No English Please, We’re Japanese Baseball Players

Japanese Interpreters

Over the last twenty years, Japanese baseball players that have crossed the Pacific to play in the Major Leagues have come to America with a skill-set on par with – sometimes even surpassing, many of the best players in the game. Pitching mechanics, batting motion, base-running and even bunting are fundamentals hard-wired into Japanese players through thousands of hours of grueling practices. However, there is one important skill that is woefully underdeveloped and remains so throughout their MLB careers in nearly every Japanese player since Hideo Nomo joined the LA Dodgers almost two decades ago. The skill they lack is the ability to conduct an interview and express oneself entirely in English, without the services of an interpreter standing by their side.

It has become a common sight whenever a Japanese baseball player is interviewed in front of reporters to have his interpreter right beside him, to relay what is being said and respond with his reply. While it is not a huge issue, (some would argue it is even a non-issue) in the overall context and enjoyment of the game, it is, however, a practice that should be examined by the league, in order to reduce the reliance on interpreters, so as to help foster closer interactions with fans, as well as their fellow teammates and members of the press. The awkward, time-consuming, translating back-and-forth can of course be tolerated for the first few years of a player’s transition to the league, but after that, shouldn’t we expect players to have learned enough English to function without the aid of an interpreter, as part of their professional obligations to their team and to the league?

The extended use of interpreters by Japanese players (some, for their entire careers) needs to be looked at closely and a pragmatic policy put in place by the league to manage a situation that will only grow as more players from around the world, particularly from Japan, try to make it in the majors. A league-wide policy that limits the number of years an interpreter can be used by each international player to four years should be considered.

Why four years? The average major league career in the 20th century spanned roughly 6 years according to this study. Figures for Japanese players in the major leagues are harder to come by, but looking at the small group of Japanese players that have played in the majors, a rough calculation of the average time in the league comes out to about 4 years. So for most, the limit will be a moot point, but for the handful of Japanese players who find long-term success in the MLB, they should set an example for the next generation of players from Japan that wish to make it in America, and start communicating in English.

Of course it is not only Japanese players that have full-time interpreters. Korean and Taiwanese players have them as well, but the largest contingent of Asian players are from Japan. A steady stream of Japanese players has helped spawn a cottage industry of Japanese interpreters in the MLB that unintentionally creates a two-class system of haves and have nots, where one group of international players are afforded this luxury, while another group are left to fend for themselves with an ad-hoc system of teammates/coaches who speak the language and fill-in on-the-spot as and when needed.

While it is easy to dismiss all this criticism by arguing that Japanese baseball players cross the pacific, not to polish their English conversation skills at Berlitz courses, but to play ball, and help their clubs win championships. The question of whether Major League teams are perhaps a little too accommodating in the language department for some groups of players and not for others, should be addressed before resentment and exasperation builds up among fellow players and fans.

 

One league, Two Classes

The Opening Day roster for MLB teams in 2014, foreign-born players accounted for more than a quarter of all available spots on team’s 25-man rosters. Major League Baseball is one of the most ethnically diverse professional sporting leagues in the world, with an equally diverse fan base. Latin American countries like the Dominican Republic and Venezuela are the biggest source of international talent for the MLB, but players from Asia are a growing presence in the clubhouse with nine from Japan, two each from South Korea and Taiwan at the start of the 2014 season.

The New York Yankees alone have three Japanese players (Ichiro Suzuki, Hiroki Kuroda and Masahiro Tanaka) on their roster – each with their own personal interpreters. The Yankees also have a sizable Latin-American contingent, but none have a full-time interpreter among them.

This dual system, while not perfect, is the norm for many teams with Asian and Hispanic players. However, every now and then, a situation will occur that exposes the drawbacks of this arrangement and the underlying resentment held by some. Back in April, New York Yankees bullpen pitcher Michael Pineda, who is from the Dominican Republic was suspended 10 games for having used pine tar while on the mound. In the post-game interview with the press, Pineda chose to answer reporter’s questions about the incident without the aid of an interpreter. He misunderstood a question posed to him in English regarding whether the Yankees coaching staff made it clear to him pine-tar use was illegal and had to quickly reverse his initial answer of ‘NO’ later on when the same question was posed to him in his native Spanish.



After this incident future Hall of Fame slugger and Spanish-speaking Carlos Beltran called on teams to hire Spanish interpreters for their Hispanic players as they do for their Japanese players. And several years earlier, as the manager for the Chicago White Sox, Ozzie Guillen ranted to the press about the disparity in translators for international players in the majors:

“…why do we have Japanese interpreters and we don’t have a Spanish one. I always say that. Why do they have that privilege and we don’t?”

He goes on to say:

“Don’t take this wrong, but they take advantage of us. We bring a Japanese player and they are very good and they bring all these privileges to them. We bring a Dominican kid … go to the minor leagues, good luck. Good luck. And it’s always going to be like that. It’s never going to change. But that’s the way it is.”

 

While Beltran and others are right to point out the obvious lack of professional interpreters for Hispanic players compared to Asian / Japanese players, to bring attention to the situation and get more help for Hispanic players who need it. To frame it using race as the only explanation behind the disparity was unfortunate. There is an element of race involved for sure, but not in the way Beltran would have you believe. The different outcomes for each side are due mainly to the different stages in development in which they are recruited by teams. Most players from Latin-America are selected in their late-teens out of baseball academies as raw talent and sent to the minors to hone their skills. At this stage they have no leverage or negotiating power to demand anything, let alone an interpreter. They just do what generations of Latin-American kids have done before them, which is work hard and try to make it to the bigs.

Japanese players are at the other end of the spectrum. They are usually in the mid-to-late twenties with several years of professional experience under their belt, at least. They are more complete, mature players that have been tested against high-level competition in the Nippon Professional Baseball league. The best players will likely have multiple teams fighting for the chance to bid for the right to negotiate a contract with them. Agreeing to provide a personal interpreter at this stage would be a small concession in order to get a highly sought-after player that can provide immediate impact for a team.

 

A Higher Standard

As the MLB promotes the game around the world, particularly in Asia, the number of international players on Major League rosters will surely increase in the future. It is not hard to foresee that many more interpreters will be needed to help players acclimate to their new environment. So rather than setting a policy where each new international player is given a personal interpreter, if they request one, the league should instead be looking to reduce the overall dependence on interpreters. A league-wide policy which requires every international player who can not communicate in English, to agree to English language training in order to become proficient enough to give an interview entirely in English, by the start of their fourth-year should be implemented.

Setting a target which every international player is aware of and expected to meet within a certain period of time, without exception, would be far better than a situation where every player is running around with their own interpreter for their entire careers, as players like Hideo Nomo (12 yrs), Hideki Matsui (10) and Ichiro Suzuki (14) have done. If league officials are unsure of how it will be received or how it should be best implemented, one only need look at the LPGA as a guide.

In 2008, in a move to promote more effective communication between players, fans and sponsors, the LPGA introduced an English competency policy where all non-English speaking members would have their English conversation skills evaluated. If judged insufficient to effectively give interviews in English and participate in pro-am tournaments with English-speaking sponsors, players would face suspension.

Libba Galloway, the deputy commissioner of the LPGA tour at the time was quoted by the NY Times:

“For an athlete to be successful today in the sports entertainment world we live in, they need to be great performers on and off the course, and being able to communicate effectively with sponsors and fans is a big part of this.”

“Being a U.S.-based tour, and with the majority of our fan base, pro-am contestants, sponsors and participants being English speaking, we think it is important for our players to effectively communicate in English.”

 

Initial reactions were understandably negative against the policy, especially by South Korean golfers as they represented the biggest group of international players on the LPGA tour at the time, with 45 members. Some Koreans felt the policy unfairly targeted them and called it discriminatory. However, after the initial outcry and further clarification by the LPGA, the rules were more or less accepted and everyone adjusted to the new reality.

Now six years later, the LPGA is a global brand with multiple tournaments in Asia, and South Korean women still represent the largest group of international players on the tour, but now instead of the tedious back and forth with an interpreter, Korean golfers are comfortably able to express themselves in English on and off the course. All it took was the vague threat of suspension and players to accept the fact that in the long run it is more beneficial for everyone involved to speak a common language.

 

Yes We Can… Speak English

Although Japanese superstars such as Ichiro, Yu Darvish and Masahiro Tanaka get the bulk of the attention, there have been a handful of players that have made it to the MLB from Japan and carved out a place in the majors without much assistance, language or otherwise.

Munenori Kawasaki, an infielder with the Toronto Blue Jays in his third season in the U.S. is not as famous or as technically gifted as Ichiro, and is in fact a below-average major leaguer that could be let go at anytime. What has helped him stick around may have to do with his entertaining personality. Without the aid of an interpreter or a Japanese speaking teammate, the former Fukuoka Softbank Hawks player had no choice but to use English on a daily basis to survive in the majors. Although he is far from fluent his attitude is what makes him standout in more ways than one.

 

So Taguchi was an eight-year veteran, mostly with the St. Louis Cardinals and a former teammate of Ichiro when both played for the Orix Bluewaves (predecessor of the Orix Buffaloes) in Japan. During his time in the majors he wasn’t a standout player but he did the small things (base-running, fielding and bunting) extremely well and made himself into a versatile outfielder for the Cardinals. He endeared himself to his St Louis teammates and fans with his imperfect but earnest desire to speak in English without an interpreter. Taguchi is the only Japanese player to win two World Series with two different teams, the St. Louis Cardinals and Philadelphia Phillies.

 

Perhaps the best example of a Japanese player making the most of his time in the majors is Shigetoshi Hasegawa. A former relief pitcher for the Angels and Mariners, he played nine years in the majors and from start to finish never relied on an interpreter to communicate with fans, teammates or the media. His desire to live the Southern California lifestyle is what drove him to make the move to the MLB. The skinny, 180cm right-hander’s stats pale in comparison to Hideo Nomo or Yu Darvish on the mound, but in terms of English ability, he blows both of them out of the water. He still lives in California to this day and it’s there that I visited his office to help him edit a book that he eventually published. He is likely the best English speaker out of all the Japanese players who have played in the majors.

 

There may not be many examples of Japanese baseball players who are able to speak English, but there are certainly many Japanese footballers playing in leagues around the world, who, unlike their baseball counterparts, have picked up the local language and are not afraid to put their language skills on display.
Hidetoshi Nakata and Eiji Kawashima in particular, are linguistically gifted and speak multiple languages.

Player
Team(s)
Language(s)
Hidetoshi NakataAS Roma, ParmaEnglish, Italian
Eiji KawashimaStandard LiègeEnglish, French, Italian
Yuto NagatomoInter MilanItalian
Makoto HasebeFC Nürnberg, Eintracht FrankfurtGerman
Maya YoshidaSouthhampton FCEnglish
Keisuke HondaCSKA Moscow, AC MilanEnglish
Shinji OnoFeyenoord, Western Sydney WanderersEnglish, Dutch

Kosuke Kimura of the New York Red Bulls in Major League Soccer in the U.S. was born and raised in Japan, but attended Western Illinois University in the U.S. on a soccer scholarship. Not knowing much English initially, and without the services of a translator, Kimura quickly had to embrace the English language in order to survive. He is now fully fluent in English and part of an impressive international group of players on the Red Bull squad with the likes of Australia’s Tim Cahill and legendary French striker Thierry Henry.




Yuki Togashi is another impressive English-speaking Japanese athlete who attended high school in America and played point-guard on the school team. After not receiving any Division I college scholarship offers in the U.S., he returned to Japan and played for the Akita Northern Happinets in the bj-league. Togashi put up impressive numbers in his rookie season which helped him get an invite to the NBA’s summer league, playing for the Dallas Mavericks and briefly making a name for himself.



Some other Asian athletes who arrived speaking no English in their respective sports but eventually became fluent are Chinese basketball superstar Yao Ming of the Houston Rockets, who used an interpreter for three years before being comfortable enough on his own.

Choo Shin-soo of the Texas Rangers had an interpreter for nearly three years after being originally signed by the Seattle Mariner’s, but realized his inability to speak English was only hurting him since he was not able to communicate with his teammates.

Recently retired Korean major leaguer Park Chan-ho, a pitcher originally with the LA Dodgers and a teammate of Hideo Nomo’s, needed just one year before ditching his interpreter.

And to go back even further in LA Dodger’s history, Fernando Valenzuela, a left-handed pitcher from Mexico who won Rookie of the Year honors in 1981, as well as the Cy Young award that same year while helping his team win the World Series against the NY Yankees, needed only two years before communicating in English on his own.

 

Pampered Much?

Established Japanese baseball stars such as Daisuke Matsuzaka, Yu Darvish and Masahiro Tanaka have been some of the most sought-after players in recent years. In Matsuzaka’s case, the Red Sox went through almost Lebron-esque lengths in 2007 to make their superstar feel at home in Boston after signing his massive contract.

“Red Sox business cards were reprinted with Japanese on the back, since team owner John Henry knew from doing business in the country the importance of that custom. Exchanging gifts is a social must, so Matsuzaka’s daughter got Red Sox gear for her first birthday. Steinberg and the team’s video crew made a tape introducing the family to town, going through some of the history. The mayor filmed a welcome. A local Japanese chef filmed one too, in Japanese.”

This of course makes more sense when one is reminded of the $100 million plus dollars the Red Sox spent on the posting fee and contract in order to secure Matsuzaka’s services on the mound. Taking care of his every need, looking after his every worry and making sure he and his family felt safe and secure so that he has no distractions would seem to be a sensible approach in light of their enormous investment. However, among international players, Japanese baseball stars are not the only ones with enormous contracts, nor are they the only ones struggling with the English language. But where the majority of the MLB’s international stars eventually learn enough English to speak to the press and conduct interviews, Japan’s best and most high profile players get a pass, year after year, spanning their entire careers. It is a phenomenon specific to Japanese players.

Hideki Matsui, the former NY Yankees slugger and 2009 World Series MVP personifies the image of the pampered Japanese baseball player. Not only did he have an interpreter throughout his entire ten-year MLB career, but even after retiring and coming back to play in a Yankees old-timers game, his trusty interpreter Roger Kahlon was by his side, and again when he was invited to Yankees spring training as a hitting instructor.

 

Having an interpreter is a great convenience that allows a player to quickly acclimate to his new surroundings. However, for others, a full-time interpreter can be as much a detriment as it is a convenience. Former Yankees pitchers Kei Igawa and Hideki Irabu, came to the Yankees at different times, both with much fanfare. However, Igawa and Ibrabu quickly washed-out under the high pressure and expectations of fans and management. Their inability to communicate in English was not the reason for their respective failures, but it did contribute to their sense of isolation in the years following their exit from the Bronx.

For Igawa, after his demotion to the minor leagues, his interpreter was also his chauffeur and even travelled with him on team road trips. During the season, his interpreter would drive him daily from his apartment in Manhattan to the Yankees’ minor-league teams in Scranton-Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania or Trenton, New Jersey, both hours away. In a New York Times profile of Igawa, he was quoted with the following:

“I have learned some English and Spanish,”

“I can use it to get around my neighborhood. I know restaurant menus. But a Broadway show or a movie? I can’t do that because I don’t understand what they are saying.”

In his five years in New York City, he made few friends because of the language barrier, and not hearing Japanese, sometimes for weeks at a time bothered him, according to the article.

“If he felt lonely and missed Japan, he would visit an electronics store because examining all the new models and emerging technologies reminded him of something he would do at home.”

But strangely the person he could communicate with best, his interpreter, was also not much more than an employee, never meeting Igawa’s wife and children when they visited from Japan, and only once, briefly entering Igawa’s apartment during their five-year working relationship according to the article. Igawa eventually returned to Japan after the end of his contract in 2011 and signed with the Orix Buffaloes.

In 2011, Hideki Irabu committed suicide at his home in California after trying to make a comeback with an independent baseball team. A Japan Times article at the time wrote about Irabu’s troubles leading up to his tragic end. His inability to adapt to his post-baseball life, along with marital issues seemed to be the main causes. While living in America, his inability to communicate effectively in English seemed to only magnify many of his personal troubles and isolated him from those around him. The article stated the following:

“In 2011, he gave an interview to a Japanese magazine in which he said, “I want to go back to Japan. I can’t speak English. I don’t belong here.”

His wife, however, wanted to stay in L.A. She wanted their two children to grow up “international.”

Irabu was the only one in his family who could not speak English well.”

For some, the question is not – can they can speak English, but rather – will they speak English?

Ichiro reportedly speaks English quite well, but insists on always using Japanese in front of the media, in order for his thoughts “to come from your heart.” Ichiro has also been known to give an entertaining, profanity-laced, locker-room pep-talk, all in English to his American League teammates before taking the field at All-star games.

 

An Obligation

Although many teams provide English language courses for those that need it, the league itself needs to more actively encourage English proficiency among all its international stars equally, instead of leaving it up to teams and individual players to work it out. A more proactive policy approach on the part of league officials, to guide player’s actions towards the desired outcome of a minimum-level of English proficiency should be instituted, as the LPGA has done quite successfully.

A player’s main obligation is to use all their skills to help their team win on the field and everything else is of course secondary, but of all the skills learned through playing the game, the ability to communicate effectively in another language would be the only one of any use after one’s playing days were over.

Making English-proficiency a part of a player’s professional obligation to their team should be as normal as meeting any other team obligation such as community outreach or charity work. The next generation of Japanese players or any non-english speaking player should not have an excuse or the option to use an interpreter over their entire career.

Major League Baseball accepts players from around the world as long as they have the skills to succeed at the highest level. They are accommodating of players from all nationalities and ethnic backgrounds, this of course should be applauded and up to now one needn’t be able to speak English to play in the majors. You can still be a superstar without it, maybe that’s the beauty of this game, one only needs to understand the language of baseball to succeed. However, being able to speak in the language of the majority of those you are playing with and the fans watching the game is about embracing those that welcomed you with open arms.

In the not too distant future, when the first Japanese-born player is inducted into the Hall-of-Fame, my hope is he will give his acceptance speech in the language of the fans that embraced his accomplishments, of the country that gave him the opportunity to succeed at the highest level and become one of the greatest players of the game, to be honored for all time.

Sportswriter for the Japan Times. Covered the World Baseball Classic, Super Bowl, Pro Bowl, Japan series and other major sporting events in Japan.

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