It’s not a good time to talk with the Japanese about trade with the United States, the commemoration of the end of World War II, or even about a seemingly innocent topic like the weather - it’s been raining in Tokyo for days.
But it’s a fine time to talk about baseball, specifically about Hideo Nomo, who will become the first Japanese player to participate in an American All-Star game when he takes the field Tuesday at The Ballpark in Arlington, Texas.
Nomo, the National League Player of the Month in June, is a national hero in Japan. His torrid season is seen as proof that Japanese baseball players not only can compete with American major leaguers but can strike them out as well.
He has provided Japan with an emotional boost during a difficult year marked by a killer earthquake, an airplane hijacking and the lethal gas attacks on the Tokyo subway system. His seemingly effortless march through the National League has bolstered national pride as Japan is battered by a stubborn recession.
“He’s handsome, don’t you think?” said Tokyo scientist Midori Ashida as she admired Nomo’s picture on the cover of a national magazine. “I like him very much. He is our best hope.”
Ashida has “Nomo-mania,” a national sentiment that has caused his games to be televised live on huge television screens throughout Japanese cities.
The 26-year-old has become a matinee idol. Each of his games draws huge crowds of Japanese who marvel at the sight of major-league batters trying in vain to make contact with Nomo’s elusive splitfingered fastball and his plunging forkball.
The hottest-selling item in this sports-crazy country is Nomo’s Dodgers jersey, and travel agents are packaging five-day “Nomo tours” to Los Angeles, with tickets to the games he will pitch included.
Nomo’s nickname of “Tornado” - based on his unusual delivery - has become one of the most popular English words in Japan. Japanese who speak very little English are happy to use the English phrases “Tornado” and “MVP” to explain their hopes for Japan’s first major league All-Star.
Salesman Kaneo Ikeda said he was “psycho-happy” about Nomo’s exploits. He said he tries to get up at 3:30 a.m. so that he can see Dodgers games televised live at 4:30 a.m. Japanese time.
“Everyone is proud of him,” he said. “I feel great for him.”
Japanese columnists have suggested that the American acceptance of Nomo, and the willingness to name him to the All-Star team as an American rookie, are indications of the openness and fairness of the American system.
Computer scientist Koichi Okamoto said Nomo’s brilliance at America’s national pastime should help to ease recent tensions between the United States and Japan while making Japanese feel better about themselves.
“We have had a bad time here because of the cult,” he said, referring to the Aum Shinrikyo doomsday cult that is accused of releasing sarin gas in the subways on March 20, killing 12 people and injuring more than 5,000. “Before that happened, we didn’t even know what the word armageddon meant.”
Okamoto said that Japan seemed to fall into a depression after the gas release, which has spawned several copycat attacks, but that the sour mood lifted when Nomo was named to the N.L. team July 2.
“His first name means hero,” said Okamoto, “and that’s what he is. He is a very tricky pitcher.”
Okamoto’s wife, Dr. Junko Mori-Okamoto, said she loves to watch Nomo because his face has become “relaxed and serene” now that he is no longer afraid of N.L. hitters.
“At first he seemed very tense, but now he seems so happy,” said Mori-Okamoto, a physiologist at the National Defense Medical College. “Nomo is my favorite by far.”
Nomo’s triumph has helped her forget, at least in part, the collapse into last place of her favorite Japanese team, the Seibu Lions. She would like to trade her season tickets to Lions games for a ticket to watch Nomo pitch in the All-Star Game.
When Nomo announced last year that he was leaving the Kintetsu Buffaloes for the United States because the Buffaloes would not meet his demand for a long-term contract, many Japanese fans said he would not succeed in the U.S. majors, in part because of shoulder problems suffered last season.
Close observers of the Japanese game said Nomo was worried that he would burn out his arm quickly in Japan because starting pitchers are often allowed to throw 190 pitches a game, almost twice the standard in the United States.
The Japanese press said he was cocky, arrogant and egotistical - unpopular traits in a country that emphasizes team play and harmony over individual achievement.
His manager and teammates predicted he would shortly be back in Japan looking for a roster spot.
“He was seen as surly, as someone who was not popular because he made no effort to be popular,” said Yoshio Hatano, a former diplomat who served as Japan’s ambassador to the United Nations. “But now that has changed. Now, everyone is saying they predicted he would do well.”
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