The Gist List: ReDotPop's Most Memorable Moments, circa 2004 (part 3 of 3)
It is perhaps the biggest story of ReDotPop 2004: baseball came to Sendai, bringing with it a dramatic strike between management and the players that struck at the very core of Japanese identity. The strike itself was so typically Japanese: the players continued to play weekday games -- so as not to inconvenience the fans too greatly -- and only suspended play on the weekends; and the fans became deeply embroiled in the matter. Holden wraps up his reflection on life in Japan, 2004, with this quintessential example of what it means to be Japanese in these times.
This is a saga with legs: a story with multiple acts, played out on multiple stages, involving multiple players; fed to a rapt multitude by clever marketing/manipulators, through eager, ecstatic media. Between the plethora of sub-plots, raw drama, black hats and white caps, and bloody rounds publicly won and lost, this ReDotmoment had everything ReDotPop craves and upon which ReDotPop depends. Stated with a tad less hyperbole and circumstance, what team arrived in Sendai turned out to be as interesting as the fact that any team arrived at all. More, how that team arrived is certainly as significant in the larger socio-economic, political-historic scheme of things as whether that motley collection of casts-offs and never will-bes will ever perform well. The kinds of attention Sendai's new heroes have received in the popular media and among the public is infinitely more fascinating as a barometer of contemporary Japanese society and culture than the fact that they are joining a moribund league with a diminished, even bleak future.
The story basically begins with the decision by the "Old Boys' Club" that is, the professional baseball owners, to fold one team, the Kintetsu Buffaloes, and merge it with another, the Orix Blue Wave. [How about these team names, huh? We've also got the "Fighters", "Carp", "Marines", and "Bay Stars" for your cerebral titillation along with the more mundane "Giants", "Lions", "Tigers", and (for that taste of Asia) "Dragons"]. But I digress. The merger decision was made without consulting players or fans and promptly precipitated an enormous public outcry on the order of "fouled suicide squeeze". So far this story sounds much like anything one would expect in, say, American sports (which is interesting in and of itself, since it tells us about the economic dynamics of contemporary Japan). However, herein the broth quickly thickens. For, it turns out that someone so much as cared what the fans and players thought.
It all began with the entry of a maverick computer businessman Takafumi Horie a personality on the order of, say, Dallas Maverick's Mark Cuban (without the bluster, self-promotion, and keen desire to pal around with "REAL LIVE JOCKS!"). In fact, the Japanese public genuinely liked Horie, perceiving him as a rather likable, unaffected guy who just happened to do what no one else ever takes a stab at doing in this society: take a risk. For this act of heresy, Horie was rewarded; his moxie made him a multi-millionaire while he was still sitting in junior American Studies seminar. It helped that this time around Horie was willing to play savior: risking bankruptcy in order to keep a dying franchise, the Buffaloes, afloat. The Old Boys in baseball's boardroom didn't like the idea that someone they hadn't hand-selected was seeking to undo what they had already so secretly agreed would be done, so they summarily nixed Horie's bid. Their rejection of his company, Livedoor, as a suitable suitor for the already red-tagged Osaka team was akin to Ollie Hardy pulling the orange out of the bottom of the stack at the fruit stand every single item that had been so assiduously piled above it, shined and ready for public presentation, suddenly came crashing down. Swoosh. Squish. Splat.
The media did what it does so well: concocting villains and designating victims at least long enough to incite the players to rebel. The latter claimed (rightly so) that they had never been consulted on the downsizing scheme and were so miffed that they would go on strike unless the owners offered them a sit-down. Wait a minute: "Strike"? S-T-R-I-K-E. Let's take a moment to consult our dictionaries. Why, that's a word that has rarely if ever been uttered in the annals of Japanese capitalism. Ohmygod! Strike! The world growing stranger and stranger around our ReDot ankles. . . ReDot knees . . . ReDot hips. Of course, the owners being a warren of smug, fat rats refused to acknowledge the player's almost apologetic peep of defiance. . . until the groundswell of public support for the players rose up to choke the corporate fatrats around their bulbous ReDot necks. This, being the first strike in 70 years of professional baseball, the media made sure that the moment topped the nation's information agenda. 24-7. In fact, this was an amazing turn of events for a society in which owners in any business hold all the cards and expect (and actually receive) the unwavering acquiescence of workers. After all, the post-war agreement has been that owners and workers are a team; the success of the one ensures the success of the other. Well, so the mythology has been written and so it is reprinted in every corporate handbook. Here it is: Page 1, paragraph 2, line 3: "All for one, one for all; you sacrifice, we conquer; we prosper, you get one more paycheck."
The strike itself was so typically Japanese as to make a westerner smile (in a good way): the players continued to play weekday games so as not to inconvenience the fans too greatly and only suspended play on the weekends (engendering some small measure of economic discomfort for owners, but also not pissing them off too greatly in anticipation of ultimate reconciliation). Of course, as a PR move, it was a stroke of genius: the public unanimously regarded the players as good sports and the owners as unreasonable ogres. The media was more than happy to take the players' side and keep the tension ever-ratcheting up, which, of course, is great for selling newspapers, which, in turn, has the magical ability to elevate advertising rates.
Soon enough, even the myopic owners could recognize that they were walking up Everest equipped only with roller skates. Their public image, never extremely warm and fuzzy, was taking severe hits. Not entirely obtuse, they finally acceded to players' demands for talks. This eventuated in a negotiated end to the strike along with the now-famous refusal by the player's rep, venerated catcher Atsuya Furuta, to shake the hand of the owner's lead rep. Furuta's unequivocating "let's wait and see if you deliver before I give you my hand" was the greatest moment in this David-slays-Goliath saga. Of course, the players didn't walk away with all the spoils: the owners still got their merger. The players merely managed to wrangle an agreement concerning whether and how players on the merged teams would retain job security. However and this was the key part this would transpire because of a parallel promise they exacted from the fatrats: the creation of a new team in one of the cities in the Northern region of Tohoku.
Suddenly, the next game was afoot. Livedoor, back in play, declared it would install a team in Sendai ; almost immediately, a rival Internet company, Rakuten, magically materialized, emerging as a viable, alternative candidate for baseball mogulhood. It became immediately obvious to everyone save my eleven year-old son (whose nose was buried in a Gameboy console the entire time) that the fix was on: Rakuten had clearly been identified and solicited surreptitiously by baseball's owners during the exciting strike interlude. Why? Maybe because Rakuten's CEO prefers wearing a suit and tie rather than a tie-dyed T-shirt. Possibly because he had established more traditional, deeper-seated economic and social ties in Japanese business circles. Likely because his company already had experience running a professional soccer franchise. And most certainly because his capitalization (which was more than twice that of Livedoor's, at 54,035,000,000 yen (roughly 540 million dollars) might just be available to bail out his new, long-anemic baseball pals. With two contenders now in the picture, the owners convened "public hearings" in which the respective would-be buyers rolled out their best pitches. These included packages of prospective general managers (Rakuten selected a resident American sports commentator), field managers (Livedoor tapped an American who once played in Japan), team names, mascots, colors, official songs site development plans, and corporate growth strategies.
Livedoor never had a chance. First of all, the evaluation committee was composed of crooks. Honestly. Of the four clubs asked to provide evaluative expertise, two (the Yomiuri Giants and Yokohama Bay Stars) had seen their owners resign this past year due to under-the-table cash payments to a university pitcher they had both drafted; a third club, the Seibu Lions, were little truer: their owner resign over falsified reports concerning stock ownership; the fourth club, the Chiba Lotte Marines, might have been clean, but the fifth evaluator, the chairman of the league that the new team would not be joining, has historically been in Yomiuri's pocket doing anything and everything the biggest rottweiler in the junkyard wanted done. Beginning from these premises, all pretense that this would be a fair fight was jettisoned. For instance, during the first hearing one evaluator spent 20 minutes grilling Horie on the fact that his Internet server played host to porn sites. Thus painted with the scarlet brush, Horie's company was made to look unfit to underwrite a sports club that would provide family entertainment. No similar questions were directed at Rakuten's owner, although in my 45-second foray with a search engine I managed to locate webpages displaying lesbian couplings ample cleavage, pasties and bikinied crotch shots, but one click away from Rakuten's portal page. Call me talented. Or else call the entire process of picking a team owner a charade.
In short, the fix was on. And because it was pre-ordained, the final selection for media and public alike was anti-climactic. The Rakuten choice elicited an intriguing reaction from fans, particularly in Sendai, who, in spontaneous opinion polls, expressed preference for Livedoor, by a margin of 7 to 3. Rakuten's owner, Hiroshi Mikitani, put a positive spin on it, asserting that, in time the fans would care only about having a quality team on the field which of course was the goal he would deliver. One concern among the locals, most likely, was Rakuten's original stated intent to locate a team in Kobe far to the south. A second concern might have been Rakuten's curious refusal to identify its team as "Sendai" (as Livedoor had proposed); instead, selecting "Tohoku" as a geographic marker for the team. This prompted anxious speculation among Sendai residents that Rakuten might be angling for a future move away from their fair city and into another more favorable economic site within the region should one ever emerge. In short, they perceived a businessman doing what he had done best in the years toward amassing his fortune: hedging his bets, keeping all his options open, all the ducks lined neatly in a row. Beside, the fact that Livedoor had been the first to stick its hand bravely into the air (when no other corporation would), as well as Horie's less formal, non-traditional approach to business, had appealed to average citizens even those in the conservative rural north. Commitment and courage go a long way in the eyes of simple "country" folk.
Well, this has all become water that's flowed under the societal bridge and swallowed up by the vast, undulating sea of popular cultural history. Livedoor won admirers, saved millions of dollars of future debt, its owner became a major, if evanescent, cult hero (who now has maneuvered to buy a piece of a television network it what may very well be Japan's first hostile takeover ever), and the band played on. For the Rakuten "Eagles" there was a website to build, uniforms to display, a draft to hold, players to outfit and begin training, coaches to hire, interview and publicize. All told, this was enough on-going drama to keep the TV talk shows, newspapers, magazines and Internet sites thrumming. A game has yet to be played, but my hometown has became a daily fixture on the ReDotPop map.
And just as a certain stasis was being achieved in the communication cycle, the story surfaced about a young pitching star from the now-defunct Buffaloes, who was refusing to join the team he was contractually bound to: the consolidated Orix Buffaloes. In an emotional, tear-laden press conference, Hisashi Iwakuma, of fair face and overpowering fastball, claimed that he could not be expected to embrace as comrades, players who he had been so steadfastly competing against in the not-so-distant past.
It might seem strange in a world where professionalism means doing your job no matter what, but to Japanese, strangeness might lie in the reverse: in the failure to balk at joining one's past rivals. For in Japan, those who sit outside a group cannot easily, if ever, be welcomed into another circle. If one is admitted to the inner sanctum of another circle, their spot never seems comfortable, their balance never seems sure, their posture never relaxed, their voice never steady. Relaxation and trust are two qualities hard to locate under such circumstances. Accordingly, every Japanese could relate to what young Iwakuma was going through. The cultural proximity, as well as the raw emotional element that infused the disjuncture with his new team, made the young pitcher's refusal a juicy story. As an added bonus, it provided one more opportunity for popcult consumers through their surrogate, the media to flay those fatrats anew. The public and media took relish in plunging the knife into the heart of those heartless baseball owners. How crass of them to think they could summarily merge two teams and force rivals to play as soul mates! How, UNJAPANESE of them! So, as Iwakuma refused to relent, and the fans and media egged on his principled obstinacy, the owners stuck their sweating heads together and manufactured a solution: send him to Sendai. They need all the help they can get. And that super-sensitive, unprofessional, ingrate of a kid can get his comeuppance pitching for a "team" of has-beens and never could-bes without an offense or defense to save their lives.
And so it was that the once-dominant, now waning sport of baseball managed to reclaim its hold on the public imagination if only for the better part of one year.
A pay-for-future-play political scandal; an injured seal, adopted by a small town; a popular princess captive to a heartless bureaucracy; a political prisoner trying to piece her life back together; a sappy love story that transported viewers back to an earlier sexual sensibility; numerous athletes who outshone players from rival countries, in sports once dominated by other flags; the entry of cash-flush Internet companies into a moribund sporting business. These were the stories that captured the attention, wagged the tongues, and sparked the imaginations of Japanese in 2004. But they were more than simply a collection of stories told through TVs, in magazines, or on daily sheets of newsprint. Individually they were signs of the life of a society, the organization of its culture, the logic and operation of its consciousness. And collectively, these signs constitute even more. They serve as a way of piecing together the puzzle of what this ReDot realm is all about.
No matter who we are, no matter where we live, no matter how we think whether those thoughts are original or heavily-rehearsed, profound or mundane the fact is that we are the sum of the signs that surround us; we are a reflection of the world that contains us. And this is no less true for the Japanese living in their universe of ReDotPop, circa 2004.