Baseball in Japan
Japan’s victory at the recent World Baseball Classic energized the entire nation. Regardless of whether or not they had an existing interest in baseball, people all over Japan united to support the national team. The nation was proud of its team and proud to show the world just how skilled Japanese baseball players are. The fact that Japan won the World Baseball Classic not only this year but in 2006 as well is a great source of pride.
Baseball was introduced to Japan in 1871 by an American professor at what is now Tokyo University. The game of baseball quickly spread throughout the country. The highest level of baseball in Japan is known as Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB). This organization, founded in 1950, was preceded by the Japanese Baseball League. There are currently twelve teams playing in two leagues in NPB: the Central League and the Pacific League. The teams playing in the Central League are the Chunichi Dragons, Hanshin Tigers, Hiroshima Tōyō Carp, Tokyo Yakult Swallows, Yokohama BayStars, and Yomiuri Giants. The teams playing in the Pacific League are the Chiba Lotte Marines, Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks, Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters, Orix Buffaloes, Saitama Seibu Lions, and Tōhoku Rakuten Golden Eagles. Yamaguchi Prefecture does not have its own baseball team, but the stadiums for both the Hawks and Carp are easily accessible by public transportation servicing the prefecture.
The atmosphere at a baseball game in Japan is festive, and there is no doubt that fans wholeheartedly support their favorite team. In addition to a team’s fight song, fans chant special cheers for individual players. Fans will also bring items, such as a small plastic megaphone, to help them cheer. Each team has numerous groups of supporters that are often identifiable by the giant flags that they wave. During the seventh inning, fans inflate balloons and everyone releases them simultaneously. However, certain domes have banned this practice stating that, among other things, the balloons will get stuck in the ceiling.
While it is bittersweet for Japanese baseball fans to see their favorite players go to the United States to play baseball, players such as Ichiro Suzuki, Daisuke Matsuzaka, and Hideki Matsui are supported by fans in the both US and Japan alike. Games featuring teams such as the Mariners, the team for which Ichiro plays, or the Yankees, the team for which Matsui plays, are routinely broadcast in Japan. A report on how popular Japanese players on US baseball teams fared in the most recent games is usually included in the sports segment of the news.Just as Japanese players go to the US, foreign players come to Japan to play baseball as well. However, in Japan, there is a cap on the number of foreign players per team； each team is allowed to have no more than four foreign players.
High school baseball is also popular in Japan. The National High School Baseball Invitational Tournament, often referred to in Japanese as “senbatsu,” takes place every March at the Hanshin Kōshien Stadium in the Kōshien section of Nishinomiya City, Hyogo Prefecture. This year’s senbatsu took place from March 21st to April 2nd. Each year, thirty-two teams representing schools from all over Japan participate in the tournament, which started in 1924. Shunan City’s Nan’yō Technical High School was selected to participate in this year’s tournament. The team advanced to the semifinals, where they were defeated by Hanamaki Higashi High School from Iwate Prefecture.
The National High School Baseball Championship, known in Japanese as “natsu no kōshien,” takes place in August. This championship started in 1915. One high school from each of Japan’s forty-seven prefectures participates in the tournament, but both Hokkaido and Tokyo each send two teams, thus bringing the total of participating teams to forty-nine. This tournament also takes place at the Hanshin Kōshien Stadium.
In recent years, women have made a name for themselves in baseball as well. A seventeen year-old by the name of Eri Yoshida made headlines in December when she became Japan’s first female to sign a contract with a professional baseball team. Yoshida recently made headlines once again when she made her pitching debut in March for the Kobe 9 Cruise, a member of the newly formed Kansai Independent League. Yoshida walked the first batter she faced on four pitches, but she struck out the next batter. In 2008, a third-year student from Karyō Senior High School in Kudamatsu City named Kanako Takamatsu became the first female in senbatsu history to don a uniform and attend the tournament. However, since only males can participate in the senbatsu, Takamatsu was unable to participate in a game. Perhaps Japan’s most famous female baseball player is twenty-two year Ayumi Kataoka. Since 2005, Kataoka has played second base for the Ibaraki Golden Golds, an independent team.
Because the rules for baseball have few variations around the world, even if your Japanese ability is limited, you can still enjoy watching a game either on TV or in person. Why not invite a friend to watch with you?