And he thrived, perhaps beyond belief, batting .324 with 37 homers in 1979. Manuel hit 189 home runs over six seasons in Japan, after hitting .198 with four homers during his six seasons in the Major Leagues. All of which had little to do with why Japan helped shape Manuel into who he is -- and that's just the point.
Now the Phillies manager, and one of the most successful managers that this city has seen in some time, Manuel dove into the complete unknown when he boarded his first plane bound for the Far East. He had known little of the world other than his own limited experiences, and his agenda was simple: Charlie, Charlie, Charlie.
Then came the six-year stint that changed his life.
"I think their ways, their discipline, their culture and things like that -- it was something that I took time not only to learn myself, but I learned that there's more people in the world than Charlie Manuel," he said. "I learned to care about things."
He learned to speak Japanese and to befriend his teammates, skills that helped him once he needed to communicate for a living. He took his American work ethic and combined it with a Japanese work ethic, emerging more focused than before. And he made his journey from West Virginia to Japan as seamless as possible, somehow fitting into both places just fine.
"I think that's where I really became in control of myself," Manuel said. "And everything became positive for me in baseball."
So when he returned to the United States after his playing career ended, Manuel enjoyed a different view of the game than the one he left back home, half a dozen years earlier. He wanted to stay in the game. He wanted to manage.
Manuel worked first as a scout for the Twins, then as a Minor League manager, a Major League hitting coach and finally a big league manager in Cleveland, where he mingled with Manny Ramirez and Jim Thome and some highly successful Indians teams. And then he put his new skill set to work, making those players feel as comfortable in Ohio as his teammates once helped him feel in Japan.
"As far as getting to really know and understand people, really start caring about things, I think I learned that in Japan," Manuel said.
Now he's applying all that in Philadelphia, where his Phillies began a best-of-seven National League Championship Series against the Dodgers on Thursday night. This week will be perhaps the most significant one of his big league career -- playing or managing -- and so it's only natural that he keeps thinking back to the beginning.
Not to the very beginning, mind you. But to Japan, the place where he transformed into the Charlie Manuel of today.