As some of the Mets are finishing their series in Japan, playing with the MLB All-Stars against the Japanese All-Stars, I was thinking about how little any of us in this country know about Japanese baseball.
I don’t know much about Japanese baseball. In America, we just “know” that Japan is a place where a decent, not particularly high level of the game is played, where Bobby Valentine feels very much at home, and where has-beens go to end their careers. We know that Japan produces several players that are capable of playing in MLB at a very high level, and we know that the Mets end up with several who can’t. We know that in spite of the large population of Japan, they are, in general, no match for the Dominicans.
But what I’d really like to know about is what baseball means to people in Japan. How is it similar to and different from what it means to people in the U.S.? I don’t know and I don’t really have the time to look into this right now. But here’s something I do know.
I’m a big fan of a Japanese writer named Haruki Murakami. I think he’s one of the three or four best writers in the world today and I am confident that someday he is going to win a Nobel Prize. He’s the most popular serious writer in Japan and he is increasingly popular in the U.S. His writings are extremely accessible, yet brilliant and mysterious. If you read a book like The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle or Kafka on the Shore, you will feel as if you have dreamed it, and it will never leave you. Read them. You won’t regret it.
Anyway, Haruki Murakami is a big baseball fan, like many literary geniuses. A year ago, my department at Hofstra University brought him to campus to give a reading. At a gathering before the reading, he told us that he was a fan of the Yakult Swallows and he explained that rooting for the Yakult Swallows had a certain meaning. The Yakult Swallows were a Tokyo team, but they were a little obscure compared to the big Tokyo team, the Yomiuri Giants, who are often called the Yankees of Japan and who have won far more championships than any other team. The Swallows, Murakami explained, are not normally very good, and they are not as popular as the Giants. But their fans are famous for being particularly fanatical die-hards. They don’t expect to win, as fans of the Giants expect to win. But when the Swallows do win, their fans really enjoy it. And when they don’t win, they enjoy their sense of defiance. They enjoy their sense that they are loyal to the Swallows and that they are not among the throngs cheering for the Giants.
A lot of us listening to him recognized this dynamic. The Yakult Swallows are the Mets of Japan. Lets Go Swallows! Murakami told another story. Someone asked him how he decided to become a novelist. He told us that when he was 29 years old, with his life on a certain track, managing a jazz club, absorbed in the consuming details of everyday life, he went to a baseball game between his Swallows and the Hiroshima Carp. Sitting in the Swallows stadium, drinking a beer, he watched as a Swallows player hit a double. At that moment he decided that it was time for him to write a novel.