TOKYO -- There's an adage in Japanese that translates easily to English.
Deru kugi wa utareru.
The nail that sticks up gets hammered down.
Ichiro Suzuki has been the nail in a culture that values formality, caution and deference to authority. Doing it his way, he's developed into Japan's greatest baseball player and arguably its best athlete.
"At such a young age he already had his own mind," said Keizo Konishi, a reporter with the Japanese news agency Kyodo. "The older generation tells young people what they should do. Particularly in the structured baseball world."
Ichiro has played 2,651 major league games since joining the Seattle Mariners in 2001. Konishi has seen almost every one; from Seattle to New York, then to Miami, and back to Seattle. Add on hundreds before that with the Orix BlueWave.
The odyssey returns him to Japan where Ichiro is expected to play in a two-game series when the Mariners and the Oakland A's open the season March 20-21 at the Tokyo Dome.
Afterward, who knows? Some Japanese want the 45-year-old to finally retire, and the Mariners have said they want to go with youth.
One thing is certain in Tokyo: Ichiromania rules.
He's a source of national pride; the first position player to make it big in the majors, countering the perception that the country produced only pitchers, and players like Ichiro were too small. He's revered for breaking through, for his fashion sense, and his Zen-like training. He'll be the first Japanese player inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, almost surely on the first ballot.
Takashi Yamakawa, the baseball editor at Kyodo, described two Ichiros.
"He's acting, I think. He's playing Ichiro," Yamakawa said. "There are two different aspects. There's the very normal, polite Japanese man. And there's maybe the real Ichiro breaking the rules, fighting for himself. He's always thinking in a different way."
If Ichiro is the seldom-bending nail, his father, Nobuyuki, was the hammer who put his son through rigorous, well-documented daily baseball training from age 7.
"It bordered on hazing and I suffered a lot. But I also couldn't say no to him," American Robert Whiting quoted Ichiro saying in his book The Samurai Way of Baseball. The book was first sold under the title The Meaning of Ichiro.
Whiting has spent much of his life in Japan writing about baseball and Japanese culture. He speculated that because of World War II and the American occupation, Japan developed an inferiority complex in relation to the United States. Tokyo's 1964 Olympics and the booming economy of the 1970s and 80s remedied much of that, and Ichiro and pitcher Hideo Nomo further boosted morale.
"The athletic field has a different kind of symbolism," Whiting said in an interview with AP. "No American could name a famous Japanese; not a top singer or the prime minister or even the emperor after Hirohito. The Japanese were simply known as people who could make things. But everybody could name Nomo and Ichiro. It had a huge impact on the country's psyche."
Ichiro was must-see TV when he joined the Mariners. Large-screen video displays in central Tokyo played -- and replayed -- every game as the Mariners won 116 times in the regular season. Ichiro won the American League batting title and was the league's Rookie of the Year and MVP.
An electrical engineer and a weekend baseball umpire and coach, Iwao Fukushi recalls getting up to watch the Mariners on TV in Gunma prefecture, just northwest of Tokyo, and then heading to work between innings.
"I would go to the office and then watch on the coffee break -- just five minutes," he said with a snicker, suggesting it might have been longer. "We saw him every day, and he seemed to always have one or two hits."
Fukushi said he believes Ichiro will continue playing after the opening games, or become a coach. Others think he should stop now.
Some on social media in Japan say he's being used mostly to sell merchandise, suggesting his value now is largely commercial.
"For me, he should quit here," said Takashi Yamakawa, the baseball editor. "Perfect. It's a beautiful story."
Sports on 03/15/2019
Print Headline: Ichiromania returns to Japan: Will he retire or not?