Our Stories

Masahiro Suzuki: Learning Culture Through Baseball

Ichiro Suzuki, Kenji Johjima, Kazuhiro Sasaki, Shigetoshi Hasegawa -- these may not be the names Americans think of when they list baseball's greatest players, but to the Japanese, these current and former Seattle Mariners are heroes. Baseball is one of the most popular sports in Japan, and as Major League Baseball recruits more and more Japanese players, the Asian country is turning its sights to teams like the Mariners.

"Every day in Japan, you can see Major League Baseball on TV," says Masahiro Suzuki, a junior at Tokyo International University. "Ichiro plays almost every day, and you can watch him there."

Last academic year, Suzuki studied at Tokyo International University of America in Salem through a partnership with Willamette University that brings Japanese students to campus. He was thrilled to get the chance to watch Ichiro and other Japanese players in seven games in Seattle. Suzuki's dream is to become a sports journalist, and baseball is his favorite game.

When he returned to Japan, Suzuki wrote an article about the differences he noticed between American baseball and Japanese "yakyuu" (pronounced yak-you). He entered his article in a competition for the 2005-06 Swadesh Deroy Scholarship, given by the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Japan. He won first place.

At an award dinner honoring Suzuki and four other finalists last spring, he listened to the topics of the other top papers -- they included global warming and political relations between North Korea and Japan. "And I wrote about Ichiro," he says. "I thought, 'Was I supposed to be here?'"

The scholarship, which comes with an award of 500,000 yen (about $4,300), asked university students interested in entering the foreign journalism field to submit an article on any topic. The award is a major one in Japan, and Suzuki is hoping it will help him launch a journalism career.

While in Salem, Suzuki honed his skills by writing columns about intramural sports for the Collegian, the campus newspaper. "We don't have intramurals in Japan," he says. "We don't have dorms, either. We live with family or by ourselves. We don't hang out as much, and we have only one day for a sports festival. [In America] it's easy to make a team together, because everyone is so close."

In his winning paper, Suzuki noted major differences between the way fans act at baseball games in America and in Japan. He wrote about how fans in America seem better connected to the players, with electronic screens flashing phrases such as "Make noise" or "Louder" to egg on the spectators. In Japan, spectators seem more separated, Suzuki says. "The players and fans have more distance between them," he says. "There's high fences and nets in the stadiums."

Fewer Japanese people are going to yakyuu games than in the past, Suzuki says, partly because many of the best players have left for American teams. Suzuki noted in his paper that Kenji Johjima, who joined the Mariners in 2005, is the first Japanese catcher in Major League Baseball. "I have big hopes for him," Suzuki wrote. "But I think he will have some problems, because the position of catcher is the most important position in terms of communicating with other players and coaching staff. As catcher his English skills will be tested."

Suzuki recently revisited Salem to meet up with some old friends -- and to head up to Seattle for a few more Mariners games. The Mariners haven't played too well in the last few years, but Suzuki is convinced he has been a good luck charm. "The Mariners need my power," he says. "I went to their games nine times and they won seven [of those] times. So if I go, they will win."