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Japan's Baseball Queen in Her Own League


TOKYO — What is it like to be known as the most evil wife in Japan?

Judging from her performance before foreign correspondents Monday, life could be worse for Nobuko Ochiai. She unapologetically flouts the long tradition here that puts wives in the shadows of their husbands.

After all, thanks to her chutzpah, she single-handedly pushed husband-baseball slugger extraordinaire Hiromitsu Ochiai to jump from the Chunichi Dragons, take advantage of the first year of the free agent system in Japan and sign a contract for a cool $3.4 million with the Yomiuri Giants beginning this season.

That coup made the first baseman the highest-paid baseball player in Japanese history--and Nobuko the nation's most famous baseball agent.

She drips pearls and diamonds with a sartorial flamboyance astonishing for this conservative society. She basks in a celebrity that sometimes seems to outstrip her husband's--after all, she's the one who's the author. Her 1986 book, "Bad Wives Make Husbands Grow," sold more than 100,000 copies, making it one of the top 10 books of the year. (In it, she bluntly talks about how to control your husband and baldly takes credit for changing hers into a better person and athlete.)

On Monday, so many paparazzi besieged her that some people took pictures of people taking pictures of her.

Given that kind of success, who cares if she's known as Japan's foremost akusai , or bad wife, who breaks every rule of what a good wife is supposed to be?

"In Japan, it is said that a good wife always walks three steps behind her husband," said Ochiai, 49. "But I believe that men who have wives labeled 'bad wives' tend to succeed more.

"I wish more wives wearing the mask of 'cutesy wife' would come out of their shell and say what they have to say to contribute to the success of their husbands."

As Ochiai sees it, she may be a role model whose time has come. Thanks to the growing numbers of working women in Japan, it is getting easier for women to forthrightly show their intelligence and talent instead of hiding those characteristics. Still, she said, the surge in women's accomplishments has caused men to "lose a lot of pride."

The daughter of a bureaucrat, Ochiai met Hiromitsu 15 years ago at her sister's bar. Because she is nine years older than her husband, she initially resisted his marriage proposals. But after she consented, she turned him into her full-time project.

Although most baseball wives--along with sumo wrestlers' wives and others in the sports world--don't attend games, Ochiai is at every one. She scrutinizes everything from his batting form to his health. She counsels him on his career. It was her urging, she confirmed Monday, that prompted Hiromitsu to put himself on the free agent market.

Because the Dragons traded four players to get the clean-up slugger--he was the first player to win the Pacific League's Triple Crown twice, in 1982 and 1985--Hiromitsu was satisfied with the team and would never have left on his own, she said. But when Japan started talking about switching to a free agent system last year, she began thinking, only half in jest:

"If Ochiai sold his left arm for 1 million and his right arm for 1 million, I was wondering how much he'd be as a package?"

In any case, she told him that becoming a free agent was for the "family's sake." It is the same reason she gives for her luxurious lifestyle, the Beverly Hills-like mansion the couple own in Aichi prefecture and the sumptuous jewelry she always wears.

She alternates between Earth Mother and helpless female--patting him on the head when he gets a hit, sometimes playing dumb to give him a sense that she can't live without him.

Manipulative, perhaps, but she claims that it keeps him interested--along with her deliberate attempts to redecorate their home every year, show up in new flashy fashions every day and mix elaborate cuisine with plain home cooking at the dinner table.

"Even when we see old friends, they all say how he has changed 180 degrees for the better," she bragged.

"It is not his role to take leadership in the family. His role is to swing the bat," she said.

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