Japan's established baseball order is reeling from the impact of the defection of Suzuki and a fresh crop of talented superstars, who have traded in a lifetime of indentured servitude in Japan for the greener and richer pastures of American baseball. Their snubbing of baseball Japanese style has the sport's octogenarian leadership in a cold sweat; it is the greatest threat ever to Japanese professional baseball, and there is nothing the old leaders can do about it.
Suzuki and his colleagues are the latest example of how an efficient free market overcomes ingrained national cultures and borders every time. With the invisible hand of the market guiding economic choice, there is no rational reason for a Japanese player to continue to play in Japan if offered the chance to go to the Big Show in the U.S. There is nothing patriotic about the choice.
For years, superstars like Suzuki toiled in the unrelentingly bleak and autocratic culture of Japanese baseball. With its small and poorly lit baseball fields, its ludicrous umpiring and bullying management, playing baseball in Japan was about as fun as having root canal therapy. Most importantly, players were paid a pittance of their real value. But for decades, none of this mattered. It was baseball the Japanese way. If a pitcher was told to throw 1,000 pitches in practice, even if it threatened his arm, tough luck. If the manager demanded a bunt when the team's leading home-run hitter was at bat, too bad. Little more than sport serfs, Japanese players could only dream of the big dollars, big parks and bright lights of American baseball. To violate the authoritarian "wa" (harmonious relations) of Japanese baseball was tantamount to criticizing the core values of being Japanese.
Those days are over. It started a few years ago when a small cadre of determined American and Japanese agents and a few brave players broke the oceanic barrier, defying the angry protests of the Japanese baseball leadership. In 1996, pitcher Hideo Nomo showed Japan and the world that a Japanese pitcher could indeed be a star in the U.S. This year Suzuki, with a batting average approaching .400, and a 21-game hitting streak, is showing the world that Japanese batters can dominate the American game as well.
All this comes as a terrible shock to Japan's head-in the-sand baseball owners. Decades of inbreeding and a refusal to change has resulted in the world's most boring baseball. The owners are now watching in horror as Suzuki and his fellow patriots light up U.S. scoreboards. Each feat is another nail in the coffin: baseball attendance and TV ratings are plunging in Japan as millions of fans switch to watch their favorite stars compete in the U.S. The surly owners of The Yomiuri Giants, the iconic team that symbolizes all that is wrong with Japanese baseball (lousy ball park, a tyrant for a manager, and a management hostile to the interests of its players), have even gone so far as to allegedly ban the discussion of American baseball on the TV station they own. Cynical, but ineffective. Japanese viewers have simply switched channels, as other television networks and media have tracked highlights of Japan's baseball pioneers with feverish pride and excitement.
The grim outlook for baseball in Japan reminds me of the miserable state of American baseball in the 1960s. Back then the owners sought to deny the free market by claiming some sort of divine right of control on the livelihood of their players. The American courts quickly put an end to this foolishness and with it came an unprecedented renaissance in baseball.
Now it is Japan's turn thanks to the power of global markets. They encourage free competition across borders regardless of race, creed, or culture. You don't like how you are treated in Japan, go play in America. Technology allows for the spoils of this system to be shared across the globe. Japanese television viewers can just as easily tune into American baseball with Japanese players than the homegrown version. And given the choice, why dull baseball when you can watch Japan's superstars play in the world's premier league?
This small lesson will have a profound psychological effect on Japan. Japan, like Rip Van Winkle, is awakening from a 40-year sleep where its political, economic and cultural leaders were able to somehow convince Japanese that they were living in such a unique culture, that integrating with outside forces would only dilute the purity of being Japanese.
The reality is far different. Japan's political, economic, cultural, and now sporting institutions have become shockingly fragile from years of self-imposed inbreeding. But as Suzuki has shown in America, it is not genetics, but societal complacency that is stopping Japanese from being great. Suzuki, not Japan, is competing and excelling against the best baseball talent in the world. He is a shrill warning to a generation of old men who simply refuse to accept that Japanese uniqueness and globalization are totally incompatible.