Slices of Japanese business, politics and life
When Toyota and Honda replaced their retirement-age CEOs with executives in their 50s last year, they said the tough times called for young blood and a fresh start.
Not so at Suzuki Motor.
Nine days short of his 80th birthday and after 31 years heading the company that his wife’s grandfather founded, CEO Osamu Suzuki says his best days are ahead of him. If Suzuki is weary of the recurring question about succession plans — a question he’s probably fielded for the past two decades in his ripe age — he masks it well, coming up with a different analogy every so often. His latest favourite response? “100 is the new 70.”
“There’s an old saying in Japan that life maxes out at 70 years,” he told a news conference at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan today. “But that was in the days when the average life span was 50. Now it’s 100. These days, centenarians are a dime a dozen.”
Applying that formula, the genial, bushy-browed Suzuki said he considered his effective age to be 56 — that is, 70 percent of 80.
Eleven years ago I sat near a high school-aged Daisuke Matsuzaka as he used field glasses to watch a Japan-MLB All-Star game at the end of both leagues’ seasons.
I wrote a story based on that image about Japanese wanting to know “How good are we?” It was a question encompassing more than sport, as the same doubts existed for Japan in terms of corporate or diplomatic might, while the way the nation usually measured itself was in comparison to the U.S.
The 2009 baseball season, which began with Matsuzaka and Ichiro Suzuki leading Japan to its second World Baseball Classic title and ended with Hideki Matsui winning the World Series MVP in helping the New York Yankees to the crown, hasn’t ended that self-assessment. Instead it has widened it to “How good can we be?”
Matsui, whose decision to leave the Yomiuri Giants at the end of the 2002 was broadcast live across the island nation, hit a grand slam in his first New York home game but has been hobbled by injuries in seven seasons that may have made his Series heroics a Yankees coda.
Ichiro, who set the record in 2009 for most consecutive MLB seasons with 200 hits and delivered the winning RBI in the WBC title game, is the greatest baseball export Japan has produced so far, but his zen approach to hitting and perceived statistics orientation have not always resonated with fans or teammates.
Matsui, meanwhile, nicknamed “Godzilla” in high school for his power display at the national baseball championship, is less polished and a little more rough and ready. But he’s a player that nary a cross word has been said or written about, rather a “slugging salaryman” portrayal whose team focus is absolute, who even hit his sixth game Series homer to the Komatsu banner in rightfield.
An MLB-insider told me after Game Six of the World Series: “Ichiro Suzuki will be elected into the Hall of Fame, Hideki Matsui will not. But Ichiro will never achieve what Matsui did last night.”
Ichiro may not, but another Japanese player may, as the once distant fields of dreams across the Pacific have grown closer thanks to the countrymen’s feats in 2009, with Japan’s questions about how it rates becoming easier to answer.
My nickname among the Reuters photographers in Tokyo is “Crasher”.
They call me that because I always seem to get pictures right at the moment of a crash whenever I cover motorsports.
One colleague sometimes teases me saying “You’ve got to stop pouring oil on the track,” and I answer: ”I would never use oil — I only use banana skins!”
Ecstatic fans of the Hanshin Tigers baseball team in 1985 tossed a statue of the Kentucky Fried Chicken founder into the Dotonbori River in Osaka, western Japan, when the perpetual underdogs won their first Central League pennant in 21 years.
Sports rivalries are bred by proximity, culture and history, and few match ups in Asia have more baggage or bragging rights at stake than baseball games between Japan and South Korea, the respective World Baseball Classic and Olympic titleholders.
Both crowns were sources of national pride, but Japan’s came in 2006 after losing twice to Korea before a semifinal victory over the Seoul side, which wasn’t enthused that a team it had beaten more than once could become tournament champions.
Ichiro Suzuki, arguably Japan’s greatest baseball export to Major League Baseball in terms of achievements, is facing what may be the worst spring of his combined Japanese and Major League Baseball career, with his image as the most prolific hitter of this era and a team-oriented star facing beanballs from both sides of the Pacific.
After a woeful season in which his Seattle Mariners lost over 100 games while dumping a full plate of managers, executives and players, Ichiro – who had a sub-par but not mediocre year – has heard a chorus of off-season chirping that the eight-year veteran was selfish, statistics-obsessed and playing by a different set of rules than teammates.