How a Taiwanese Baseball Player Strengthens Taiwan-Japan Relations

How a Taiwanese Baseball Player Strengthens Taiwan-Japan Relations
Photo Credit: Eleven Sports TAIWAN

What you need to know

Wang Po-jung’s action serves as an example of how non-state actors can contribute to diplomacy.

By thanking Japan for donating vaccines to Taiwan or giving interviews in Taiwanese, Wang Po-jung (王柏融), an outfielder for the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters, has taken on the role as Taiwan’s ambassador on Asia’s biggest baseball stage. 

On May 28, two months into the Nippon Professional Baseball season, the Pacific League, one of Japan’s two professional baseball leagues, introduced a Chinese-language YouTube channel. It has been a banner season for Taiwanese players in Japan, so the channel is expected to attract Taiwanese fans. It has featured game highlights of the all-stars Wu Nien-ting (吳念庭) of the Seibu Lions and Sung Chia-hao (宋嘉豪) of the Rakuten Eagles, and Chang Yi (張奕) of the Orix Buffaloes, who returned to the first team throwing 97 mph heat.

But dearest to Taiwanese hearts has been Wang’s performance. Following the disappointing first two seasons, Wang embarked on a dominating streak, attaining an on-base plus slugging (OPS) percentage — the traditional baseball statistic most strongly correlated with scoring — of over 1.000 in his first month. 

Nicknamed dawang (大王), or “The Great King,” in Taiwan, he has become known globally as “Our Great King” after leaving for Hokkaido to join the Nippon-Ham Fighters in 2019. In a Facebook post, a fan made a snide remark about a pitcher who struck out Wang: “Too scared to throw a fastball against our Great King!” (Wang is known for hitting fastballs rather than breaking balls.) Following his homerun against the Yomiuri Giants, Wang’s teammates were heard calling him “dai-o” — the pronunciation of dawang in Japanese — marking his popularity beyond Taiwan’s borders.

Cultivating goodwill

Wang has been using his clout to strengthen Japan-Taiwan relations. In early June, he expressed gratitude to Japan for its donation of AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccines during a post-game interview after winning the game’s most valuable player award. “I’d like to take this opportunity to thank Japan. I’m extremely grateful that at this time they were able to provide vaccines to Taiwan. I’d like to thank Japan on behalf of Taiwan.”

At the stadium, the crowd of mostly opposing fans cheered. Wada Masamune (和田政宗) of the House of Councilors, the upper house of the National Diet, tweeted “Magnificent!” in response to Wang’s words.

巨人日ハム戦MVPでヒーローインタビューの台湾出身日ハムの王柏融選手

「この場を借りて日本に感謝しなければいけないことがあります。台湾にワクチンを提供してくれてありがとうございます。日本と台湾だけじゃなく、地球の全ての国で、一日も早くコロナが収まることを祈っています」

素晴らしい!

—  和田 政宗 (@wadamasamune) June  5, 2021

As a popular sports figure in both Taiwan and Japan, Wang leverages his platform to voice the sentiment of appreciation for Japan’s gesture of goodwill among Taiwanese people. His action serves as an example of how non-state actors can contribute to diplomacy.

Promoting Taiwanese language

Wang’s next opportunity came on June 24, when he was awarded a game MVP again. In the post-game interview he surprised his fans by answering all questions in Taiwanese. The Mandarin broadcaster laughed in incredulity. Many Taiwanese responded similarly to a YouTube commentator, who said, “At first I thought he was speaking Japanese; then I realized I understood what he was saying.”

image1
Photo Credit: YouTube
Wang Po-jung answers interview questions in Taiwanese.

Wang impressed not only his Taiwanese but also Japanese fans. Singer Marina Kawano (河野萬里奈), Wang’s celebrity fan, said Wang’s use of Taiwanese demonstrated that he “carried Taiwan on his back as he took on the Japanese baseball world.” (Her song, “Weight of the World,” possibly provided inspiration for that quote.) Affectionately calling him “Ron-Ron,” Kawano had earlier said that he aroused her interest in learning Taiwanese. Kawano played a key role in expanding Wang’s popularity in Japan by analyzing his statistics and his swing

Taiwan’s lack of formal ties with most countries in the world underscores the importance of public diplomacy. Wang probably isn’t Taiwan’s most renowned athlete. That honor belongs to former Yankee Wang Chien-ming. But unlike Wang Chien-ming, Wang Po-jung isn’t camera-shy and has more potential to make Taiwan’s voice heard.

In detailing the history of baseball in Taiwan since its introduction by the Japanese, historian John Harney in Empire of Infields explained baseball’s role in reinforcing Taiwan’s connection to U.S.-aligned countries after World War II. “Baseball fits within the developing Cold War model of international diplomacy via cultural exchange, allowing Taiwan to identify with the American side of a global cultural dichotomy.” Wang’s recent efforts place him squarely within this tradition. 

READ NEXT: What Baseball Says About Taiwanese Culture and Identity 

TNL Editor: Nicholas Haggerty, Bryan Chou (@thenewslensintl)

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