Between Game 7 of the 2011 Japan Series and Opening Day of the 2012 season, five players left Japan to play in MLB.
These weren’t just any players, they were among the best in NPB. Collectively they had helped secure seven pennants, been a part of three Japan Series winners, won four MVP Awards, two Sawamura Awards, 10 Golden Gloves and were named All-Stars a combined 27 times.
That they left is nothing remarkable on its own. Ever since Hideo Nomo signed with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1995, the departure of a few stars has been part and parcel with Japanese baseball. The oddity this time was number of high-caliber players all leaving at once.
NPB commissioner Ryozo Kato remains unfazed. Actually, Kato is the picture of calm, even optimism, in these shifting times.
“It’s only natural for talented Japanese players to be inclined to go and challenge Major League Baseball,” Kato told the Japan Times recently in an exclusive interview.
“I’m not so pessimistic about Japanese baseball. Even though the top-rated players go to join Major League Baseball, there are new ones coming in one after another. So many promising young ones are coming into Japanese baseball from high school, universities and company teams. Overall, now I’m not so worried about the so-called drainage of Japanese players from here to the United States.”
When MLB resumed regular-season play April 4, there were nine Japanese players on active MLB rosters. There are more, such as Daisuke Matsuzaka, on the disabled list and a handful of others kicking around the minors.
Rather than searching for new ways to prevent players from leaving, the NPB commissioner simply wants to improve the environment in Japan, which may in turn entice more players to stay.
“This is a key,” Kato said. “Whatever Japan does to baseball teams, so long as the baseball of Japan is not as attractive or more attractive for the players than Major League Baseball, this kind of drainage cannot be stopped.
“So it comes back to us. We have to make Japanese baseball attractive for the players and other people.”
Kato views Japanese stars playing overseas as a positive and a way for NPB to connect with the thousands of Japanese working in North America and also Japanese-Americans.
“It’s really an exciting thing for Japanese people to play well,” the commissioner said. “(Hideo) Nomo was one, Ichiro (Suzuki) of course, and (Hideki) Matsui did very well. Matsuzaka for the first three years, and now so-so. He’s not that conspicuous because he’s a reliever, but Takashi Saito is also doing well.
“(So) Taguchi and (Tadahito) Iguchi, these players did well for a couple of years and so forth. Seeing them play well and successfully in the United States is a great pleasure for Japanese people overseas.”
The thing that gives Kato pause is Japan’s declining population.
The state of the nation’s population has been a worrisome topic for the government for a number of years. If the decline continues, there could be a major impact on the nation’s economy, which could have an adverse affect on many walks of life.
“Japan’s aggregate population will go down to 99 million in year 2050,” said Kato, a former diplomat who served as Ambassador of Japan to the United States from 2001 to 2008. “The year 2050 is not so far away, only 38 years away from now. The more ominous thing is with this reduction of the overall population of Japan, those under 15 years of age now, that population will be cut in half. This has a very significant bearing for all sports in Japan.”
One thing that has pleased the commissioner is the effort by the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks to purchase Yahoo Dome.
“I really don’t know the details of the deal yet, but my first reaction is positive,” Kato said. “One of the differences between Major League Baseball and Japanese baseball, is the teams here don’t own their own stadiums.
“In the United States, taxpayer money can go toward building baseball parks for the teams. That can’t happen in Japan. Tokyo Dome is not owned by the Yomiuri Giants. Therefore most of the revenue accrued from food, drinks, goods and paraphernalia goes to Tokyo Dome, not to the Yomiuri Giants. It’s the same for most other baseball parks except Hiroshima.
“This is a shortcoming, but we cannot change the whole thing overnight. But for the first time, Softbank is going to get it. I think it’s a positive move.”
Internationally, the World Baseball Classic remains an important issue.
The first two editions of the tournament ended with Japan hoisting the championship trophy. A third triumph in 2013 for Japan remains in jeopardy as it has not yet committed to playing.
The Japanese Professional Baseball Players’ Association wants sponsorship rights and the rights to merchandise products related to the Japanese team transferred to NPB. Major League Baseball has yet to fully acquiesce and there’s been little in the way of official progress.
“We are working very closely, and working very hard on the participation of Japan in the forthcoming WBC,” Kato said.
“That’s something I don’t like to think (about), that Japan doesn’t participate in the World Baseball Classic. Because it’s so important. Particularly while baseball is not an official item of the Olympic Games.”
The World Baseball Classic is one of the few ways NPB exports its game around the world. While many fans have heard of players like Nomo, Ichiro and Yu Darvish, among others, Japanese baseball itself remains a mystery to most overseas.
Meanwhile, MLB has for years worked diligently to expand its presence around the globe through a number of initiatives such as last November’s tour of Taiwan and March’s 2012 Opening Series Japan. Its main website, MLB.com, is currently available in Japanese, Spanish and Korean as well as English.
In addition to games already broadcast in foreign markets, such as Japan, many MLB games can be viewed online via MLB.tv.
The Pacific League has recently launched a similar service (Pacific League TV), but thus far the games and highlights are only viewable in Japan.
Kato has said he would like to expand the reach of Japanese baseball, but noted that change in Japan is often taken in small steps.
“In the long term, yes, we would like to be like that, like Major League Baseball,” Kato said. “At the present time, concerning the size of baseball as an industry, Major League Baseball’s is five-times as big as that of Japan. Japanese baseball can be see on TV in Korea, Taiwan and elsewhere. So it stays within the Asian area.”
Overall, the commissioner feels NPB’s relationship with MLB is a healthy one.
“Major League Baseball is growing in popularity in Japan, particularly this season after Yu Darvish joined the Texas Rangers,” he said. “Also Jim Small (managing director of MLB Japan) is here representing Major League Baseball.
“Japanese baseball is also on the rise. So it’s not a game being played between Major League Baseball and Japanese baseball. (The relationship) may even be a positive thing. The time zones are different. In the morning, you can watch Major League Baseball on Japanese TV and in the evening we can see Japanese games.”