An ocean away, Japan follows hardball heroes
Baseball-crazed fans revel in homegrown players in Majors
Japan is a baseball-crazy country.
The fans love their homegrown stars. They love watching them rise up through the Minor Leagues, excelling in their big leagues -- Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) -- and helping their teams win titles.
But as every Japanese fan knows, the next logical step for superstars from the Land of the Rising Sun requires a drastic change of lifestyle that will take their favorite players away from them and across the largest ocean in the world, all the way to the United States ... maybe for the rest of their careers.
Saying "Sayonara" can't be easy, but Japanese fans are used to it by now. They understand the reasoning behind it. They deal with it. And more often than not, they figure out ways to revel in it.
"They don't want to lose their stars, but on the other hand, they take great pride in their achievements in Major League Baseball," wrote Robert Whiting, a noted expert on Japanese baseball and author of one of the definitive books on the phenomenon, "You Gotta Have Wa," in an email to MLB.com.
"Some fans get mad and go to the park with protest signs, but it's nothing like you would imagine."
Whiting has seen many great Japanese players reach their potential in NPB and leave for lucrative deals in the United States. Among them are Hideo Nomo, who departed in 1995, Kazuhiro Sasaki (2000), Ichiro Suzuki ('01), Hideki Matsui ('03), Daisuke Matsuzaka ('07) and now Yu Darvish, the heralded pitcher who signed with the Texas Rangers this past winter and has been the subject of a media frenzy each time he's pitched this spring.
But Whiting has also seen how passionate the country is about the game and its players, and knowing that the Major Leagues offer the highest level of competition in the sport makes a ticket to America a great source of pride.
"Fans recognize that MLB is the ultimate in baseball," Whiting wrote. "They like to see their stars make the challenge. And they will be on TV all the time anyway, so that mitigates the loss."
Ah yes, TV.
The necessity for Japanese media members to track every move of one of their countrymen's careers in Major League Baseball is so overwhelming that the newspapers, websites and television stations from the big cities have moved journalists to the U.S. markets where these players are based simply to cover their teams.
For example, sportswriter Nobu Kobayashi, who was living in Chicago and working for a Japanese community newspaper in the late 1990s, was hired by the newspaper Daily Sports, based in Kobe, Japan, solely to cover the Ichiro and Sasaki Mariners in 2001. He's been in Seattle ever since, asking Ichiro questions after every game.
"Japanese people are always looking forward to watching the Japanese players play in the Major Leagues," Kobayashi said. "When Nomo came, we were so excited. Same thing with Ichiro, Matsui, Matsuzaka, Darvish. I think most of the fans are happy to see that."
Kosuke Fukudome, the Japanese outfielder who came to the United States in 2008 and played for the Cubs before moving on to the Indians in '11 and now the White Sox, agrees. He says he always dreamed of playing in America and hopes and believes that his Japanese fans can identify with those aspirations.
"If people want to come over from Japan and try to succeed here, it's only going to make the game that much better," Fukudome said. "We've proven that we can play here, and we bring our style of play to America, so it's a great thing."
Hisanori Takahashi, the veteran left-handed reliever on the Angels, was an NPB stalwart until 2010, when he joined the New York Mets at the age of 35. He said he never experienced any anger from Japanese fans regarding his departure.
"It was kind of difficult to leave the fans, because I really appreciated their support, but at the same time, I wanted to see what I could do as a Major League player," Takahashi said.
"Most Japanese fans are very supportive of what the players think or what the players do, and they know how good the baseball is in the Japanese leagues, so they want to see how we will do. Especially Darvish. They're really excited to see what he can do."
Ultimately, it might be harder on the players than the fans. The players are the ones who have to adjust to a new country, a new language, new food, new teammates and the competition of 29 other teams trying to beat you every night.
Fukudome smiled when asked if it's all too much, echoing the sentiments of a lot of the Japanese fans who can't wait to see their local heroes make their marks in the Majors.
"Baseball is baseball," he said. "It's not that big of a difference, other than the number of games and the distance on road trips. Other than that, it's the same game."