Baseball, America and Japan’s shared national pastime, is a useful window through which to view the two countries’ contrasting and changing attitudes to foreigners in general – and in the economy in particular.
Fans in the US have long embraced Japanese stars such as Ichiro Suzuki, the hit machine long with the Seattle Mariners; Hideki Matsui, the slugger beloved by the New York Yankees (and nicknamed Godzilla by fans); and Daisuke Matsuzaka, formerly of the Boston Red Sox, the thrower of the mythical gyroball pitch.
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Japan, conversely, has always been ambivalent about foreign-born stars. Robert Whiting wrote eloquently (and often hilariously) in You Gotta Have Wa about the cultural clashes and tensions that erupted in the 1970s, when American players started playing in greater numbers in Japan. A quota was imposed of no more than two on any team, mirroring some of the strategies used by Japanese trade negotiators when pressed from outside to open up their closed and protected markets.
Last week, however, the Japanese single-season home-run record, set by Sadaharu Oh in 1964, was surpassed by a journeyman former US Major League player, Wladimir Balentien of Tokyo’s Yakult Swallows.
Balentien’s accomplishment says a lot about important ways in which Japan is changing. Twice before, baseball imports – American “Tuffy” Rhodes in 2001 and Venezuelan Alex Cabrera in 2002 – had reached 55 home runs, tying with the sacred number achieved by Oh. But Japanese baseball conspired to avoid pitching to them, in order to avoid the indignity of a gaijin (foreign born) player surpassing their hero. The fact that an obscure overseas slugger has finally managed to hit a pitch out of the park and surpass Oh is a subtle but critical indicator that Japan is coming to see how competition from outside is both an essential and an inevitable feature of progress.
Balentien’s feat was greeted with some nationalist angst, which was probably to be expected, but it has also been hailed by baseball fans. Many attribute this to the influence of Ryozo Kato, the cosmopolitan outgoing commissioner of baseball (and former ambassador to the US), helping drive acceptance of global competition in the domestic game.
A similar dynamic is playing out in Japan on a larger, economic playing field. After many years of prevarication and outright refusal, Japan has decided to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the potentially precedent-setting trade negotiations now under way. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe decided to join the TPP in part to use it as an institutional crowbar to help open up cloistered sectors hitherto immune to political pressures – notably agriculture, financial services and carmaking.
In addition, Mr Abe has launched a series of unprecedented economic steps – his “three arrows” – designed to use fiscal outlays and inflationary steps to spur initial growth. The measures are also intended to usher in much-needed structural reforms in an attempt to overhaul the very foundations of Japanese commerce and industry.
As in baseball, there are nationalists in the economic debate arguing Japan can rebound on its own, without foreign participation. Some conservative legislators in Mr Abe’s Liberal Democratic party are falling back on zoku, or clan politics, which is profoundly distrustful of foreign companies and equity holders.
Mr Abe and his economic team will need to take clear steps to boost an approach to the national economy that embraces international competition and commercial participation inside Japan, rather than seeking to fence off foreigners from protected domestic markets. Such steps will need to reach beyond insurance, farming and carmaking to embrace crucial sectors such as software development, cloud computing and aviation.
Economic nationalism is sweeping across Asia, and Japan is by no means immune. But crucial policy makers and consumers alike have come to embrace overseas competition in an effort to reinvent Japan. The fact that the all-time home-run record, held for decades by the beloved Oh, is now held by an foreigner is a small indicator that the country is finally opening up, giving outsiders a chance to hit it out of the park.
The writer is chairman and chief executive of The Asia Group and former assistant US secretary of state for east Asian and Pacific affairs