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The essence of talent development lies in the "journey" – Why does the "adaptability" of MLB

Japanese players and students from Western Japan's prestigious preparatory schools improve?

Masahiro Kami, M.D., Ph.D.

President, Medical Governance Research Institute, Tokyo, Japan

Many Japanese players thriving in the Major League Baseball (MLB) in the United States have experienced life in dormitories or studying in a different part from their hometown within Japan. Prestigious preparatory schools in Western Japan also welcome students from all over the nation. What they have in common is that such "journeys" enhance their "adaptability."

In our last discussion, we highlighted that Japanese baseball elites aren't making significant impacts in the MLB. So, what should be done? That's what this article intends to delve into.

The "Adaptability" Necessary for Survival

I know of an ex-baseball player, Kenichiro Kawabata. He was part of the Tenri High School team that won the Spring National Invitational High School Baseball Tournament in 1997 and joined the Boston Red Sox upon graduation. He played in the minor leagues for three years and later in places like Mexico and the U.S. independent leagues. Despite his efforts, he never made it to the MLB and returned to Japan.

Kawabata's insights are intriguing. He believes that what's most essential for success in the MLB is "adaptability." In an interview with baseball writer Mr. Satoshi Asa, he expressed, "Living in a foreign land was a challenge beyond baseball itself. I yearned for conversation, but there was no one who understood Japanese. Players were always on edge, unsure when they might be released. Fights within the team were a common occurrence. For a teenager, it wasn't an environment conducive to immersing oneself in baseball." He attributes his failure in the U.S. to a lack of adaptability.

So, why did Kawabata lack this "adaptability"? In July 2019, during a seminar organized by the Medical Governance Research Institute I run in Tokyo, Kawabata explained that he played baseball out of inertia since high school.

Kawabata, who could run 50 meters in the 5-second range, possessed physical abilities that even MLB teams took note of. At the Japanese high school baseball level, there was no need for him to change or adapt; his overwhelming presence meant no one would challenge him. As a result, he never honed his adaptability. Seeing former colleagues, who weren't significantly more athletic than him, subsequently climb the ranks and shine in the MLB, Kawabata felt acutely that "whether one survives in the MLB or not hinges on this adaptability."

The Growth Induced by "Journey"

How can one enhance "adaptability?" The key is to place oneself in environments during adolescence where adaptability is demanded. In post-war Japanese society or post-Cultural Revolution China, when one is faced with strife or poverty, adaptability becomes an inevitable necessity. The critical question is: how can one cultivate adaptability in a peaceful environment?

A swift solution is to embark on a journey. The transformative power of travel is a timeless and universal truth, as epitomized by systems like Germany's Meister system. The literary giant Johann Wolfgang von Goethe left the Duchy of Weimar to reside in Italy, where he penned works such as the "Faust Fragments" and "Italian Journey." By leaving his birthplace and enduring hardships, Goethe underwent a metamorphosis.

The conquest of the COVID-19 pandemic too is tied to "journeys". Dr. Katalin Karikó and Dr. Uğur Şahin, who contributed to the development of the mRNA vaccine, were born in Hungary and Turkey respectively and later moved to the U.S. and Germany. Albert Bourla, the CEO of Pfizer, which led the clinical development of the mRNA vaccine, is a Greek Jew whose parents survived the Holocaust, and he subsequently migrated to the United States. Their successes may be attributed to the challenges they faced as immigrants, which cultivated their adaptability.

The Enriching Experience of "Dormitory Life" Leading to Success

So, how can we nurture baseball professionals with adaptability? The answer is to encourage young baseball players to undertake their own "journeys."

Japan, in fact, already has such a tradition: baseball study programs and dormitory life apart from their hometown. By leaving their families and living on their own, these athletes acquire not just baseball skills but also the adaptability needed for real-world challenges.

Ichiro Suzuki and Shohei Ohtani experienced dormitory life during their high school years. Reflecting on his time at Hanamaki Higashi High School, Ohtani remarked, "I was scolded many times. I believe I changed a lot in high school." A person's fundamental character is mostly formed by their high school years. Undergoing hardships away from family at this stage likely becomes an invaluable asset in one's later life.

So, among Japanese MLB players, how many have experienced dormitory life during high school? Surprisingly, a significant number. Out of 66 Japanese Major Leaguers, 25 (38%) lived away from their parents in dormitories during high school.

The venerable U.S. media outlet "Sporting News" published a feature titled "Greatest Japanese MLB Players of All Time." Focusing on the top 10 players from this list, players such as Ichiro Suzuki (from Aikodai Meiden), Shohei Ohtani (Hanamaki Higashi), Yu Darvish (Tohoku), Masahiro Tanaka (Komadai Tomakomai), and Hisashi Iwakuma (Horikoshi) all experienced dormitory life in high school.

Baseball Study Programs and Dormitory Life Predominant in Western Japan

While some readers might assume that it is customary for prestigious baseball schools to house students in dormitories, this is not always the case. What is intriguing is the regional variance in attitudes towards dormitory life. The regions in our country that have supplied the most talent to MLB are the Kinki region in Western Japan (23 individuals) and the Kanto region in Eastern Japan (14 individuals). Out of the 23 individuals from the Kinki region, 9 (39%) experienced dormitory life during high school, whereas only 4 (29%) of those from the Kanto region have.

Not limited to the Kinki region, there is a higher prevalence of dormitory life among those from Western Japan. In the Kyushu region, 3 out of 9 individuals; in the Chugoku region, 2 out of 3; and in Shikoku, 2 out of 4 have lived in dormitories. In total, 7 out of 16 individuals (44%) from these regions in Western Japan have done so.

The majority of the dormitory experiences highlighted in this piece involve local students progressing to prestigious schools in their hometowns or neighboring prefectures, choosing to reside in dorms rather than at home. However, a few individuals undertake what can be termed as baseball "study abroad," moving to distant regions for school. Such individuals include Yu Darvish, Hideki Irabu (from Jinsei Gakuen), Yoshitomo Tsutsugo (from Yokohama), Masahiro Tanaka, and Kosuke Fukudome (from PL Gakuen). Fukudome is from Kagoshima, while the other four hail from the Kinki region. They are all uniquely established personalities, a rarity among Japanese, with the likes of Yu Darvish and Masahiro Tanaka making notable impacts in the MLB.

Why such stark regional differences? Living away from parents in dormitories during high school is challenging not only for the children but also for the parents. Many mothers, in particular, would likely wish to keep their beloved sons close by, especially if these young men are renowned baseball elites in their localities.

I once conversed with a mother from the Kansai region who had sent her child on a baseball study abroad program and inquired why she chose to send her child away. Without hesitation, she responded, "Because everyone else was doing it." It seems that the concept of baseball study abroad during high school has become a sort of "common sense" among certain families in the Kansai region who aspire towards baseball.

Prestigious Preparatory Schools in the West Accepting Students from Afar

This isn’t a phenomenon exclusive to baseball; it applies to academic pursuits as well. In Western Japan, there are schools such as La Salle Academy in Kagoshima, Seiun Academy in Nagasaki, Kurume University Affiliated High School in Fukuoka, Tosa High School in Kochi, Aikou Academy in Ehime, Hakuryo High School in Hyogo, Nishi-Yamato Academy in Nara, and Rakunan Academy in Kyoto Prefecture. These institutions, which have sent numerous students to the University of Tokyo, have established dormitories for students coming from distant places. Some of these schools even permit middle school students to live in these dormitories. Interestingly, there are no such elite academic institutions in the Kanto region that offer similar provisions.

I hail from Kobe, and among my elementary schoolmates and seniors/juniors, there are those who moved away from their families to attend institutions like La Salle Middle School or Aikou Middle School. For someone from the Kansai region like myself, the idea of "domestic study abroad" for middle or high school students feels quite natural. This sentiment resonates with the earlier-mentioned feelings of Kansai-based mothers who send their children for baseball study programs.

But why have such schools flourished in Western Japan? I've taken note of the fact that pioneers in this model, like La Salle Academy and Aikou Academy, were established and are operated by Catholic organizations such as the Lasallian Brothers and the Dominican Order. In Catholic countries, boarding education has been practiced for centuries, and it appears that this model was adopted in Japan as well.

Historically, Christian believers in Japan are predominantly found in the West. According to a 2022 religious statistics survey by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology, while Tokyo has the highest number of Christians per 10,000 people (670), Nagasaki comes next (480). Of the top ten prefectures, eight are located in the Kinki region or further west. It's understandable, then, that academic institutions in Western Japan have welcomed more domestic study-abroad students.

Historically, these religious orders traveled as far as Japan in the Far East for their missionary activities. The benefits of their ventures are not just reaped by the orders themselves but also appreciated by us, even generations later. Such exchanges bring immense benefits to both parties.

Adversity Shapes Individuals

Turning our attention back to baseball, there was a time when baseball study programs faced criticism for "draining" talented players from competitive regions to more easily accessible prestigious schools, all driven by the dream of participating in the Koshien Tournament. Of course, one cannot completely deny such tendencies.

However, is it just to reduce the conversation to such myopic views? Observing Japanese players excelling in the MLB, it's evident that adversity fosters growth. It's precisely because of traditions like dormitory life and baseball study programs that Japan remains a top baseball nation.

The real challenge lies ahead. With the development of remote communication technologies during the COVID-19 pandemic, direct human interactions have diminished. While some insidious forms of bullying may persist, many youngsters might no longer face interpersonal challenges. This doesn't bode well for improving their adaptability. We should re-evaluate the significance of our nation's traditions, like domestic study programs and dormitory life, in nurturing future talent.

Originally published in Japanese in Foresight by Shincho-sha, June 5, 2023.


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