These days, the word “Zen” is all-too-easily deployed when some writers are looking to describe those whose detached concentration makes difficult feats look like a breeze. You often find such lazy labeling hastily stitched onto exceptional athletes. But once in a while, “Zen master” actually belongs in the headline. Meet Japanese baseball legend Tetsuharu Kawakami, who genuinely applied the spiritual discipline to the game before he passed away in late October at age 93.
An extensive Japan Times profile published this week depicts Kawakami as a WWII-era batting prodigy whose penchant for perfectionism led to his rocketing balls in between fielders and out of the park for the (Tokyo) Yomiuri Giants with astonishing regularity. It was hard to imagine his game improving, but in 1950 he was introduced to Zen Buddhism, taking it up with the same zeal as he applied to practicing his swing:
“[Kawakami spent] days on end at unheated Buddhist temples, meditating, chanting, reading scriptures, and doing supplicant drills, in an effort to conquer his inner self and perfect his concentration. He had his best season in 1951 when he hit .377 to lead the newly-formed Central League, with 15 home runs and 81 RBIs, and was selected CL MVP.
“Kawakami struck out only six times the entire season, something only a handful of hitters in Japan or America have accomplished. In September that year, he said his powers of concentration had developed to such a point where the ball would ‘stop’ for him as it came across the plate.”
After a stellar career as a player, Kawakami became the Giants’ manager in 1961. The severe regimen he imposed on his players—blending Zen ethics and meditation methods, the intense martial discipline he picked up as a drill instructor for the Japanese Imperial Army, and a disquieting insistence on racial purity—earned him the nickname Tetsu (“Iron”) but led the team to multiple championships.
The Times reveals Kawakami “continued to practice Zen as a manager”:
He said it took on new meaning and heightened his awareness of his new environment.
“‘For me Zen was everything,’” he later wrote in his book, Zen to Nihon Yakyu.
“‘Through Zen I was able to see myself and the world in a different perspective. It helped me realize how insignificant I was as an individual and how much I was indebted to others.’
“Kawakami believed that everything was connected and preached that belief to his players.”
Read more here about the remarkable career of Tetsuharu Kawakami and the history of Zen in Japanese baseball.