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Editor's Desk // Column
Don Chapman

Delight And Discovery In Japan

A few notes from nine fabulous days in Japan. Which is semi-redundant, because after two trips to the Land of the Rising Sun in the past 15 months, fabulous days seem to be the norm for visitors. Or as my MidWeek colleague Russell Kaya says, “In Japan, there are great days and really great days and then really, really great days.” …

Not to throw the “birthers” any fodder they don’t need, but … this sign caught my eye (and evoked a chuckle) at Yasaka Shrine in Kyoto. No, it is not a claim about our president’s place of birth. In fact, Obama is a town and bay of the same name in western Japan. In this case, vendors were selling goods made in Obama, including lacquered chop-sticks. It was from Obama, by the way, that Japanese citizens were kidnapped by North Korean agents in 1978 …

My in-flight reading between Honolulu and Haneda was a biography of the great British sea captain Horatio Nelson, The Pursuit of Victory by Roger Knight, filling a puka in my understanding of history. One of the eye-openers was that Nelson, early in his career, in order to fill out a crew for a journey to North America, essentially kidnapped sailors just returning to England from India after three years at sea – in the Thames River before they could even set foot on land. This was not an unusual practice for the British navy in the late 1700s. How could they do something so cynically inhumane, I wondered – and in the next breath realized we’ve been doing essentially the same thing to U.S. troops by sending them on multiple deployments in war zones that keep them away from homes and families for years and years. In that regard, not much has changed in nearly two and a half centuries …

And you think Hawaii’s labor-union teachers and principals are a handful for the state? They’re tame compared to teachers in Japan. In Kyoto, we encountered seven blocks of marching schoolteachers, accompanied by trucks with loudspeakers, lots of chanting and singing, drummers, a guitarist and even an accordionist. A Japanese friend describes public schoolteachers in Japan as “leftist,” and says that most refuse to sing or stand for the national anthem at graduations or other school events – because of lyrics that translate to “of, or for, the emperor,” the preposition not translating directly to English. Whatever, it is too nationalist for most teachers. And independent-minded teachers who disagree are openly scorned and even harassed by other teachers …

I found it interesting that there was no singing of Japan’s anthem before the baseball game between the Yomiuri Giants and Hanshin Tigers at the sold-out Tokyo Dome – just an introduction of teams and “Play ball!” (Yes, umpires say it in English.) Singing of the anthem is reserved for larger events, such as the opening of the Japan Series. Lots of Giants cheerleaders bouncing around the field before the game, though, and leading the singing of a rousing Giants anthem during the seventh-inning stretch. Note to UH coach Mike Trapasso and athletic director Jim Donovan: How come no cheerleaders for games at Les Murakami Stadium? And while I enjoy singing about “peanuts and Cracker Jacks” as much as the next traditionalist (though in a stadium that does not sell peanuts), how about the school fight song in the seventh inning instead? …

The game, by the way, was one of the greatest baseball experiences I’ve had, and there are many over the years.

The dome was filled with 42,000 people for perhaps the biggest rivalry in Japan baseball, Tokyo versus Osaka. Tigers fans clad in yellow and black filled the left field bleachers, and chanted and sang endlessly and loudly as their team batted, accompanied by drumming and horns. When the home-team Giants came to bat, Hanshin fans politely sat down and Giants fans clad in orange and black rose in right field and did their singing, chanting, drumming and horn-blowing. They even have chants for each individual player. The ambiance was somewhere between an American college football game and a Euro soccer match. It was a well-played game, won dramatically by the Giants 2-1, and though I was in a place where I don’t speak the native language, inside the stadium everyone spoke the language of baseball …

I later visited the Japan Baseball Hall of Fame (also located at the Tokyo Dome), and was delighted to see a photo of Alexander Cartwright, subject of my new book The Ball That Changed The World: The Story of Alexander Joy Cartwright Jr., True Father of Baseball (Amazon). He was part of a photo I’d never seen before, of his team the Knickerbockers.

Another cool discovery was finding that the Hall of Fame plaque for Hawaii-born Wally Yonamine is just below that of Japan’s greatest player, Sadaharu Oh. Talk about a classy neighborhood …

Next time, some of the most amazing – and oldest – things I’ve ever seen, including lunch at a park the emperor built in the year 794 A.D. …

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