Is it just me, or has the level of media assaults on prominent foreign sports figures in Japan increased markedly in the past few months?
The most recent case was in the Aug. 19-26 edition of the Shukan Asahi, where the Pacific League’s Chiba Lotte Marines — managed by Bobby Valentine — were accused of using amphetamines this season as they continue to rack up the club’s best record in decades.
In an unusually long story (six pages) for a Japanese weekly magazine, pictures of Valentine and the Marines are featured prominently in a tale headlined: “The Mysterious Drug Lotte Players are Taking.”
The story turns out to be as weak as day old Kool-Aid, however, with the source being “someone close to the Lotte organization” and not even one attributable quote included.
What is even more egregious is the fact that only approximately 20 percent of the piece is about the alleged use of the stimulants by the Marines, while the vast majority concentrates on what amphetamines are and the effect they have on the human body.
What amazes me most is the presentation of this as some kind of revelation, when it is common knowledge that stimulants are used by people in all walks of life (taxi drivers, college students, hostesses, etc.) in Japan and nobody even bats an eyelash about it.
I think there is something more sinister behind this “story.”
Why is a successful manager, who has taken an organization from oblivion to a significant level of success twice in the past 11 years, the foil for this “scoop”?
I’ll tell you why — because he is not Japanese.
You can call it muckraking if you want, but that is just a polite word to conceal what it really is — racism.
Interesting isn’t it that, despite the fact that 10 of the 12 teams in Japanese pro baseball are managed by Japanese or part-Japanese, Valentine’s club was singled out?
You don’t see anybody going through the garbage cans behind Fukuoka Dome looking for something on the Hawks, do you? Even though they have an astronomical winning percentage this season of nearly .700.
Valentine, Marines GM Ryuzo Setoyama and several Lotte players all firmly denied the allegations presented in the Shukan Asahi article and claimed they are baseless.
Those of us who were around for Valentine’s first stint with the Marines remember how the Japanese media treated him after he was fired following the 1995 season, when he led the Lotte to its best record in 20 years and a second-place finish in the PL.
My personal favorite was the “journalist” who wrote that Valentine “didn’t know what he was doing” as the manager of the Marines. It was a perfect example of the shockingly disgraceful level of the sports media in Japan, where a pack mentality seems to prevail at all times.
Valentine, who didn’t need to prove himself to anybody, returned to the U.S. and was managing the New York Mets by the end of the 1996 season. In 2000, he led them to the National League pennant and a trip to the World Series.
Unlike in the United States, nearly all of the Japanese sportswriters did not study journalism in college. They went to university, graduated and were hired by newspaper companies, who then set out to “train” them.
When you have members of a homogeneous culture covering those who are not a part of it, you have the formula for some real bias in reporting. When in doubt, bash the foreigner. They certainly make easy enough targets.
That, combined with the lack of checks and balances in journalism here, means it is open season for the media to tee off on whom it pleases.
To illustrate my point, we need only look back to January, when, only two short months after he had been named general manager of the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles, American Marty Kuehnert was assailed in an article in the Shukan Shincho, a Japanese weekly tabloid magazine.
It was vicious stuff, too, going back decades and essentially trying to smear a person who had just become the first non-Japanese GM of a pro baseball team in Japan.
It smacked of both jealousy and amateurism. Before training camp had even begun, the GM of Japan’s first expansion team in 50 years is ripped to shreds in print.
You think this would have happened if he was Japanese?
Because the publication that ran the story would probably be worried about getting sued, and would know that its relationship with the individual and the team wouldn’t be very good after such a malicious, premeditated attack before a game had even been played.
With a foreigner, there are no such worries.
“Oh, he’ll probably be gone after a while, anyway,” would be the prevailing party line.
In Kuehnert’s case, this proved to be true. Less than a month into the regular season he was unceremoniously and unfairly demoted by the Eagles.
How about the fuss that was made when Yomiuri Giants slugger Tuffy Rhodes was pulled over with an expired international driver’s license last year?
Talk about making a mountain out of a molehill.
And yet when Japanese sumo wrestler Toki — who is prohibited from driving while an active wrestler — ran over and killed a woman in Osaka a few years back while behind the wheel of an automobile, it hardly rated a mention in the Japanese media.
Before you knew it, Toki was back in the ring.
I can only image what the reaction would have been if a foreign wrestler had committed such an act.
Every time yokozuna Asashoryu, who hails from Mongolia, raises his voice, it is reported exhaustively — and predictably — in the media. The same old line prevails: foreigner loses it, gets out of control, doesn’t respect Japanese culture or tradition.
Now it is true, that on occasion, foreign sports figures do call attention to themselves unnecessarily.
Rhodes, who was frustrated during the second year of his stint with the tradition-bound and conservative Giants, lashed out more than once this season — and was lambasted for it.
He flew back to the United States last week to get treatment for an “injury,” but the prevailing opinion is he has played his last game in Japan.
As a foreigner in Japan you already stand out, so raising your voice frequently is not going to smooth the path for you, in most instances. Sometimes, it is better to just keep your head down and get on with it.
However, the hit piece on Valentine and the Marines cannot be allowed to pass without being noted for its brazenness. It smelled of the worst kind of racism.
Taking a nonstory — even if it were true — and blowing it up into some kind of federal case was totally gratuitous.
Valentine was clearly perturbed by the Shukan Asahi article when I spoke to him by telephone recently.
“I believe the story was created by a disgruntled employee of the organization, probably somebody I demoted or might have even fired.
“It was an obvious ploy to take some wind out of our sails and it did. It confused a bunch of people, and got a lot of people angry. Some of the players lost their focus, but luckily we have regained it.”
But was it racist?
“I wouldn’t call it blatant racism,” said Valentine. “There is a fine line. The motive of the article wasn’t to be racist, the motive was to smear the work of Lotte and particularly what I have done.
“The idea that it was allowed to be printed, has to have some trace to racism. The only name that appeared in the article was mine.”
Masayuki Tamaki, a sports writer, best-selling author and longtime critic of Japanese baseball, referred to the article on the Marines as “crap” when I contacted him for his thoughts, but said he did not think it was racist.
“I can’t see any motivation for this story. It looks like it is nothing more than a rumor . . . the attitude of the media here is the real problem.”
Valentine has been around these parts long enough to know that this is just one shot across the bow of his high-riding ship.
“I think this is going to happen again. I wonder what it’s going to be the next time?”