More than just a baseball player
For those people who were fortunate to see either of the opening major league games featuring the Seattle Mariners and the Oakland A’s, they were able to get a taste of the enduring relationship between Ichiro Suzuki and the Japanese public.
The Tokyo Dome was sold out for both games and though the games were terrific sports entertainment, they also signified an opportunity for the normally shy and taciturn Japanese to emote and release some of their pent up stress at the economic and natural disasters that have plagued the country recently.
Ichiro is widely beloved as he represents an international success story for Japan, a country that has long aimed to prove itself on a global scale.
As a Mariners fan who had the great fortune to spend five very happy years in Japan, I got to experience firsthand the wonderful character of the people, and an interesting sense of some of the insecurity that they often bear.
I worked for a company that provided business and language instruction to major Japanese corporations and their workers from the first year company freshmen all the way up to the presidents.
After a few sessions of getting to know them beyond the initial teacher-student relationship, many of my clients opened up and what was very evident was their love for their country and their hopes that Japan’s achievements would be recognized worldwide.
Japan was the first eastern country to prove its economic and military muscle on the world stage against a western power when it defeated Russia in 1904-5. The victory was a shocker at the time because the European nations had long fancied themselves as a superior race.
Japan did of course subsequently suffer a shattering loss in the Second World War, but moved very quickly afterwards to rebuild itself into an economic powerhouse.
The country imposed its influence on world food and culture, but the Japanese also craved the recognition of their nation’s accomplishments in a more prosaic and everyman fashion – through their sporting heroes.
There were Japanese players in the Major leagues before Ichiro Suzuki.
Hideo Nomo was the first big name, and he had a great rookie year, going 13-6 with a 2.54 ERA in his rookie year of 1995, but his career never really took off. Others came and went in indifferent fashion, causing MLB general managers to rethink the high cost and relatively average or poor performance of the Japanese recruits.
But when Ichiro arrived, he changed the game on both sides of the Pacific.
He was a legitimate star who hit like no other foreign player before him. He was rookie of the year and the MVP. He set the MLB single season hits record with 262 in 2004.
He lent Japan a sporting legitimacy and legacy that boosted the nation’s confidence on the sporting world stage, eventually leading to consecutive wins for his country in the first two World Baseball Classics.
He also set precedents. Many other Japanese players have come and starred in North America, including ex-Mariner teammate Kenji Johjima and Hideki Matsui with the best known team of them all, the New York Yankees.
And it goes beyond baseball.
The European soccer leagues have seen an influx of Japanese players, many of them now stars, especially Shinji Kagawa of Borussia Dortmund in Germany and Keisuke Honda with CSKA Moscow in Russia.
It is doubtful whether so many Japanese athletes would have left, and been so successful, without the trail blazed by Ichiro.
He still draws large crowds for Seattle at home and on the road. Now he bats out of the three spot in 2012, and with those four hits on opening day in Game 1 at the Tokyo Dome, in front of his home nation, he proved that he is still the Mariners touchstone too.