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Originally published Monday, April 20, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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For Isao Harimoto, the record stands

"Katsu! " is Isao Harimoto's stern battle cry to Japanese athletes. It means either "chin up" when he hurls it at those who slump in defeat...

Special to The Seattle Times

TOKYO — "Katsu!" is Isao Harimoto's stern battle cry to Japanese athletes. It means either "chin up" when he hurls it at those who slump in defeat, or "shape up" when used to scold those who behave in an unsportsmanlike way.

The baseball Hall of Famer-turned-TV commentator is as famous now for his salty expression as he is for his long-standing record of 3,085 hits, the most in Japanese baseball history.

But now, Harimoto himself might be in need of his trademark pep talk, thanks to Ichiro, whose career hit No. 3,086 against the Angels at Safeco Field on Thursday night made him tops in Japan, albeit as a combination of his efforts in both countries.

While Harimoto describes Ichiro's accomplishment as "a record of reference" for what's possible when dividing a career between the top leagues of two countries, he insists that he is still the unequivocal record-holder in Japan.

With that said, Harimoto is also the first to recognize his domestic record was spared by Ichiro's decision to leave Japan for the Mariners after the 2000 season. Ichiro had already amassed 1,278 hits in just more than seven seasons. That blazing pace would have only been aided by the recent increase in Japan's schedule to 144 games from the 130- and 135-game campaigns in which Ichiro played.

"There's no question about it: Ichiro is the best hitter in the 74-year history of professional baseball in Japan," Harimoto concedes. The man who loves dissecting a hitter's technique says Ichiro's is not only superior to his own, but the best he has ever seen.

"Ichiro's ability to keep his hands back is an amazing technique. Everyone eventually moves their hands toward the ball, but he can stay back longer than anyone. Even as he moves his feet towards the ball, he keeps his hands back. They never drop, they never move. This gives him more time to see the ball and react to it than anyone else."

Ichiro's potential has actually impressed Harimoto far longer than such praise has been in vogue. The unknown Ichiro stunned Japanese baseball by becoming the first player to achieve 200 hits in a season with 210 in his rookie year of 1994. While most observers weren't sure whether they had witnessed a miracle fluke or something greater, Harimoto approached the 21-year-old at the batting cage during a spring-training game the following season and confidently told him he had the potential to get 3,000 hits.

For a no-nonsense guy who's stingy with praise, that's a pretty bold assertion. What's more, it was offered by the only man to surpass 3,000 hits in Japanese history.

While 3,000 hits has long been the benchmark of greatness in America, the standard in Japan has always been 2,000. Not counting Ichiro, 37 players in Japanese history have achieved 2,000; in America, 27 have reached 3,000. Fewer games and a traditional emphasis on pitching over offense account for the 1,000-hit difference in defining each country's elite hitters.

As Japan's longtime, solitary 3,000-hit man, Harimoto is obviously an icon of the country's game. However, behind his hallowed record is an even more fascinating life.

Isao Harimoto is also known as Hoon Chang, his given Korean name. His mother was pregnant with him when she and her husband left the Korean peninsula (under Japanese occupation at the time) for Japan with their three children. Harimoto was born in Hiroshima on June 19, 1940. Although he adopted a Japanese name and assimilated into Japanese society, he has never given up his Korean citizenship.

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As a 4-year old, he was playing outside near a fire built to warm the evening air when a truck suddenly started backing up in his direction. As he scampered to avoid danger, Harimoto's right hand was thrust into the flames. Severe burns left him permanently injured with limited mobility in his thumb and forefinger and nearly no use of his curled middle, ring and pinkie fingers. The natural-born right-hander was forced to become a lefty. As his interest in baseball began to flourish, that meant teaching himself to bat from the left side and throw with his left hand.

"These three fingers are essential to gripping the bat," Harimoto says with emotion, all the while careful to conceal from sight the damaged fingers of his right hand that still limit him today. "Mine are completely useless. I guess I'm blessed in that they're bent in a way that a stick-like object can be slid in between them. As a kid, I feverishly practiced swinging the bat with just my right hand. It was weak, and I had to somehow teach it to become useful."

He had to compensate in the field, too. Unable to grip the ball with his right hand, he taught himself to throw left-handed. He had a special glove crafted with a pocket that could accommodate the fingers he couldn't straighten out or separate. He played the outfield that way as a professional for 23 seasons.

Before his fifth birthday, Harimoto suffered the devastating loss of his father and the injury to his right hand. Perhaps that's the root of his frank demeanor. But his lack of outward bitterness is also notable, and that perhaps came from the perspective he gained by enduring yet another life-changing event.

On the morning of Aug. 6, 1945, seven weeks after his fifth birthday and with his hand still bandaged from the accident, he stepped outside his home. Moments later, America's atomic bomb exploded in Hiroshima's skies. Shielded in the shadow of a nearby mountain, Harimoto was uninjured, but his oldest sister Tenko, 11 at the time, was already on her way into town. She died of severe burns the next day.

Harimoto is the only atomic bomb survivor to have played professional baseball in Japan. He still carries an Atomic Bomb Survivor card in case of a medical emergency.

He turned professional in 1959, the same year as another icon of Japanese baseball, Sadaharu Oh. Although they began in different leagues — Harimoto with the Pacific League's Toei Flyers and Oh with the Central League's Yomiuri Giants — they are forever linked for their overlapping careers and record-breaking hitting prowess.

In fact, they eventually became teammates when the Giants acquired Harimoto in 1976. He was standing in the on-deck circle on Sept. 3, 1977, at Tokyo's Korakuen Stadium when Oh propelled a pitch into the right-field bleachers to surpass Hank Aaron as the world's all-time home-run king with career No. 756.

"At the moment of contact, he didn't show much emotion," Harimoto recalls. "But there's a photograph where you can see the guy on deck jumping for joy. I was really pulling for him because he had gone several games without hitting one. Every time he'd step to the plate, I'd be whispering, 'Go for it. Hit it out of here.' Then he did and it was a great feeling."

With more than 2,700 career hits at the time, Harimoto was already thinking about his historic pursuit. His day came in a Lotte Orions uniform on May 28, 1980, at Kawasaki Stadium in suburban Tokyo. He reached the threshold of immortality with a single to right in his first at-bat, hit No. 2,999. After grounding out to third and flying out to right, he approached the plate once again. On the first pitch, he launched a towering drive into the right-field stands for No. 3,000, a dramatic punctuation to an already impressive Japanese record.

"Doing it with a home run was dramatic," he recalls. "But the reality is I just wanted to get 3,000 and I didn't care how it happened. A broken-bat single would have been just fine."

Actually, the home run couldn't have been more appropriate. While Harimoto and Ichiro are now intertwined by 3,000 hits, they are distinguished by their hitting styles. Of Harimoto's 3,085 hits, 504 were home runs, seventh on Japan's all-time list; Ichiro has 203 career homers between Japan and America.

Showing he hasn't lost his feistiness, the soon-to-be 69-year-old Harimoto quickly reminds people that he instilled fear on the bases, too. "I was fast, probably comparable in speed to Ichiro," he declares without hesitation. "I didn't get many infield hits because I was a power hitter, but I could give Ichiro a good run for his money in a footrace. I might even beat him."

Ichiro ranks eighth among active players in America with 316 stolen bases in eight seasons. Harimoto was no slouch, stealing 319 bases in his 23-year career and joining Willie Mays as the only other player in either country to exceed 3,000 hits, 500 home runs and 300 stolen bases.

But now as Ichiro, still in mid-career, goes about distancing himself from Harimoto's hits record, even the feisty Harimoto is reduced to just one word: "Appare." It means "bravo," and is his other famous expression, which he reserves for superlative performances.

Brad Lefton is a bilingual St. Louis-based journalist who covers baseball in Japan and America. He often follows the Mariners for Japanese media and he interviewed Harimoto in Japanese for this story.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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