Simply Baseball Notebook straight from the source Sept 2002

BRIDGING THE GAP: Katsunori Kojima


Imagine being in a different country, a place where the language and culture - not to mention the food - is completely different from what you grew up with. Imagine that all the people that you work with have grown up in that country. Feelings of loneliness and isolation would certainly enter your mind. You might feel misunderstood, you might just give up and go home. There is one person that has been assigned to help you, to make the difficult transition easier - that person is your interpreter.

Katsunori Kojima, a native of Atsugi, Japan (about an hour from downtown Tokyo), has been working as an interpreter since 1996. His current assignment is bridging the cultural divide for San Francisco Giants outfielder, Tsuyoshi Shinjo. Shinjo, who spent 10 seasons playing for the Hanshin Tigers in Japan, began his career in America last season with the New York Mets. After he was traded to San Francisco in off season, Kojima was contacted by the club to act as his interpreter.

Kojima, 29, learned the English language as a student by watching American movies and listening to American music. He found the language "fun" and picked it up quickly. He explained it was much easier for him to learn the language through movies and music than it was through school, which he found too structured.

Kojima's first taste of the United States occurred at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, when he acted as the interpreter for Japan's silver medal winning baseball team. After graduating from Nihon University in 1997, Kojima began working for the Yokohama Baystars of the Japanese major league. He spent a total of five years in the organization, the first three as interpreter for non-Japanese players (many of which were American and spoke English) and the final two as the manager of sales and marketing for the teams' minor league affiliate, the Shonan Searex.

Lou Merloni, currently with the Boston Red Sox, spent part of the 2000 season with the Baystars and worked with Kojima, whom the American players dubbed "KK". "I was with him a lot during Spring Training. He helped make the transition that much easier for us (the Americans)," Merloni explained. "In Japan the biggest problem is communication - he just tried to make the Americans feel more comfortable and help us adapt and find restaurants and bars - he helped my transition a lot."

Kojima had known of Shinjo in Japan, but the two really didn't meet until January in Tokyo. During the meeting Kojima said that Shinjo "tested my personality," to see if the two would be compatible. Since then the two have become friends. "A very close friend of Shinjo's is a very close friend of mine," Kojima explained.

Kojima, who is spending his first full year in the US, said that working with Shinjo is fairly easy, "With Shinjo I don't have any problems - he's very independent. I don't have to be with him all of the time," he said.

Shinjo has developed a basic understanding of the language, but has trouble with sentence structure - which is when Kojima is needed to bridge the gap. "Whenever he has a question or problem, he comes and asks me."

Kojima, who also serves as the teams Assistant Video Coordinator, spends games in the clubhouse making video clips. "I cannot miss one pitch, including pick-offs," he commented.

At the beginning of each of the Giants' series, Kojima sits in on the advance scouting meeting to relay important information, like the opposing pitcher's tendencies, to Shinjo. A true student of the game, Kojima hopes having access to all of this inside information will someday pay off.

"Being an interpreter is not my goal," he stressed. "I am here to gain experience, to learn a lot of things that I cannot learn in Japan. My main goal is to create some new entertainment sports business in Japan. To reach my goal, I think I need to be here in the States at the major league level for at least one or two years."

The game of baseball is universal, but cultural differences exist. For instance, a player in Japan would never be intentionally hit by a pitch, but the Japanese have no problem when an opponent steals a base late in a game when his team is up five to seven runs.

Kojima believes that the flood gates are beginning to open and that more Asians will make their way to the US to play baseball. "Everybody thinks Americans have more power or speed, but lately players in Japan have been gaining those skills" he explained. "Hopefully people, not only from Japan, but all of Asia, can come to the States and play Major League Baseball."

-David Zingler


Simply Baseball Notebook