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Friday, September 1, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Ichiro, Johjima develop mutual trust

Special to The Seattle Times

Although they sit at neighboring lockers in a corner of the Safeco Field clubhouse, grasping similarly glossy magazines from Japan, their minds couldn't have drifted to more divergent galaxies as they relax before a game.

Ichiro is absorbed in fashion, Kenji Johjima in fish.

With playing styles and personalities as conflicting as their hobbies, many people in Japan feared their union in Seattle would be tumultuous. Not the least of those was Ichiro.

"I only had a bad impression of him," Ichiro says, laughing heartily as he explains what he now considers a long-standing misperception. "When we played against each other in Japan, as an opponent, I found him brash and cocky. Honestly, I was upset when I heard the Mariners had signed him. I thought, 'What?' I didn't think we could coexist here."

Ichiro's impression was based on roughly four years of opposing Johjima in Japan's Pacific League. Johjima became the full-time catcher for the Fukuoka Daiei (now Softbank) Hawks in 1997. Ichiro was into his fourth full season with the Orix Blue Wave. With just six teams in the league, they battled each other 27 times a year. Listening to Johjima recall their encounters, it's not hard to understand how Ichiro formed his impression.

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"We never went out to eat or anything like that, but we would talk on the field," Johjima begins.

Pushed for more detail on what they talked about, he clarifies with a sheepish smile.

"They were mostly one-way conversations. I guess to put it more accurately, I would babble at him when he came to bat. He got so many hits against us, I felt it was my responsibility as catcher to figure out a way to distract him at the plate, to break his concentration. It didn't matter what the topic was, I just remember trying to be relentless in distracting him."

It didn't work well. Ichiro batted .406, with 17 homers and 67 runs batted in against the Hawks from 1997 until he came to Seattle after the 2000 season. The more Johjima recalls his futile antics, the harder he laughs at them.

"I would say, 'Ichiro San, how are you today?' 'What's up, Ichiro San?' 'You're sure swinging the bat good lately, Ichiro San.' Sometimes he'd return the greeting in the first at-bat, but as I persisted throughout the game, he'd just ignore me. I wasn't deterred, though. I hung in there determined to distract him." Beyond the yapping, Johjima was known for other brash tactics during his career in Japan. Another former opponent remembers how he would stand defiantly behind the batter and glare at the third-base coach giving signs. Such brazenness was clearly a style different than Ichiro's.

But once they started interacting with each other in earnest at the Mariners' spring-training camp, substance began to trump style in their relationship.

"The starting point for all relationships is the human element," Ichiro explains. "You learn what kind of person someone is by observing their everyday behavior. Some people are honest with their feelings and others are superficial. I'm particularly sensitive to the difference between the two.

"The more time I spent with Joh in the clubhouse and on the field, I discovered he wasn't superficial; to the contrary, he's very honest and straightforward. I respect that. I found him to be a very decent human being, and that made me respect him as my teammate."

Japanese society is governed by a rigid hierarchical code where seniority is the fulcrum for relationships. "Sempai" refers to the senior person and "kohai" to his junior. The kohai is expected to be respectfully deferential and ever cautious of not offending his sempai with behavior that could be interpreted as rude or aggressive. Society discourages kohai from initiating things such as a simple invitation to get together or being presumptuous enough to take a seat next to a sempai without invitation.

In their relationship, Ichiro is Johjima's sempai in every respect: he's three years older, turned pro first, and came to play in America first.

On the season-opening road trip, Ichiro took the sempai initiative and invited Johjima to dinner in Boston. He let his kohai know he was there when he needed him.

Ichiro has been in the kohai role with his other Japanese teammates during his six seasons in Seattle, but Kazuhiro Sasaki, Shigetoshi Hasegawa and Masao Kida were all pitchers, a group traditionally distant from fielders, especially in Japan, so the hierarchy wasn't as much of a daily issue. In Johjima's case, he was a proud veteran of 11 years in Japan who had become used to being a sempai himself among position players. Even so, he welcomed the situation in Seattle.

"Ichiro's presence was clearly one of the reasons I decided to sign with the Mariners," Johjima says. "Next to your own performance, for a Japanese player, the opportunity to have someone of Ichiro's stature with everything he's accomplished in America as your sempai to help guide you through the transition is a significant consideration."

But not one every veteran Japanese player would welcome. With only two Japanese players on the team, friction would be plainly obvious and likely magnified by a scrutinizing media. Some players would just as soon go elsewhere and escape the sempai-kohai burden. Johjima's willingness to accept the challenge and sign with the Mariners speaks volumes of his sturdy level of self-confidence that he could earn Ichiro's respect through his actions on and off the field.

"I knew coming in here that there would be only two Japanese players on the team, so it was my responsibility to make the effort to get along with Ichiro," he says. "But you don't just go out and ask someone for their respect, you have to earn it from them through your actions. I never once worried that I wouldn't be able to do that."

Johjima's rite of passage with the Mariners very well might have been when he held his ground and then the ball after being pummeled by a charging Josh Barfield of the Padres on May 19 at Safeco Field. It was Ichiro who caught Brian Giles' fly ball and transformed the would-be sacrifice fly into the beginning of a breathtaking, length-of-the-field double play.

While Ichiro says Johjima's resolve in fielding that ball helped earn his trust in their outfielder-catcher relationship, more subtle actions made a deeper impression.

"My image of him was that he was careless and not detail-oriented," Ichiro says. "But when you observe his actions on the field, you realize he's actually very detail-oriented and conscientious. A catcher needs to show sensitivity to his fielders and pay careful attention to details on the field.

"Here's a guy who, while he copes with being the first catcher here from Japan, is all the while mindful of those two very important aspects of his job. He often acknowledges a good play by pointing his mitt in the direction of the fielder who made it and you can see him all the time carefully absorbing the nuances of the competition. Any player who's on the receiving end of the catcher's recognition of a good play appreciates that, and any player who notices his catcher being studious gains confidence in him as a teammate. I've felt both of those things from Joh this season."

One glimpse of their agreeableness can be seen during the Mariners' daily batting practice. This year, players can opt to practice base running instead of immediately dispersing to the outfield to shag balls after they hit. Ichiro and Johjima are in the first hitting group and they often run the bases together afterward, gaining an extra 12 minutes of interaction. They pass the time drifting between serious baseball chat and light-hearted laughter.

A less obvious but perhaps more significant sight is their positioning in the dugout during games. Players typically congregate on the far side away from the manager and coaches. Ichiro's been a fixture on the near side from his first day in Seattle. This year, Johjima is usually sitting right there next to him. Neither can remember how or when it happened, but both say on a team with more Japanese players, a kohai would never show such disrespect as to take an uninvited seat next to a sempai.

Here, though, it happened naturally and very early, a clear sign that an unspoken air of mutual trust had developed between them quickly.

Johjima says of Ichiro: "When we're in uniform, he's my sempai; when we take the uniform off, he's my older brother."

And Ichiro of Johjima, "Away from the ballpark, he's always my kohai, that's simply the way it is in Japanese society. But there are times at the ballpark when he's more than just my kohai; he's my teammate."

After nearly a half year together then, how has Ichiro's impression of his teammate changed?

"I've discovered he's a decent human being and, in a kind of charming way, he has a certain cuteness to his personality. He's an endearing kohai."

Johjima's warm and fuzzy side is most likely still lost on the opposition. In the first inning of Johjima's first game at Yankee Stadium last month, as Alex Rodriguez was setting himself up in the batter's box, Johjima's mouth could be seen moving from behind his mask. Then, A-Rod glanced down at his crotch. Johjima had kindly pointed out that his fly was open.

Brad Lefton is a St. Louis-based journalist who covers baseball in Japan and America. He often follows Ichiro and Johjima for Japanese media and interviewed both in Japanese for this article.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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