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JAPAN PLAYERS ADJUST TO LIFE IN AMERICA
Traveling halfway around the world to
play softball isn't something just anybody can do. It takes a tremendous amount of skill as well as a willingness to pack up and leave home for months at a time. But this summer, that is exactly what Eri Yamada and Kazuki Watanabe have done.
Acquired this spring, Yamada and Watanabe arrived from their native Japan during the Bandits' season opening
series against the Akron Racers. After flying in on Thursday, both played in Friday night's game, just a day after meeting their teammates for the first time. While it may take some time for the two to adjust to life in the United States, they have already shown that they are more than ready to play.
Through her first ten games with the team, Yamada hasn't disappointed for the Bandits. With a .321 batting average, four
of her nine hits have been homeruns and she has recorded 10 RBIs while
scoring nine times.
Watanabe isn't a complete stranger to all the Bandits, she catches for Monica Abbott in Japan for team Toyota. In the
three games she has played for Chicago, the Bandits have posted three
shutouts, while giving up 13 hits.
We recently sat down for lunch with
Yamada and Watanabe, along with Abbott, and team translator, Masashi.
The lunch gave us a chance to get to know Yamada and Watanabe as well as
learn a lot about Japanese culture. What followed turned out to be a
very interesting experience.
Sushi is not an area of expertise for
either of us, and it was pretty obvious at lunch. Before we began eating
we asked if we could eat with forks as we struggled with chopsticks when
we practiced in the office. In the end, we didn't use either, and wound
up just using our hands to eat the sushi, which we discovered is also
But before things got messy, we learned that before a meal
in Japan, you say "Itadakimasu" which means "I gratefully receive"
before eating, similar to saying grace in the United States.
lunch, Monica forced us to try all the different kinds of sushi,
including eel, which she ordered without telling us what we were eating
until afterwards. It wasn't hard to try all the different kinds of
sushi, in Japan it is not uncommon to share several dishes of food at
the table rather than each person having an individual plate. Throughout
lunch, Yamada and Watanabe often offered us some of their food to try.
We accepted their offer, which brings us to the next rule about eating
in Japan. When taking food off of a shared plate and moving it to your
own plate, chopsticks are used to transfer the food. Once again however,
we used our hands.
After trying the different kinds of sushi, our
personal favorites were the avocado and tuna rolls. As we talked about
food throughout lunch, of course the topic of pizza came up. It just so
happened that after arriving in the States, the other Bandits players
took Yamada and Watanabe out for some of Chicago's famous deep dish
pizza. After trying both types, both agree that American pizza is
better. They also mentioned pizza is very different in Japan, with
thinner crust and a much wider variety of toppings. Some examples of
Japanese pizzas include tuna and corn, salad, shrimp, teriyaki chicken,
and honey and cinnamon.
Monica is currently in her fifth season in
Japan, so she also told us about Japanese food and eating American food
in Japan. When Monica cooks, she prepares American food, which is
readily available at grocery stores in Japan, but when she eats out, she
will eat Japanese food. In Japan there are a lot more seafood options
than there are in America.
Surprisingly, food wasn't the only thing we
talked about at lunch, we also managed to talk about softball. It wasn't
a hard decision for Yamada and Watanabe to come play in the NPF, as it
gave them a chance to continue playing while their season in Japan is on
summer break. In Japan, the season is broken up into two halves. The
first half runs from March to May, and the second half is run from the
end of August through October, with the playoffs in November.
break in the summer is meant to give the Japanese players a chance to
focus on the national team, which is another reason Yamada and Watanabe
decided to play in the NPF. Yamada, 29, and Watanabe, 27, both decided
that if softball is added back to the 2020 Olympics, neither of them
will be playing for the national team so they decided that it would be
best for the country if they let younger players take their spots to
begin building up the team now.
Both believe that softball will be
added back into the Games, over wrestling and squash, especially if
Tokyo's 2020 bid is selected.
Watanabe wasn't alone in her decision to
play for the Bandits. Her teammate for Toyota just happens to be Abbott,
who after Shannon Doepking's retirement, was looking for another catcher
in the NPF. So after asking Watanabe to come be her catcher for the
Bandits as well as Toyota, Watanabe couldn't stay away.
decided to play for the Bandits and the opportunity was offered to
Yamada, she also decided that she wanted to come to the States, while
Team Hitachi is on break. Prior to coming to the Bandits, the two were
not friends, but respected each other as competitors, though it looks
like they will be pretty good friends after what they have planned for
Before they made the big move, Monica asked them what
they wanted to do so they could start planning their summer. The first
thing both of them wanted to see was an MLB game. Check that one off the
list, as they went to the Cubs game their first weekend in town. They
also want to see other sports such as soccer and hockey, as well as go
shopping. Another big plan is to go to a White Sox game when they play
the Yankees to watch Ichiro play.
For many international players,
Yamada is considered to be the female Ichiro, as she has a very similar
batting stance. (Note: at this time it is unknown if Ichiro is planning
on attending a Bandits game).
However, this isn't the first time that
Yamada and Watanabe have been to the United States. Both have visited
before for the World Cup of Softball, playing in Oklahoma, California,
and Hawaii, adding another accomplishment to their strong softball
After completing high school, Yamada went straight into
professional softball. Since then, she played in the 2004 and 2008
Olympics, hitting a solo homerun in the 2008 gold medal game off of Cat
Osterman to beat the United States. "The U.S. was obviously the
strongest team in softball and we finally beat them in 2008," Yamada
said about Japan's gold medal win.
Watanabe played softball all four
years at Sonoda Women's University in Japan before playing
Besides splitting the season in two halves,
professional softball is treated very differently than it is in the
United States. In Japan, softball is considered a regular job, with
practice running from 9-5 Tuesday through Sunday. Monday is the only day
that the players do not practice, but from 8-12 the players go into the
team sponsor's office and perform normal office tasks before getting the
rest of the day to relax.
Approximately 2,000-3,000 fans attend each
game in Japan, but they are more reserved in Japan, whereas American
fans are more into the game with clapping and cheering. Because of this,
Yamada and Watanabe said that they prefer playing in front of American
fans because of the energy.
So far the biggest challenge Yamada and
Watanabe have faced coming to the United States has been communication.
Enter Misashi, the Bandits translator, who travels with Yamada and
Watanabe for all team activities to help the team communicate
effectively. When Monica is in Japan, Team Toyota has a similar system
to help her communicate with her teammates.
It has become somewhat of
a common thing for American players to go play in Japan, but it is an
exclusive opportunity for top talent players. Currently there are three
players besides Monica who play in Japan: the Bandits' Megan Wiggins,
who plays for Team Denso; Natasha Watley, who plays for Team Toyota
along with Monica and Watanabe; and Jordan Taylor, who also plays for
In the past, current Bandits Tammy Williams and Kristen Butler
have played in Japan. Williams played in 2010 and Butler played in 2008
and 2009. American players who play in Japan are offered tryouts after
being scouted by Japanese teams, meaning that the opportunity is saved
for a select few.
After talking about softball, the conversation
turned more to Japanese culture, specifically the concept of Sen Pai.
Sen Pai is the mentor system in Japanese culture, which is found at all
levels of education, sports, businesses, and informal or social
organizations. The relationship is an essential element of Japanese
seniority based status relationships, similar to the way that family and
other relationships are based on age.
In Japanese, Sen Pai means
"senior" and Ko Hai means "junior." People use these terms when
referring to a person who is older or younger than they are. Each plays
an important role in Japanese society and has responsibilities and
For example, on a Japanese softball team, a younger
player is expected to perform various tasks for the older players such
as doing laundry and cleaning. This isn't considered disrespectful as it
might be in the United States, rather it is normal, as one day the
younger player will assign tasks to future younger players.
general, a Ko Hai is expected to respect and obey their Sen Pai and the
Sen Pai must guide, protect, and teach the Ko Hai to the best of their
Finally, we talked with Yamada and Watanabe about their
families. Both of their families were very supportive and excited for
them to get the opportunity to play in the United States and keep in
touch with a program similar to Skype. For Watanabe, August can't come
fast enough as her parents have already planned a trip to come and see
the Bandits play.
After Yamada and Watanabe end their playing careers,
they already have an idea of what they want to do. Unlike American
players who often want to coach or somehow be involved in softball, the
two want to get out of softball, get married and start families.
lunch finished and empty plates around the table, we all said
"Gochisosame (deshita)" which means "thank you for the meal," after what
was a very interesting lunch and a great learning experience. Despite
their post-softball plans, Yamada and Watanabe look like they have a lot
of softball left in them and will be key to the Bandits success this
Their softball skills were ready to go the second they got off
the plane, and they seem to be adjusting well to life in the United
States, even if they have eaten at the same sushi place four times in
one week. If their success continues, the rest of the team might want to
consider eating team meals there.