Books

An invisible baseball curves through Japanese literature

by Damian Flanagan

Contributing Writer

In 2015, Haruki Murakami took the unexpected step of rereleasing in English his earliest novels, “Hear the Wind Sing” (1979) and “Pinball, 1973” (1980) — written while he was still managing a jazz bar — accompanied with a curious introduction.

In it, Murakami recalled a moment in April 1978 when he was sitting on a grass slope at Jingu Stadium, drinking a cool beer and watching a baseball match between the Tokyo Yakult Swallows and Hiroshima Carp. At the exact moment the batter sweetly struck “a clean double” — in a moment of Zen enlightenment — Murakami suddenly realized, “I think I can write a novel.”

Should we consider this scene to be a quintessentially Murakami-esque creation? We would be dismissive to do so, for the baseball anecdote connects to a far deeper vein of interconnection with baseball in Japanese literary history. A starter’s lineup of important Japanese writers have announced their arrival to the sound of a baseball being struck satisfyingly high into the air.

Take, for example, Yukio Mishima, a writer who Murakami has long claimed to have “hardly read at all.” Yet the presence of Mishima is unmissable in all Murakami’s early fiction. Mishima’s erudite and densely poetic prose was the curveball that Murakami’s generation of authors were nervously attempting to swing a bat against. Murakami’s eureka moment was to strip away nearly all references to Japan and start composing his first novel in English, then translate it back into Japanese. Crack! Japan’s literary baseball had been struck in a new direction.

Mishima himself had described a startlingly similar moment of Zen-like literary revelation embodied by baseball. In his 1956 autobiographical story, “The Boy Who Wrote Poetry,” Mishima recalled his adolescent years in the late 1930s when he was an obsessive writer of poetry, filling many notebooks with his outpourings.

In a scene at the end of the story, the boy hears players training and yelling on a baseball field outside. At the precise moment that the batter strikes the ball toward the heavens, the boy suddenly realizes that the day may come when he does not write poetry. Mishima’s destiny — to be a novelist and dramatist, not a poet — is born at this moment.

In the early 1960s, Mishima engaged in an iconic photo shoot, “Ordeal by Roses,” with the photographer Eikoh Hosoe and appeared in one extraordinary photo wearing kinky white tights and boots, with bare chest and cap. In a pose that sees Tom of Finland meet the god Shiva, Mishima holds in one hand a symbol of creation and in the other hand a symbol of destruction. The item denoting destruction is a large clock with the hands pointing to 12. In 1970, Mishima would plan to commit seppuku at 12 noon. The item in his right hand signifying creation is a baseball.

The link goes on. Mishima was himself harking back to deeper roots in Japanese literary history. Take a stroll through the city of Matsuyama, Ehime Prefecture, and you’ll come across a statue of the most important poet of modern Japan, Masaoka Shiki. Yet this statue is not a celebration of his contributions to tanka and haiku — here the poet is dressed from head to toe in baseball uniform. Shiki was a key promoter of the sport in Japan, and many of the Japanese words used today in baseball were coined by him.

Shiki called for poetry to vividly describe the world around us. He wanted poets to be like an energetic batters, spying the fastball of modern life moving toward us and enthusiastically stepping up to the plate to make contact with it.

Yet for Shiki’s close friend, the future novelist Natsume Soseki, both modernity and baseball were looked upon with a far more skeptical eye. During Shiki’s brief lifetime — he died aged 34 in 1902 — Soseki labored as an obscure scholar and, under Shiki’s influence, produced thousands of haiku, which collectively failed to match Shiki’s oeuvre.

Having seen Western modernity in action during two miserable years in London in 1900-02, and judging that attempting to absorb centuries of Western culture in just one generation would lead the whole nation to nervous breakdown, Soseki was a million miles from seeing himself as an energetic batter whacking balls to the perimeter.

Instead, when Soseki, like Mishima, turned from poetry to prose with the publication of his landmark novel, “I Am a Cat,” in 1905-06, we discover his protagonist, Sneeze, driven to distraction by baseballs endlessly lobbed into his garden from next door, alien intrusions into both his personal space and psyche.

Unlike Murakami, Mishima and Shiki, Soseki would never claim to strike a literary ball of revelation, yet he shared with Mishima a compulsive desire to experiment with new forms and reveal himself in literature before the clock of destruction struck. In “The Second Night,” the second story in his collection “Ten Nights’ Dreams” (1908), Soseki imagines himself as a samurai who vows to be enlightened before the clock strikes or else commit seppuku. Despite exerting every effort, at the end of the dream the clock strikes and the samurai reaches for his sword … .

The baseballs being pitched into Japan’s literary arena from the Meiji Era (1868-1912) onward were the symbols of modernity and change itself, and every time a Japanese author — from Shiki to Murakami — discovered an innovative literary response, they dreamed of themselves as batters standing manfully at the plate, swinging an enlightened saber toward us.