Sound cannot travel in a vacuum and perhaps that explains the growing silence in the Japanese spirit.

For we are entering a vacuum. A hero vacuum. Yes, Japan is running short on heroes.

This has happened before. And when it does there is always one place where Japan always looks for the next hero to arise. One true fountain from where the better Japanese heroes flow . . .


Yeah. That’s right, baseball.

What? You thought Japan might get its heroes from some place more traditional? Like sumo? Where every other wrestler is now a foreigner? And thus disqualified from Japanese hero worship?

Or that maybe you thought Japanese heroes might come from popular music? Or from film? Or from politics?

First off, Japanese singers aren’t heroes. Nor are they singers. They are cutie pies. And money-makers. And often here today, gone tomorrow.

Film stars . . . what film stars? And politicians? Oh sure. Japanese politicians are about as heroic as the lion in “The Wizard of Oz.”

Now . . . soccer players? Well, maybe. Japan certainly loves being in the world soccer limelight. Or world anything limelight.

But soccer is not in Japanese blood like baseball. Not yet anyway. It might be in the epidermis. Or in the lymph nodes. But not in the blood.

Baseball is in the blood. And for almost the last 20 years or so that blood has been pumped by two men — Ichiro Suzuki and Hideki Matsui. Sure, there have been and there are now lesser stars in the Japanese baseball universe, but these two are like Jupiter and Saturn. The biggest things in the sky.

And this year . . . well, maybe it’s been going on for more than just this year . . . both stars began to lose some light. That happens when you get old.

Matsui, 37, has just endured his third team in as many seasons. While his competitive spirit seemed as sharp as ever, his batting stats did not.

Meanwhile, Ichiro — that indestructible baseball machine who turns 38 on Oct. 22 — blew a gasket.

Ichiro, not hitting .300? Ichiro, not getting 200 hits? Say it ain’t so, Joe!

Of course, he may bounce back in 2012. Yet, aging stars don’t have so much rubber in their soles. They tend not to bounce so high.

It’s not like either man will go away. Even upon retirement, one or both may prowl the dugouts as managers. Or paint the airwaves as commentators.

Or if not, they will surely be peddling products on TV, just as they do now. We will probably be privileged to hear Ichiro gulp beer for the next three decades.

Yet one day — and perhaps not far away — they will no longer be swinging their golden bats.

And Japan is going to miss them. Heroes encourage. They motivate. They save.

And for the past 20 years that is what these two have done. They have inspired the nation. For season after season, the Japanese “hype” industry — never in recession — has nevertheless been fortunate enough to run on high octane fuel: Matsui and Ichiro.

Matsui — that noble fellow with the big swing and humble demeanor, crafted of perfect Japanese baseball DNA (Read: Yomiuri Giants).

Ichiro — not as big nor as humble. Just better. Japan, America, Mars — it doesn’t matter. Ichiro is/was one of the best baseball players of any place, any time.

The heck with Joe DiMaggio. “Where have you gone, Ichiro?” will one day be a national refrain.

A similar loss occurred in the mid ’70s, early ’80s. First Giants legend Shigeo Nagashima and then his home run bonking teammate, Sadaharu Oh, both retired as active players. The gap then was perhaps even larger than the one before us now, as the play of Nagashima and Oh helped rebuild Japan’s postwar confidence.

The hole then was plugged first by the media, drooling deliriously over every micro-moment of every sporting event and spreading the drama on so thick that even less-than-great players could step up and seem terrific.

And then by the bubble economy. For who needed a hero when everyone was getting rich?

But now . . . in the shadows of the great quake and with the added tremors of economic uncertainty . . . Japan needs someone to come forward and do what heroes do.

Which is to lead. Not just through success, though that’s important, but by pushing together those strong stones on which true success is always built: effort, sacrifice, persistence. And thus gives people hope that they too can apply the very same formula.

Sure. Someone will step up. It may take five years. Or 10. Or more. Although Japan could use someone sooner. Yet it will happen.

And the hero — can you hear me, Nadeshiko Japan? Or Ryo Ishikawa? — may not come from baseball. Although usually it does.

Today, there’s probably some little lad on a sandlot somewhere who will one day make this whole nation swoon to his heroics.

Here’s hoping he grows up fast.

For right now, two of the best ever are fading away.

And the silence they will leave behind is deafening.

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