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Where's Kazmania?

Japanese haven't gotten excited over Ishii, the country's latest export


TOKYO — When the Japan Travel Bureau offered tours to Seattle to watch Mariner star Ichiro Suzuki, Japanese tripped over each other to get a spot. When it offered a similar package recently built around Dodger pitcher Kazuhisa Ishii, including the chance to meet him, watch him practice and get his autograph, no one signed up. JTB canceled the tour.

Competing against Ichiro--on or off the field--is a difficult proposition for almost anyone. That said, even relative to other Japanese players, Ishii is creating very little buzz among fans in Japan.

One of the biggest reasons may be that so many have come before him. Japanese fans are becoming a bit more blase nowadays as more of their best players go abroad and do well. Ishii isn't a pioneer, or even a second or a third.

As Japan's first star hitter to make it in America, Ichiro has garnered the lion's share of attention and endorsement money, given his impressive athleticism and clear charisma. Dodger Hideo Nomo was Japan's first star major league pitcher, and he continues to do well. Mariner pitcher Kazuhiro Sasaki was the first reliever and recently signed a huge contract, and Giant center fielder Tsuyoshi Shinjo is a colorful figure by most standards.

"Ishii's not the first, and the Japanese are always interested in something with novelty, or someone who's a real challenger," said Jack Sakazaki, president of JSM Ltd., a sports marketing firm. "He's also not overpowering as a pitcher. He's got a good record, but he's been saved by his team."

Another factor behind Japan's noticeable lack of Ishii hoopla: all the competing events back home. World Cup fever swept Japan big time, both because the nation co-hosted the soccer tournament with South Korea and because its team did much better than expected, reaching the second round before losing to Turkey. And in Japanese baseball this year, the Hanshin Tigers are doing well for the first time in more than a decade, another good local story.

In this environment, even the recent news that Ichiro had gotten his 100th hit of the season was largely lost in the roar of the soccer crowds.

A third reason why Ishii has failed to ignite fans' fuses is, arguably, Ishii. Even during his decade pitching for the Yakult Swallows, he never built a hard-core following in Japan. He is perhaps best remembered for activities off the field, namely a high-profile affair with celebrity Uno Kanda before he settled down with television anchorwoman Ayako Kisa.

Marketing experts say it's always a challenge to figure out exactly why someone has mass appeal among the Japanese--or any nation, for that matter--but Ishii never really had it. Some say he's just not seen as an everyman type.

His string of extraordinary-looking girlfriends, a certain prankster quality and his lack of consistency on the mound contribute to a perception that he's not as serious about baseball as he should be, in a country where modesty, understatement, predictability and tireless hard work reign supreme.

"Ichiro has a typical Japanese samurai image. He doesn't talk much, but he does his job perfectly," said Kazuo Ojima, editor in chief of Nikkei Trendy, a top Japanese marketing magazine. "Shinjo is very good at reaching out to fans and the media, and his aggressive style plays well. And Nomo has heroism and a 'do-or-die' nature. But Ishii is more of a blank. He doesn't have much real charm."

Ishii clearly has been helped in his debut season by some timely Dodger hitting, which has allowed him to compile an 11-4 record despite falling behind in several games. This dovetails with his reputation in Japan as a somewhat lucky, at times emotional player who wins but doesn't overwhelm batters.

Ishii's move into professional baseball also involved a certain amount of luck, to hear his father and high school coach tell it. He joined the team as an outfielder and gained a pitching spot only because the coach thought he had a muscular back, was relatively tall and seemed to have good aim. "I didn't see any great potential in him," said Mikio Motoki, the high school coach who plucked him from obscurity. "If I hadn't discovered him, he'd probably be driving a truck for his father's company now."

Ishii gave up 35 runs in his first high school appearance, a pounding that lasted four hours. The humiliation was so great that Motoki apologized to the opposing manager for the pitiful competition.

But in traditional Japanese style, Ishii over the next few years was forced into a blistering training regime, including running several marathons over the Christmas holiday in exercises nicknamed "death camp."

He was forced to do the "chicken walk" on his haunches, was punished when he gave up runs in games and was steered away from girls.

"If he forgot his signs, I'd hit him," Motoki said. "That was the way we taught students in those days, although now if I did anything physical I could lose my job. He's the one who got the most blows from me."

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