On Wednesday, we ran Part 1 of what is planned as a three-part series chronicling Lars Anderson’s experiences in Japan. The 29-year-old adventure-seeker — a former top prospect in the Red Sox organization — is playing for the Kochi Fighting Dogs, an independent team in the Shikoku Island League. Here is Part 2.
Lars Anderson: “I’m re-reading James Clavell’s book, ‘Shogun.’ Upon my dad’s suggestion, I read it a decade ago during my first season of minor league baseball in South Carolina. It’s a novel set in Japan during the early 1600’s. The basic plot is a Dutch ship, captained by an English guy, happens upon the island of Japan. The book explores themes of power, religion, honor, treachery, duty versus love, differences of culture, and war. (It also has some comedic relief, but it’s generally pretty intense.) It’s kind of like the love child of ‘Game of Thrones’ and ‘The Last Samurai.’
“A recurring theme, at least in the beginning, is the white people talking to each other and calling the Japanese barbarians, and the Japanese people talking to each other and calling the white people barbarians. It’s a poignant read for me in this particular moment, being the white guy in a landscape exclusively made up of Japanese people. Other than (teammates) Rich (Ruff) and Zak (Colby), I do not see white people at all. When I do, it’s borderline shocking.
“I would never consider Japanese people to be barbaric, and I doubt they would think of me that way, but there certainly is a palpable amount of, ‘Wow, sometimes we are just so incredibly different in the way we do things.’ I guess this is part of the beauty of spending time in foreign places. Whether that place is Japan or West Virginia, we get a glimpse into how small our reality is.
“Nobu-san is an infield and base-running coach for the Fighting Dogs, and he’s turned into one of my favorite characters to both interact with and observe. He reminds me of Ujio, a character in the movie ‘The Last Samurai.’ Ujio is Nobu-san’s personality doppleganger.
“If you haven’t seen ‘The Last Samurai,’ Ujio’s is the commander of arms in his village and he is none-too-thrilled about western influence in Japan. When Tom Cruise’s character is captured by Ujio’s clan, he initially takes great pleasure in tormenting the westerner. He’s the hard-ass of the village. But as the movie wears on, he is impressed by Tommy’s resilience and apparent reverence for their traditional ways, and he slowly is won over by the American who learns to speak Japanese fluently, as well as become a first class samurai in just one short winter. Ah, Hollywood…..
“I’ve had a similar experience with Nobu-san. Upon my arrival here, he hardly gave me the time of day. He kept me at a distance, apparently finding my western charms lacking. He seemed to regard all of the players in similar fashion — Ujio wasn’t easy on the Japanese in the movie, either — although there was some veiled warmth to the players, almost treating them like younger brothers.
“The only time I’d ever see him really smiling was during the ‘diving drill,’ which would take place at the end of practice. The infielders would line up, and Nobu-san would hit sharp ground balls to our left and right and we’d have to make the play, often by diving in the dark brown Japanese dirt. If the player didn’t catch the ball, he’d have to get up and try again until he did.
“I’ve seen players get hit ten balls before they’d make the play, mainly because the balls were impossibly far out of reach. I’d watch Nobu-san’s face when a player would just miss a ball, and a little, almost imperceptible smile would form at the corners of his mouth. The smile said, ‘How far can I push him?’ It was a test he was administering. He was probing the players, waiting to see if they broke or if they would get back up and ask for ‘some more, please.’
“I wisely threw myself into the exercise with gusto, hoping to win over the vaunted Nobu-san. It’s paid off. I seem to have passed the initial test. He and I are buds now, and I’ve found his infield advice to be adept, and his batting-practice pitching superb. He has even given a few useful hitting tips.
“Possibly my favorite attribute of Nobu-san is his voice. I wish I could have a conversation in Japanese with him to hear him talk more. I am completely ‘there’ when he speaks during team meetings or when giving players instruction — it’s a voice you’d like to hear on an audio book or something. He also has a great feel for cadence, volume, and eye contact. He holds the audience perfectly. I have no idea what he’s saying, of course.
“On one of our off days, I decided to check out Otaru Falls. It was ranked in the top 100 waterfalls in Japan, so obviously it’s a must see. I took a cab there — about a twenty minute drive — with the intention of either walking back, finding another cab or somehow navigating the bus system. The falls are in the hills above Ochi-cho, the town where our practice ‘ground’ is, so I am moderately familiar with the area and wasn’t too concerned.
“After a glorious day of sitting by the falls and walking about the farms and rice paddies that lay between the mountains, I decided on the bus option. I found the station without much trouble and communicated to the elderly man sitting on the bench that I was looking for a bus back to Sakawa-cho. He brightened and pointed to the schedule emphatically, confirming that 1. There was a bus to Sakawa, and 2. It wouldn’t be here for another hour.
“I had a book, so I sat down and started reading. Then an elderly woman plopped down next to me. She stated talking to me, I kept saying ‘Wakarimasen’ (I don’t understand) and, unfazed by my utter insufficiency in Japanese, she kept speaking her native tongue. That seems to happen quite often here. I’ll be approached by a local who will just start rattling off Japanese. I’ll clearly not know what the he/she is saying, and make that abundantly clear, only to have said person say, ‘Oh!’ and then continue in the largely incomprehensible monologue.
“As I listened, I picked up a few things and realized that she was asking if I was a teacher — a common question here. I told her I played for the Fighting Dogs and she immediately perked up and started speaking fast, making it harder and harder to follow. No matter. A connection was made.
“I maxed out my Japanese, telling her my name, position, and our upcoming game schedule. She was delighted. She ended up gifting me an orange and some hard candy — classic grandmother behavior. I collected more candy from my great grandmother Gigi than anybody else, and it’s not even close.
“This lady eventually got up and left, only to be replaced by another grandma-type. Again, there was the same rambling Japanese, the same question about teaching, the same revelation that I was a Fighting Dog, and, you guessed it, the same-ish reward — Grandma #2 bestowed upon me a large bag of melons and maybe the most bizarre gift I’ve ever received, bath salts. I could’ve very well explain to her that we don’t have a bath to use the salts in, nor do I smoke bath salts. I just smiled and said, ‘Arigato goziemas!'”
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.