Former Cubs and Rangers righthander Spencer Patton was sold by the Cubs to the Yokohama BayStars in November and is in his first season in Nippon Professional Baseball. Patton is writing a diary for Baseball America on his experience playing pro ball in Japan and his writing will appear here on occasion.
Experiencing a new culture for the first time can be a bit overwhelming. There are things that you don’t understand, and things that don’t make much sense in terms of efficiency or what you view as “normal.” If you have ever traveled to Japan, you know that things are done quite differently there on many levels.
Culturally, you would expect things to be different. It’s just a matter of adjusting to the ebb and flow of everyday life. In terms of baseball, however, you might think that baseball is baseball no matter where you play. If you thought this, then you would be very wrong.
What I had to learn very quickly upon coming to Japan (and I’m still struggling to grasp), is that you don’t ask “why” something is done in a particular manner. In the United States, coaches encourage players to ask questions about what is being taught. Asking questions makes you look inquisitive and eager to learn the aspects of the game.
In contrast, if you ask "why?" in Japan, you will get a look as if you offended someone. If and when you do ask “why?,” the person you ask will first start sucking air in through their teeth, and then provide a complicated justification that seemingly makes no sense. Almost always, you will walk away more confused than before.
For example, at one point during our spring training we were going over bunt defense, per usual. One of the plays seemed to me to be unnecessarily complex, and I thought I had a better way of handling it that would make it simpler and more efficient. Being the newbie and "gaijin" (outsider/foreigner) that I was, I walked over to my pitching coach and confidently asked him why we ran the play that way. Before he could respond, I offered up my alternative play, which I explained was better.
Once the interpreter finished translating, the pitching coach turned to me and gave me this, "Who are you?" look. He then proceeded with an answer that ended up being more complex than the play itself. I nodded as if to agree with him, but I remember walking away feeling defeated. I felt like the principal in the academic decathlon scene from "Billy Madison" in which Adam Sandler was asked to discuss how the Industrial Revolution changed the modern novel. After a long, incoherent, rambling answer the principal stated, "I award you no points, and may God have mercy on your soul."
History, tradition, and respect are of the utmost importance to Japanese baseball teams, players, and fans. More often than not, if you do ask "why?" you will receive the response, “Ah, Japanese Style.” This means that even they don't have a reason that would fully answer your question. I have come to the conclusion that most things in Japan are done a certain way because that’s how they have always been done, in deference to history and tradition. Why do you play infield in with a man on third and one out in the third inning? "Ah, Japanese style." During practice, why do we spend more time warming up and stretching than we do on actual baseball activity? "Ah, Japanese style."
In my short time in Japan so far, I have learned not to challenge what has always been, especially if you’re a gaijin. Learn to take things in stride, and don’t ask “why.” Simply respect the Japanese traditions, history, and culture.
Sometimes, it's hard to grasp certain concepts and it's difficult to not ask "why?" You will most likely walk away scratching your head.
But when you find yourself wanting to ask that forbidden question of “why,” just tell yourself “Ah, Japanese Style,” and all will be right.