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A Welcome Ray of Sunlight for Gloomy Japan

Japanese ballplayer makes the US All-Stars, buoying morale back home

AS years go, 1995 has been pretty grim for Japan. First there was the Kobe earthquake. Then terrorists released nerve gas in the Tokyo subway. Last month a hijacker held a crowded jumbo jet hostage for 15 hours.

But suddenly there is something to cheer. Suddenly, there is Nomo.

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Hideo Nomo is the Japanese pitcher who joined the Los Angeles Dodgers baseball team this season and who was named to the National League All-Star team on July 2.

Mr. Nomo, who has been striking out batters at a rate to rival legendary strikeout king Sandy Koufax, is the first Japanese athlete to make the All-Stars.

"Everything is gloomy for Japanese politics and the economy," says Masaru Ikei, a political science professor at Tokyo's Keio University, who has written two books on baseball. "But Nomo's brilliance in the US, especially his being selected for the All-Star game, is a pride of the Japanese people."

As Professor Ikei suggests, the Japanese were in need of a morale boost.

Beyond the recent incidents of terrorism and the destruction and loss of life caused by the January earthquake, the economy apparently has reentered a recession. People here increasingly are worried about unemployment, which is like an Eskimo worrying about a shortage of ice.

The nation's political life is listless, aimless, and often boring to most Japanese. In two key elections in April for the governorships of Tokyo and Osaka, Japan's most important cities, voters rejected candidates put forward by established political parties and elected two independents.

Both men happen to be former comedians. It's as if the Japanese were saying they would risk administrative incompetence for leadership with a little liveliness.

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So Nomo's performance - and to a lesser extent the strong showing of two Japanese tennis players at Wimbledon - is a welcome relief. Nomo is being covered by some 200 Japanese reporters and photographers as he goes about his business in advance of the July 11 All-Star game, and there seems to be no limit to the hopes being pinned on him.

A Washington correspondent for the Mainichi newspaper, one of Japan's biggest, recently wrote to his readers about the observation of an American dinner guest who believes "that Nomo's impact [in the US] will be so great as to recast the image of the Japanese people in the American imagination."

Ikei recalls the visit of Babe Ruth to Japan in 1934. The American ambassador at the time, Ikei says, wrote in his diary that the slugger was so popular among Japanese that "one Babe is better than a hundred ambassadors."

For the same reason, the professor concludes, "Nomo is better than 100 Japanese ambassadors to Washington."

Japanese television stations have been broadcasting long reports about Nomo's success, showing endless clips of all-American types shouting "Nomo! Nomo! Nomo!" from the bleachers.

Nomo seems to have impressed fans on both sides of the Pacific with his taciturn, get-the-job-done demeanor. This behavior evokes the way Japanese sumo wrestlers handle themselves - they refrain from showing emotion and attempt to exude a Buddha-like serenity paired with a humble sense of confidence and strength.

But Nomo breaks more Japanese stereotypes than he fits. For one thing, his humility seems only skin deep.

He struck out on his own to make it in the Major Leagues, something only a handful of Japanese ballplayers have attempted.

And he is clearly pleased that his career in the United States is going so well so quickly.

He handles the press in a way that few Japanese athletes would: When he isn't ignoring reporters, he answers their questions with a brevity and straightness that only lightly masks contempt. Most Japanese ballplayers - with their eyes on broadcasting careers and product endorsements - are much more solicitous of the press.

But most of all, Nomo is an individualist, succeeding on his own merits and his own terms in the "real world" of American baseball.

The Japanese now are contemplating how they must recast their nation in order to compete in the same world, a world without the order imposed by the cold war, a world where the United States is both a friend and an adversary.

Perhaps Nomo is buoying the Japanese in this anxious year because he is beating the Americans at their own game.

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