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Hideki Okajima talks about homesickness, loneliness, and his poor relationship with Boston media

Jul 28, 2010, 3:15 PM EDT

Red Sox reliever Hideki Okajima is taking a lot of heat from the Boston media after refusing to speak to reporters following a recent poor outing, to the point that some beat writers are openly calling for his release.
Gordon Edes of ESPNBoston.com got Okajima to talk to him, not about the bad outing but about his increasingly poor relationship with the local media and overall state of mind in what has been a career-worst season.
Edes writes that Okajima “admitted to homesickness for his native land and a language-driven loneliness in which he says he has only two real confidants, his wife and his interpreter.”
Here’s more from Okajima, presumably via his interpreter:

Especially in the bullpen. I’m kind of alone in there. There’s time to think too much, especially inside the bullpen. It’s hard to maintain a strong mentality, especially when you’ve been hit hard the previous day. There’s too much time to think in the bullpen. It would be easier to maintain if there was someone who spoke the same language and you could talk to, but that’s not the reality right now.

Beyond those issues, Okajima talked about how “no comment” was far more accepted from the media in Japan following a rough performance in part because reporters aren’t allowed in the clubhouse. Asked specifically about refusing to speak following Sunday’s game, Okajima said:

I could not talk about the game. Mentally, I was down after the loss. I felt it was better to have some time in between to talk, not immediately. From the players’ standpoint, rather than try to put it in words in that moment, it would be better to get a fresh mind and talk about how you really felt in that situation, but not on that day.

I have mixed feelings about this. On one hand I understand reporters have a job to do and very much value their work. On the other hand, having to answer questions about what a bad job you just did makes Okajima’s life more difficult than it already is and ultimately how important is it for the newspapers in Boston to have a quote from him anyway? (And none of this would be an issue if Okajima didn’t have a 5.81 ERA.)
It bothers me when players who love to provide reporters with good quotes get treated favorably when those same reporters discuss on-field performance and it also bothers me when the opposite is true. Okajima deserves plenty of criticism for his performance this season, but he was a very good player for the Red Sox in the previous three seasons and doesn’t deserve any more or less criticism for his pitching based on how willing he is to give some quotes in the clubhouse after games.

  1. DavidBurden - Jul 28, 2010 at 3:28 PM

    For what they’re paying these guys, can’t they find some buddies to hang out with them? An intern or something? I’m thinking this has to be an issue for various foreign language speakers.

  2. Ace2000 - Jul 28, 2010 at 3:41 PM

    I knew they should have re-signed Takashi Saito . . .

  3. YankeesfanLen - Jul 28, 2010 at 3:45 PM

    While in New York, Hideki Matsui always used his interpretor Roger, to make comments to the press even though it was strongly rumored that he could speak English well.It’s ironic that Godzilla is in Anaheim now, it must be bliss for Roger for he did a perfect Japenese-to-surfer-dude translation every time.

  4. mcsnide - Jul 28, 2010 at 3:52 PM

    I don’t get the whining about being isolated. Not to sound like Jan Brewer or anything, but couldn’t he, you know, learn English? He’s been here for over three years, and his wife is fluent.

  5. Jonny5 - Jul 28, 2010 at 3:55 PM

    (beat writers) “he won’t talk to us? He should be fired! ” Seriously though?
    Now, he’s been in the US for how long and can’t speak english. Seriously though??? Learn the language Hideki and you won’t be so lonely. It’s simple arithmetic. Bullpen+ no english = lonely and sad. Bullpen+ English= not so lonely anymore. That could in turn help the dude when it comes to pitching too.

  6. zac - Jul 28, 2010 at 4:06 PM

    Learning English to the point that you can even carry a conversation with a native speaker really isn’t as simple as you seem to think it is. Is it something worth trying your damnedest to do (especially when you have the money for the best teachers, Rosetta Stone, etc), but at the same time do you think the Red Sox want Okajima’s mental energy being expended on thinking about learning a really complicated and difficult language or on pitching? Ever learn a language? You’re apt to feel mentally exhausted for the rest of the day after an hour of studying.
    It would never be the same as having other players to bond with, but you’d think the Sox could at least hire some “bullpen attendants” or something who speak Japanese to at least give him someone to say hello to every day. Even a short conversation could help relieve some of his isolation.

  7. JBerardi - Jul 28, 2010 at 4:13 PM

    So how many languages do you speak, Jonny5? I’m sure it must be a bunch, considering your attitudes regarding Okajima.

  8. Paper Lions - Jul 28, 2010 at 4:25 PM

    Zac, I have learned a language, it took 4 months of true effort, after the basics, I could ask questions well enough in that language to learn as I spoke. He has been here over 3 years, knew he was coming before that, and has about as much free time as a person with a job can possibly have. He has had ample time to learn. Yes, you are mentally exhausted the first few weeks when all you can do all day is speak in a foreign language (I remember that very well), but it gets easier each day. Millions of people learn a new language every year. It may be challenging, but if you shrink from the challenge you have to live with the consequences. This guy has every advantage (except youth) one could ask for when it comes to learning a new language and has utterly failed. If he is lonely, it is his own doing.

  9. Paper Lions - Jul 28, 2010 at 4:27 PM

    How many languages one speaks has no bearing on the veracity of the point made.

  10. Reflex - Jul 28, 2010 at 4:47 PM

    I’m sorry, but unless it was a language you had previous experience with, or one related to your native tongue(say, German for an English speaker) you did *not* learn another language in four months of effort well enough to carry conversations with natives and feel at all included. I don’t buy it unless your some sort of savant.
    I have many, many international friends, and I know some who have been here 10 years, taking classes the whole time, who still are not fluent speakers or understandable to fluent speakers. Some pick it up in a couple years. Its not an issue of intelligence either, languages are simply easier for some people than others, and some language transitions are more difficult than others. Probably the most difficult is Chinese to English(I am not convinced a native Mandarin speaker can *ever* really understand English like a native).

  11. Old Gator - Jul 28, 2010 at 5:55 PM

    I hated learning Latin in high school but thank Buddha now that I studied it. I had great fun learning Spanish just for the day-to-day traffic of commerce here in Macondo, and even more fun when I became fluent enough to read Spanish newspapers, fiction and poetry. I had initially less fun albeit ultimately more satisfaction learning Sanskrit in college so I could sit on airline flights doing my homework and pick up stewardesses (that’s what they called ‘em back then) who were fascinated with all the little squiggles I was reading. So I guess it depends on what you’re after. In Macondo, life without Spanish is like vichysoisse without pepper.
    .
    On the other hand, Japanese – which I’ve made a few sputtering attempts at (“toro nigiri ni pon kurasai”) – is really difficult. I’m too old and married to chase airborne tail anymore, which subverts the resolve, and I haven’t gotten something I didn’t order at the sushi bar in years, so I reached a level of contentment fairly early. If I were Okajima, I’d just relax and enjoy myself, telling my clueless interlocutors in Japanese hat I think they’re a bunch of drooling imbeciles and total assholes whose mothers got over the sillyfarm wall just long enough to be tupped by their daddies, smiling all the while so they’d have no idea I was defecating on their souls, and let my translator try to keep a straight face long enough to say things like, “Hideki says you gotta play them one day at a time.”

  12. Paper Lions - Jul 28, 2010 at 6:04 PM

    It’s called immersion. If you have no choice but to learn, you learn. But you have to give yourself no option. I had six months to learn Spanish well enough to lead a crew, none of which spoke any English. Given, I was motivated, but if you make a point to learn, you learn quickly. But this isn’t about me, or anyone besides Okajima. In a year he most certainly could learn enough English to stumble through a conversation with team mates and communicate ideas. One doesn’t have to be fluent to communicate effectively. I agree that it isn’t about intelligence, it is about desire. If Okajima wanted to learn English, he would be able to communicate in English well enough to not feel lonely when in a room with his team mates. He made the choice not to learn.

  13. avg joe - Jul 28, 2010 at 7:52 PM

    Regardless of whether or not the loneliness he feels is his fault, I feel like a baseball player has no obligation to speak with a reporter after a game. They’re paid to play baseball, and they can ‘no comment’ all day long for all I care.

  14. Reflex - Jul 28, 2010 at 8:05 PM

    Immersion only takes you so far, and you are treating all language transitions as though they are equivilent. Asian languages to western languages are some of the most difficult transitions anyone can make. Chinese uses a completely different area of the brain than English, for example, making the transition extraordinarily difficult. Spanish, by comparison, is relatively easier for an English speaker, although not nearly as easy as it would have been if you already spoke one of the other Latin derived languages such as Italian.
    I’m glad you managed to figure it out in four months. And given that you had a specific purpose in doing so, namely leading a crew for what I presume was a task, it also gave you the advantage of being able to focus your studies on what you needed to know to survive. That said, it is not comparable to what is being pointed out above, namely that he cannot sit in the bullpen and bullshit about life, baseball, women and whats on TV to kill the time and keep his mind off of his last poor outing.
    There is no way to ‘prepare’ yourself for random conversation. That is a skill that takes many years in a culture to accomplish. My Thai student has lived at my house now for a year and a half, and despite being treated as a member of the family who is included on virtually everything, and despite the fact that she can read a menu, order at a restaurant and generally converse with the rest of us, when she wants to feel understood or get into her deeper feelings, or just bullshit about culture she still calls home, and she does so at least once per day(thank you Skype).
    Sure, her english is functional if at times difficult to understand. But being able to order off a menu or figure out directions to a location does not mean that any of us understand what she is talking about if she brings up Rain’s latest album or movie(South Korean pop star). The only method of conversing with us as friends and confidents relies upon us telling her about ourselves and our culture, but there is no way for us to ever appreciate hers(and since we do not have an immersion oppurtunity like she does, that is sadly how it will remain).
    How fullfilled would you be if you stayed in a Spanish speaking country and at the end of the day, sitting in a bar with one of your co-workers, all you could ever discuss were his interests, and even then you won’t really understand the background to know why they are important to him, and he will never understand you or your culture? You so sure you wouldn’t be just as lonely as Okajima is here?

  15. Jack Marshall - Jul 29, 2010 at 12:19 AM

    If I was going to be paid millions of dollars to spend 8 months a year working in a foreign country, for four years,I would a) learn the damn language or b) pay some of that money to a full-time translator or c) not take the job. I’m sorry Oki is unhappy, but part of his job is making sure he’s in a mental state to pitch.

  16. Wes Covington - Jul 29, 2010 at 12:20 AM

    The Japanese are very reluctant to speak English in public because there are extreme social pressures they feel about speaking it correctly. I’ve had Japanese friends who speak excellent English who have apologized for it being poor. Both of them attended Ivy League schools.
    Japanese school children are taught English, but the emphasis is on reading and writing, not speaking.

  17. DuMB - Aug 4, 2010 at 7:49 PM

    I have always felt a lot of angst whenever Hideki pitched. He is notoriously slow between pitches which only makes it worse. He always looks like he is in pain and I am certain that I have never seen him smile. When I look at him in the bullpen and I see a lost soul. I say to myself, “Self… something’s gotta give”.
    I’m really happy with Gleeman’s interview. It affirms what I thought, but it also makes me believe that Okajima should have been astute enough to see what I’ve been looking at for two years. He has agreed to a contract that pays him an obscene amount of yen and all he has to do is show up prepared to play a game. If he needs to learn the language in order to be mentally prepared to pitch, then he better learn the language…period. Personally, I think learning to speak Japanese would be a grueling ordeal, but I am mentally challenged, and no one in Japan is offering me a contract for millions of dollars.

  18. DuMB - Aug 4, 2010 at 8:38 PM

    bla…bla…bla…

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