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  • Kinashi-San

Why Is Baseball So Popular In Japan?

Updated: Jun 7, 2023

If there is one sport that is popular in Japan, that brings the crowds to their feet, it is Japanese baseball. A sport so well established that the country has become one of the world leaders in this discipline and a reference for many.


Picture: The Japan Times


Imported from the United States in the 19th century by an American English teacher, baseball has almost become a religion in Japan.


I highly recommend seeing a baseball game in Japan, even if you're not a specialist or a fan, it's worth a look.



History


This sport would have been introduced by the American Horace Wilson in the year 1872, at the beginning of the Meiji era, when Japan had just opened again to the world, after a closure during the long Edo period.


In 1878, Hiroshi Hiraoka, a railway engineer who had studied at the American East Coast, founded the very first baseball club, the Shimbasji Athletic Club, which brought together mainly railway workers and foreign technicians. The Japanese soon appreciated the subtlety of the game, the confrontation between the pitcher and the batter being reminiscent of the science of sumo wrestling and martial arts. Many schools founded clubs. The Tokyo Higher Institution team, named Ichiko, was the first all-Japanese team.


In 1896, Ichiko faced a team of Japanese-based Americans and surprisingly beat them 29-4. This unexpected victory popularized baseball and seemed to justify the opening of Japan to the world. After Ichiko's achievement, all schools formed their own teams.


It was not until 1934 that the first professional team was created, it was owned by the Yomiuri press group and was named Yomiuri Giants and was established in Tokyo. And it was in 1936 that the professional baseball league was born in Japan.


Since then, this sport has experienced unprecedented popularity making it the favourite sport of the Japanese and attracting large crowds at each game. For the little anecdote, during the Second World War, the Americans and the Japanese were enemies, and it was forbidden to use English terms in Japan when playing baseball, called Yakyu (野球) in Japanese.


It's pretty obvious what happened next, after World War II and the Japanese occupation by the United States, American culture slowly crept into Japan, and in particular the sports that were popular with Americans. Although baseball was already present in Japan before the Second World War, it is especially after this occupation that it gained in popularity, until it became the most popular sport in the country, and by far.


Such is the popularity of the sport that younger people are surprised to learn that baseball is not originally Japanese, which says a lot about the phenomenon.



The differences between US and Japan


Baseball, like all sports, travels, and in each country, it is played and lived differently. For the national tournament, the MLB in the United States and the NPB in Japan, the United States obviously has more teams due to the size of the country: 30 teams versus 12 in Japan. The size and weight of the ball are also different, smaller and lighter for the Japanese balls, as are the bats, which are made of either white ash or maple for the American bats and only Aodoma and Yachidamo ash for the Japanese bats. It is also not possible to end a game with a draw in the US, which has resulted in some MLB games lasting up to two days, whereas in Japan, a game will rarely exceed 4 hours. This is why pitchers sometimes play entire games in Japan, while in the US they are quickly replaced on the field.


The rules, it is true, change very little in themselves. What really differs are the audiences and the general atmosphere. For example, in Japan, the stands are separated according to the team supported, placing the supporters of each team on either side of the stadium. It is therefore impossible to venture into the stands reserved for one team with the jersey of the opposing team. This arrangement by camps makes the atmosphere of the matches more festive than those in the United States, and we see the fans composing their songs and the presence of bands for each team. Another special feature on the Japanese side is the existence of the Uriko, or "Beer Girls", who distribute beer to anyone who wants it. They can be recognized by the huge bag on their back.


For Japanese players, baseball is a way of life and training is the religion of the Japanese baseball player. Training camp begins in mid-January for all players. They train for seven hours daily, have strategy sessions at night and stay in dormitories.


The pre-game practice is sacred. It is as important as the game and almost as long, lasting almost three hours. You practise with intensity to show the opponent, the journalists and the fans that you are ready to work hard for the team.


The style of baseball is very methodical. The sacrifice bunt is the manager's favourite weapon, even in the first inning. Full counts are plentiful, as pitchers rarely challenge batters, but rather try to outwit them.


Japanese leaders have created ten commandments that all foreign players must obey in order to succeed and be accepted:


  1. Obey the orders of your manager.

  2. Do not criticize your manager's decisions

  3. Take care of your uniform.

  4. Do not shout in the dugout and do not destroy objects in the dressing room.

  5. Do not reveal strategies to other foreign players.

  6. Do not tease your teammates.

  7. In case of injury, follow the team's instructions.

  8. Be punctual.

  9. Not leave the team to return to their country during the season.

  10. Not to disrupt the harmony of the team.

Organizations


Little League


Outside the school setting, the main authority covering baseball for children aged 5 to 18 has been the Japanese branch of the international Little League organization, the Japanese Little League Baseball Association, since 1955. The latter comprises 12 districts: Hokkaido, Tohoku, Shinetsu, Higashikanto, Kitakanto, Tokyo, Kanagawa, Tokai, Kansai, Chugoku, Shikoku and Kyushu.


At the beginning of the 21st century, more than 300 Japanese leagues are members of the Little League programme, making Japan the second-largest league in the world after the United States.



School competitions


Created in 1915, the national school baseball championship consists of two events at the high school level: the summer championship and the spring tournament. A school federation organizes these competitions.


Summer Koshien

The Koshien are competitions in which high school baseball teams compete against each other. What's amazing about it is the size of the summer tournament; it's the biggest amateur competition in the country, almost surpassing the NPB, the professional league. Stadiums of 30,000 to 40,000 people are filled, with television broadcasts of the games attracting over 5 million viewers. All this is for competition between high school students. This summer tournament, known as the Summer Koshien, has been held for over 100 years. Since 1915, the different prefectures of the country have chosen a high school through regional championships to represent them in the Summer Koshien. There are 49 teams from the 47 prefectures of Japan (2 teams from Hokkaido and Tokyo prefectures) competing for the title.


Spring Koshien

This competition is less popular but just as important for the players as the Summer Koshian.


The tournament, organized by the Japan High School Baseball Federation and Mainichi Shimbun, takes place each year in March at Hanshin Koshien Stadium in the Koshien district of Nishinomiya, Hyōgo, Japan.


Teams qualify for the tournament by participating in the regional tournaments held throughout the country. While finishing in the top teams generally guarantees an invitation, it is up to the Japan High School Baseball Federation to determine invitees.


Teams are divided not by the 47 prefectures but by the 10 regions of the country, and performance takes precedence over the final score, although a good place is sure to get an invitation to the tournament. The tournament consists of 32 teams and 26 are determined by region as follows:


Hokkaido – 1

Tōhoku – 2

Kantō – 4

Tokyo – 1

Tōkai – 2

Hokushin’etsu – 2

Kinki – 6

Chūgoku – 2

Shikoku – 2

Kyushu + Okinawa – 4


For the remaining 6 places, one place is offered for a team from the Kanto/Tokyo region and another for the Chugoku/Shikoku regions. Another is offered to the region that saw its team win the Fall Tournament. Finally, the three remaining places are awarded to teams that did not make it to the quarter-finals but still made it through to the Round of 16. Quite a tortuous method of selection but, in a way, anyone can hope to qualify in this way!



University Competitions


University competitions have been held since 1925. The first of the 21 university leagues covering the entire country was the Tōkyō 6, which began its activities in 1925.



Professional Competitions


The Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB has been a competition for the elite Japanese baseball clubs since 1950. The NPB currently consists of twelve clubs that compete between April and August.


Nippon Professional Baseball, or NPB, is Japan's most popular competition and is similar to Major League Baseball, or MLB, which is held in North America. The NPB takes place every year and features two leagues, Central and Pacific, with six teams each. It is the second-largest baseball event in the world behind the MLB. Like the Yankees in the MLB, the Yomiuri Giants are the team with the most NPB titles won, 22, with the Saitama Seibu Lions in second place with 13 titles.



Amateur Competitions


Outside the school system and Little Leagues, amateur baseball is played under the aegis of the National Federation (JABA). It has only about 160,000 members and 5,000 teams.



National Team


The Japanese baseball team competes in international events such as the Asian Championships, the Olympic Games, the World Classic and the World Cup. Japan won the first two editions of the World Classic in 2006 and 2009 and has won fourteen continental titles, including the last three.


The men's and women's national teams have won numerous international competitions.



A Crazy Atmosphere


Picture: The Japan Times


I had the opportunity to attend a baseball game in Canada, in Montreal, between the local team, Montreal Expos and the Los Angeles Dodgers, in 2004. Then, in 2019, I attended a baseball game in Japan, in Fukuoka, and let me tell you that the atmosphere is absolutely different.


Many people think that Japanese people don't know how to celebrate that they are not expressive and that they hold back their joy. However, during a baseball game, one is quickly surprised to see that it is the opposite: songs throughout the game, shouts of joy in case of victory, happy fans who show it fully and who shout to support their colours.


Not a minute goes by at a baseball game without a fan singing, except during the breaks, and then the various stadium animations take over. The Japanese support their team and what is striking is that they do so with a certain pre-established rule, namely that you sing for your team when it is batting only. When they are pitching, the opposing fans are allowed to sing. This makes for a spectacle where you see the stadium come alive by half, as if the home fans were responding to the visitors, and vice versa. And I must admit that you quickly get into the game and feel like singing and sharing with them. They sing, they dance, they get carried away and it's full of life.



The success of baseball can be partly explained by its combination of teamwork, tenacity and self-discipline, which are values of Japanese society in themselves. But it can't be just that, of course; the craze for the sport is passed down from generation to generation. It doesn't seem to be showing any real signs of weakening, although according to some statistics, young Japanese are slowly starting to take an interest in something else. Despite this, we are unlikely to see another discipline leading Japan for many years to come.

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