dream—man and woman alike—symbol for a nation yearning to believe it was capable of completing its miracle recovery and be successful again. N was the poster boy whose shining mug sold magazines, the one the national dailies chased after long and hard for months on end, trying to determine which lucky woman he would select as his bride. N was the symbol of a new, confident, can-do, cosmopolitan Japan. In a word, Nagashima was many things that Oh, the son of Chinese immigrants and the victim of a childhood of discrimination—both real and imagined–could never be.

Thus, despite having had clearly the greater baseball career, Oh carries a perpetual chip on his shoulder. Imagine a world in which Bob Dylan is deemed a less important musical influence than Madonna, or John Updike a less significant literary force than Elmore Leonard. O can’t quite accept a world in which he is consigned to playing second fiddle to N. Typical of this disbelief was the time Nagashima’s Yomiuri contract was extended for a sixth season despite having failed to win the division. Oh publicly (and uncharacteristically, for a Japanese) groused: “they only gave me five years, then cut me loose.” But what Oh fails to understand (or perhaps simply prefers to ignore) is that this O-N business is a popularity contest. The ballots are in, the king has been crowned. For life and on into perpetuity. More evidence? Consider endorsement deals–the sign of true cache value in contemporary ReDotPop. There, too, N wins hands down, hawking everything from home security to health insurance to vitamin drinks. Nowadays, O doesn’t have even a single product to his name. Why? Well, conspiracy theories abound. This is, after all, nationalist Japan, and Oh is, after all, not a pure-bred Japanese. As a second generation Chinese, Oh is more like an invited guest; not one of the pure bloods. Although you’d never get anyone to admit as much in public. So, Oh grouses and broods; feels slighted, launches into a kind of Richard Nixon paranoid-riff, a “they’re-all-out-to-get-me” kind of skulk. Nagashima, by contrast, acts oblivious; does his perpetual good-humor, rah-rah thing for the cameras. Endlessly upbeat, effusing charm, spouting good will.

What makes the O-N show so special though is this: after all the differences in teams and parent corporations and geographic regions are sifted through, after the obvious differences in personality are noted and set to the side, this match-up is more than a reunion of two marvelous players from a prior epoch. Under the burning light of ReDotPop–the forum where social content is passed through the ubiquitous cultural filter–O-N is a door opening into the soul of Japan: it is a triptych through modern Japanese history; a commentary on ethnic difference, social change, heroes, dreams and achievement.

Even without that deep autopsy, the stark personal contrasts, the flow of cultural history, the intertwining of lifecourse, the drama of former teammates — never friends, but now necessary rivals — brought into direct competition, made this a Nihon Series worth remembering. And, of course, the media ate it up, marketed the hell out of it, packaged it as tight as could be for public consumption. O-N — twin gods of culture clashing in the earthly arena — was pushed to the fore as a way of selling newspapers and magazines and airtime on television broadcasts. But in the bargain, in dredging up all the numbers, replaying all the game footage from the glory years, in sifting through all the interviews, the media have worked to recycle popular culture; to remind older viewers of a life once lived, to educate younger fans of a world they never knew. And that is significant. For that is how popular culture operates, how it is created, how it works its magic over society and, in so doing, transforms society, itself. It is in this way — through popular cultural events such as this past Nihon Series between Oh and Nagashima—that media function as cultural historian and ideational nanny.

Such cultural recycling and social reproduction is the currency of ReDotPop — it is how Japanese popular culture works to resupply, reinterpret, reinvent. It is how Japanese media such as magazines, newspapers and television work in conjunction to install hallowed icons even more deeply into the terra firma of cultural history. It is how folks like Oh and Nagashima become and remain the powerful figures that they are in Japanese popular cultural mythology.