A young man peered through the rising mist, his eyes intense, his mind focused. He might have been an Olympic fencer preparing for a match, or an actor backstage readying for the role of his life. But fate found this young man standing on the deck of a bass boat on Lake of the Ozarks, in Osage Beach, Missouri, competing in a BASSMASTER tournament.
With crisp, precise casts that could have belonged to a veteran Texas bassman, Takahiro Omori worked his lure with a steely will along the brush piles and drop-offs, thinking to himself, Bass, right there; bass, over there. He and 329 other contestants were fishing in the early sun, slinging crankbaits and plastics as the day slowly warmed. Waging battle against myriad challenges — the expectations of thousands of fans back in Japan, the ability and intimidation of American competitors, his own personal demands and those of the bass themselves — Omori won this day, moving another step closer to the enlightened state of the total bass master, something once thought to be the sole domain of American anglers.
This triumph in Missouri, in 1996, was the start of a long, difficult quest that peaked last March when Omori took his first Wal-Mart FLW tour victory, on Lake Martin in Alexander City, Ala. He won $100,000 with a final-round, five-bass limit weighing 10 pounds, 14 ounces. A few weeks earlier, at Sam Rayburn Reservoir, he had won $51,000 and his second BASSMASTER event; his win on Lake of the Ozarks in 1996 earned him $35,000. (At press time, Omori was a top-five candidate for BASSMASTER’s Angler of the Year award.)
Omori, 30, is just one of a number of young Japanese who have propelled themselves onto the professional bass tour. Some, like Omori and Norio Tanabe, are tournament veterans from the 1990s. Others, including Shinichi Fukae, Morizo Shimizu and Jun Shoji, are even younger guns riding the crest of a wave that has been building in their home country for some time.
Japan’s bass-fishing heritage began around 1920 with the introduction of largemouth bass to Japanese waters. Now, with three major largemouth bass fisheries in the country (Lakes Biwa, Kasumi and Katara) and enough bass mania to fuel the publication of more than a dozen bassing magazines, desire is blossoming in the hearts of more than a few Japanese bass anglers. They know that the BASSMASTER and FLW championship tournaments are the Mount Everests of the profession, and they feel bound and determined to attempt an ascent.
That determination led Omori, a former cook, to leave his native Tokyo a decade ago for the United States, willing to endure culture shock and a tough language barrier to fish for bass as a pro. He joined the B.A.S.S. tour five years ago while living out of a minivan, sleeping and eating among the rods, reels and boxes of crankbaits. His soldierly life brought a zen-like purity to a sport that is floated by tons of glitz and checkered with corporate logos.
“Much of Japanese anglers’ success has to do with their incredible work ethic,” says Missouri bass pro Randy Blaukat, a two-time B.A.S.S. tournament champion. “They live for fishing once they get over here, and they travel from tournament to tournament, spending all their time pre-practicing.”
American reaction to Japanese pros has run the gamut from down-home hospitality to baseless prejudice. But Omori dismisses any talk of how he may have been accepted or rejected. “Who cares about a guy from another country? Everybody is busy with his own fishing during tournament week,” Omori says. “I may have to work twice as hard as a guy born in the United States, but at this level of competition, everyone has to work hard.”
Intense, hard work paid off for another Japanese pro angler, Kotaro Kiriyama, also of Tokyo. On a memorable day in Chicago last July, Kiriyama tied Rick Clunn for fourth place at the BASS Masters Classic — the culmination of a yeaar’s worth of BASSMASTER tournaments — on Lake Michigan (the title was taken by Woo Daves). As Kiriyama’s boat was towed onto Soldier Field, the cheering throng of American bass-fishing fans hit him at full volume. His face and name flashed on the scoreboard in digitized splendor. Eleven years after leaving his homeland, his fourth-place finish made him the highest-finishing Japanese angler ever in Classic history. It changed his life.
“People in Japan look at me differently now. They have a new respect for me,” Kiriyama says. “If you work for a company in Japan, everything goes in order from older to younger people, so it takes a long time to get respect. In a sport, you can get respect by doing well no matter how old you are. Bass fishing is one of those sports.”
Japan’s recent faltering economy has hamstrung some tournament hopefuls. Talented anglers such as Toshinari Namiki, a 1997 BASS Masters Classic qualifier, have been sidelined for a season or more. Less-heralded anglers such as Fukae (a student of Tanabe), Shimizu and Shoji may discover that the hardest part isn’t catching fish but getting the cash to chase them.
But if Omori lived out of a minivan by himself for five years, other Japanese anglers can persevere, too. As Kiriyama says, “The biggest thing is to have the courage to be alone. You have to do everything by yourself. Being alone gives you power. It makes you a better fisherman and a better human being.” That’s the code of the samurai bass master.