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Spirit Power: Unearthing the Roots of Japanese Baseball and Sadaharu Oh

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Spirit Power: Unearthing the Roots of Japanese Baseball and Sadaharu Oh
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Sadaharu Oh, the manager of the Japan team for the World Baseball Classic, being thrown in the air by his players after defeating Cuba for the championship

During the 1970s, a group of American baseball stars traveled to Japan in order to learn about the growing Japanese sport of baseball. The likes of Pete Rose, Rod Carew, Mike Schmidt and Greg Luzinski stood in the midst of one of the greatest sluggers in the history of the Japanese game—Sadaharu Oh.

With the assistance of an interpreter, Oh explained to them how Japanese players are able to compete in the sport using relatively meager physical strength compared to American standards. A friend of Oh’s, Sensei Arakawa-san, held out his hand and asked the strongest player, “The Bull” Luzinski, to attempt to bend it. Confused, the American players figured the translator had misinterpreted the Sensei’s request.

Arakawa-san stands just five and a half feet tall and had to look up at Luzinski. “What happens if I break your arm?” asked Luzinski. Arakawa-san smiled and replied, “Let’s worry about that later.”

Luzinski tried with all of his might, turning red from the effort, but couldn’t budge the arm of Arakawa-san. The American players were taken aback by this seeming feat of great strength. But it was not that at all. It was the use of ki and application of Aikido that made this possible (Oh and Faulkner 144).

Just like Samurai of centuries past, Japanese baseball players are inferior in stature but are able to succeed because of their ability to harness energy. Their devout quest for perfection is an embodiment of the warrior code that the Samurai lived and fought by. While American culture glorifies physical strength and appearance, Japanese culture has fostered the philosophy of precision, technique and discipline while incorporating the ancient martial art of Aikido in order to cultivate the spirit.  

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Sadaharu Oh and Ichiro Suzuki, two of Japan's most beloved baseball stars

Sadaharu Oh was one of the greatest players to ever play the game of baseball. During his career, he hit more home runs than Barry Bonds, Hank Aaron or Babe Ruth. In total, Oh hammered 868 balls over the fence. Yet he is rarely mentioned in a conversation about the best baseball player to ever play the game. He never played in the major leagues, but dominated the Pacific league in Japan for over 20 years.

Like almost all Japanese players, Oh’s stance appears awkward and uncomfortable to the American eye. He would stand on one foot with his bat held closely to his chest, prompting many to label his stance the “scarecrow.” The most obvious thing to say about standing on one foot in order to hit a baseball coming at you at ninety miles per hour is that it requires as much belief as technique. In the martial art Aikido, though, belief and technique are one (Oh and Faulkner 140).

One of the first things a student of Aikido learns is to become conscious of his “one point.” This is an energy, or spirit-center located about two fingers below the navel. This spiritual center is essential in the practice of Aikido. Aikido requires tremendous balance and agility, neither of which is possible unless you are perfectly centered (Kinnebrew 2005). Oh embarked on a spiritual journey with his sensei, Arakawa-san, to discover how Aikido and the symbol of the sword could be applied to the sport.   

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Baseball is a game where hand-eye coordination and the ability to concentrate for split-seconds are crucial. A baseball thrown at 95 miles an hour reaches home plate in less than four-tenths of a second. All the strength in the world cannot help you catch up to that. Rather, it is technique and reaction that allow one to hit such an erratic object.

In Aikido, you deal with the strategy and the psychology of combat, both crucial elements to succeed as a baseball player. Aikido stresses self-defense and the non-violent approach to conflict (Kinnebrew 2005).

 If you imagine a baseball as a weapon, which it certainly is at 90 mph, you can see the application of Aikido in the Japanese game. The ball is the attacker, and if you can use the force of the attacker to create harmony between both the bat and ball, the baseball will combine both the force of the attacker and defender into a violent collision at contact.

While American culture idolizes bulging biceps and towering home runs, Japanese culture has dynamically focused their attention to the important skills in baseball: training the body and mind to react in a split-second and to be balanced at all times using the spiritual energy ki.

The same ki that was available to Arakawa-san is available to anyone. Ki is universal energy that can be harnessed through strong mental commitment. Ki is the most essential part of learning Aikido and will give the practitioner a heightened mental capacity and spiritual awareness (Preston 1999).

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Ichiro Suzuki, who won seven straight batting titles in Japan before coming to America

More than any other game, baseball is mental. Every pitch has a possible outcome, and as a pitcher, fielder and hitter, you have to be prepared for every single one. Good teams are mentally strong and don’t have lapses in times of adversity.

Concentration, like everything else in Aikido, is both a spiritual and physical term. Its goal is the unity or harmony of all forces that are employed. Japanese culture trains both their athletes and samurai warriors to be mentally prepared, which is why they rarely make mistakes in the heat of battle (Faulkner and Oh 133).

Both war and baseball require intense focus and attention to detail. Japanese culture has an almost overdone preoccupation with the minute details of strategy and technique. Samurai warriors from Japan were very similar to the modern Japanese baseball player in both the way they prepared and their performance during battle. Samurai trained for countless hours, polishing every sword thrust to perfection.

The regimented Japanese baseball system, which promotes strenuous exercise, severe personal sacrifice and unquestioning obedience to teammates mirrors the strict warrior code of the Samurai (McNeil 113). Many Japanese players are frail and must make up for their physical inferiority by out-working, out-thinking and out-performing the opposition. Similarly, Samurai relied on lightning-quick reflexes and exact sword work to take down much larger foe.

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Additionally, we also see a similarity when looking at the emphasis on precision. Samurai swords were light so they could quickly slice or cut an opponent. Interestingly enough, swinging a baseball bat is actually quite similar to swinging a sword when looked at comparatively. The attention to details of positioning one’s feet, gripping the sword/bat, shifting weight, turning one’s hips and extending one’s arm are all parallels between the two weapons.

Grip is also vitally important to both, as it is the vice that holds the blade sturdy during a cut. The traditional Samurai sword is held tightly against the palms while at the same time maintaining relaxation in the hands. In holding a bat, this is also done. The alternation of loosening and tightening fingers accomplishes not only required power and suppleness, but also prepares one for the basic cutting or swinging technique.

Repetition is also crucial to developing both a good swing and good swordsmanship. This is what separates the amateur from the professional, and the warrior from the brawler. The goal is to make every swing and cut exactly the same. Skill is improved by repetition, which is why the Japanese baseball player and Samurai can swing their weapons in consistently smooth, precise cuts (Faulkner and Oh 155).

The beautifully smooth swing of a Japanese baseball player validates the intense repetition. It may possibly even be hereditary. Since ancient Japanese samurai were excellent swordsmen, precision and heightened focus levels may be in the generic code of every Japanese baby.

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Of equal importance may be the ethical standards that are imprinted by Japanese culture. The Samurai warrior code is based upon undying loyalty. Warriors would bring severed heads of opponents home from battle, symbolizing a retainer’s supreme dedication to his lord and representing the risks he had taken in acquiring such a trophy.

Samurai were also determined to fight to their deaths, fulfilling their moral obligations to a noble cause (taigi meibun) and to die for the imperial court. The model Samurai was loyal, courageous and fearless in the face of death, incorruptible, fair and compassionate. Frugality and modesty were moral imperatives (Turnbull 19).

Just as the Samurai served with unwavering loyalty, Japanese baseball players emulate many of the qualities of the warrior code. They play with no fear of consequence and are completely focused on the task at hand. They are not showmen like many of the Americanized players, but rather humble. They are willing to do whatever it takes for their team, which represents the ancient Samurai master. Their selflessness is a result of the disciplinary Japanese baseball league, which fosters many of the same Samurai traits.

The origin of precision is discipline. Young samurai learned in the goju school systems which were characterized by solidarity and harsh discipline. Education was focused more on memorization than interpretation, as many students were driven to the point of tears. The game of baseball is a discipline; while you may stand dormant for long periods of time, the great players are prepared to react instantaneously (Turnbull 26). Concentration and awareness are paramount. In a state of proper concentration, one is ready for anything that comes along, even a baseball thrown at you 95 miles per hour. 

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When introduced to Japan in the late 19th century, baseball was widely interpreted by the former samurai elite to be a kind of spiritual training-a discipline for shaping young minds and bodies. To the Japanese yakyu (field ball) is seen to this day as a martial art to be practiced remorselessly to perfection and then realized with the sole purpose of flawless execution.

The coaching tradition in Japanese baseball has done more damage to young bodies than the authorities care to admit. Tales abound of little-league teams practicing for a grueling six hours in the morning before playing a two-hour game in the afternoon (McNeil 116).  In high school tournaments, pitchers can be made to pitch for up to four days in a row despite the fact that modern medicine has proved that the muscular tissue in the throwing arm breaks down after about 100 pitches. Young Japanese pitchers are expected to carry on through the pain as the inflammation increases and the hemorrhaging gets worse.

On the other hand, American children are sheltered and protected in athletics. Coaches aren’t supposed to yell at players, and working your players too hard can result in a lawsuit or simply losing your job. While this approach can lead to a harmonious environment, it does not prepare future athletes for the rigors of a professional sport.

In Japan, the intense training regiments are in place to foster athletic development and to inspire spiritual growth through struggle. Adversity builds character, and American kids often are lost in times of struggle because they have never been in that situation before.

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Ichiro and Yu Darvish, celebrating as teammates during the World Baseball Classic

Not only is the coaching discipline in Japan crippling, it is also designed to play the averages ruthlessly. The twin pillars of Japanese baseball are the walk and the bunt. Both are part of a plodding, one-run-at-a-time approach to the game also called “small ball.”

Small ball emphasizes execution and moving runners from one base to the next using sacrificial tactics like the sacrifice bunt and sacrifice fly. These tactics represent an ancient Samurai code of selflessness and service. American style baseball focuses more on hitting the ball far, while Japanese baseball concentrates on placement and timing.

Does small ball win games, though? Can you really score enough runs without hitting the ball out of the ballpark? The short answer is yes. Just as a Samurai could defeat a much physically stronger opponent, small ball can topple even the greatest titans.

In the early days of American baseball, the long ball was a much rarer occurrence than it is today.  Players nurtured their speed, agility and reaction rather than spending hours in the gym. As a matter of fact, weightlifting in baseball used to be considered poor practice. Baseball was different; it was a gentlemen’s game. Weightlifting and muscles were looked down upon in baseball, as it was believed that extra bulk would slow your bat speed down. Power came naturally through mechanics and strength.

 

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Ted Williams was 6'3", but weighed just 175 pounds—he hit 521 home runs. Willie Mays weighed 185 pounds and hit 660 homers. Ken Griffey, Jr. has admitted he’s never had a weight program, yet he remains of the most feared power hitters of the 1990s.  Prior to the 1980s, weightlifting was something that punished players for being out of shape (Bronson 2004).  

The most obvious example of small ball prevalence was the first ever World Baseball Classic in 2006. Sixteen countries from around the world competed in a round-robin tournament that would once and for all decide what nation truly had the best collection of talent. The American team was filled with some of the best players from major league baseball and expected nothing less than a clean sweep of their foreign opponents. The forgone conclusion was that American muscle would simply overpower the eastern style of small ball.

What Team USA didn’t realize was that baseball games are won through execution and timely hitting. Throughout the tournament, Japan pestered opponents with a barrage of bunts, steals and unconventional windups. The coach of the Japan team was none other than the Aikido enthusiast Sadaharu Oh. The tournament demonstrated that the rest of the world is playing better baseball than most Americans realized.

The rest of the world, in fact, is actually playing baseball the way Americans used to play baseball. We invented the game, we refined the game and then we moved into a phase that didn't have anything to do with fundamental baseball. We used to pitch, catch, run, bunt and concentrate on moving runners. We used to value speed. We used to focus on sound execution in all phases of the game.

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Japan defeated Cuba in the finals of the WBC to capture the fist ever crown. The American team that was defeated by the new eastern power watched from home as Japan meticulously executed in every situation, moving runners into scoring position and capitalizing in run-scoring situations.

The MVP of the tournament was none other than Daisuke Matsuzaka, who baffled opponents with his unconventional windup, blazing fastballs and curveballs that resembled a drunken butterfly. During the tournament, Matsuzaka sported a 3-0 record and posted a sparkling 1.38 ERA, earning him MVP honors. The American players began to realize that size and strength do not win baseball games. Rather, a traditional style of small ball won, which represented harkening back to the pure days of baseball.

Consequently, the win by Japan raised many eyebrows. First, how did the greatest collection of baseball players in America wither in the face of the scrappy Japanese team? It was the unfamiliarity of the Japanese style of play that crippled the USA.

Unconventional technique has long been a trademark of Japanese baseball. When the first Japanese-born pitcher, Hideo Nomo, arrived in the USA, everyone was baffled by his tornado windup. Nomo would step back, raise his hands high over his head and spin more than 180 degrees, often facing second base in mid-windup. American hitters had no idea how to adjust to this type of delivery.

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The same is true of many other Japanese pitchers as well as hitters: Ichiro Suzuki of the Mariners appears to be running to first while simultaneously swinging the bat. Daisuke Matsuzaka appears to be stepping off the mound when he starts his wind up. The reason for this unconventional movement is found in the roots of Aikido: Every movement must unite the physical and the spiritual.

Likewise, the samurai were united in both mind and body, a state every Japanese baseball player covets. The reasoning behind the unconventional stances is simple: Every player attempts to root themselves as powerfully as they can at the plate.

This is often done by imagining ki power as an iron bar or other unwavering object that runs from a point below the naval in a direct line throughout the body. The other end of this imaginary rod extends through the tip of the baseball bat, creating perfect harmony between body and mind.  Aikido and the use of ki power have nothing to do with strength, but rather, the manifestation of spiritual harmony. In other words, using the energy of your opponent and your own energy as one force (Faulkner and Oh 126).

In hindsight, American muscle seems much less effective after examining the spiritual strength of Aikido.

So why is America fascinated by the superficial? The reason American players cannot apply similar precision may be because our culture neglects the power of spirit energy and refuses to believe in the eccentric. America prides itself on their grounding in logic, science and mathematics, yet there are things in baseball one simply cannot measure.

Japanese baseball players have collectively learned to mirror the warrior code of the Samurai and apply a martial arts philosophy to the game of baseball. In both Aikido and baseball, the fundamental ability to concentrate, balance and react remains a staple of the art. Japanese players are able to succeed in a country that patronizes image and strength because they rely on a much powerful force than muscle--the spirit.

Japan will continue to produce disciplined players who have admirable qualities of selflessness because of the cultural embrace of Aikido. The true question is whether the USA will begin to incorporate martial arts into athletics.

If you asked Greg Luzinski after he couldn’t budge the arm of a man half his size, he would probably give a glowing recommendation.

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