Sunday, February 11, 2007

New England Japanese

In all my efforts to bring information about Daisuke Matsuzaka to the American public, I have also endeavored to introduce a captive audience to the real culture of Japan. This is not only true of my work here, but in the entire body of writing I have done regarding the Japanese game and its players. One of the angles that I think is most important to my coverage of Matsuzaka's career in the US is the relationship that a player of his profile has in forging a bridge between nations. It may sound a bit melodramatic, but in many ways it's true. How much do American's really understand about Japan? How much first person experience have you had with Japanese people?

For many, the answers to those questions are "not much" and "none". That's not to say people aren't interested in Japan or Japanese culture. I've always found that, when asked, it's common for most people on the street to show a great deal of interest in all things Japanese. The obstacles, however, are large. Japanese people rarely set roots in the US, preferring to stay temporarily and return to their homeland. The language is a mystery, with its multiple writing systems and a grammatical system nearly the exact opposite of our native English, Spanish, or other Indo-European groups. The overwhelming popularity of Japanese imagery from the Edo period and earlier is also a big reason for people's interest, while also providing ample disconnects from what is actually modern Japanese life. You rarely see anyone wearing a kimono on the street, except maybe in Kyoto, and many of the exotic mental pictures of what Japan is like would quickly wash away if you were to set foot on the other side of immigration at Narita.

It's not to say that things are all the same. Far from it. The difficulty in discussing Japan is the actual diversity that exists among regions. Japan seems like a homogeneous nation, and in some ways it is, but in many other ways people from one side of the country are as different from their countrymen on the other side, as New Yorkers are from Los Angeleans, and Floridians are from Minnesotans. Some things remain firmly rooted in custom and tradition, while others are very modern and adapted directly from foreign nations. Japan is not one thing.

I was contacted this morning by one of the editors at the Boston Globe. The paper has a very interesting piece, written by correspondent Adam Smith, about Daisuke Matsuzaka's adjustment to Boston. It's much less about Matsuzaka than it is about Boston's relationship with Japanese culture. Matsuzaka has been a wonderful excuse to examine this relationship more closely and fish out what is really there. Please read it for yourself. The story and a related audio slide show will appear in the Globe's City Weekly section on Sunday and on It's a very interesting look at the disparity between what's "Japanese" in Boston and what's more broadly "Asian". For many people with little firsthand experience with Japan, it's often difficult to separate the two.

To that end, I've had a wonderful opportunity to become fast friends with the President of the Japan Society of Boston, Peter Grilli. He's an intelligent and engaging man, with a very long standing relationship with Japan and Boston. Perhaps there is no one more qualified to speak on the subject of Japanese-American relations, particularly with respect to New England, than Peter. Throughout our communications, we've shared a lot of ideas, baseball-related and otherwise. I've come to value his experience and his openness to sharing his perspective a great deal. I spoke with him on the telephone this morning, and asked him a few questions about "the meaning of Matsuzaka" to Boston. Peter is quoted several times in the aforementioned Globe article, giving me more food for thought.

Not surprisingly, he talked a lot about his hopes for the future of this international relationship. It's obvious that deepening the Japanese love for New England and for Boston is an important goal in his work. The profile that Matsuzaka brings to the region can only impact the reputation of the area in a positive way. There's so much to see, and so much to fall in love with. It is noteworthy that Peter raised several key points of interest to the Japanese. Cape Cod is a fishing community with authentic American historical and cultural appeal. It's something that reminds the Japanese of their own tie to the sea, but it offers a very special twist to their own experience. Likewise, the legendary Fall foliage of New England is sure to be a fast favorite among the throngs of Japanese tourists that will be spending their first quality time in the region. If Matsuzaka happens to be pitching in the World Series during the time when the leaves are the most beautiful, you can bet that all of Japan will know.

It was obviously important for him to hold back his excitement over this turn of events, as it figures that most Japanese in the Boston area will be tourists or temporary residents, students and the like. The permanent or long term residency of Japanese in New England is not likely to increaae as a result of this windfall of publicity, but it is Peter's hope that those who come will choose to stay longer. Boston will no longer be a one day stop on a longer trip to New York, for example. To that end, in place of the typical museum visits and photos in front of John Harvard's statue in Harvard Square, perhaps more Japanese will dive further into the enchanting New England waters and learn more about the people of the city. Forging relationships of this kind is the way that the Japanese learn more about us, and vice versa. In the end, that's what this blog is about. Yes, the conversation starts with baseball, but it can go much further if we keep an open mind.

For more information about the Japan Society of Boston, their schedule of events, or to find out about how you can enroll in Japanese language courses, please head to their website. Tell them Mike at Matsuzaka Watch sent you. You won't regret it. I guarantee your life will be richer and more rewarding for having participated in their programs.


At 6:15 AM, Blogger Wayne said...

I'm glad to see that you are continuing the Matsuzaka Watch blog now that he has signed a contract with the Red Sox. I'm a Red Sox fan from Massachusetts and I haven't been this excited about a player since Dan Duquette traded for Pedro Martinez. Your discussion with Will Carroll was an interesting read.

I have a random question. Are Seibu Lions jerseys (particular Matsuzaka replicas) available in brick-and-mortar retailers in Japan? It appears that no one is able to import them to the United States. I can't believe that Nike wouldn't want to capitilize on the publicity, provided that MLB doesn't have some type of restriction.

At 9:13 PM, Blogger Mike Plugh said...

Hi Wayne.

I don't usually see NPB jerseys around in typical sports stores. Not authentic anyway. I see some very cheap quality product around my way, but I don't live in Tokyo so I can't say for sure if they are more easy to acquire there.

I have to admit that I ordered mine directly from the Seibu website for abotu $300. Ouch.

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