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Kyuu* on the Diamond: The State of Pro Yakyu in Japan

I'd like to interrupt my DOKool Destroys Tokyo series to bring a special report on the current crisis that pro yakyu (baseball) is going through right now. Although this doesn't exactly cover any specific relm of the Booty Project, I feel that considering the role of baseball in Japanese culture (as seen in many anime), that any self-respecting Japanophile should know what's going on right now. Also, because my next planned DDT article was supposed to be coverage of Japanese baseball, I feel that if I can't deliver coverage of the Tigers/Bay Stars game I can no longer attend this coming Saturday, then a somewhat in-depth reason as to why is the least I can offer.

Before I begin let me thank Feuilly for his help in researching for this piece.

And now, on with the show...
Baseball, first brought to Japan in 1871, quickly grew to be one of the most popular sporting events in the Land of the Rising Sun, at times even rivalling Sumo in popularity. Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB), Japan's governing baseball league, was founded in 1935, and has been around without too much incident (and with the domination of more or less one team) until today. As a result of the pending merger between the Orix BlueWave and the Kintetsu Buffaloes, the Japan Professional Baseball Players Association (JPBLA) announced that they are set to go on strike. This would be the first time that Japanese players have gone on strike, in sheer defiance of the concept of wa (harmony) that has forever perpetuated within Japan, both in its sports as well as in society as a whole.

But first, some background on the NPB. NPB consists of two leagues (Central and Pacific) with six teams each. The most dominant team in the league is the Yomiuri Giants. If you can imagine a team that gets away with what Steinbrenner could only dream he could do with the Yankees, you've got the Giants. For all you BoSox fans out there, your team is the Hanshin Tigers, who usually come up juuuuust short of winning The Big One.

Another interesting thing to note is that all 12 teams are owned by major Japanese corporations. The Giants are owned by the Yomiuri media conglomorate (they publish the Yomiuri Shinbun, Japan's most-read paper). The Hanshin Tigers are owned by Hanshin Railways, the Seibu Lions are owned by the Seibu chain of department stores (the chain has a sale when the Lions win big), and so on and so forth. While this isn't totally different from American corporations owning MLB teams, it means that the teams aren't so much for competition so much as they exist to promote their parent company. While the Giants make a strong profit, most other teams don't. What do they do to all that red ink? Write it off on their taxes as advertising costs.

What this also means is that the owners and the league administration are a group of people that are incredibly out of touch with what the fans and the players want. Unfortunately, while league wa has persisted for this long, it may not hold out.

In the past eight years, one of the biggest developments has been the export of players from Japan to the US. However, the rules regarding this are no less than draconian. When Hideo Nomo became the first player to cross the Pacific, he did so through a loophole in the NPB bylaws, causing his American agent, Don Nomura, to be known as the Darth Vader of Japan. However, that loophole has since been closed, and now a 'posting' system exists. For a player to leave Japan, he must first wait nine years, at which point an American team can sign him but only if a negotiating fee is paid to his team. Nomura likens this to a "slave auction." WHen Ichiro signed with the Mariners, his team, the Kobe-based Orix Blue Wave, recieved a handsome fee of $13 million.

Japanese baseball players endure such administrative abuse regularly, and have done so since the league's inception. They are also faced with low salaries (The league minimum is 4.4 million yen, which is about $40,000), harsh training, and strict control over their life and public image. The Player's Association has remained quiet, until recently.

The aforementioned merger between the Blue Wave and the Buffaloes, seems to be the straw that will break the camels' back, for better or for worse. On Monday (Sept. 6th), the JPBLA announced that unless the owners agree to their demands and freeze the merger for a year, the players will strike every weekend in September, and then reconvene at the end of the month to plan their next move. One team, the Yokohama BayStars, has calculated that the loss of six home games would cost them 300 million yen, or roughly $2.7 million.

Why do the players and fans object to this merger? Not only would it reduce the number of teams (and the number of players), as well as reduce the number of games, but it would create an imbalance, removing one team from the Pacific League and causing a 6/5 split. There are further talks of another merger in the Pacific League, although the two teams involved have not yet been discovered. To add to the chaos, Yomiuri Newspaper chairman Tsuneo Watanabe (former president of the Giants and a major league asshole, pardon the pun) has proposed moving the Giants to the PL if the second merger happens, claiming that "five of the Central League owners have formed a bloc against the Giants, so there is no reason to not leave." There's even more talk of forming a single league rather than two, the Giants forming their own league if they don't get their way, and on and on and on.

In email correspondance with a professor and administrator at my school regarding the situation, Robert Whiting himself has stayed that the players' union "has to flex whatever muscle they have now or they're done for." They're not short of support either, as a poll taken by Sankei Sports on Monday showed that an overwhelming 74.5% of fans support the players, while only 24.3% sympathize with the owners.

The situation is heading towards an explosive climax that could mean the beginning of the end for the NPB, unless sweeping reforms across the board are made. The owners are set to meet on Friday, when they're expected to approve the merger between the Blue Wave and the Buffalo. Courts have rejected suits from the players' union to halt the merger, and the owners even claim that a strike would be illegal and have threatened to fine the players for lost revenue.

Unforunately, it would seem that unless the league owners have an abrupt change of heart and philosophy, all that's left to see is whether the players have the conviction to walk the picket lines on Saturday.


*'Kyuu,' in addition to being a word that expresses sickness/pain/suffering, is also a word for the number nine.

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