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“The Devil’s Vest”
When American missionaries first introduced baseball to Japan in the 19th century, the idea of sport was not widely known outside of garden games enjoyed by the aristocracy, the religious ritual of sumo, and the martial arts of the samurai, none of which were considered de facto sports in the Western sense. The most successful early practitioners of the new sport were high school and university teams that grafted the philosophy of the martial arts onto the game, emphasizing the virtues of discipline, loyalty, dedication, endless training, development of spirit, and absolute execution of instructions delivered by the manager or coach, all inherited from the vanished world of samurai.
Left out of the equation was any suggestion of having fun.
Nowhere was this better exemplified than in a hugely popular manga and animated TV show, Star of the Giants, which aired every Saturday evening at seven o’clock on NTV during the late 1960s, just before the baseball game telecast. It was an account of the travails of a young boy who grows up in the dire poverty of the postwar era and, thanks to years of brutal, sometimes sadistic, training conducted by his disciplinarian, if alcoholic, father, develops the physical skills and spirit necessary to become a star pitcher for the Kyojin. (The word hoshi is Japanese for “star,” but in the saga it stands for one particular star shining in the nighttime sky, which the father calls the “Star of the Kyojin.” Hoshi is also the protagonist’s family name.)
It was a gripping tale of the utterly merciless pursuit of perfection. I was transfixed.
Highlighting family, duty, perseverance, and honor, it touched a national nerve, which made it one of the most highly rated TV programs of the 1960s and 1970s. For millions of Japanese, it was a soaring paean to the power of , or fighting spirit, and,or effort, to prevail over the most daunting odds. They are the values that, not coincidentally, helped lift Japan from the ashes of defeat in war to become an economic superpower.
It was the stuff of blood and guts that was thought to have brought the nation otherwise unattainable success in the Olympics. Superior mental strength and willpower could overcome any perceived physical deficiencies, and no measures were too extreme to inculcate that desired stick-to-it-iveness. This included physical beatings, for they helped an individual, especially an athlete, overcome what Giants manager Kawakami liked to call a “natural predilection for laziness.”
I used to watch every Saturday evening at my aforementioned neighborhood the Sakuranbo, and stay on to catch the telecast of the Kyojin or night game. I would order a beer and a slice of grilled salted fish and settle in for the evening’s entertainment along with the other customers. I noticed that the place’s waitstaff, Giants fans like everyone else, were as riveted to the screen as I was.
Later I saved enough to buy my own TV set, but it was always more fun to watch the game in a bar or restaurant or coffee shop to soak up everyone’s reaction.
I had mixed emotions about . I was both moved and repulsed by it and its impact on the populace. To fully explain why, some detail is necessary here.
The hero is a young boy named Hyuuma, who is eight years old when the story opens. His father Itetsu is a craggy-faced day laborer whose once-promising career as a third baseman for the Yomiuri Giants was destroyed after he was wounded in the war. Itetsu ekes out a living in construction and is barely able to afford the rent on a ramshackle house in one of the poorest districts of Tokyo’s Shitamachi, where the family—including Hyuuma’s mother and sister Akiko—resides. The paper screens are patchwork and the tatami are ragged.
The family faces further adversity when the mother dies of tuberculosis—a common disease in postwar Japan—and Hyuuma’s older sister, now in high school, is forced to take her place running the household while still keeping up with her studies.
The father decides to make his ten-year-old son into the ballplayer that he was unable to become. For the next several years, he forces Hyuuma to wear a torturous contraption called “The Devil’s Vest”—a harness of leather with tightly coiled steel springs clamped to his son’s arms so that any movement from a simple task like lifting a pair of chopsticks to throwing a fastball becomes extremely arduous. Hyuuma is not allowed to take it off—not even in the bath or in bed at night. He is ordered to hide it under his clothes when he goes to school.
“Never show anyone that you are straining,” said his father.
At night, after a day of digging ditches at construction sites, the father puts Hyuuma through a series of grueling drills: frog hops, pushups, pitching exercises, and fielding hundreds of ground balls—hard grounders that hit Hyuuma in the jaw, nose, and stomach, leaving him bleeding and at times even unconscious.
A calligraphy painting on the otherwise bare wall of the Hoshi home bears the ideograph for “guts.” It is the Hoshi family motto.
Hyuuma is made to wear the harness for five long years. When he is finally allowed to take it off, he is by far the strongest baseball player in his school. But his tale of suffering has only just begun.
In high school he practices six hours a day after school with the team and even more on the weekends, ending each session bloody and bruised from batting and fielding exercises known as “Death Drills” and exhausted from endless running (or sometimes squat jumping) up and down the stairs of a nearby shrine.
Then, at home in the evening, there is still time for truncated sessions with his father, who has now taken to whacking Hyuuma with a ,or bamboo stick, to correct poor form. Before going to bed each night Hyuuma religiously polishes his glove—a sign of respect in the Shinto world, which holds that all inanimate objects, even baseball gloves, have souls to which thanks must be conveyed.
The father, for his part, sacrifices for his son by working seven days a week. Hyuuma’s sister Akiko, now out of school, takes a job at a gasoline station but breaks a leg in a fall and is hospitalized. Before her accident, there was barely enough money to put food on the table. But now, the ensuing medical bills are more than the family, lacking insurance, can afford.
Hyuuma tells his father he wants to quit school and work with him as a day laborer in construction in order to supplement the family income. The father explodes in anger. He slaps his son across the face and tells him he has to stay in school at all costs and play in the all-important national championship tournament at Koshien Stadium in Osaka, the mecca of high school baseball. It had been his mother’s dying wish. Hyuuma complies and stays in school, and the father takes an additional nighttime construction job. (Adding this in to his already extended workday, along with time for meals, transportation, and other , would have left him with about fifteen minutes a night for sleeping, but I wasn’t one to quibble.)
The sister, meantime, returns to work on crutches, her leg in a cast, anxious to do her part. The father is angered again when he discovers that Akiko has been doing Hyuuma’s homework and rips the pages she has written out of Hyuuma’s workbook.
Scenes of Hoshi pitching are shown in a split screen with his father wielding a pickaxe and his sister pumping gas on crutches.
For an animation series about a boy playing baseball, it was pretty heavy stuff. What I knew of the game up until then had been strictly American style—meaning, basically, playing the game for the enjoyment of it. But the moral code running through the story, the sense of family sticking together through thick and thin, the willingness to sacrifice everything for what is perceived as the ultimate good, and to always do the right thing, was fascinating to me.
A key lesson comes early in the story. One day, the father gives Hyuuma, still in elementary school, ¥40 to go buy a pack of cigarettes for him. On the way, Hyuuma passes by a carnival and wanders inside. He sees a game where customers can win cartons of cigarettes by knocking down stacks of them with a baseball. He pays ¥40, knocks down all of the cartons and races home, his arms filled with half-a-year’s supply of cigarettes. His father is furious and demands his ¥40 back.
“I don’t want cigarettes obtained in such a manner,” he says. “I am not teaching you baseball so you can make money. There are other more important reasons.”
It was heartbreaking. But, as the Japanese said, there was beauty in suffering and the suffering was so beautiful—because of the love behind it—that it made you want to cry. And I did cry, in spite of myself, sitting there in the Sakurambo drinking my beer, tears rolling down my cheeks, asking myself what the hell was going on—Was I turning Japanese?—and hoping Masutaa would not look over and notice weeping over a children’s cartoon.
Hoshi elevates his game and becomes a star in high school. His fastball is blinding, raising puffs of smoke from the catcher’s mitt on every pitch. Batters recoil in fear. He leads his team to victory in the summer tournament at Koshien Stadium for the National High School Baseball Championship and then turns pro, intensifying his already extreme work ethic.
In spring training, he is subjected to the grueling 1,000-fungo Death Drill and is asked to throw 300 pitches his first day. That is two-to-three times what any American coach would allow for fear of the damage it could cause to the arm. Another day he throws 1,000 pitches.
All this time he has not had a girlfriend. “Baseball is my lover,” he says.
On his own, Hyuuma devises a drill with two small abandoned boats and a fishing pole in the middle of nearby Sumida River. He stands the fishing pole up in one of the boats and suspends a ¥5 coin from it on a string. Then he stands in the other boat 90 feet away, both boats rocking in the water, and attempts to hit the coin by throwing baseballs at it. After much practice, he is able to hit the coin every single time.
“I can see the heart of the coin,” he says.
He develops a pitch called the Dai-Riigu Boru (Major League Ball), one that spins viciously as it moves in and out and up and down. By studying Japanese fencing he learns to read the movement of the bat in the batter’s hands, so that his pitch winds up on weakest part of the bat and is therefore impossible to hit solidly.
With his mastery of this pitch, Hyuuma goes on to fulfill his destiny and become the Star of the Giants.
I often asked myself if other Americans could suspend their own cultural values long enough to become as deeply caught up in the excruciating journey of the hero as I was. I didn’t know the answer. I only knew that I was hooked. The series took to extremes the spirit of sacrifice and perseverance, even by Japanese standards. Much has changed since then, of course, but at the time, it struck a deep chord in its audience.
The spirit depicted could be seen at work in other aspects of Japanese life—in the school system with its focus on uniforms and endless study, including the evening, weekend, and summer vacation cram tutorials that so many students were compelled to attend. It could be seen in the corporations, where impossibly long hours were the norm and “death by overwork” a familiar everyday term. (The government as of this writing is currently pushing a new labor law to moderate work practices; its first draft included the proviso that overtime for discretionary workers would be capped!) And that spirit was very much alive in the nonfictional baseball world, nowhere else more clearly than in the Kyojin system of the sixties and seventies under manager Kawakami.
Kawakami had been a drill instructor for the Japanese Imperial Army during the Pacific War, at an installation in Tachikawa, later a US military base. 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, he 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.
As a player, at 5’9″ and 165 pounds, Kawakami 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 and, as mentioned, took up Zen, spending days on end at unheated Buddhist temples in winter, meditating, chanting, reading scriptures, burning incense, and doing supplicant drills, all in an effort to conquer his inner self and perfect his concentration.
As manager, Kawakami ran the team as if it were a unit in the Japanese Imperial Army. He established a strict system of fines and condoned the systematic use of physical force on younger players to keep them in line. Those who broke curfew in the Giants dormitory, where the young and single players stayed, were punished by the dormitory superintendent’s , or “iron fist,” as it was called. Discourteous players were smacked on the back and legs with a bamboo stick. Underage players who were caught smoking had to write a hundred times every day for a month, “I will not smoke until I am twenty years old.”
Such practices prompted some players to compare life on the Kawakami Giants to a prison camp. Yoshimasa Takahashi, who would join the Giants in 1973 from the Toei Flyers, had this to say about his experience: “The atmosphere on the Giants was something else. The mood in camp was very tense, much more so than it was with the Flyers. Everyone had to stay so focused that you never heard anyone even crack a joke. It was forbidden to drink alcohol at dinner and there were bed checks at curfew time. Break the rules and you were fined. At the Flyers’ camp when practice was over, we would sit down and play mahjong with our uniforms still on. Sometimes we would drink all night and then go play the game. It wasn’t that rare a thing. Under Kawakami that would have been unimaginable. They controlled you on the field and in your private life as well. They believed you couldn’t be strong otherwise.”
While I found aspects of the moral code appealing—I even found myself wondering what my life would have been like if my own father had rigged me up to a Devil’s Vest, the obvious psychopathology notwithstanding—there was a strain of xenophobia running through the story that struck me as decidedly unhealthy.
The program depicted many actual characters in the Japanese baseball world. Stars like Oh, Nagashima, and Kawakami were all portrayed as well-groomed, polite, pure-hearted, sincere human beings, but the foreign ballplayers were another matter, most notably in the case of Daryl Spencer.
After nine relatively successful years in the Major Leagues, Spencer signed on with the Hankyu Braves of Japan and played for several more seasons. He failed to win a title, facing pitchers who walked him intentionally (eight times in a row in one doubleheader) to stymie his bid for the home run crown in 1965. However, he was a feared presence in the Japanese game and was acknowledged as such in the series, although in a not very flattering way.
In one episode, Hoshi faces Spencer in a key at bat in the Japan Series. As Spencer steps in, he might have been taken for a refugee from the movie set of , the extreme dark-brown hairiness of his arms extending right down to his fingers. He takes his stance, chewing tobacco and spitting it out in gobs, then glares at Hoshi with murderous hate in his eyes.
“Come on, Baby!” he growls.
Hoshi winds up and throws a Dai-Riigu ball, which Spencer blasts down the line, but foul, into the stands.
“Take Hoshi out!” scream the fans. Anxiety fills the stadium.
Spencer doesn’t move. He yells, “Hey, come on, Baby!” wagging his finger in a mock come-hither gesture.
Hoshi trembles in fear, but then a vision of a ¥5 coin swinging on a stick, illuminated in the dark by a burning torch, appears to him. Memories of his practice on the river return and his resolve strengthens.
Spencer continues to yell out his by-now monotonous challenge, obligingly following the scriptwriter’s notion of English vernacular. He is nearly frothing at the mouth. Hoshi winds up and fires. Spencer unleashes a monster swing—and sends a dribbler down the third-base line, which Nagashima scoops up on the run and fires to Oh at first for the final out.
Hoshi wins. The Giants wrap up yet another Japan Series title. Spencer can be heard muttering in English, “Oh, terrible. God Damn!”
The crowd at the Sakuranbo lapped it up.
This excerpt from by Robert Whiting is printed with the permission of Stone Bridge Press. For more information and to order a copy, please visit Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Bookshop.org, or tokyojunkie.com
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