Players from overseas have established a solid presence in Japan, playing an indispensable role in Japanese baseball over the years.
The Hanshin Tigers are no exception. The Tigers, who won the Central League pennant last year after 18 years of reconciling themselves to being the perennial losers, have three English-speaking pitchers and two infielders on their first team.
Akihito Sasaki, the Tigers’ interpreter, is the man always behind the scenes to provide constant support to these foreign players. Sasaki started working with the team in 2000, and during his four-year career with the club, Sasaki has taken care of nearly 20 players from abroad.
“My job doesn’t fall into so-called ‘simultaneous interpretation,’ such as conference interpretation,” says the 31-year-old interpreter. “It’s easier to understand what I do if you imagine what an agent in the show-business industry does.”
According to Sasaki, sports interpreters not only mediate communication among teammates and the manager, they also do miscellaneous things that aren’t related to the sport.
Foreign players, in almost all cases, bring their family with them to Japan. Unfortunately the family –including the players — are not able to speak much Japanese. In those cases, they need an interpreter every day.
“When they get lost, they call me. When their child gets sick, they call me, regardless of time and place,” says Sasaki. “Then I rush in. I am on 24-hour alert, seven days a week. That’s what my life is like during the season.
“The physically demanding parts of my job, however, don’t matter,” he adds. “I have a hard time when players in my charge lock horns with the manager.
“Once there was a player who put the blame on me when sports newspapers played up a feud between him and the manager, quoting his words, even though I didn’t interpret what he said into Japanese because I didn’t want his words to cause any trouble later on. I felt helpless that time. But I remind myself, it’s just a job.”
Having experienced a hard time in his post, Sasaki was all the more delighted at the Tigers’ sensational season in 2003.
“I enjoyed the shower of beer with my teammates,” he says. “I’m doing my job for the team, supporting foreign players. They come to Japan to play baseball and I am here for them, providing a comfortable environment, in which they can play well.
“It’s so fulfilling when the team wins by playing well. The league pennant is the ultimate outcome.”
As a university student, he traveled to the United States, where he attended NBA games and was instantly smitten with the world of sports.
After graduating from Kokugakuin University in Tokyo, Sasaki went to the States in 1996 with a dream to earn a master’s degree in sports business. Three years later, in June 1999, he got a master’s in sports administration from Ohio University.
Sasaki’s English, however, was not very good when he first went to the U.S.
He couldn’t even ask a cabin attendant for a glass of juice on the flight there. So he decided to go to Ohio University’s summer school and enrolled in its English program for international students.
Over the next three months, he cut himself off from the Japanese language and devoted himself to English. He tried to read English newspapers; he listened to English radio and television programs when he was alone; he even spoke English with his Japanese friends.
Gradually he managed to acclimatize himself to an English-speaking environment.
“In those days, my teacher from the English program was constantly saying, ‘Keep on using English,’ ” Sasaki says.
“That’s exactly right and it’s the only way to master the language. It is important to have an interest in English itself, but you should have something else you want to do with English. English is only a tool.”
Sasaki happened to find a job with the Tigers when he was finishing his master’s program.
He is now working as an interpreter in Japan, but his attention is directed to the world beyond Japan.
“There’s nothing that’s more without borders than sports,” he says. “I’d like to contribute to the development of sports on the world stage in the future. I’d like to be engaged in some kind of international organization, like Major League Baseball or the Olympics.”
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