Irabu Suicide Exposes Darker Side of Japanese Culture

 

by Alex “The Dors” Dorsky

The sad news started to spread Thursday afternoon: Hideki Irabu dead of apparent suicide at age 42.

Details are still sketchy, but Irabu was reportedly found by a friend after hanging himself. Irabu was often disparaged for his lack of effort and failing to live up to his potential, but I doubt many people expected this sudden of an ending. Was this a case of living in disappointment, or one dying with honor?

Irabu started off pitching for the Chiba Lotte Marines and was one of the top pitchers in Japan in the early 1990s. He led the league in wins in 1994, ERA in 1995-96, and strikeouts in 1994-95. His time with the Yankees is largely considered a failure, not so much for what his stats were, but more for what America wanted them to be.

After a rough year in 1997, Irabu posted a 24-16 record with a 4.44 ERA in 1998-99, and won two World Series rings. By way of comparison, the average ERA in the American League in 1998-99 was 4.77. Let’s also not forget that Irabu resided in the tough AL East.

I don't want to question toughness, but Hideki is in a sateen jacket and all the kids are in t-shorts and polos

Irabu had a big personality. He was a successful, brash pitcher when he came from Japan, billed as a Japanese Nolan Ryan. Fans and scouts alike loved his mid-90s fastball and his sharp splitter that served as a go-to strikeout pitch.

Interestingly, Irabu’s contract was originally purchased by the Padres, but Hideki refused; he only wanted to play for the Yankees. The teams eventually worked out a deal, and Irabu got his pinstripes. Some say this decision hurt him as he would have had more individual success playing in pitcher-friendly San Diego in the weaker National League. Alas, he wanted to perform on the big stage.

Despite his above-average stats and contribution to two World Series winners, New Yorkers never seemed to love him. He was even stuck with the label of “fat … toad” by George Steinbrenner himself after Irabu didn’t cover first during an exhibition game. Irabu was eventually shipped to the Expos before the 2000 season and went 5-15 with a 6.31 ERA for Montreal and Texas over the next 3 seasons.

Irabu attempted a comeback in Japan in 2003 with reasonable success, but was sidelined in 2004 by a knee injury that effectively caused his retirement.

If you make it there, you'll make it anywhere. Irabu found out the opposite is not true.

It’s easy to imagine Irabu had a difficult time dealing with the way his career played out, and after a few quiet years of retirement he was arrested in 2008 after allegedly assaulting a bartender in Osaka, Japan after downing 20+ beers. He then racked up a DUI in 2010 near his home in Southern California. Clearly, things were not going well.

I can’t pretend to know the depth or complexity of Irabu’s troubles, but I do wonder if he considered this an honorable way out.

Americans may be surprised to know that suicide is a significant problem in Japan. The World Health Organization says that in 2008, Japan had the 5th-highest suicide rate in the world, and the second highest among industrialized nations; a staggering 24.4 per 10,000 people (vs. 11.1 for the US: 39th overall) – approximately 1 every 15 minutes.

Suicide doesn’t have the same stigma in Japan as it does in the US, mostly because of the culture instilled in Japan during Samurai rule (pre-1870). Samurai found glory through death and a warrior could save his reputation and name from dishonor by falling on his own sword whether he had done something truly disgraceful or just happened to be on the losing side of a battle.

Japanese society has of course advanced and modernized over the past 140 years, but the statistics show suicide remains at an alarmingly high rate.

Was Irabu trying to escape the pressures and disappointment that followed him across the globe? Did he feel like a baseball warrior who no longer had a battle to fight? Was he trying to end his life with dignity and honor? Unless a note was found next to his body, I’m not sure we’ll ever know.

Maybe Irabu’s death can produce something positive, even if it’s only in bringing awareness to the situation in Japan. Especially after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, many Japanese are facing difficult times. Their economy has been in the doldrums for 20 years and the workforce and population in general is aging. Hopefully the younger generations will start to use the tough work ethic and resolve Japanese are known for to fight through their difficulties and turn things around. Hopefully they’ll be able to find more solace in life than in death.

Hopefully back home Hideki Irabu can be remembered for what he was, rather than what America’s expectations of him were.

RIP Hideki

3 Comments

  1. Nice job Alex, I know you spent some time in Japan which is worth noting as author of this piece, good cultural perspective.

    Howevah…

    Gotta call out one point in particular:

    “Despite his above-average stats and contribution to two World Series winners, New Yorkers never seemed to love him.”…

    … is not = to this:

    “Irabu finished 34-35 with a 5.15 ERA in his tenure with the Yankees. He was a member of two Yankees teams that won the World Series, but his only postseason action was a single relief appearance in the 1999 AL championship series when Boston tagged him for 13 hits.”

    I’m nitpicking I realize, but if you’re Elway or Eli and you refuse assignment to a team that drafted you, you’d better meet and exceed expectations if you expect to live it down and have it forgotten. I don’t think Irabu was unfairly chastised by the NY media and their fans, he kind of set himself up to fail, and may have done so (speculation alert) dishonorably by leveraging his US $12.8M to fuel an alcohol addiction…

    Just sayin’

    • Joel, thanks for the reply but better check your data source — the 34-35 / 5.15 ERA you mention are his overall MLB stats, not just those for his Yankee years. He was an above-average performer in 98-99 as I noted, and who knows what would have happened if he had actually been given the chance to start a game in the post season.

      I agree you set yourself up for ridicule when refusing an assignment to a team that drafted/signed you (I generally root against those athletes). I also agree with you in that I don’t think he was unfairly chastised by the Yankee media and fans given the situation, just sad he wasn’t able to deal with the way things played out.

      • Here you can see his Yankees only numbers if you scroll down, there’s nothing above average about any of them, regardless of the era/division – In what dimension is a 4.80 ERA above average? http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/i/irabuhi01.shtml

        The winning % for the number of starts of a very good offensive/defensive club are mediocre, not good or above avg., neither is the strikeout total for IP, he gave up a hit + per inning, and his WHIP was nearly 1.4 – not the stuff of legends let alone a flash in the pan.