Kawakami was Japanese baseball’s first Zen master

by Robert Whiting

Special To The Japan Times

First in a three-part series

Most foreign fans of baseball in Japan may not know the name Tetsuharu Kawakami, who passed away recently at the age of 93, but perhaps it’s time they did.

He was a huge cultural icon to many Japanese, particularly those of the World War II generation, but more important, he was a transformational figure, who greatly influenced the development of the sport and the way it is played today.

In a 19-year career as the first baseman for the Yomiuri Giants, interrupted for three years by the war, Kawakami became the first player in the professional game in this country to amass 2,000 hits and earned the nickname “The God of Batting” from reporters, while helping to establish his team as a national institution.

He then went on to manage the Giants, during the era of superstars Shigeo Nagashima and Sadaharu Oh, and guided them to a record 11 more Japan Series championships over 14 years, including an unprecedented nine in a row from 1965-1973. In the process, he perfected a widely-copied managerial philosophy called kanri yakyu (controlled or managed baseball) that combined Zen Buddhist principles with Machiavellian tactics.

In his later years as a TV commentator and lecturer, he transmogrified into a behind-the-scenes wirepuller, known widely by the sobriquet “The Don of Japanese Baseball.”

Kawakami was a high school pitching star, a farmer’s son from Kumamoto Prefecture, who signed with the Dai Nihon Yakyu Kurabu (as the Tokyo Yomiuri Giants were originally known) in 1938, when professional baseball was still in its infancy. He received a record signing bonus of ¥300, enough to buy a house back home, and a monthly salary of ¥110.

After walking 11 batters in one game, however, he was converted to first base, and in 1939, hit .338 to win the Japan League batting title. He was 19, the youngest player ever to accomplish such a feat, and that record still stands. He squeezed in a second batting title, along with a home run crown and an MVP award before the attack on Pearl Harbor and was called to military duty.

During the ensuing war, Kawakami was a drill instructor for the Japanese Imperial Army at an installation in Tachikawa, where his trainees included a young Tetsuro Tamba, an actor who would later play Tiger Tanaka in the 1966 James Bond film, “You Only Live Twice.” Kawakami was a demanding taskmaster, by all accounts, and was widely hated by those under him.

Soldiers grumbled that if he led them into battle, Kawakami would be the first to die, not by enemy fire but by a hand grenade thrown from behind by one of his own men. But Kawakami never saw action.

He stayed where he was until 1945 when Japan surrendered, then returned home to Kumamoto to work on the family farm. The Giants asked him back for the 1946 season, but Kawakami demanded a signing bonus of ¥30,000.

It was an outrageous sum given the grinding poverty and economic chaos of the time in general (the prize for All-Star MVP that year was a live goose) and at first the Giants refused. The standoff continued until midseason when the Giants relented and agreed to terms with Japanese professional baseball’s first ever hold-out.

Using a distinctive red bat presented to him by a regional bat maker, Kawakami returned and picked up where he had left off, hitting .305 with 10 home runs for half a season’s worth of play.

At 175 cm and 75 kg, Kawakami had developed into a taut, muscled level-swinging hitter whose trademark was low screaming line drives to the outfield fences. He was also a perfectionist who did shadow swings late into the night at the team dormitory.

Kawakami’s postwar rivalry for batting honors with Tokyo Senators outfielder Hiroshi Oshita, who used a distinctive blue bat, helped greatly to reignite interest in the professional game and simultaneously lift people’s spirits, as the city of Tokyo struggled to climb out of the ashes caused by B-29 incendiary bombs. The two captivated the nation in 1947 by staging a thrilling battle down-to-the- wire battle for the batting crown, with Oshita pulling ahead in the final days to finish at .315 to Kawakami’s .309.

Kawakami would then come back to win the home run crown with 25 in 1948, while Oshita would take another batting title in 1950 with a .339 average.

The 173-cm, 72-kg Oshita, son of a Taiwanese mother and a Japanese military officer, could not have been more different than Kawakami. He had served in the Japanese Army Air Corps and was assigned to a Kamikaze Squadron, escaping deployment only when the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings brought the war to a sudden end.

He swung with an American-style uppercut, hit soaring fly balls into the stands, once hitting a home run in Hokkaido’s Maruyama Stadium that traveled 170 meters.

And while Kawakami was doing his solitary late night batting practice, Oshita was out hitting the bars and chasing women, often stumbling back to his room drunk at four in the morning.

Legend has it that Oshita set a record by getting seven hits in a game in 1949 while suffering from a severe hangover after drinking all night; he had expected the scheduled day game to be rained out.

A teammate once asked him, “Don’t you ever practice?”

The insouciant Oshita replied, “If you’re a real pro, never let anyone know how hard you are trying.”

* * *

During the 1950 off-season, at the suggestion of Tokyo Giants owner Matsutaro Shoriki, founder of the mass circulation daily Yomiuri Shimbun, Kawakami took up Zen, spending days on end at unheated Buddhist temples, meditating, chanting, reading scriptures, and doing supplicant drills, in an effort to conquer his inner self and perfect his concentration. He had his best season in 1951 when he hit .377 to lead the newly-formed Central League, with 15 home runs and 81 RBIs, and was selected CL MVP.

Kawakami struck out only six times the entire season, something only a handful of hitters in Japan or America have accomplished. In September that year, he said his powers of concentration had developed to such a point where the ball would “stop” for him as it came across the plate.

Ironically, Oshita’s best season was also in 1951. He hit .383 for the Tokyu Flyers of the opposing Pacific League, also newly created, eclipsing Kawakami again and setting a new Japan batting record, one that would last for 20 years.

The Zen of Kawakami served him well throughout the next decade. He averaged .334 over eight consecutive seasons starting in 1949, winning additional titles in 1953 (.347) and in 1955 (.338).

He led the Giants to eight Central League pennants and four Japan Series titles in the 1950s, capturing two more MVPs. He reached the 2,000-hit mark in 1956 in his 1,646th game, which remains the fastest pace in Japanese baseball history.

The era of TV had begun with Yomiuri-owned NTV televising games nationally and further increasing Kawakami’s popularity and that of the Giants, whose home attendance exceeded two million a year. In 1957, he played himself in a movie about his life, “Sebango 16,” (Back No 16).

Rival Oshita had failed to win any more batting titles, albeit he did win a Most Valuable Player award in 1954 and helped the Nishitetsu Lions defeat Yomiuri in both the 1957 and 1958 Japan Series.

However, a new Kawakami nemesis appeared in the form of the Japanese nisei from Hawaii, Wally Yonamine, the first American to play in Japan after the war.

Yonamine won three batting titles during the ’50s and an MVP, overcoming initial hostility from those who regarded him as a traitor for having served in the enemy U.S. Army during the war and those who did not appreciate his flashy, hard-sliding American style aggressiveness. He was called a “dirty player” and a “showboat,” and cries of “Yankee Go Home” could be heard in the stands.

Although fans and fellow teammates eventually warmed to the interloper, Kawakami kept his distance. A very cool distance.

According to Hirofumi Naito, an outfielder on the team, “Kawakami was an old-fashioned guy, who felt that titles should be won by Japanese players.” Indeed if it hadn’t been for Yonamine, Kawakami would have had another batting title in 1957 when he hit .327, trailing only Yonamine’s .338. The two men never had a heart-to-heart talk in all the years they played together.

Said Yonamine’s oldest son Paul, “It was a real respect-hate thing. But my father used to always say that Kawakami made him better because of that.”

Age finally caught up with Kawakami in 1958, when his batting average sagged below .250. Midway through the season, he surrendered the cleanup spot to the wildly popular rookie Nagashima, who dazzled Japan with movie star good looks, bubbly Type A personality and his dynamic swing, which was so fierce it would cause his batting helmet to fly off.

The God of Batting retired at the end of that season, with a lifetime tally of 2,351 hits and a batting average of .313 — both Japan records at the time. Yomiuri permanently retired his uniform No. 16.

* * *

In 1961, Kawakami was installed as manager of the Giants and one of his first acts was to send the American Yonamine packing, trading him to the Chunichi Dragons. Kawakami announced he intended to build a team of pure-blooded (and therefore supposedly pure-hearted Japanese), although in Kawakami’s lexicon, the definition of the term was flexible enough to include Oh, who had a Chinese father and a Taiwanese passport, but enjoyed the mitigating benefit of having a Japanese mother, having been born and raised in Japan, and having become a nationally known high school star, single-handedly leading his hometown squad to victory at the country’s all-important Koshien summer tourney as 25 million viewers watched on NHK.

Kawakami instituted the controlled/managed system of baseball cited above (kanri yakyu), and he controlled every aspect of a player’s life both on and off the field. In spring camp, he established a taxing dawn-to-dusk regimen of practice, including at its extreme, 1,000-fungo drills, 100-fly drills and marathon runs. with burly Takehiko Bessho, former Giant pitching star who had won 310 games, acting as in-house drill sergeant, hurling insults at recalcitrant players and kicking rear ends when necessary.

It was an approach that was termed karada de oboeru (learn by the body) in Japanese, designed to teach muscle memory through constant repetition, but also to build fighting spirit by teaching players to reach and surpass their physical limits.

“If you dive at the ball in practice and fail to catch it, keep diving and sooner or later you will catch it,” Kawakami liked to say.

The day’s work was followed by indoor workouts in the evening and baseball lectures and Zen meditation sessions. Other teams in Japan trained hard, including previous Giants teams, and far harder in fact than MLB teams typically did.

Baseball in Japan had essentially been a martial art — based on endless training and development of spirit — since the late 19th century. But Kawakami took spring training and elevated it to a another level.

Breaking that first camp, Kawakami took the Kyojin — as the Giants were called in Japanese — to train with the Los Angeles Dodgers in Vero Beach, Florida. There he incorporated the Dodger Way in his approach to baseball, adopting Dodger-style sign systems, defensive formations and outfield relay plays.

He became the first manager in Japan to do that. He also became a believer in the downswing tactic, employed by Dodgers that year to produce more ground balls and capitalize on the foot speed of Maury Wills, Willie Davis and other fast runners in their lineup.

When the regular season started, however, the Kawakami system required more than the Dodgers or any other MLB could imagine: sweat-inducing workouts before every game, as well as intense off-day and travel-day practices.

There were also daily meetings — pre-game skull sessions to go over the opposition, meetings during the game where Kawakami would gather the players in a circle and give them up-to-the-minute advice on wind conditions, the opposing pitcher’s curve ball and other matters of importance, and finally post-game hansei-kai (self-reflection conferences) where criticism and fines were handed out and extra practice ordered next morning for those players who had done particularly badly during that day’s game.

At season’s end there was a bone-numbing autumn camp and immediately after the New Year holiday there were joint “voluntary training” get-togethers to prepare for the start of camp on Feb. 1 and everyone was expected to attend. Kawakami instituted strict curfews, instructed his players on proper dress and manners and forbade them to read comic books in public for fear it would spoil the team image.

He even instructed players’ wives on diet and health maintenance and cautioned them against allowing their husbands to watch TV late into the night for fear it would hurt their eyes and not get enough sleep as well. “You’re part of the Giants, too,” he would tell them.

He established a strict system of fines and condoned the systematic use of physical force on younger Giants players to keep them in line. Those who broke curfew in the Giants dormitory, where the young, single players stayed, were punished by the dormitory superintendant’s tekken (iron fist).

Discourteous players were smacked on the back and legs with a bamboo stick. Teen-age players who smoked had to write every day 100 times, “I will not smoke until I am 20 years old.” There were many episodes like this.

Finally, there was the press, the last piece of the Kawakami domain to be brought under control. He barred reporters from the field during workouts, making them stay by the third base dugout and forbidding them to talk to the players without first obtaining permission from the team, and otherwise limited access. He introduced the position of koho, press liaison, a person whom reporters had to go through if they wanted to talk to a player.

A fee, payable to the Yomiuri Giants, was charged for extended interviews. This became an unfortunate part of the overall pro baseball system in Japan that is in place today.

Reporters dubbed these restrictions, the “Tetsu Kaatan” or Iron Curtain, a play on Kawakami’s nickname “Tetsu” which means iron in Japanese.

* * *

The Kawakami system worked. The players were schooled in the fundamentals of the game. They were slick, sure-handed fielders, sharp contact hitters skilled in the bunt and hit-and-run and whenever Nagashima and Oh came to bat there always seemed to be runners in scoring position.

Giants pitchers had superb control of a variety of breaking pitches. The Giants won Central League pennants and Japan Series titles in 1961 and 1963. The only trouble was with the Giants veteran All-Star shortstop Tatsuro Hirooka, who chafed at the new restrictive system of rules which dictated through signs what a batter, pitcher or fielder as the case may be, had to do on every pitch.

Japanese baseball, heretofore, had been much simpler and much freer. Hirooka had begun writing a diary for the weekly magazine Shukan Besuboru, in 1964, in which he voiced opposition to the new way of doing things, but Kawakami intervened and ordered a halt to the series after two issues.

In August, with Hirooka at bat and Nagashima on third, Nagashima took it upon himself to steal home. Hirooka, mistakenly thinking Kawakami had ordered the steal, interpreted the move as a statement of lack of faith in his batting — something which, truth be told, did not inspire a great deal of confidence given that Hirooka’s average was in the low .200s.

Embarrassed, he struck out on the next pitch and threw his bat angrily to the ground. Then, in a rare display of defiance, he strode to the locker room, changed into his street clothes and went home.

Shoriki had decreed at the time of his team’s foundation, “May the Giants always be gentlemen.” The Hirooka walkout was one of the most scandalous episodes in the long proud history of the organization and it naturally made headlines in the sports dailies the following morning.

Most newspaper editors, unhappy about the limitations Kawakami had put on their reporters, supported Hirooka and blasted Kawakami. Hirooka survived Kawakami’s immediate attempts to trade him, but his days were numbered. He retired in the spring of the following year, and went on to become a commentator, but when the Dodgers went to Vero Beach again in 1967 and Hirooka showed up as a member of the press, Kawakami refused his repeated requests for an interview and ordered his players not to speak with him.

Kawakami, meanwhile, continued to practice Zen as a manager. He said it took on new meaning and heightened his awareness of his new environment.

“For me Zen was everything,” he later wrote in his book “Zen to Nihon Yakyu.”

“Through Zen I was able to see myself and the world in a different perspective. It helped me realize how insignificant I was as an individual and how much I was indebted to others.”

Kawakami believed that everything was connected and preached that belief to his players. He said that stars like Nagashima and Oh, who hit home runs, did not hit those home runs by themselves. They were helped by their teammates who got on base first, by fellow batters who sacrificed themselves to advance the runner on base to get him in scoring position and thus put pressure on the pitcher.

Without such teammates, without such pressure, there would be no stars. Nothing.

He also believed in a Zen way of baseball just as there was a Zen way in kendo and judo, a yakyu-do, as it were. The idea of applying zen to baseball was not new.

It went all the way back to the 19th century and had been popularized by famed Waseda University manager Suishu Tobita in the 1920s. Among Kyojin players, perhaps the foremost proponent of yakyu-do was Sadaharu Oh. A high school pitching star who, like Kawakami, had struggled in the beginning and was converted to first base.

As is now well known, Oh overcame a serious drinking problem to become the most dedicated worker on the team, spending his mornings with a batting coach, a martial arts specialist named Hiroshi Arakawa, who helped Oh correct a flaw in his batting form by teaching him to hit with a bizarre one-legged “flamingo” style.

He also practiced swinging a heavy samurai long sword, learning to perform the extremely difficult task of slicing in half pieces of paper suspended from the ceiling. In the process, he developed exquisite timing and powerful wrists.

Oh burst forth in 1962, hitting 38 homers to capture the first of 13 Central League home run titles he would win in a row. He averaged 45 homers a year and won seven (of a total of nine) MVP awards during the Kawakami regime.

Golden Boy Nagashima, who won five MVPs and 444 homers during his career, had his own Zen-like approach to the game, drawing spiritual sustenance from solitary sojourns to Mt. Fuji and mountain retreats in the Japan Alps. He believed that a perfect shadow swing produced a uniquely identifiable auditory “whoosh” and said he could tell by the sound alone whether a bat swing was defective or not.

Editor’s note: The second part of Robert Whiting’s look at the legacy of Tetsuharu Kawakami focuses on Kawakami’s role as leader of the Giants’ V-9 dynasty. It will run in tomorrow’s print edition.