Media  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2022.04.22

Japan must find better ways to nurture its future superstars

Roki Sasaki threw a perfect game, but the old ways of doing things could have ruined him before he started

the japan times on April 14, 2022

Sunday was truly a historic day for Japanese professional baseball.

Roki Sasaki, a 20-year-old right-hander for the Chiba Lotte Marines threw a perfect game against the Orix Buffaloes. The young phenom also struck out 13 consecutive batters, a new record in Japan, with 19 strikeouts altogether in the game.

Although I am not a Marines fan, Sasaki’s perfect game, the first in Japanese baseball since 1994, excited me in two different ways.

First, I was amazed that the news was so big that, the official site of Major League Baseball in the U.S., carried it. Even The New York Times reported that “don’t expect to see him in M.L.B. anytime soon.”

What is more exciting, however, is that Japan may be finally finding ways to raise young talent into superstars, stepping back from the decades-old traditions and unscientific methodology that was often seen as destroying such players. At least, the old ways were never used on Sasaki as he was a local teenage baseball star from northern Japan.

A golden child

Roki Sasaki was born in Iwate Prefecture. He was 10 when he lost his father and grandparents to the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami, with his house being swept away in the disaster. When he started playing baseball in junior high school, Sasaki could throw a 87.6-mile-per-hour (141 kph) fastball at the age of 15.

He continued playing at his local high school in Ofunato. He eventually began throwing a 101.3-mile-per-hour fastball, which broke Shohei Ohtani’s high school record at the time. Sasaki’s team was winning in a local tournament and about to qualify for the 2019 national high school baseball tournament.

Everybody expected that Sasaki would pitch in the qualifying and championship game even though he had just thrown 194 pitches a few days earlier and another 129 in Ofunato’s semifinal victory. Sasaki’s manager, lo and behold, made a very un-Japanese decision to not pitch him in the most important game Ofunato’s season.

Team manager criticized

As many had expected, Ofunato lost the game 12-2. The Associated Press reported on July 31, 2019, that the “decision by a high school baseball coach to rest his star pitcher in a crucial qualifying game for the prestigious national tournament has the Japanese sports fraternity up in arms.” The result was, in fact, much more than that.

Ofunato’s manager, Yohei Kokubo, said the reason for not letting Sasaki take the mound that day was to prevent injury. His decision not only sparked harsh criticism of himself but also raised serious doubts about the traditional but unscientific way of using players for the purpose of winning at all costs.

Should the manager have let Sasaki pitch the final qualification game for the national tournament — which playing in is every Japanese high school baseball player’s ultimate dream — no matter what happened to his arm? Or, did the manager decide to rest Sasaki because he believed his future was much more important than his teammates’ dream of winning the game?

Veterans vs. young players

Such debate wasn’t just local. In Tokyo, Japanese baseball legend Isao Harimoto, infamous for his old-school views, said on TV that “this was the most disappointing thing in sports recently.” He noted that, “The young coach should have let Sasaki pitch … . If he was afraid of Sasaki’s injury, he should quit the sport. It is the fate of all athletes.”

Kyodo quoted Yu Darvish, a former Japanese high school standout and now a star in Major League Baseball, as disagreeing with Haritomo, saying that, “Those who say things like asking why Sasaki didn’t pitch are not giving a single thought to the kids’ (well-being).” Many major league teams have guidelines that allow only 100 pitches for starting pitchers in the United States.

Other young Japanese athletes also refuted the view that he should have pitched in the game. Yuto Nagatomo, a member of Japan’s national soccer team tweeted that “I am very much disappointed. It is terrible if an athlete is put in a difficult situation and suffers a serious injury. Despite the criticism, Sasaki’s manager made a wise decision to protect the player’s future.”

High time for change

Sasaki’s perfect game reminded me of the bleak realities of gifted kids in Japan. Many tweeted that the historic perfect game proved that “Manager Yohei Kokubo’s decision to avoid Sasaki’s pitching in 2019 was not a mistake,” or “I’m sure that Kokubo has been rewarded for all the beating he’s taken.”

How many young athletes have coaches in the past intentionally or unintentionally ruined so far? This may not be only confined to the field of sports. Our traditional but sometimes unreasonable methodology may have failed other young budding talent in areas such as business, government bureaucracy and academia as well.

Sasaki’s great achievement was neither coincidental nor just luck. His high school manager did the right thing to save his arm for the future. The Chiba Lotte Marines reportedly ordered him to build his strength as a professional player and did not let him pitch in a game during his first season.

Japan now needs more than ever hundreds of Sasakis in business, the bureaucracy, academia and, of course, in the military. Although we still have many golden children in our high schools, do you have enough grown-up Sasakis in our neighborhoods? If not, it is high time to revolutionize the way of nurturing such young people into future phenoms.