Hiroki's Hectic Life in Japan

Study, commuting - and 30 hours of baseball - cram teen's sleep-starved weekly routine

HIROKI TAKADA is, as usual, sleepy. It's a sure sign of his diligence as a baseball pitcher. It's near 11 p.m. and this 16-year-old Japanese is just getting home from practice. He still has some studying to do. His mother brings sweets and a cup of Milo to his room. He unbuttons the stiff collar of his black school uniform, and tries not to fall asleep.

About midnight he pulls out a futon, or thin mattress, which is stored in a closet, and puts it on an electrically heated rug. He and his brother share a room that is 9 feet square.

He prefers sleeping on the floor to a Western-style raised bed. ``I am a restless sleeper and would fall off a bed,'' he explains. He sets an alarm (one of three) to wake him up after his usual 6 1/2 hours of restless sleep.

It has been a typical day for him. In all, he commuted four hours, traveling between his home in the Tokyo suburb of Itabashi, his private all-boys high school near downtown, and his team's practice field outside the crowded metropolis.

His long commute costs more than $7 a day. ``I hate the crowded subways. But that's life in Tokyo. We just accept it,'' he says.

And it has been a typical week. He put in over 30 hours of baseball practice, in between classes and studying. He practices with samurai-like dedication.

He's so busy that he asks his mother to videotape his favorite television programs: ``TV That Cheers You Up,'' ``Tokyo Love Story,'' and a quiz show called ``Magical Powers.''

``I'm always sleepy,'' Hiroki says. Like many Japanese, he takes catnaps on the train when he isn't forced to stand up during rush hour. His favorite classes are music and contemporary society. ``We are allowed to sleep in those classes,'' he notes.

If he weren't tired, it might suggest he was not serious about baseball, or about helping his team to do well enough to go to Koshien, the national high school baseball championship. Named for its location in an Osaka suburb, Koshien is the single most popular sports event in Japan.

Baseball, or besuboru, is a Japanese obsession. Hiroki owns 10 mitts, some of them gifts. Baseballs litter his room. One of his teammates is a school hero for batting the winning run of a game despite a broken arm. Painful effort and stoic endurance are considered high virtues. Fans prefer players who display such ``guts.''

Hiroki believes, as many Japanese do, that long hours of practice and a ``fighting spirit'' can make a good baseball player. His team practices almost year-round, even in winter. Hiroki has been throwing a baseball ever since his father put one in his hand at age two.

His father, Masanao Takada, who heads up a Toyota car sales office, also works until late into the evening, as well as many Sundays. Playing golf is his favorite pastime. Father and son rarely have time together.

His father once asked Hiroki if he would like to work for Toyota someday. But Hiroki complained that Toyota employees work too late and too hard. ``He doesn't yet know much about Japanese society,'' says Mr. Takada.

Obviously, Hiroki thinks differently about baseball. ``If I practice hard, it will build me up spiritually,'' he says. ``If I were to quit, I'd have nothing else to do. As long as I play baseball, I am spiritually stabilized.''

His mother, Terumi Takada, couldn't agree more: ``As long as he's got a sport, he stays out of trouble. If he wasn't on a team, he might go to game centers or bars like other Japanese kids.''

Being ``spiritual'' in Japan includes accepting defeat, and often appreciating the courage of losers. Hiroki's favorite pro team is the Yakult Swallows. ``It's a cheerful team, but it's weak. And for that, I feel sympathy toward it,'' he says.

His father recalls an important day for Hiroki a few years ago when, as pitcher, he lost a game in the ninth inning. ``He apologized to all the players on his team. He was crying,'' said Mr. Takada. ``Through those tears I saw that he had grown a little. Before that, he was rough person.''

HIROKI'S father says too many young Japanese today are ``dry'' (rational, unemotional) in their relationships, and not ``wet'' (emotional, empathetic). Baseball, he says, helps Hiroki to learn courage, strength, endurance, and concentration that are needed to enter Japanese society.

Hiroki might be less tired if he actually enjoyed baseball more.

``American players enjoy themselves, but Japanese do it just to win,'' says his father, who knows several pro players because he sells cars to them.

Asked why he plays, Hiroki's answer is very Japanese: ``It's a sport which people cannot do without cooperating with each other.'' Indeed, his team is a model of cooperation.

The team starts a season by praying at a big Shinto shrine called Yasukuni, known as the place where Japan's war dead, including World War II war criminals, are honored. Like other Japanese who visit Shinto shrines on special occasions, Hiroki throws a few coins in an altar box, claps his hands twice, and bows his head for a moment of wishful prayer. This year, he wished for no injuries and that his team would go to the national championships.

The tournament at Koshien, whose playing field is the stuff of boyhood dreams, dominates Japanese media for two weeks in spring and summer. The contest, started in 1914, predates professional baseball in Japan. Unlike pro ball, which is so commercial that teams are named after their corporate sponsors, Koshien embodies the Japanese ideal of purity of spirit in amateur sports.

One of Hiroki's favorite treasures are videotapes of past Koshien games. ``If my team made it to Koshien, it would change my life,'' says Hiroki. For one, it might help him get into a good university. Otherwise, he must go to cram schools and prepare for the ``examination hell'' that is part of entering higher education here.

Within his team of 33 players is a rigid hierarchy of seniority. Younger players must bow and always defer to the coach and upperclassman. ``The pecking order is fairly strong,'' Hiroki says.

Being the novice, Hiroki is expected to polish the shoes of upperclassmen and give them shoulder massages, among other tasks. As a new member of the team, Hiroki must cut his hair to three-millimeter length.

THE baseball coach, Tsuneo Umehara, says that kowtowing to upperclassmen is a throwback to the feudal ways of Japan under the shoguns. The school itself has many rules, such as forbidding students from taking part-time jobs.

Because his hair is cropped so short, Hiroki has six hats. His parents give him a monthly allowance of about $100, which he uses to buy clothes or snacks. When he has free time, he likes to go shopping with friends. Or he joins his friend at a ``karaoke box,'' a private sound booth where they sing songs into a microphone. He particularly likes a Japanese rock group, the Southern All-Stars.

His favorite films are the ``Rocky'' series. Why? ``Rocky always wins after much effort,'' says Hiroki. Like many Japanese men, young and old, Hiroki reads a weekly comic magazine, filled with graphic tales of sports, love, adventure, and sometimes violence and sex.

He particularly likes love stories ``because I am not in a romance now.'' He prefers going to an all-boys school because it means ``I don't worry about my clothes.'' On Valentine's Day, he receives several boxes of chocolate from would-be girlfriends. He says he doesn't have time for a girlfriend, however.

His house, located in a factory zone, is a three-story concrete building with no yard, no pets, and no trees except the bonsai outside the door. His grandparents live on the first floor.

``Unfortunately, we live in a rabbit hutch,'' says his father. Hiroki says that today's young Japanese cannot afford to buy a house and that he would like to live abroad someday.

Before he took up baseball seriously, Hiroki was quite an artist. He was good at origami, model-car assembly, wood-carving, and calligraphy. Amazingly, at an early age, he reached the level of expert in calligraphy.

But he gave it up as school and baseball became more demanding. Hiroki's favorite leisure activity now is sleep.

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