Moving with the bat and the ball: The migration of Japanese baseball labour, 1912–2009
Research interest in the movement of elite athletes within and between nations has grown in the past 25 years as this collection and other articles (e.g. Maguire, 2004) testify. Although sports geographers were the first to monitor the geographical variations in migratory flows of athletes (Bale, 1984, 1991), sociologists and social historians, amongst others, have been quick to take up the challenge of considering the implications of athletic talent migration for various sports (e.g. Bale and Maguire, 1994a, 1994b; Maguire, 1999; Lanfranchi and Taylor, 2001; Obel, 2001b; Magee and Sugden, 2002). Research has focused on three themes: first, the impact of athletic talent migra-
tion on both host countries and donor countries, on the role of intermediaries such as sports agents, and the effect on sports fans and the athletes themselves; second, the responses of nationally based governing bodies of sport and sports associations to athletic talent migration; third, the implications of athletic talent migration for conceptions of identity in regions and nations. These developments have been affected by changes in the regulatory frameworks within which professional and elite level sport is conducted and within which elite athletes function (Gardiner and Welch, 2000). For example, in 1995 the Belgian football player Jean-Marc Bosman won a court case confirming that players were free to work anywhere in Europe when their contract with a club expired. The European Union was attempting to abolish transfer fees as part of its effort to remove all obstacles to the freedom of movement of labour in European member state countries. Many European football clubs have depended on transfer fees as compensation for the scouting, training and development of junior players. Some are also concerned that now ‘star’ players will have even more bargaining power, and local loyalties will diminish even further in importance for players. Nationally developed players may no longer represent the route to success for teams, and there are also implications for coaching, training and national sides. Similar concerns have been expressed about the growth in the number of Japanese baseball players in Major League Baseball (MLB) since Nomo Hideo joined the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1995 (see Hirai, 2001). Much of the research on sports-talent migration focuses on the cultural rather
than the economic significance of labour mobility. An overwhelming interest in identities has developed in such a way as to occlude attention to the economic and organisational dynamics of labour mobility. A further shortcoming in the sport
migration literature is methodological – the data used in some analyses have appeared to be derived, somewhat uncritically, from the print or other mass media. In addition, to date, there has been less sustained academic analysis of the mobility of non-western sports stars, including those from Asia and Africa. In the case of Africa, work by Bale (2004), Bale and Sang (1996) and Darby (2000, 2001) has contributed to our understanding of the migration of football players and athletes. In Australasia, Hall (2000) has discussed the impact of the sports ‘brawn drain’ on football in Australia, and Obel (2001) has considered the response of the NZ Rugby Football Union (NZRFU) to player migration. With a few exceptions (e.g. Klein, 1994; Chiba, 2004) academic interest in sports-labour migration among professional baseball leagues in the Pacific-Rim countries has been quite limited. Specific interest in Japanese player migration into MLB has largely been the preserve of journalism, and this has been marked by attempts to frame developments within certain pre-existing stereotypes, especially the idea of ‘Samurai Baseball’. Hence the hard cover edition of Robert Whiting’s book about Suzuki Ichiro, published in 2004, was re-titled with this in mind for the paperback edition (Whiting, 2005). This chapter offers more systematic, whilst still preliminary, reflections on the recent migration patterns of Japanese professional athletes, with particular emphasis on the migration of Japanese baseball labour.