The Secret To Japan's Little League Success: 10-Hour Practices
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep. This weekend, a team from Japan will be among the last teams standing at the Little League World Series. Japan plays Mexico for the international final. The winner of that game then plays an American team in Williamsport, Pa.
It is no surprise the Japanese team has come so far. Little League Baseball is serious business in Japan. NPR's Anthony Kuhn attended one team's practice.
ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Just outside Tokyo, the Musashi Fuchu team practices all day on weekends. Each morning is devoted just to fielding practice. The kids field endless bunts and turn one double play after another. The team's manager, Masumi Omae, explains why there's so much drilling.
MASUMI OMAE: (Through interpreter) This is the Japanese way of doing sports. The same in karate as in baseball. It emphasizes what we call konjo, or grit, and tenacity. Repetition is important. You've got to repeat movements until you master them.
KUHN: He calls this yakyudo, the the way of the baseball, just as kendo is the way of the sword and bushido is the way of the warrior. They all focus on honing technique until it's flawless and instinctive. It's this way, Omae believes, that helped Musashi Fuchu to win the Little League World Series in 2013 and 2003.
OMAE: (Through interpreter) We had no star players, but our discipline and repetition of basic plays made our defense strong and helped us to finally win.
KUHN: Team captain and second baseman, Dai Okada, led his teammates to victory in Williamsport two years ago. He remembers feeling a bit dwarfed by his opponents.
DAI OKADA: (Through interpreter) The American players were physically so big. The pitcher we played against in the final game was 6-foot-4. The one in the first game was 6-foot-5. We thought they must have been coaches, not players.
KUHN: The Japanese players don't have a lot of power hitters, and they're usually not swinging for the fences. Instead, they focus on getting runners on base and advancing them with bunts, stolen bases and sacrifice flies. Okada talks about leading the team with humility.
OKADA: (Through interpreter) It's about the parts other than baseball. As captain, I try hard to do whatever the other kids don't want to do, like cleaning the field, picking up stray balls, and cheering my teammates on.
KUHN: In the afternoon, the batting cages come out for hitting practice. Coach Kouji Ohno explains that a perfect swing is not the only thing that matters.
KOUJI OHNO: (Speaking Japanese).
KUHN: "Beautiful form is important," he says. "But so are good manners, such as greetings. For example, the kids bow to the field before the game. Perhaps American players don't do that." Every practice session is a family affair. Parents make lunch and drinks for the kids and coaches. Everyone takes responsibility for meticulously grooming the infield. American Bessie Noll experienced all of this. She lived with her parents in Japan and played for the Musashi Fuchu team. She says she sacrificed six years worth of weekends and social life to play ball.
BESSIE NOLL: I wasn't aware of the strain that it was putting on my family - both my mom and my dad - as well as myself. But it really is very taxing, just because the Japanese community value system expects so much out of every family member.
KUHN: Noll is now a student at Stanford and plays for the university softball team. She speaks admiringly of her former Japanese teammates' drive for perfection.
NOLL: You cannot take that away from them. I am the baseball player I am today because of this program. And, boy, do they know how to make baseball players. But, you know, it comes with a sacrifice.
KUHN: Later in the afternoon, the team plays a practice game.
Batter up. Here's the pitch. A line drive. And that is out of here. Home run.
There's even a touch of the metaphysical in Japanese baseball. I noticed, for example, that manager Masumi Omae disappeared at lunchtime. When he came back, I asked him where he had gone.
OMAE: (Through interpreter) We have another national championship game coming up, so I went along with parents' representatives to a shrine dedicated to the guardian god of our city to pray for victory.
KUHN: There are apparently no baseball gods in the shrine, but Omae says that the deity there is a very powerful one and can grant any wish. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Tokyo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.