Ambassador Kato was born in Saitama Prefecture, Japan in 1941. He has been the Japanese Ambassador to the U.S. since 2001. Ambassador Kato is a very passionate baseball fan and strongly supports the growing Trans-Pacific partnership in baseball. He is also a big fan of the Babe and offered to do a written correspondence interview, discussing the Babe and baseball. We are honored to have his contribution on BRC. We present the questions and answers below.
BRC Q1: “Would you be so kind, for the purposes of our interview, to recount your primary childhood memories about baseball?”
AK A1: “When I was a boy, baseball was the biggest sport in Japan. While there were many Japanese players who were considered heroes to Japanese children, my older brothers told me about Major League baseball and how much greater American baseball players were compared to their Japanese counterparts. Since it was the late ’40s and early ’50s, there was no TV coverage, no internet, and no way for Japanese baseball fans to actually watch MLB games. So I read everything I could about American baseball and it has been a life long hobby.
BRC Q2: “As a child, when you learned that Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and other American baseball stars had visited Japan in 1934, what did you think? “
AK A2: “My father and my older brothers told me all about the great American baseball players. They told me all about Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe Dimaggio, Ted Williams and Stan Musial. They also told me that, in 1934, Connie Mack led the MLB All-Stars on a tour of Japan. They recounted that while the entire team was dominating, the most extraordinary player was Babe Ruth. Babe was on a completely different level. In fact, he hit 13 home runs in 17 games. My thoughts were that these were the best athletes in the entire world.”
BRC Q3: “Why do you think baseball become so popular in Japan and remains so today?”
AK A3: “I can’t give you a precise answer, but there is just something about the game that drew the Japanese to it ever since it was first introduced by Mr. Horace Wilson to the Japanese in 1873. Love is often times beyond logical explanation.”
BRC Q4: “I have read that Japan’s first professional baseball team was established in late 1934, after the American player’s visit. Is there a direct connection?”
AK A4: “Yes, very much so. I attribute this to the “Babe Ruth effect.” His performance during that tour excited both the diehard and casual fan. I would also like to add that “Lefty” O’Doul also played a major role in increasing baseball’s popularity in Japan.”
BRC Q5: “How important is the common bond of baseball to Japanese and U.S. relations? “
AK A5: “Even today, one of the strongest common bonds between Americans and Japanese is their love of baseball. This is even reflected in the passion both President Bush and Prime Minister Koizumi have for baseball.”
BRC Q6: “What do you feel is Babe Ruth’s impact on Japanese baseball and sports culture in Japan?”
AK A6: “Babe Ruth’s impact on Japanese baseball and sports culture in Japan was enormous. He impressed upon the Japanese the thrill of the homerun. He changed Japanese baseball, from ‘small ball’ to the ‘home-run age’ as we call it in Japan.
During the time of Babe Ruth, there was no one even close to being the equivalent in Japanese baseball. In fact, it was only in 1946, when a Japanese player first hit 20 HRs in a season in Japan’s baseball history. Ever since then, the HR output has steadily increased in Japan.
Young HR hitters in Japan were often times called, ‘Wasei Babe’, meaning ‘Babe Ruth made in Japan’.”
BRC Q7: “Is Babe Ruth still a relevant baseball hero today in Japan , like he is here in the U.S.?”
AK A7: “Yes, he is. Those Japanese who were lucky enough to see him play in Japan in 1934 are over 80 years old now, but their memory of Babe Ruth has been widely shared with younger Japanese baseball fans. Single season record of 60 HRs, life time record of 714 HRs, ‘the called shot’ in the World Series, hot-dogs and beer and 8 egg omelet, his being very kind to kids, etc… these are the part of Babe Ruth’s legend in Japan. Also, I believe the concept and custom of ‘retired numbers’ is often associated with Babe Ruth. (We call it ‘Eikyuu Ketsuban’ meaning ‘permanently retired number’.)”
BRC Q8: “Are there any stories that you know of about Babe Ruth during his trip to Japan in 1934?”
AK A8: “When Babe Ruth arrived in Japan, he was greeted and treated like a ‘king’. Then, when he hit 13 home runs in 17 games, the legend only grew larger. Also, many of those home runs were the typical ‘tape measure’ drives that so impressed the Japanese fans. One funny story I remember is that during one game, when it began to rain, Babe Ruth stood in right field with a glove in one hand and an umbrella in the other.”
BRC Q9: “Does Babe Ruth just represent baseball in the mind of the Japanese fans or does he also represent the U.S. in general, in popular culture?”
AK A9: “Babe Ruth definitely represents not just American baseball, but American culture in general. He was to the Japanese, a symbol of America, and the American dream.”
BRC Q10: “Which other American sports heroes are popular in Japan? How would you say that they compare to the Babe’s popularity?”
AK A10: “Concerning the sport of baseball, most knowledgeable Japanese fans are familiar with Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams, Hank Aaron, and Willie Mays among others. Many of the current MLB stars are also popular in Japan.
In other sports, some boxing champions are popular along with golfers, such as Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Tiger Woods. Sumo wrestlers Akebono, Musashimaru and Konishiki canbe mentioned. (FYI, all three of the above mentioned sumo wrestlers were Americans living in Hawaii before becoming sumo grand champions).
However, over the last century, baseball remains the most popular game in Japan and Babe Ruth is still considered the ‘king’. That fact alone is an amazing feat.”
BRC Q11: “What do you think of the recent events of Barry Bonds chase to tie Babe’s career homerun record and the related media coverage?”
AK A11: “It is so hard to compare the current era with the baseball that was played during Babe Ruth’s time. Clearly, things are so different. But one thing that I find impressive is the Babe’s clear dominance over all other players during his time.
When Barry Bonds hit 73 HRs, runner up Sammy Sosa hit 64 HRs. When Mark McGuire hit 70 HRs, Sammy Sosa again was the runner up with 66 HRs.
If my memory is correct, during Babe Ruth’s time and before World War II, only three other players hit more than 50 HRs. They were Jimmy Foxx, Hack Wilson, and Hank Greenberg. Of those players, only Jimmy Foxx did it twice. Babe Ruth did it four times. Babe Ruth also has 11 seasons with 40 or more HRs. His closest challengers are Hank Aaron and Barry Bonds who have both had 8 seasons with 40 or more HRs. Babe Ruth’s dominance is absolutely overwhelming. Not only could he hit for power, but he has a life time batting average of .342.
This does not even take into account his time as an overpowering pitcher for the Boston Red Sox. Imagine what his career hitting numbers would have been had he been a full time hitter during those several seasons when he was a pitcher.”
BRC Q12: “Have you ever been to the Babe Ruth Museum and Birthplace in Baltimore?”
AK A12: “Yes. I have been to the museum and would like to visit again.”