Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Play Ball, Japanese Style

As the temperatures warm up and the snow melts, thoughts turn to spring. For some people, these thoughts include blooming gardens, new baby animals, and a giant rabbit bearing chocolates. For others, it's time to take themselves out to the ballgame.

While sportswriters and sports analysts argue whether or not baseball is still America's pastime, there's no doubt that Japan's love for and prowess in baseball remains strong.

Like most people, I knew about Japan's love of the sport, but I was unaware that baseball and Japan have had a lengthy relationship. Before Alan Gratz came across a photograph that was the inspiration for Samurai Shortstop, he thought that the game had been brought to the country via American GIs stationed in post-WWII Japan. Upon further research, he learned that the game had been introduced in the 1870s.

Japan is one of the most fascinating countries to study. Long isolated from the world, its import of Western products and ideas was extraordinarily sudden. The old ways of the samurai, and the discipline and privileges demanded of and accorded to the samurai class, were dismissed. The ancient struggle between the old and the young over values and attitudes were exacerbated; this is painfully evident in the relationship between Toyo Shimada and his father.

Toyo Shimada is a student at Japan's most exclusive and influential school, Ichiko. Ichiko is the Eton of Japan. Ichiko's students are trained to be the leaders of Japan. An Ichiko student puts Ichiko ahead of everything else, including his own personality.

"Listen carefully, all of you," Junzo announced. "This is
how you will always respond. When I ask, 'Who are you?' you say, 'I am a son of Ichiko.' When I say 'What is your name?' you will say 'My name is Ichiko.' I ask 'Where do you come from?' and you say 'My body and soul were formed in the womb of Ichiko.' And when I say 'Why are you here?' you say 'To honor Ichiko and defend Japan!'

Being a freshman, Toyo and his classmates are at the mercy of the seniors, who take glee in terrorizing the freshmen (as they undoubtedly had been at the mercy of the seniors when they were freshmen). Life is extremely tough at Ichiko, but not every student is also the son of an embittered former samurai turned newspaper columnist. In addition to his taxing studies, Toyo must endure lengthy, and occasionally violent, bushido training from his father. Sotaro insists that Toyo learns the way of the samurai, even though class structure has been officially (but not socially, as Toyo learns in a revealing trip to an unfamiliar part of town and also through the treatment of a student not from the samurai class) demolished, and the samurai stripped of their swords.

Sotaro is dismissive of Toyo's obsession of besuboru (Japanese translation of baseball), and is convinced that besuboru is just one of the detrimental Western invasions threatening the good of Japan. The officials at Ichiko, however, believe that having a strong sports program is an effective way of training the bodies and minds of Japan's future elite.

An incident involving a gaijin (American foreigner) climbing over a sacred wall sparks a near-riot at a match between Ichiko and its foremost rival. This incident threatens to seriously damage US-Japan relations. To settle the matter, a goodwill game is proposed between the Ichiko besuboru team and the gaijin club.

Throw the match, the Ichiko team is instructed to do by the school officials. Let the gaijin win. For the good of Japan, the Americans must win.

The Ichiko besuboru players are torn. Surely it must be for the good of Japan to not deliberately lose?

Toyo confides in his father, knowing that Sotaro thinks very poorly of his involvement with the sport. After receiving his thoughts on the matter, Toyo knows what his teammates must do.

Samurai Shortstop is one of the most extraordinary books I've read in some time. From the beginning sentence, Alan Gratz draws you into this surreal world of boarding school rituals and traditions, privilege and entitlement, the ancient struggle between parent and child over the old ways vs. the new ways, and the universal appeal and drama of baseball.

Be that as it may, this is definitely a young adult book. The violence starts immediately on the first page with Toyo assisting his uncle in performing his seppuku (traditional Samurai suicide). Sotaro shows Toyo no mercy in his lessons at the dojo, and the punishment infllicted upon those who dare to disobey and potentially dishonor Ichiko is stark. The violence, however, is not gratuitous. Gratz is reflecting the harsh training of a samurai and the boarding school life found in late 19th century Japan. I normally shy away from books (and movies) with a lot of violence, but I could not stay away from Samurai Shortstop. The book is a brilliant evocation of a country and a family caught between old society vs. new society.

It is imperative, in my view, that authors of historical fiction include notes on his/her research, further explanation of the events described in the story, and the liberties he/she took with the story. Gratz's explanation of the actual events and his research are top-notch. Samurai Shortstop is Gratz's debut novel, and I am eagerly awaiting his later work.

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