The Business of Baseball in Japan

Matt Murton, a great baseball player and engaging speaker.

Last night I went to the other side of the bay to Kobe to attend the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan sponsored talk, “The Business of Baseball” featuring author Robert Whiting and Hanshin Tiger player, Matt Murton.

Whiting is a long-time commentator on culture and baseball in Japan. His most famous book is “You Gotta Have Wa” which I read recently. It should be required reading for anyone working in Japan! Whiting tells the story of baseball in Japan and the clash of cultures when foreign players, mostly American, come over to play. The book has relates to life outside baseball, and will give useful insight to people in any field, including business and education.

One of my interesting takeaways was learning why Major League Baseball has grown to $9 billion in revenue while the Nippon Baseball League has stayed around $1 billion. The reasons are many, but basically, MLB teams run their teams professionally specific to baseball. All front office people are trained and experienced in sports business and they have successfully monetized the sport. From getting taxpayers to fund stadiums, to subscriptions on MLB.com, the league exploits every possible avenue to gain money. MLB teams also work closer together to create a competitive balance and negotiate broadcast contracts together to get more money for all the teams. In contrast, Japanese teams are owned by corporation and are thought of as a division of the company, not a money-making entity in the entertainment business.

Front office people are assigned by the CEO or board to run the teams and they may not have the interest or expertise in sports marketing. The league also is run by the top two teams, Hanshin Tigers and Yomiuri Giants, to the detriment of the other teams and the league as a whole. Also, the players do not have much power and hence there is not much incentive for team executives to try to maximize profits to pay high salaries.

As a counter point, I get tired of the high cost of professional sports in the USA. To go to a game with my family, although it is a really great night out, is prohibitively expensive to do it too often. American sports business tries to get every last dollar from the consumers, whether it be through $150 jerseys to a 2% hotel room tax in Green Bay Wisconsin to pay for the renovations to the Packer’s football stadium. They do get the stadium experience right, even in the minor leagues as we experienced this summer.

The vibrant street life of downtown Kobe – Sannomiya

The other takeway is how different the Japanese approach the sport to Americans. The amount of training, practice and preparation is many times more in Japan than in the USA. It is basically a year-round sport, with spring training starting a full month prior to the US. “Thunder” Matt Murton, as he is known, gave the example of batting practice. In the US, batters will take 5-8 swings in the cage and then rest. In Japan, there are 3 cages and he batted for 4 minutes three times and then went in doors to swing some more.

I asked Robert about US managers in Japan and the parallels to a business or education professional working in Japan. He said it was a balancing act and one needs to appreciate and learn as much as possible about the culture and language, but always keep in mind that you were hired for what you bring from the outside world to Japan. He also recommended to leave Japan to decompress a couple of times a year.

I would like to thank the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan for organizing the talk!

Arrival to Macau

We got in pretty late so not much time to get a feel for the place. Initial impressions are a lot of people packed in a small area. The photos are from the Parque de Mong Hu (Las Monjas – The Nuns) on the peninsula part of Macau. We are staying in the older part of the city, near the Chinese border. I am looking forward to seeing the place in the day.

I had a discussion this morning with my children. Is Macau a country or not? The stakes were somewhat high because we keep track of the number of countries we visit, so if we determine Macau to be a country, then it would add to my total. In favor of being a country were that Macau has its own currency, FIFA world cup soccer team, flag and most importantly, Chinese citizens need to have their passports stamped upon entry. Not in favor is that it is basically a Chinese port city. 95% of Macau’s population is ethnic Chinese, as the majority of its citizens have been throughout its history, even with a small cadre of Portuguese sailors and managers running the colony for 450 years. 2/3 of the 31.5 million visitor arrivals in 2014 were “mainlanders” or Chinese. So, basically it is a Chinese city, but until 2049, when it loses its “Special Administrative Region” status, it is regarded as its own country.

The most interesting thing about Macau is that it is Las Vegas on steroids! It is the gambling capital of the world, thanks to the fact that Chinese love casinos and gambling. In 2013 the gambling industry took in 45 billion dollars compared to the 6.5 billion of Las Vegas. I am looking forward to seeing the size of the casinos, although I am not a big gambler and do not see the appeal of gambling as a holiday destination. Macau’s gambling revenue has dropped recently due to the crackdown on corruption and money laundering by the Chinese leader, Xi Jingping. Rich mainlanders use yuan to buy chips and cash out in other currency. It is a good way of getting money out of the country. The Chinese government is making it harder for mainlanders to get visas and is going after casinos to control these “high rollers”. They also prohibited smoking, which is even a greater love to the Chinese than gambling. Other countries are moving in like Vietnam, the Philippines and Indonesia offering perks to these rich Chinese gamblers. I am curious to see if the casinos are empty.

The other interesting statistic is that Macau is the most densely populated country in the world. The 600,000 people are squeezed in a small peninsula and two former islands that are now connected through reclaiming the sea. I have been to number 7 and 8 on the list, Malta and Bahrain, so I will see if it feels crowded.

The city is named after the Chinese goddess Ma – tsu, the goddess of seafarers, because of a temple dedicated to her that is located there. Legend has it that as a young girl in the 900s, she saved her father and brothers who were at sea in a storm through the powers of her mind in a dream. Her mother is said to have woken her which caused the death of her father or a brother, it depends on who is telling the story. As with all pre-history historical figures, details are sketchy. The Portuguese took over the port around 1550 and used it as a trading port for Chinese silk, tea and porcelain. I read that in circa 1600 census, there were 2000 Portuguese, 20,000 Chinese, and 5,000 African slaves. The slaves must have been treated well as they repelled the Dutch when they tried to take it over. Amazing to think today that countries like Portugal and the Netherlands could take and run an port in such a big country as China. In World War II, the allies bombed it because despite its neutral status, they sold fuel to the Japanese. The Portuguese held it until it went to China in 1999 and eventually in 2049 it will become fully a part of China. I wonder why they drive on the left side, while mainland China is on the right and so is Portugal? There are few remnants of Portugal’s long control of the city-state, some buildings, including the ruins of St. Paul’s Cathedral, which burned down in 1835, some DNA and language bits which will soon be washed out by the demographics of China.

I love to discover new places and see how other people live. I always ask myself, could I live there?

On a postscript, in reading The Macau Post Daily Independent, the headlines showed the arrest of 36 “kingpins” of a gang of “pimps”. The young men, ranging in ages from 16-27, arranged prostitutes to visit clients in their hotel rooms. The article got into the economics of the system, the girl only got 50% of the money, the gang member who found the client got 30%, and 20% went to the “kingpin”. The girls also only got paid when they returned to the mainland. So sad that they need to do this to earn a decent living. The men are facing up to 8 years in prison, including the 16 year old, and if found part of organized crime gang, the prison term increases to 15 years. The Macau police department office has both Chinese and Portuguese signs in the background. Other news were as follows:
• the arrest of thief from the mainland who is accused of stealing valuables from 14 cars – he drove around in a scooter looking for potential targets and sold or pawned the mobile phones, tablet computers using the victims’ ID cards – he came to Macau illegally by boat and lost all him money gambling, hence the crime spree on a stolen scooter
• Wynn Resort’s chairman, Steve Wynn is fighting his ex-wife in court over voting control of her 9.4% shares in the company. She is trying to stay on the board, but at the last board meeting, members wanted her out because of a conflict of interest and for creating a negative atmosphere and hurting the board’s effectiveness. Wynn has a large casino in Macau.
• The smoking ban will be increased to include all areas of the casino, including the VIP rooms. A PSA on the front page reminded people of the smoking ban in massage parlors that started this year.
• The governing body of Macau, the “Legislative Assembly” is discussing education law in Macau and is reaffirming the freedom of teachers to deal with sensitive Chinese history topics like the Cultural Revolution and the June 4 protests in Hong Kong. They are also trying to create a mandatory minimum wage bill within 3 years for all sectors of Macau, including doormen and janitors. They are proposing 30 patacas (a little over $3). It is the only jurisdiction in China, including Hong Kong and Taiwan, that does not have a minimum wage law.
• There a page of articles describing Chinese control of Macau, including one government official making a statement control of the number of tourist visas, another denying the movie Selma was banned in Macau and the LA would seek more input from civic associations, professional groups and individuals when making decisions.

Life in Japan: Innovative Design

I am constantly running into really well thought out design of products and objects here in Japan. This post is just about two of the hundreds of differently designed things that makes like easier in subtle ways.

Bicycles are quite popular here. Drivers are respectful and it is pretty safe to ride bikes, even in a big city like Osaka. Because so many people ride bicycles, there are many bicycle garages. In the Q’s Mall near our house, we put them into these holders that are easy to use and hold the bikes up strongly. To save space, a slightly higher rack is interspersed with the lower rack.

Another space saver in this populous country is the gas pump that comes down from the ceiling (below). This allows for maximum amount of use of surface for cars to line up and to come from any angle. Many gas stations have pumps on the ground and cars need to align themselves in the direction of the islands. This would restrict the number of pumps one could have.

Hokkaido Winter

The best thing about holidays is reconnecting with my family. I take so much pleasure in watching my wife and children enjoy themselves and experience new things. I get more pleasure out of their joy than my own. I guess that is where an adult wants to be in middle age and in the middle of raising a family. It has changed me profoundly, thinking of others before myself. It makes life better.

Oliver came down with a fever and stomach problems while we were here, but managed to recover enough yesterday afternoon to enjoy some time in the snow. Nadia, Ollie and I went for a snowshoe hike on the hill behind the hotel. I can’t get over the amount of snow here, especially in this time of global warming and ski resorts around the world suffering from a lack of snow. The snow pack in the woods was a good 250 centimeters. The guide showed us how trees give off enough heat to melt the snow at their base, resulting in little snow caves. These allow one of the see the depth of snow. The little guy Oliver was non-stop talking and he really had a good time. Nadia doesn’t like downhill skiing and the resort doesn’t have cross-country skiing, so this was a good alternative. The fresh winter air and quiet of the woods caused by the heavy snow reminds me of my winters in Michigan. Something to be said for experiencing the change of seasons.

Owen, Ocean and I had a great final day of skiing. There was hardly anybody on the slopes, as spring break doesn’t start for the Japanese until next week and it being a Monday. The snow conditions were perfect and slashing down the groomed runs was a bit of heaven. It was the best day of skiing I ever had. Owen is getting good and was taking jumps and going off the course (they call runs, courses in Japan) and into deeper snow. If downhill skiing could be like this all the time, I would do it more often. The lines, hassle of equipment, and people all over the place, deter me from truly enjoying downhill skiing. But yesterday, with two of my kids and I spending a day outdoors challenging ourselves physically, was a bit of heaven!

I highly recommend the Kiroro Resort for a family ski destination. It has many different intermediate runs which provide the average skier variety of experiences. Kiroro comes from the Ainu words, Kiroru meaning a wide-walking path and Kiroro-an meaning resilient or healthy. The Ainu are the indigenous people of that region, but today they have mostly been bred out of existence in Japan with intermarriage with Japanese. The resort is owned by the Yamaha group and consists of two hotels in this mountain valley. There is no town or city close by.

I usually like the most wildest part of any country, like the Tara River valley of Serbia, and Hokkaido fits the bill. I hope to explore more of this beautiful island in my time in Japan.

Skiing in Hokkaido

There is plenty of powder snow on the slopes of Hokkaido, the main northern island of Japan. We are staying at the Kiroro ski resort, which is located 43km west of the capital city of Sapporo and 28km from the seaside town of Otaru. We really enjoyed the day yesterday, with almost no one on the runs, inspiring views and  fresh mountain air. The resort is much less known than Niseko and it is perfect for kids and intermediate skiers. The elevation only goes up to 2,000 meters but there are no snow-making machines in sight. I estimate around a meter of snow on the ground.

This is our first time in Hokkaido and skiing in Japan. One of my first impressions was the care of the lift operators. They take their job very seriously and are so caring, especially with the children. When Ocean dropped her ski on the lift, they went and got it and brought it up the mountain for her. They are also super helpful on entering and exiting the chairs. One of the nice things about living here is that you are always well taken care of.

Ollie and Ocean had a great time on the beginners slope. Owen and I went further up the mountain and did the intermediate runs. We are planning on going all the way to the top on day 2. The spring break for Japanese schools doesn’t start for another week so there are no lines waiting for the chairlifts and clear lanes on the runs. My only complaint is a lack of cross country ski trails. Nadia is being a trooper and playing a support role for the kids.

 

We finished off the day with a relaxing onsen here at the hotel. The boys liked the outdoor hot baths and were throwing snowballs at each other. They are getting over not wearing bathing suits and are learning the Japanese customs in public baths.

I sampled one of the delicacies of Hokkaido for lunch at the New Chitose airport, salmon roe on rice. Mixing in wasabi/soy sauce and combined with seaweed miso soup,it made for a perfect start to our Hokkaido adventure.

Hokkaido is surprisingly not that far north (43 degrees) but gets plenty of snow coming from the westerly winds off the massive Siberian plains. It looks and feels like the Baltic nations with the snow and pine trees. I really want to explore more of the island, which is the size of Ireland.

I would like to thank our friends Naomi and Tara for inviting us to go with them. We are having a fabulous holiday.

Life in Japan: School Uniforms

Boys leaving the train station in their school uniforms.

Last Saturday upon dropping off Owen at the train station for his trip to Kobe for soccer, I ran into a large group of students. They were on their way to school. Many Japanese students do go to school for a half day on Saturdays. This may be to do some special test preparation for university or high school entrance exams or special lessons in civics or community service that are not covered during the regular school week.

Prussian military officer in uniform circa 1912 (courtesy of Worldwar1.com)

The boys’ school uniforms are distinct. They are called ga-ku-ra-n, which translates to “gaku-school/student” and “ran-Netherlands”. Historically in Japan, the “west” or all Europeans, were referred to coming from the Netherlands because at the time, they were the most common traders in the few ports that were opened to foreigners. The school uniforms first were designed in the late 1800s and modeled after western military styles. I read where uniforms for boys were modeled after either French or Prussian soldiers. I wonder why they haven’t changed since? Is it the Japanese respect for tradition and uncomfortableness with change for certain things?

I think it is a good look, however, in putting myself in a young person’s shoes, it must be a bit uncomfortable to where these to school, especially the hats and buttoned jackets. As you can see from the photo above, they do look like soldiers or policemen directing traffic.

Girls uniforms are modeled after naval uniforms. I’ll get some photos later. Some uniforms are more in the British style classic school girl uniform with plaid skirt, tie, and vest. You can see this in the photo below. The girls wanted a photo with my son Oliver and nephew Seby when we were visiting Kyoto this fall.

At the private international school I teach at, uniforms are not required. Some girls however, where the British school girl outfit as a fashion statement. Some want us to adopt them as the school uniform, I think because they have been featured in pop culture in television, movies and graphic novels.

Hinamatsuri (Girls’ Day)

The hinamatsuri display in our school’s library.

March 3 is hinamatsuri or girls day in Japan. It is traditional to display the doll set above and it is a day for praying for young girls’ health and happiness. The custom of displaying the dolls comes from the Heian Period which was from around 800 AD to 1,100 AD. Heian means “Kyoto” and this was the period when Kyoto was the capital, the imperial court was at its height and ideas from China (Buddhism, Taosim, etc.) were most popular. It is not a national holiday.

The librarian Chieko showed Ocean and I how to make hinamatsuri dolls.

The display above is the traditional 7-tier and red carpet. The platforms are as follows, moving from top (1) to bottom (7):

  1. Emperor & Empress
  2. Three court ladies holding sake equipment
  3. Five court musicians
  4. Two ministers, and old and young man; tables with bowls and food
  5. Cherry tree and Peach tree enclosing three samurai
  6. Items used within the palace
  7. Items used outside of the palace (ex- palanquin)

My favorite doll is one of the samurai with the grumpy look on his face.

I would like to thank the librarian staff for putting up the display and for Chieko for spending some time with Ocean and I and making it a special day. I will spend some extra time with Ocean tomorrow in honor of the celebration.