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Big in Japan: Not Fukudome

Living in Japan is a bit of an adjustment, especially for a baseball fan. When I moved here, I knew ahead of time that baseball was the unofficial official national sport. What I was unprepared for, however, was the intense loyalty of Japanese fandom to their star players.

If you have never been to Tokyo, a good way to picture it is to imagine being inside a giant pinball machine constantly playing the theme song from Super Mario Brothers 3. Trains, crowds, blinking lights, everyone chattering in a language you can't understand; it's a lot to absorb.

Knowing this, a friend mercifully took me out for dinner and drinks to ease the strain.

We went to a Japanese izakaya, which is a traditional Japanese drinking establishment marked by a red lantern next to the door. Although it was smoky and noisy, I felt relaxed.

We were unwinding over a plate of fried fish fins and tall Sapporos, when we were approached by a wobbly elderly gentleman.

The man, woozy from sake, pointed to my Cubby hat and said, "Cubs desu ne? (the Cubs eh?)"

Surprised, I replied in broken Japanese, "Hai, Cubs desu. Ichiban cremu desu (Yes, the Cubs. They are the number one team)" then, "Fukudome!"

His reply came in slurred English, "Fokodome OK . . . Ichiro number one!"

Then he laughed, bared his crooked and blackened teeth in a drunken smile and stumbled out of the restaurant.

I had just come from Chicago only a few days earlier, and was swept up in the Fukudome-mania that now firmly grips Cub fans. I had just been to a game where he was 3-for-3, scored twice and had a few RBIs.

After asking around, however, I discovered something surprising: Kosuke Fukudome was actually considered a mere minor star in Japan. In fact, Fukodome was a bit of a pariah because as an 18-year-old prospect he refused to play for his hometown team, the now defunct Osaka Kentetsu Buffaloes, and instead insisted that he play for one of the 'big three' Japanese teams: The Yomiuri Giants (Tokyo), the Chunichi Dragons (Nagoya) or the Hanshin Tigers (Nishinomiya).

So Fukudome may be the next big thing in Chi-town, but here in Tokyo, he is yesterday's news.

Despite hearing this, I was still dumbfounded by the izakaya confrontation. So I decided to ask the expert. Luckily, in my job, I have an expert built in. Jim Allen is an American expat fluent in Japanese and in Japanese baseball. He's been covering the Japanese leagues for the Daily Yomiuri (a Tokyo English language daily) for the past nine years.

I asked him why he thought Fukudome wasn't so "big in Japan." He told me that it was a combination of personality, attitude and location.

"Fukudome wasn't an instant star in Japan. This was partly because he started out playing shortstop and third base. He dropped a ton of balls, so he initially had the reputation of being a clumsy player," Allen said.

Fukudome also stayed away from the media and, according to Allen, Japanese baseball writers often avoided him because he didn't provide good sound bites.

Because of this, Allen said, "Fukudome didn't stand out in Japan. Yes, he was a great player with a great work ethic, but because of where his team played, and his reputation for being quiet, he played in the background for years."

Needless to say, he is not in the background in Chicago. He is different, but different is good. Fukudome also is at the top of his game.

It is interesting how being different can make you popular depending on location. This led me to my final question to Allen, which I asked from a sociological perspective rather than the perspective of a Cub fan:

Why did this drunken guy verbally abuse me?

His answer: "Because he could. You stood out."

Now I (sort of) how Fukudome feels in Chicago.


With this, Dan Simon kicks off the first of his dispatches as a Chicagoan in the Far East, a little something we call Big in Japan.


That's the author in the right. On the left, his neighbor - not the guy who taunted him.


Posted on June 16, 2008

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